Parenting Lessons from Chimamanda Adichie and Anthony Joshua
I always check what’s trending on Twitter to stay informed, it’s my primary source of news, sometimes I question the authenticity of news or rumour if it’s not trending on Twitter, if it’s a major news why isn’t everyone talking about it?
I came as usual for a regular update and I saw Anthony Joshua — the boxer trending, I wasn’t actively keeping tab on his next match so I thought I had missed the match or it was going on so I checked to see what the fuss was about, He’s Nigerian after all. I saw some tweets and saw it wasn’t related to the match so I scrolled some more, I saw some tweets from mainly ladies bashing him, due to bro code my defences came up, I felt it was probably something trivial or all them radical feminists wanting to drag him into mud.
Aha! Finally, I saw it, I read it at first and said so this is it? This is what is causing all the fuss, then I read it again and got the subtle message. It’s not certain that his line of thought is what many are thinking and while it’s most likely possible, certainty is difficult to ascertain when it has to do with intent.
Some days later, I read I tried to explain to my friend why Anthony Joshua’s interview response was wrong and I took out time to ask people around me what they thought about the interview response.
I won’t go about arguing whether he meant this or that, I’d talk about how this issue points to a larger issue that we face: Parenting styles: How males and females are raised up/treated differently in the society.
Worldview: The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.
We all have worldviews informed by our environment and culture, that’s a fact. Worldview is the way we see the world, the way we believe certain things ought to be, It is the way it is. I read my first book by Chimamanda Adichie last month — Purple Hibiscus, Americanah, Half of a Yellow sun… nope, I was hoping it will be a novel but it wasn’t to be. It was Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestion
I totally agree with a buyer on Amazon who said “I honestly think everyone should read this book, not only parents, but everyone, because the book touches on many issues that we grapple with even as adults” I’d be sharing excerpts from the book that help drive my point home. Although the book is about her giving advice on how to raise a feminist daughter, I found that most points applied to both boys and girls.
On Colors & Toys
I always thought Color Pink is for girls, blue is for Guys, Action toys for boys, Dolls for girls but…
I cannot help but wonder about the clever marketing person who invented this pink-blue binary. There was also a ‘gender-neutral’ section, with its array of bloodless greys. ‘Gender-neutral’ is silly because it is premised on the idea of male being blue and female being pink and ‘gender-neutral’ being its own category. Why not just have baby clothes organized by age and displayed in all colours? The bodies of male and female infants are similar, after all.
I looked at the toy section, which was also arranged by gender. Toys for boys are mostly active, and involve some sort of doing — trains, cars — and toys for girls are mostly passive and are overwhelmingly dolls. I was struck by this. I had not quite realized how early society starts to invent ideas of what a boy should be and what a girl should be.
I wished the toys had been arranged by type, rather than by gender.
Did I ever tell you about going to a US mall with a seven-year-old Nigerian girl and her mother? She saw a toy helicopter, one of those things that fly by wireless remote control, and she was fascinated and asked for one. ‘No,’ her mother said. ‘You have your dolls.’ And she responded, ‘Mummy, is it only dolls I will play with?’
Teach her to try to fix physical things when they break. We are quick to assume girls can’t do many things. Let her try. She might not fully succeed, but let her try. Buy her toys like blocks and trains — and dolls, too, if you want to.
Dear future son or daughter, while I think it’s okay for people to gravitate towards a certain preference, we’d be mixing up the toys and colours till you pick what you like.
At a recent baby’s baptism ceremony, guests were asked to write their wishes for the baby girl. One guest wrote: ‘I wish for you a good husband.’ Well-intentioned but very troubling. A three-month-old baby girl already being told that a husband is something to aspire to. Had the baby been a boy, it would not have occurred to that guest to wish for him ‘a good wife’.
Dear future son or daughter, when they come to say stuff like this at your naming ceremony I will be there to correct them or maybe I’d just tell them ahead of time.
An uneven exchange
Never speak of marriage as an achievement. Find ways to make clear to her that marriage is not an achievement, nor is it what she should aspire to. A marriage can be happy or unhappy, but it is not an achievement.
We condition girls to aspire to marriage and we do not condition boys to aspire to marriage, and so there is already a terrible imbalance at the start. The girls will grow up to be women preoccupied with marriage. The boys will grow up to be men who are not preoccupied with marriage. The women marry those men. The relationship is automatically uneven because the institution matters more to one than the other. Is it any wonder that, in so many marriages, women sacrifice more, at a loss to themselves, because they have to constantly maintain an uneven exchange?
Dear future son or daughter, while marriage is important it won’t be given undue attention.
Because you’re a Girl
Teach her that the idea of ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense. Do not ever tell her that she should or should not do something because she is a girl.
‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.
I remember being told as a child to ‘bend down properly while sweeping, like a girl’. Which meant that sweeping was about being female. I wish I had been told simply, ‘bend down and sweep properly because you’ll clean the floor better’. And I wish my brothers had been told the same thing.
There have been recent Nigerian social media debates about women and cooking, about how wives have to cook for husbands. It is funny, in the way that sad things are funny, that we are still talking about cooking as some kind of marriageability test for women.
The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina. Cooking is learned. Cooking – domestic work in general – is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have. It is also a skill that can elude both men and women.
We also need to question the idea of marriage as a prize to women, because that is the basis of these absurd debates. If we stop conditioning women to see marriage as a prize, then we would have fewer debates about a wife needing to cook in order to earn that prize.
Dear future son or daughter, you’d both be learning cooking because it’s arguably a necessary survival skill.
Learning & Language
Teach Chizalum to read. Teach her to love books. The best way is by casual example. If she sees you reading, she will understand that reading is valuable. If she were not to go to school, and merely just read books, she would arguably become more knowledgeable than a conventionally educated child. Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself, and help her in whatever she wants to become – a chef, a scientist, a singer, all benefit from the skills that reading brings. I do not mean school books. I mean books that have nothing to do with school, autobiographies and novels and histories. If all else fails, pay her to read. Reward her.
Teach her to question language. Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions. But to teach her that, you will have to question your own language. A friend of mine says she will never call her daughter ‘princess’. People mean well when they say this, but ‘princess’ is loaded with assumptions, of a girl’s delicacy, of the prince who will come to save her, etc. This friend prefers ‘angel’ and ‘star’.
So decide for yourself the things you will not say to your child. Because what you say to your child matters. It teaches her what she should value. You know that Igbo joke, used to tease girls who are being childish – ‘What are you doing? Don’t you know you are old enough to find a husband?’ I used to say that often. But now I choose not to. I say, ‘You are old enough to find a job.’ Because I do not believe that marriage is something we should teach young girls to aspire to.
Dear future son or daughter, tbh I won’t really enforce reading but learning — of course you should read and we’d use the right words too.
Remember the mechanic in Lagos who was described as a ‘lady mechanic’ in a newspaper profile? Teach Chizalum that the woman is a mechanic, not a ‘lady mechanic’.
Teach her that if you criticize X in women but do not criticize X in men, then you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women. For X please insert words like anger, ambition, loudness, stubbornness, coldness, ruthlessness.
On being Liked and Speaking up
Teach her to reject likeability. Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people. Remember I told you how upsetting it was to me that our friend Chioma would often tell me that ‘people’ would not ‘like’ something I wanted to say or do? I always felt, from her, the unspoken pressure to change myself to fit some mould that would please an amorphous entity called ‘people’. It was upsetting because we want those close to us to encourage us to be our most authentic selves.
Please do not ever put this pressure on your daughter. We teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. Many sexual predators have capitalized on this. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be ‘nice’ to people who do them harm. Many girls think of the ‘feelings’ of those who are hurting them.
And brave. Encourage her to speak her mind, to say what she really thinks, to speak truthfully. And then praise her when she does. Praise her especially when she takes a stand that is difficult or unpopular because it happens to be her honest position. Tell her that kindness matters. Praise her when she is kind to other people. But teach her that her kindness must never be taken for granted. Tell her that she too deserves the kindness of others. Teach her to stand up for what is hers. If another child takes her toy without her permission, ask her to take it back, because her consent is important. Tell her that if anything ever makes her uncomfortable, to speak up, to say it, to shout.
Dear future son or daughter, respect people and stand up for what is right.
Give Chizalum a sense of identity. It matters. Be deliberate about it. Let her grow up to think of herself as, among other things, a proud Igbo woman. And you must be selective – teach her to embrace the parts of Igbo culture that are beautiful and teach her to reject the parts that are not. You can say to her, in different contexts and different ways, ‘Igbo culture is lovely because it values community and consensus and hard work, and the language and proverbs are beautiful and full of great wisdom. But Igbo culture also teaches that a woman cannot do certain things just because she’s a woman and that is wrong. Igbo culture also focuses a little too much on materialism, and while money is important – because money means self-reliance – you must not value people based on who has money and who does not.’
Teach her to take pride in the history of Africans, and in the black diaspora. Find black heroes, men and women, in history. They exist. You might have to counter some of the things she will learn in school – the Nigerian curriculum isn’t quite infused with the idea of teaching children to have a sense of pride in their history.
Teach her about privilege and inequality and the importance of giving dignity to everyone who does not mean her harm – teach her that the household help is human just like her, teach her always to greet the driver. Link these expectations to her identity – for example, say to her, ‘In our family, when you are a child, you greet those older than you no matter what job they do.’
Give her an Igbo nickname. When I was growing up, my Aunty Gladys called me Ada Obodo Dike. I always loved that. Apparently my village, Ezi-Abba, is known as the Land of Warriors and to be called Daughter of the Land of Warriors was deliciously heady.
Dear future son or daughter, While I love my tribe and I believe we should celebrate our heritage we’d only pick things that align with our values.
Be deliberate about how you engage with her and her appearance.
Encourage her participation in sports. Teach her to be physically active. Take walks with her. Swim. Run. Play tennis. Football. Table tennis. All kinds of sports. Any kind of sports. I think this is important not only because of the obvious health benefits but because it can help with all the body-image insecurities that the world thrusts on girls. Let Chizalum know that there is great value in being active. Studies show that girls generally stop playing sports as puberty arrives. Not surprising. Breasts and self-consciousness can get in the way of sports – I stopped playing football when my breasts first appeared because all I wanted to do was hide the existence of my breasts, and running and tackling didn’t help. Please try not to let that get in her way.
If she likes make-up, let her wear it. If she likes fashion, let her dress up. But if she doesn’t like either, let her be. Don’t think that raising her feminist means forcing her to reject femininity. Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive. It is misogynistic to suggest that they are. Sadly, women have learned to be ashamed and apologetic about pursuits that are seen as traditionally female, such as fashion and make-up. But our society does not expect men to feel ashamed of pursuits considered generally male – sports cars, certain professional sports.
Dear future son or daughter, the fact that I’d love one of you to be at least a sports star like Messi or Serena means participation in sports is a Big yes!
About Sex and Romance
Talk to her about sex, and start early. It will probably be a bit awkward but it is necessary.
Remember that seminar we went to in class 3 where we were supposed to be taught about ‘sexuality’ but instead we listened to vague semi-threats about how ‘talking to boys’ would end up with us being pregnant and disgraced? I remember that hall and that seminar as a place filled with shame. Ugly shame. The particular brand of shame that has to do with being female. May your daughter never encounter it.
Tell her that sex can be a beautiful thing and that, apart from the obvious physical consequences (for her as the woman!), it can also have emotional consequences. Tell her that her body belongs to her and her alone, that she should never feel the need to say yes to something she does not want, or something she feels pressured to do. Teach her that saying no when no feels right is something to be proud of.
It’s not enough to say you want to raise a daughter who can tell you anything; you have to give her the language to talk to you. And I mean this in a literal way. What should she call it? What word should she use?
I remember people used ‘ike’ when I was a child to mean both ‘anus’ and ‘vagina’; ‘anus’ was the easier meaning but it left everything vague and I never quite knew how to say, for example, that I had an itch in my vagina.
Make sure you are aware of the romance in her life. And the only way you can do that is to start very early to give her the language with which to talk to you not only about sex but also about love. I don’t mean you should be her ‘friend’; I mean you should be her mother to whom she can talk about everything.
Teach her that to love is not only to give but also to take. This is important because we give girls subtle cues about their lives – we teach girls that a large component of their ability to love is their ability to sacrifice their selves. We do not teach this to boys. Teach her that to love she must give of herself emotionally but she must also expect to be given to.
Dear future son or daughter, Yup, pretty awkward stuff I’d try my best to grow into being comfortable about talking about romance and sex
Teach her about difference. Make difference ordinary. Make difference normal. Teach her not to attach value to difference. And the reason for this is not to be fair or to be nice but merely to be human and practical. Because difference is the reality of our world. And by teaching her about difference, you are equipping her to survive in a diverse world.
She must know and understand that people walk different paths in the world and that as long as those paths do no harm to others, they are valid paths that she must respect. Teach her that we do not know – we cannot know – everything about life. Both religion and science have spaces for the things we do not know, and it is enough to make peace with that.
Teach her never to universalize her own standards or experiences. Teach her that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people. This is the only necessary form of humility: the realization that difference is normal.
Dear future son or daughter, appreciating difference starts with understanding that your path in life might be different from mine and I’m fine with that, while I’d want one of you to be a sports star, musician, techie, filmmaker, photographer, makeup artiste… I’m pretty open to any legal and noble career path. As for others, I suppose you’d treat them the way your parents treat you — respecting their differences.
a particular system of faith and worship.
While Chimamanda didn’t talk about this in her book, it’s too important to me to not mention.
Dear future son or daughter, Your parents are Christians and would love you to be one — of course, you would be, You’d grow up in a Christian environment. We’d let you grow into being a Christian, helping you understand why we believe in what we believe in.
As we become more woke, it’s important we question our worldviews and call out our biases.
“Parenthood…it’s about guiding the next generation and forgiving the last “ Peter Krause, Actor
Thanks to Nnedimkpa Nnadi for reviewing the article and gifting me the title.
Thanks to Queensly Austin for writing the book review that made me read Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestion