Growing up, dinner in my house was one of silence. Mum would serve us after evening prayers. Everyone ate quietly, even my usually boisterous younger brother. The only time someone spoke was to ask if I wanted more food. There was no laughter or talk about what happened at school that day. We’d finish eating as quickly as we could, then escape to our rooms after helping mum clear the table.
This was my life up to the time I left home for Australia at 21.
I come from an Indian Muslim background, and grew up in Kenya in a strict and authoritarian environment. No open discussions ever took place, questions often went unanswered or shut down, and dissenting opinions were discouraged. I never shared my problems because I was afraid of my parents’ reactions. I kept making mistakes and the lack of parental guidance and support made me volatile and angry. I spent most of my teenage years feeling this way.
When I became a mum, I faced an important question - how exactly did I want to bring up my kids? I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn't want to raise them the way I was raised.
Living in Australia as an adult, away from my family, I’d embraced the values of western society – freedom of speech and choice, independence, open communication and individuality – everything I’d craved as a child.
But, I also wanted my children to absorb and practise the values learned from my parents that had served me well all these years – sensible money management; high regard for a good education, a connection to faith, and respect for elders.
My husband and I decided to create our own version of the East-West style of parenting to reduce the confusion my son, 7, and daughter, 2, may feel being first-generation Kenyan-Australians. This process has been simple for us because we share the same values.
A balanced approach towards learning
Growing up, my self-esteem depended on how many marks I got in exams. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned academia alone isn't enough. Despite being an A student at school, I lacked important life skills. I feared failure and grew up to be an overachieving perfectionist.
Now, my partner and I favour a balanced approach to school where 'having a go' is more valued than top marks. We have discussions over how our kids can do better and accept failure when it happens. We encourage them to play sports like soccer and swimming to teach them the value of relaxing and being healthy through play. We also spend quality time as a family, through reading together or playing games to encourage open communication and bonding.
Using explanations for rules
When I was a child, rules were non-negotiable and came with no explanations. Rules and curfews were stricter for my sister and me. I often broke my parents’ rules because I thought they were unfair.
The rules for our children have some flexibility and evolve according to their age. I don’t issue edicts and try to understand why my son might be resisting when I give out an instruction. I understand and respect their opinions too.
One of our rules is that everyone must speak the mother tongue Gujarati at home. Every time I’ve faced resistance, instead of forcing or shouting at my son, I’ve explained why it’s important that he knows the language so that he doesn’t feel like an outsider when we go back to Kenya and can communicate with his grandparents.
We don’t smack, shout or slap - punishments I experienced as a child. Instead, I take away an object or privilege. I make it a point to explain that it’s the specific behaviour I’m objecting to but I also never drag my displeasure out or let our children go to bed angry or sulking. I’ve learnt from experience that these feelings build up over time and can turn into lifelong resentment and anger.
Open communication and affection
My parents are from a generation where actions speak louder than words. So, if you were fed, clothed and school fees paid, then that’s how you knew you were loved. We tell our children ‘I love you’ every chance we get, and are openly affectionate.
With my son, we have open and free discussions about every topic under the sun. I offer an age-appropriate answer to many questions and nothing is off-limits including religion. We encourage him to speak up if he feels something is wrong.
I’m always conscious of showing rather than telling the right types of behaviour to emulate. This is unlike the Indian way where a parent will often tell you, ‘because I said so!’ if you dare question their behaviour. By combining these elements from two different worlds, we hope to raise well-grounded adults with good values, who are resilient and able to fit successfully into the two worlds they’re constantly straddling as children of migrants.
Rashida Tayabali is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @rashidatayabali.