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On identifying my child’s cross-cultural stress

I often say to people that Elliot’s a bit of a dream as far as missionary kids go. He’s gregarious and confident. He’s in what is pretty much a foreign country to him (i.e. Australia) but he tackles each new situation with enthusiasm, and each different group of people with the exclamation, ‘new friends!’ That makes him pretty adaptable, but sometimes his sociable exterior means he’s placed in situations that highlight how different what he’s used to is.

We had a play date the other day, and Elliot kept bashing the other kid. Now, Elliot’s a three year old, big for his age and super physical, so some element of bashing is to be expected. Fortunately, he’s pretty good at identifying his emotions, for example that he’s sad because the other kid is crying and he wants to make it right, so there’s a good foundation for working with him on that. But on this particular occasion, I felt the bashing was more than normal. What was going on?

I realised a few days later when we had another play date. It started the same way — Elliot bashed the other kid early on. But this second mum said to her daughter, ‘You’ll be right mate, it’s OK,’ and that was the end of it. After that, they played beautifully. Much less bashing! In contrast, in the first play date, the mum ran to her child each time, picked him up and made a big deal of soothing him. I matched her level of worry by intervening to tell Elliot off. The tension in the first play date was much higher than in the second, and I suspect that was what was at play in the difference in Elliot’s behaviour.

Now, you can chalk this up to parenting differences, and that’s certainly at play, but it has an extra cross-cultural element for my little guy. You see, Tanzanian parenting is highly non-interventionist. Kids are pretty much left to work out their differences with each other from an early age. And if parents or adults do intervene, it’s generally corporal. It rarely involves much explanation. If Elliot hits a much smaller kid at the markets, the parent might grab their kid away, but Elliot won’t get told off. If I try to tell him off, the response is always, ‘Mwache, ni watoto tu,’ leave him alone, that’s what kids are like!

Not only are there more rules in Australia, there’s a lot more talking. Every situation is a teaching opportunity, a moment to develop a child’s character, or at least mold their actions. I reckon it feels to Elliot like people are on top of him all the time. He knows when he’s hit a kid that he’s not meant to. He doesn’t need the commentary, or worse the shaming to go along with it. And he’s not used to that either.

Even positive attention can be hard for him, like one-on-one play with an adult. Again, there are personality and parenting factors at play. He’s never been a clingy child, and despite both of us being extroverts, we have appreciated our independence from each other. Though I do constructive activities with him, even when he was very young and barely walking he would go for an explore on his own in the garden while I did something in the kitchen (my thinking place!), and that was good for both of us.

I suspect at least some Aussie mums would recognise that style of parenting, but leaving your kid to their own devices is also very Tanzanian, though it’s motivated differently. Part of what I’m trying to do is give him space on the premise that that’s good for creativity; for many Tanzanians, playing with a child isn’t part of their culture like it is in Australia, and they’ve got other things to do. But whatever the reason, there’s a functional similarity there. Whether at home with me or out in public in Tanzania, his normal is a little attention and lots of space! When someone’s babysitting him or taking care of him then, he’ll greet them enthusiastically and enjoy a bit of attention, but he’ll need some time to himself as well. The constant active presence of someone else is stressful.

One of the ethnographic skills we learned in our cross-cultural training was observation, and I’m applying that to my son’s behaviour. I’m seeing that he’s more cooperative on afternoons when the morning’s been at a more free-range playgroup than when he’s had intense one-on-one time with a grandparent. I’m noticing that the high intervention of Australian parenting actually sees a deterioration in his behaviour. Of course, I already knew some of these needs and sensitivities, but the cultural landscape we’ve been in in Tanzania has cohered well with them (and it’s all a bit chicken or egg about whether he’s like that because of said Tanzanian environment). For him in Australia, there’s now conflict where previously there was none; at some level, the stress he’s feeling is cross-cultural.

Step one is identifying it; now my task is to put some strategies into place to protect him, and to help him manage it all.

Categories: Cross-cultural parenting Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

  1. Does this type of ‘free play’ align with the ideals behind Montessori?

    Funnily enough, if you spoke to teachers here in Australia, many of us would say that kids here are far too reliant on adults and need that sense of discovery and adventure nurtured more as our kids are too scared to make mistakes.

    That said and done, it’s such a balancing game trying to give kids freedom and keeping them safe from harm (e.g. Choking hazards, sexual predators)… And the parenting shame and guilt if anything happened due to ‘negligence’!

    1. Yep, Montessori would be similar on that; ‘slow parenting’ is another one I’ve heard mentioned..

      I think in Australia there is pretty much have the assumption that it’s possible to keep kids safe, so what follows is this idea that harm that’s come to them could have or should have been avoided. Of course, as you suggest, the question there is whether in our attempts to keep them ‘safe’, they miss out on important learning or opportunities!

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