One would likely get dismissed for suggesting that African parents ‘spoil their kids’ as much if not more than their Western counterparts. I’ve said as much on occasion and gotten reactions like:
“How can you even think that? No, we are very strict; our kids don’t talk back and won’t engage is bold displays of PDA etc. Of course we don’t spoil kids”.
To us, what make kids spoiled is their “laziness”. As an uncle tried to illustrate how spoiled American kids are he said “they’ve never had to carry water on their heads nor do they know how to cook… only take out here and there… those ones don’t even know how to wash their clothes? They’re spoiled”.
That’s how I grew up understanding what being spoiled is. Basically someone who had every basic need supplied and someone who can’t handle/won’t do menial work.
I would like to note that this definition of spoiled is straight out of “suffer mentality”. A by-product of colonialism and unhealed trauma. Because why else would we herald the doing of menial workthe as epitome of being hardworking when the reason we do those things on our own is born more out of lack than choice? But we’ll discuss that on a different day.
Let’s stick to how African parents are spoiling their own kids, because there’s more than one way to spoil a child.
If you know me, you know youth work is my heart-work. I work with young people regularly and regard youth development- the changing of young minds and investing in their capacities as the most sustainable form of development. My experience as a youth-worker and teacher have inspired me to write time and time again about how the way we are raising and educating young Cameroonians is at the root of many of our problems. But it’s worth repeating in a different manner, so in this piece, I want to argue that the way we are raising children sets them up for failure and that the only way to survive and thrive in the same society requires rebelling at some point of your life. To support this argument, I’m using examples from my work with young people and my own life.
Recently, in a group, I’m a part of, the discussion turned to the laziness of young Cameroonians. This person who used ‘laziness’ in the way my uncle had once used ‘laziness’ to refer to American kids said of our own: “They can’t do google searches, they want to be spoon-fed all info, why would a university graduate not be able to put a CV together. Why don’t they know how to use their email? They are lazy…”
I contradicted them in the group. I said not quite. Young Cameroonians aren’t lazy. They are often hardworking at what you valued while raising them; such as whether or not they know how to cook Koki well and how they serve as their parents’ assistants with most of them babysitting their younger siblings since the age of seven (7). They bend down, unlike the Aje-butta children. So, I insisted, they are hardworking- hard being the operative word.
And I continued; acknowledging that what the complainer is criticizing is how our youth lack intuitive soft skills, why they lack individuality, creativity and the capacity to think out of the box. Well, I said, that is because you raised them to fit into the box, to aspire after the belonging in the box and remote possibility of at some point being at the top but in the box. We were raised not to question; it was rude to ask why I was to call someone I am not related to “uncle” or “aunty”. For young women, it was unladylike to fraternize with men and we came to associate being outgoing with being “cheap”. We were to be home immediately after school, no extracurricular activities- except the extracurricular activities were picking stones from rice to be cooked in the evening or learning how to bake and braid hair like a good girl; the boys maybe got to play football. We were raised in houses that have ‘adult parlours’ and children parlours’ – a generational gap obvious within our own homes; yet, now as a graduate networking skills are valued and the majority of those raised as such can barely engage in constructive conversations with senior colleagues and partners in professional spaces.
We can bemoan the fact that our young people are not enterprising and proactive enough, that they require direction for everything and have gone through school just memorizing without applying what they learned; but in doing so we likewise must acknowledge the role of how we raised them- with a lack of freedom of expression, restriction on their authentic being and more which led to this dependency. We must acknowledge how our thinking kids should listen but not be heard contributes to their current inability to self-lead…
We must ask ourselves: how many kids know the details of their parents’ jobs, how often did kids see their parents read or hear them talk about their work to understand what they do?” And what did we really expect when kids go on school holidays only to be shuffled to ‘holiday classes’ to prepare for the next academic year? No extracurricular even on vacation, just preparing them to be better conformists.
In 2021 I led the organizing of a workshop for adolescent activists (though their ages ranged from 16-22) in Yaoundé. Participants were to come from all over the country and have their parents sign consent forms. Several couldn’t make it to the fully-funded opportunity because how dare I think of having a 16-year-old take the bus from Bamenda to come lodge at a Catholic rest house in Yaoundé for 3 days and it would mean missing a day of school. Those who could make it are those who could already advocate for themselves or those who had no strict parents or those who lied/omitted the info and got someone else to sign. It is such people who benefited from a leadership event, a networking event and got to express themselves and their creativity. They are exceptions.
Rebels- kids who ask questions, talk back, don’t always follow the rules, exhibit independence etc.… these are the ones who can survive and thrive in adulthood but our Cameroonian take on parenting despises them. In the Cameroonian take on parenting, we think of children as things we own. We collectively joke about parents saying “I born you and I fit kill you”.
We think of children as retirement plans and personal assistants we created. But perhaps worse of all, we think for our children and reward compliance over individuality. So we breed dependence; and as much as I hate to quote Ben Carson given his recent history, a quote I’ll never forget from his book Gifted Hands reads: “a mother (read parent) is not one on who you depend but one who makes depending on others unnecessary.”
On the contrary, people who depend in many forms… We’re raising people-pleasers (girls especially) with questions like “is that how you will do in your husband’s house?”. We’re raising sheep; I remember hearing my cousin told “when your father comes back you should show him your report card so he tells you what you can study at the university”. We are raising the narrow-minded; a parent recently said: “I was banking on her going to ENS so that she gets matricule and government work, how we go do now wey them done cancel am eh…“
And then we wonder why PhD holders would be holding sit-ins outside a government ministry petitioning for their recruitment.
A few other examples…
I got punished by my undergraduate supervisor for submitting my full research project without supervision. She- as is often the case with lecturers juggling both academic and admin roles-was often too busy and would take ages to give her feedback on my chapters. I went ahead and wrote one after the next without her supervision, looking to the work of previous students as a guide for best practice.
I was particularly in a hurry to submit as I had a fellowship to attend in Nigeria and I wasn’t going to spend August of 2012 in Buea because of something I could complete in time. What I did is seen today by recruiters as ‘being proactive and self-motivated’ but what she saw was a child saying I don’t need you, your opinion doesn’t matter grade what I did without your input. From that perspective it warranted punishment. From that perspective, I remain a child and can’t have grown through my own research.
Oh and speaking of recruitment, at my first real job interview in 2014 (I’d been paid for writing before but never had a stable income), I was asked by a member of the interview committee why I wanted to work for the University of Buea. I responded I loved the university as an alumnus and saw working there as a way I could give back and grow because I have a lot of ideas…
One of those in charge (Mme L.) responded “Grow? So you don’t really want the administrative assistant position and won’t be grateful to remain that… you are applying for you just want an opportunity to get something else here…” I’ve never forgotten that response nor her reaction to the mere idea that I had further ambitions. Yet that is how we’ve been raised. To be grateful for what we can get and be content.
So when within 9 months of employment I got offered the Chevening scholarship to pursue my masters, I went to the administration and asked that my contract be suspended without pay so I could study and return. I still loved the university and would definitely return to apply what I learned there I was told no. My contract will be terminated, after all, they said I had gotten “greener pastures and I should be grateful and go”. When I told my mom I would be leaving what is potentially a lifetime job of steady income to pursue a masters for a year and return to Cameroon and job hunting, she was sceptical. If I was going for good it would be fine, but if I had to return I might as well just stay and continue with that job I’d managed to land only a year after graduating. At that instance, I would have to be stubborn just like I had to be stubborn and know for myself what I wanted and why in previous instances in life when adults thought they knew what was best for me… Otherwise, I who was called lazy for not being able to ‘bend down well and sweep’ the compound and for preferring a blender over using a grinding stone would be called lazy today for not being employable.
Either way, I’d be spoiled.
But today some of the very relatives who saw me as ‘lazy and headstrong’ use me as an example for their kids. I am often praised for my ability to know what I want and go after it; “pushfullness” my aunty calls it, she has conveniently forgotten how unwelcomed that very trait was while I was in her home. Even the word she uses “pushfullness” speaks of there being resistance. I wouldn’t have had to push if the range of exploration wasn’t so stifling. If I wasn’t desperate to break free. As we say today “it’s the irony for me”.
In an article on University World News, Prof Zeleza notes findings on employment needs vs graduate outcomes. He says:
In much of Africa, various reports have shown that graduate unemployment and underemployment is higher than for those with lower levels of education. It prompted us to commission an internal study on the subject.
The team consulted existing literature, gathered extensive data on the global, regional and local contexts, carried out a survey of students, faculty, staff, alumni and employers, and made several recommendations.
They found that employers expected technical, subject, and soft skills. Among the soft skills valued in the current job market, the following stood out: communication and interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, using own initiative and being self-motivated, working under pressure, organisational skills, teamwork, ability to learn, numeracy, valuing diversity and cultural differences, and negotiation skills.
For the future, employers identified the skills that would become more critical. They included the following: literacies in various media, scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy, curiosity, persistence and grit, adaptability, service orientation, leadership and social awareness…
Curiosity, adaptability, social awareness, negotiation skills, being self-motivated… These are things parents can and must foster in their kids as the classroom cannot be the site of all learning.
If you’re a parent reading this? Reconsider if you’re raising your child to be an adult or a dependent.