Nigerian parents who relocate to the United States express worry that they no longer have a firm grip on their children, no thanks to American norms and laws
By ABDULRAFIU LAWAL / Boston, United States
John Owolabi, an accountant, like many Nigerians, is tired of the epileptic power supply, insecurity, bad roads and other problems plaguing his fatherland. He believes his children need a better life. So he relocates to America with his family in search of the American dream, which to him, leads to prosperity. Things works out for him as his company flourishes, but there is a snag. His 15-year-old son would not study; he loves to play baseball and hang out with friends.
Owolabi is thus worried that his son may end up a gangster on the streets of America and probably increasing the number of people of colour (blacks) that constitute 60 per cent of prisoners in the United States, US, according to Race and Justice Clearing House, an advocacy group. Nigerian parents dread their children having ties to the street boys whose characteristics include drug abuse, sagging of trousers, school drop-out, wearing of stud earrings, and gunrunning. Some of them are even ex-convicts.
Owolabi decides to assert his authority as a father by applying corporal punishment including beating him when necessary to correct his bad behaviour. But his son, relying on child abuse laws in America, resisted. In the end, Department of Social Services, DSS, the agency responsible for the protection of children from abuse, took his son and barred Owolabi from going anywhere less than 80 miles from where the boy is. Failure to comply could land him in prison.
This is the challenge that confronts African immigrants in America, especially Nigerians who believe they should use any means to instil discipline in their children in line with societal norms. Many of them are now victims of a clash of culture. The American culture recognises the rights of everyone including children while the Nigerian culture believes in parents enforcing discipline by any means possible.
Bisi Asere, a Nigerian resident in America for many years and pastor, Apostolic Church, Hyde Park, Boston, said many Nigerians come to America not knowing the law on raising children. “The law in America protects two groups of people more than others, that is, women and children. From nursery school, kids are told that if someone hits you, call the police on 911 and the police respond immediately. When the police come, they will listen to the child. God help you the child has no mark on his body or else you are in trouble. Back home, you flog a child to beat out the stubbornness in him but in America it is considered an abuse,” he said. According to him, Nigerian children are very fast in imbibing foreign culture such that they tend to abhor their own culture. “You expect your child to prostrate before you in the morning. Here, there is nothing like that; it is seen as an embarrassment.”
Becky Atinga, a Nigerian psychologist resident in America for 30 years, compares parenting in the two cultures. She says the similarity between parents from both countries is that they love their children. They also have similar values but how they choose to teach the children these values are different. She notes that the basic difference is that “here children are supposed to be equal and be friends to their parents but back home parents are authority figures.” In America, all children belong to the government and at 18 they are considered independent.
The child abuse law is founded on the premise that spanking a child does not lead to good behaviour and so parents are expected to dialogue with their children or, at worst, deny them watching the television. Owolabi learnt this the hard way and was detained on account of his style of parenting. Owolabi is full of regrets that he lost his son in his bid to ensure he becomes a productive adult. The incident remains a deep cut that would not heal because he was detained for weeks and a permanent damage may have been done to the father-son relationship.
Rasaq Adigun, a father of four with dual citizenship, expresses the frustrations of many Nigerian parents with parenting norms in America. “I exercise caution, make consultations with friends and prayers to God to guide me on how to raise these kids without creating any conflict with the law. It takes more than just experience to raise good children in this country,” he says.
Atinga narrates her experience with her 18-year-old niece who came to stay with her after living in Brazil and Belgium. She says that people were instigating the girl against her, “that as her aunt, I have no right to tell her what to do because she is an adult and if I insist she should report me. This led to conflict between us. I was faced with a dilemma whether to be her friend or parent. I chose to be a parent. Fifteen years after, married with kids, she is one person I am proud of. She also appreciates what I did.”
Sunday Oluokun, a lecturer in the Department of African Studies, Harvard University, says it is hard for a Nigerian parent to come to terms with their children relating with people older than them on first name basis. Citing the Yoruba culture as an example, he explains that honorific terms are used to address older people contrary to what obtains in American society. He says, “A boy of 16 will address his 52-year-old uncle, ‘Hi Michael, what’s up?’ Other differences include children looking at elders straight in the eye during conversation. These are considered rude in Nigeria and unacceptable
behaviour. But in America, looking at an older person straight in the face is considered a sign of honesty.”
Rather than condemn the culture, Lanre Olusekun, chief executive, Davenport Realty Malden, says that Nigerians should marry the positive things in both cultures in raising their children. “Whether one likes it or not, our culture is the best because no matter how old a child grows his parents and relations can still make him retrace his steps. Children don’t want to be seen by neighbours or their parents’ friends as doing the wrong thing. Back home, it takes a community to raise a child. But here, it is an individualistic society where you can hardly caution the child of your neighbour.”
Another aspect of the American culture that Nigerian parents find difficult to reconcile is the right to freedom of expression. Olusekun says he allows his children to exercise this right but without overstepping their bounds. “The culture here gives children an inquisitive mind; you must tell a child why he should do things. When I was growing up, I cannot remember questioning my father why he gave me instructions, because the culture does not allow it.” According to him, the advantage of this aspect of the American culture is that “children develop a close relationship with their parents and thus one is able to monitor their activities by knowing their friends.”
But Asere says though American law gives everyone in America the freedom to express his views, not everyone can use it well. “Give a child absolute freedom, he will misapply it because he is not mentally developed to know what is right or wrong for him. There is no way the law can bring up your child the way you want,” he argues.
Olusekun adds that if a child refuses to obey his parents despite admonition from the holy books, the parent must be firm. TELL learnt that this is where some Nigerians find it difficult to draw the line. This is because some are afraid that the children may report them to DSS, like Owolabi’s son did. Thus they condone them and in the end, the child gets on the wrong side of the law. For those who chose to enforce their discipline, they do so in the privacy of their homes as their nosy neighbours may report them to the police. Oluokun notes that if parents refuse to inculcate the correct values in their children at a tender age, attempting it at maturity would become a problem.
Valerie Lovelace-Graham, regional director, Department of Children and Families, Boston, told the magazine that the agency is diversifying its staff due to the challenge of integration into American culture which African immigrants face. “We realise we need to get people who know these cultures and to enable us come up with alternative strategies to help them,” she says.
Owolabi’s plight underscores the effect of a nation without a working system for citizens to realise their potential. Hence, thousands of Nigerians throng embassies of developed countries in Lagos and Abuja for visas to migrate to a ‘better place’, only to discover that they also have thorns and bristles. The Nigerian born accountant paid a smaller price for a good life in America compared to others whose children bring shame to their families.