By Rachel Pieh Jones
My Somali language lesson one day ended with my tutor telling me a story about her twelve-year old daughter, Kadra, at school.
The previous week another student stole Kadra’s red pen and wouldn’t give it back. Kadra got angry about it and after class they got into a yelling match. The yelling quickly devolved into physical fighting and the other student scratched Kadra’s face until it bled and bit her ear, hard. Kadra got revenge for the ear – she bit the other girl’s breast during their tussle. But at home that evening, my tutor told Kadra to go back the next day and scratch the girl’s face
Biting the breast had been a good idea but Kadra needed to get revenge for the scratches, hers were just now scabbing over, as well.
Kadra followed her mother’s advice the following morning and scratched the girl with all five fingernails. That afternoon the girl and her mother came to Kadra’s house to apologize for stealing the pen and purchased her a new one.
I was shocked. How could my friend encourage her daughter to get into such vicious fights? What about forgiveness? What about escalating a problem? What about a more creative solution like involving the teacher? How could the girl have refused to apologize or even admit to the theft until there had been this eye for an eye retaliation? What kind of parenting was this?
My tutor was shocked at my shock. She had dozens of reasons for why my suggestions would fail and I started to learn about how much context matters, about how deeply privilege and circumstances affect parenting choices. My tutor was a good mother, with the best interest of her daughter at the heart of her values and she was raising a child in the same country as I was but in a very different reality.
The family lived in a slum region of Djibouti. My tutor worked several jobs and her husband was unemployed and often sick. The neighborhood community raised money for their family to have a roof on their house and eventually electricity in one of their two rooms. They had five children and a sixth on the way.
The teacher at Kadra’s school had over fifty students in class, came late and left early, and sometimes didn’t show up at all. Some months the teacher didn’t receive a salary and parents were asked to come in and manage the classroom or there could be no school. One teacher in this kind of environment didn’t have the capacity to deal with petty theft or fights between students.
Tattling would make Kadra a target for more violence and theft the rest of the school year and probably for the rest of her academic career. Not standing up for herself would mark her as an easy victim and she would never be able to hold on to her own pens or notebooks or snack money or water bottle.
Sure, she could forgive the other girl but only after making it clear that Kadra was no wimpy push-over. There was no expectation that the other girl would admit her crime, that would only put herself in the position of weakling. She had no motivation to respond until Kadra asserted herself. Kadra’s position in the classroom needed to be firmly established.
A Fresh Air podcast with Ta-nahisi Coates helped me understand why my tutor encouraged her daughter to respond to violence with violence. About the need to physically assert oneself, he said:
“…one of the first things I learned … in middle school … is that any sort of physically violent threat made to you has to be responded to with force. You can’t tolerate anybody attempting to threaten or intimidate your body. You must respond with force.”
Coates grew up over seven thousand miles away from Kadra. But they shared the reality of growing up in an environment where, like Coates said, they had to respond with force.
I was seeing Kadra’s dilemma from a position of someone who sends her children to a school with resources I completely took for granted. Things like paid and physically present teachers. Or other parents who, though working, were not working multiple jobs and so were able to invest in the PTA and social events among the kids.
I know about my privilege as a white mother from an upper-middle class background with a university degree and decent health insurance. I’ve also lived for thirteen years in the Horn of Africa and two of my family’s highest values about life as foreigners here has been: learn from the local people and seek to understand life here from their point of view.
My shock was evidence of how blinded I still am, after all these years, evidence of how far apart my reality is from my tutor’s. I’m ashamed of how little I understand her life even though we consider each other good friends and have spent significant amounts of time in each other’s homes. We are still worlds apart.
It is easy to judge parenting choices and children’s behavior, so simple to say, “If I were you, this is what I would do…” But we are rarely able (or willing) to fully step outside, or even recognize, the experiences that have formed our perspectives.
I’m thankful my tutor was willing to help me understand the circumstances at school for her daughter. Now, when a woman I respect and know to be a good mother, makes a statement I don’t understand or makes a choice for her children that I might not make, I am much more likely to trust her instincts. I might ask questions but these come from an attitude of wanting to learn. Rather than make assumptions about her parenting or her relationship with her children, I’ll seek to understand their actual context.
Next time I hear a friend praise her daughter for biting a fellow student’s breast, I won’t be shocked. But I’ll definitely still be curious.
Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.