Sunday, February 3, 2008

Silence is Golden: The Wisdom of African Momming

I'm trying to figure out how African women get their kids to be seen and not heard. Now that's parenting!

Seriously, go to South Africa and see how the little ones are popped on Mama's back where they perch happily through the terrible twos and even beyond, watchful, but oh so quiet. How do they get the wee ones to zip it?

I recall, during Crabtot's colicky first trimester of life, reading Harvey Karp's book The Happiest baby on the Block, in which he talks about his own personal voyages to Southern Africa to divine exactly how moms manage to pull this silent contented baby thing off. Not sure I can recall the answer –those Karp-reading days are a fog, godlike as that elfin-ish baby-genius pediatrican was to me at the time – but I remain impressed all the same. I know it's not PC to want a silent child, but when your mite's having a tantrum or asking the same question fifty times, who wouldn't prefer her to be on your back for several years where you can't see her with her mouth firmly sealed? I think it's brilliant. I only wish I could tether squirmy-tot to my back and get that tiny mouth to clamp shut, but both tasks are woefully beyond my physical powers. And since I'm in a culture that, perhaps misguidedly, encourages expression at the youngest of ages, I'm doomed to Crabbytot chitchat, now and forever.

We've seen lot of the aforementioned silent, charming, dorsally-stashed babies on our last stop in South Africa—a remote beachtown called Haga Haga, in the magically simple and rural Eastern Cape, where my mother's family comes from.

Crabtot is the fifth generation of my family to make a childhood foray to this humble resort. I was last here 30 years ago. We stayed in a clapped out shack with no electricity. We bathed my baby sister in a plastic tub by the light of a paraffin lamp. Since having Crabtot, I always swore I would bring her here at least once to experience the same sort of bare-bones loveliness I did. And, inspired, by that memory I have instituted something in our family: the Crabfamily Annual "No Electricity" Weekend. This concept received a less-than-enthusiastic response from Crabhub, but after our first powerless weekend last year, he has since warmed to the idea, at least tepidly so.

Back to this beach vacation, we had electricity in our house rental, but we also had power cuts (the whole of S. Africa is experiencing this in a serious way), so I got a whiff of my past holidays and enjoyed the blackouts (even as the rest of the country experienced mayhem on account of power problems…but let's face it, Crabmommy is the only one who counts here). So yes, I've had my moments of candlelight in this tiny little spot of perfection far, far away from everything. Naturally all has not been peachy at the beachy, though. Crabtot did a serious spot of whining on arrival at this coastal sliver of heaven. Nothing was quite to her liking. Not the sea. Not the shells. Not the lagoon. Not the rock pools.

She eventually did zip it and started to enjoy herself. Right before leaving. Honestly, this kid is such a crabacious sort! Why is this, I wonder? I just don't know who she gets it from!

Luckily there were delightfully silent moments. They were brief. But they occurred.
Contentment, you are so fleeting, but so sweet nonetheless!

And, new post today at the bloglet, musing on whether we are too kind to our kids:

Many of my friends and fellow moms in the US consider me a tough, strict, perhaps too-old fashioned mom who frequently seeks "mommy time." On the other hand, my mother in South Africa thinks I'm indulgent and over-focused on my child. So which am I?
Read it alllll, right here.


Anonymous said...

If you ever find out how to create that silent child, be sure to write a book because it will make you rich.

Actually, my generation learned at a very young age that children did not interrupt adult conversation unless invited to participate. That lesson was driven home at times in a very non-PC manner. And I'll just leave it at that.

Matter Of Fact Mommy said...

ahhhh, discipline.
thanks for bringing this up. i have a lot of opinions on this. my son is 4yo and i would love to spank the shit out of him sometimes. but i don't. and i haven't yet. and i might. said...

Mmmm ... I always thought they were quiet and unresponsive because they are hungry and weak. Poor little mites!

Try not feeding her properly for several months.

MK ... I can't believe you said that out loud! Shame on me!

Are you home CM?

MK xo

Crabmommy said...

sheesh, mk! No, I'm just referring to plain old contented wee tykes on mom's's not all, um, attributable to reduced cirumstances. There are cultural diffs here, where kids just aren't spoken to that much when they are small andhave to chill with Mom (because she is often working and probably there are loads more other kids to pay attention to). Dr. Karp studied the San people (also known un-PC-like as the "Bushmen") to see why their kids never cried. All has to do with being held constantly and fed whenever asked, etc. And probably also when they ask their mama questions she just ignores them --my new goal! said...

Inuit children in the north are very much the same, they too are 'worn' by mom. Ride around in the hood of her coat @ -50 degrees and rarely say a peep!

Even older children just use a frown or eyebrow wiggle to indicate 'no' and 'yes'.

The silence is odd, but golden!


Mamma Sarah said...

I wonder if the "free ride-along" everywhere mommy goes the kid goes has something to do with it. They always know what mommy is doing and the answer to what's that. All they are doing is listening. I've heard that when you wear your children they are more content... which could explain the silent child. Hmmmm...

Anonymous said...

The silent child would not be so high on my list.. I love the fact that my child is vocal and can tell the world what she is thinking. I would however LOVE a mute button and volume control button. For those days when the noise is just to much..

For now I use my colouring pencils and paper and that seems to keep the quiet for at least 30 mins..


crabmommy said...

welcome! And yes, I also love when Crabtot is saying cute and sassy things...of course. Sometimes. But there are moments...oh yes indeedy there are moments. Many of them in fact. :)

skape7 said...

Ha. This post strikes home, CM! So many people comment to me about how much Miss T talks and talks and TALKS. Sometimes she says stuff which doesn't even make sense just for the sake of talking AND she even talks IN HER SLEEP. I really don't think underwater or under wet cement would be an issue for her either. As a quieter person this sometimes wears really thin (I need my peace!). So if and when you write that book I'll definately be buying a copy!

Anonymous said...

WOW, I thought I was the only one who wanted to play the game let's see who can be quieter longer. Mommy or Hannah? But try explaining a chatty patty 18 month old those rules.Thanks for not making me feel mean and alone!!!

tonypark said...

A friend of mine, Ange, who was kicked off her farm in Zim not long after her first baby was born, started carrying her, African style, wrapped on her back from early on.

That's one of the quietest, most chilled kids I've ever seen. Her friends tut-tutted, but the proof was in the quiet little puddin head herself.

Just spent some time in the Eastern Cape myself. Had grand plans to hike and kayake etc etc, but did nothing but sleep, eat, drink and watch the view.


Singed: an occasional, but always impressed reader.

tonypark said...

err...signed, I meant.

crabmommy said...

tiredmom, tonypark, welcome! Tony--the eastern Cape is indeed bliss. I think I might prefer your version --chilling out alone, bru! Next time I am going to one of those places where they spirit the tots off to Tot Time with thos kiddie camp-type Umngazi or something. btw, if you ever want really rural Transkei experience....go to bulungula, my cousin's eco-tourist venture. It's quite an amazing setup.

USC said...

I really like your blog.

My kids still communicate through mindless babble and gestures, so I'll just enjoy that while it lasts.

Daisy said...

Ironic: my younger child, now 16, had speech therapy from an early age because of his handicap: blindness. We actively worked with him regularly on his speech and language development. As for a silent child -- self-discipline, perhaps, to be silent when appropriate would be more valuable.

crabmommy said...

I didn't mean to offend and hope I did not. Indeed, silence where appropriate is the real goal. The rest, as you know by now after being a long-time Crabreader, is just Crabmom being arch. Which is the way I write.

What you describe sounds unimaginably tough, and I can surely see why my cheeky style of writing might not register as amusing in such circumstances...But stay with me, Daisy! STAY! xo