Twice in the preceding weeks, Elliot had come home from school talking about people hitting. We hadn’t wanted to alarm him or make a big deal, so we’d made very casual inquiries. Who was doing the hitting? Why? He replied, ‘They were hitting to make the children share.’ Sounds like the teachers, right? But then, this is the report of a 2.5 year old. It could also have been children hitting to make other children share.
We’d been assured when Elliot started at this school that they didn’t use corporal punishment on the little ones even though that’s very normal practice for Tanzania, as we’d been sternly warned by other expats. But then, he’d recently moved into a class of slightly older children, and I thought I’d seen fear flash across his face when he’d seen the head teacher as I’d dropped him off at school. We needed more information.
Even once we had that information, we were not sure what we’d do with it. We don’t smack, but it’s not like we think smacking will permanently harm a child or anything! And there are lots of things that happen at school that aren’t how we would do things – the rote learning, the sitting still, the force with which some of the teachers speak to the students. We recognise in sending Elliot to a Tanzanian school that there will be things that are foreign to us and that don’t sit well with us, but we work hard not to label those things ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. They make sense within this culture, and there’s an element of ‘fitting in’ which is good, healthy and enriching. We want to protect our child, but we also don’t want to make him stick out unecessarily. (He’ll always stick out of course.)
All this was playing through my mind as I arrived to pick Elliot up from school. I was thinking mainly about how to gather the information rather than how we would respond to it. How could I ask about corporal punishment without it sounding like an accusation?
As I came into the school courtyard I saw that Elliot was not with his classmates. He was sitting in the courtyard with the head teacher. She greeted me and then said, ‘Ely did something bad today.’ Oh dear! She was holding a bottle of antibiotics and she told me that Elliot had not gone out to play with the other children at recess and had got into an unlocked ground-level cupboard and either drunk or spilled a whole bottle of antibiotics – the ratios were uncertain but he had it down his front and around his lips. She had been watching him like a hawk since this was discovered, concerned that he would fall asleep or pass out.
Obviously this was not the time to talk about the ‘hitting’! I felt so sorry for his teacher, who was called out and then told off in front of me by the head teacher for leaving the cupboard unlocked. The medicine bottle has the ‘keep out of reach of children message’ in Swahili, but an unlocked cupboard probably meets that criteria for a typical Tanzanian child! Only a western child who’s been taught to entertain their curiosity and explore the world needs dangerous substances kept up high or in secured cupboards. And I remembered how we’d talked to Elliot about the antibiotics he took a few weeks before for a chest infection, “This is medicine. It will make you feel so much better.” Clearly, he’d taken that to heart!
I really felt that this was a problem with us and with Elliot. The unlocked cupboard scenario was fine for every other child except mine, and I could even see how something I said might have contributed to it. For the head teacher however, if you’ve got a kid like Elliot in your class, you need to take extra precautions no matter how atypical he is from his peers. And yet, no one could have foreseen this; it’s just one of those weird situations where the fact that the situation is cross-cultural means there’s this weird space in between fault or innocence. It never occurred to me that they would have medicine in a place that was accessible to children; I’m sure it never occurred to the teacher that a closed but unlocked cupboard was accessible to children because no other child ever thought to access it!
Thankfully, Elliot was fine. No adverse reaction whatsoever, though I did email our GP friend in Australia when we got home just to be sure. In this case, the danger that comes from being ‘in between’ was not serious. But it’s the same issue as the smacking. At what point does something that’s perfectly safe for a Tanzanian child become unsafe for my child, not because I’m a helicopter parent, but because his own cultural background gives him different vulnerabilities and different strengths?
During our training with CMS we talked at length with various mentors about parenting third culture kids and they said that we would never feel we had enough information to make the ‘right’ decisions. They were right. I’ve heard other cross-cultural mums talk about not wanting their kids to suffer as a result of their parents’ lives, and I think it’s just way more ambiguous than that. It’s another way we entrust ourselves and our child to God. We don’t do that in an unthinking way — we have since got to the bottom of the smacking thing (no pun intended!) — but we do it knowing that living cross-culturally is about relinquishing control in a stack of ways.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.