Child Rearing – Figments of the Imagination and the Reality of Discipline among Nigerian Parents

by Enitan Doherty-Mason

It is commonly stated that many Nigerian parents are authoritarian. This assessment is not altogether true. To the uninformed outsider and to many Nigerians who grew up somewhat disconnected from traditional homeland ways, there is often confusion and misunderstanding about what raising and disciplining a child entails for the Nigerian parent. For many Nigerians in Diaspora there is a further challenge in determining the best ways to discipline children due to experience and historical circumstances. Parenting styles among Nigerians exists within a complexity of categories, hierarchical groupings and influences that reflect existing cultural beliefs and social systems.

Defining the Family Unit

Indeed, the connections, relationships, associations and categories within the Nigerian context are quite complex and often do not coincide with those in the western world. Many Nigerians come from backgrounds that are influenced by polygamy in one way or another. It would, however, be erroneous to say that monogamous relationships did not and do not now exist among Nigerians.

Marriage was and still is in many cases, a well-cemented contract between families. Marriage is seen as greater than a husband and wife. Divorce was less frequent in the past and usually came only after extensive deliberations and negotiations between members of both families failed. Just as in some other cultures, some loveless and lifeless marriages remain intact due to intense pressure from the families. On the other hand, some couples who share much in common continue to be separated by hostile families who are unable to reach a point of consensus or general acceptance of each other. These days, more couples are being allowed to forge their own relationships.

Nigerian traditional thinking confers legitimacy on every child who is acknowledged by his or her birth father. In essence, there were and are essentially no “illegitimate” children. It is within this framework that the Nigerian family unit is defined.

Changes in the Family Unit

Some family units simply grow in the number of wives as a show of affluence and power, as the husband grows weary of his current wife or for a multitude of other reasons. Whatever the case, each wife in a polygamous family was and is still recognized and accepted as a “true” wife. A fair number of first wives have entered into the institution of marriage with dreams of being the only wife and have had polygamy thrust on them. This family arrangement comes with its own issues and tensions. The issues and tensions increase for the children and other family members as the family changes. Although polygamy runs contrary to the one-man one-wife doctrine of western thinking, it co-exists with monogamy in Nigeria. Polygamy is a way of life that is acceptable to some and confounding to others.

Roles and Rights within the Family Unit

The extensive nature of traditional Nigerian families often brings with it categorization of children under a natural sub-groups; for example children belonging to the same birth mother (among the Yoruba this is classified as one “idi-igi” or as being from one root). Children born by each wife are subsets of the main family unit and have special privileges and rights associated with the order in which their mothers were taken as wives into the family, as well as rights related to their individual birth order as children within the broader family. Overall the fact remains that the influence of traditional thinking cannot be discounted in the lives of those who practice monogamy, those who profess to be monogamous and those who practice polygamy. It is within this context that child rearing exists.

The Influence of Religion and Impact of Colonization

In these “modern” times child rearing is further complicated by the dictums of Christianity, Islam and the mores and perceived beliefs of the western and eastern world respectively. As many more Nigerians find themselves in greater contact with the outside world, there is a need not only to understand others and to be understood by others; there is a greater need to understand and accept “ourselves” as Nigerians.

The role of slavery and colonization in world history has left an indelible mark on Nigerians. Like many other previously colonized populations, a sizeable number of Nigerians were forced to adopt the names, the religion, social habits and so forth of their colonizers. Nigerians also had to study and recognize the colonizers’ history as the final word. The study of Nigerian history in Nigerian schools is a more recent phenomenon. The earlier forced indoctrination into foreign ways continues to negatively impact a significant number of Nigerians today as they try to align their identity, as close to that of Europeans as much as possible, while denying all that is Nigerian, only to discover that total alignment is not possible since all cultures are dynamic and not static. The onset and issues related to this type of confusion is perhaps best understood by African Americans and other peoples of the world who have been at the receiving end of physical, social and economic oppression and discrimination.

The Newer Nigerian

With the growth in the numbers of Nigerians who have come to study and live in the Western and Eastern world, there has been a resurgence of reflection by Nigerians on how they are perceived as a people and their role in their own affairs globally. There is a greater attempt by some Nigerians to accurately define themselves and to gather and manage their energies and resources in a global economy where their natural and human resources play a significant role and yet the returns in exchange are minimal. As part of this new awareness some Nigerian parents are sending their children back to the home country to be purposely to be raised through high school age, to attend high school in the home country or they encourage their children to seek employment that will connect them to the home country or to find spouses who have been raised largely in the home country. More Nigerian parents are attempting to have their children connected to the Nigerian way of life despite the challenges in the home country.

Discipline Here and Now

What does all of this have to do with child rearing practices and discipline? Nigerian children are raised directly by or indirectly by Nigerian parents. A parent’s attitude and beliefs, the pressures and demands of the Nigerian background and the society in which a family lives has much to do with discipline and parenting

Often times discipline among Nigerian parents is indeed more authoritarian and is directed at conformity with long established, sometimes unspoken, dictated family mores with minimal opportunity for discussion and little interest in reasoning with the child or concern for changes in the larger society. Unquestioned solidarity among family members, especially among children of the same birth mother and other perceived forms of protection and survival techniques in a typically harsh environment tend to support this form of discipline. This mode of discipline implies “This is the way it has always been done. We must sink or swim together.” It is an adversarial mode of thinking and upon close examination, has no focus on improving relationships or on promoting the spirit of cooperation.

Some groups of Nigerian parents assume the laissez faire attitude, they make no attempts to discipline their children and attribute any misbehavior on the part of their children to childishness (He’s just a child.), family history (“We are just like that in my family.”) and to clichés (“ Boys will be boys”, “American pickin” etc.). This group will sometimes grudgingly allow others to discipline their children because they can later assure their children of their infinite love and the other person’s dislike for children.

Others vacillate between the two extremes. They assume a laissez faire posture until the child’s misbehavior becomes extreme in their opinion and causes them personal embarrassment or until they feel that their child has not turned out the way they expect him /her to have. This perhaps is one of the most dangerous parenting styles because the motivation for discipline is purely anger.

Finally, many Nigerian parents, like parents of other cultures continue to adapt and to discipline their children appropriately motivated by an unselfish love of their children and a desire to raise good human beings and excellent world citizens. It is important for all who serve the role of parents to continue to examine our thinking in the context of our reality while carefully inviting one another to explore alternate ways of thinking about parenting. In the absence of this self examination, Nigerian resources will continue to be scattered and wasted at home and abroad with minimal benefit to it’s citizens and ultimately to the world at large.

“To know a people is to recognize and accept their humanity.” — Anon

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1 comment

Anka March 22, 2011 - 7:30 pm

I believe we really ought to protect and project our basic cultural uniqueness as it is a legacy for our children. Losing this in an effort to blend in the ‘correctness’ of our times would indeed a great loss!


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