By Kim Siegal
My 3-year-old son Caleb came storming in the front door, screaming, mouth contorted into a square shape—the corners pulled down in agony—eyes closed in pain. Of course he was not being chased into the house by mutant zombies sadists, as his display would have you believe. He was reacting like a typical child to a minor knee scrape.
What’s a parent to do in the face of such heart-wrenching but exaggerated hysterics? Well, if you’re an American, you generally (after assessing there’s no real damage), express some loving maternal sympathy and apply a therapeutic kiss. We’ve done it for generations. Kiss the boo-boo and make it better.
“Mwah! All better sweetie.”
After a few gasps of air to settle down, Caleb turned on his heels and ran out the door, eager to rejoin his playmates outside.
Sitting back on my living room sofa, I turned to face my Swahili teacher who had just witnessed this exchange. His jaw was on the floor. “That works?” he asked incredulously.
I could see it now through his eyes—that magic of that kiss transformation.
We’d been living in Kenya for three years and these subtle cultural parenting differences never ceased to surprise me. I suppose I assumed parents kissed boo-boos the world over. They don’t.
But here’s the thing: most cultures have something like this in their parenting arsenal. For my Swahili tutor, it just wasn’t a kiss. Kenyans generally, in the face of a boo-boo induced tantrum, do the following: they forcefully smack the offending thing—the door he bumped his head on, the stick he tripped over or the flat ground he stumbled over—and admonish it saying, “Mbaya!” (Bad!). Maybe they are restoring some kind of justice in the world by yelling at the inanimate object that hurt their little one, or maybe they are just focusing the crying child’s attention somewhere else.
When I first saw this I thought it was silly. It’s not the table’s fault that junior walked into it, so why are we punishing the table? How is this helpful? And why am I defending an inanimate object?
I suppose my Swahili tutor might have thought my kiss was silly as well. Why would you want to put your mouth on that? And how could that possibly make him feel any better?
But you know what? Smacking and admonishing the table works too. And it’s probably the result of a similar principle as the therapeutic kiss. When a little one falls, or somehow gets hurt (as they do half a dozen times a day) the crying is as much about the fear as the pain. Perhaps they are thinking, “Holy cheese on a cracker! Is this how the world actually works? I can be toddling along, minding my own business, and the corner of a table leaps up and bonks me on the head?!? Why? What did I do to deserve this? Oh, the humanity!” The pain is fleeting, but the anxiety could probably sustain a good cry.
So, they likely just need something. Something to restore their faith that the world is safe and good. Maybe it’s a loving kiss or maybe it’s a reprimand to the offending inanimate hurt-maker. Either approach works equally well to comfort and calm.
My second son was born in Kenya, and his first intelligible word was “mbaya!” He’s internalized the whole thing. Even at one and a half, when he trips over something, he walks back to the site of the tripping, bends his little body over and slaps the ground, exclaiming a satisfying (and adorable) “Mbaya!” And then he toddles on, the justice of the world briefly restored.
Kim Siegal lives in Kisumu, Kenya with her husband and 2 sons. She chronicals her experiences living and raising children in Africa in www.mamamzungu.com. She has written for the Huffington Post, Inculture Parent and is an editor and contributor at www.worldmomsblog.com.