No time outs in Kenya

February 11, 2013 | EDUCATION | By Kimberly Siegal

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

This post is part of our “Adopt a Culture” series where bloggers tell us about customs they have adopted from a culture other than their own.

“Ashley if you throw sand one more time, it’s going to be a time out!”

It was last Sunday morning during my visit to D.C., and I sat on the fringe of the playground rocking my baby Emmet in his stroller and watching the moms and dads chatting to each other as they sipped their grande mochas and periodically stepped into the toddler fray to break up a fight, wipe a tear or beg little Ian, for the love of god, to give someone else a turn on the train.

Ashley, forgetting or willfully defying her mother’s warnings, threw that sand again. She joined me in the park periphery but served her time out with a quiet dignity.

Ahhh…. the time outs, the 5 minute warnings, the slow counting “one……twwooo…..threeeee” for a last chance before a punishment that’s more threat than reality, the”if I have to tell you again, there’s going to be no more….”

Like it or not, this is my tribe. They were speaking my toddler negotiation language. I know these battles are the bane of parents’ existence, but it felt like music to my ears to hear this stuff repeated by nearly every parent in that park.

This is why: where we live in Western Kenya, there are not a lot of time outs, loss of “privileges” or three strikes you’re out schemes. This is based solely on my limited observations and conversations with Kenyans, but it seems that toddlers are generally indulged.

The reasoning seems to be: Why battle with a tiny person who has a lot less to lose and nothing but time? Just give them what they want when possible or distract them with something else, but for the love of god, do not engage in protracted battle of will and reason. It’s like Socrates arguing with Jessica Simpson. Socrates may “win,” but Jessica won’t care.

[The mystery for me is that children in Kenya do not act the least bit spoiled. In my experience, they are incredibly obedient, well mannered and respectful of adults. I’ve been told that’s because at about 3 years old, the gauntlet is layed down, but that’s a subject for another post…..]

And when I have tried to insert some boundaries in the face of a “I WANT THAT SWEETIE MAMAAAAA!!!!!” public tantrum throw down, I’m generally admonished by Kenyan strangers to “Just give the boy the treat” or even “Don’t harass the child, mama.” So, I sometimes just sheepishly give in, avert the tantrum and further public humiliation, and go home to wonder simultaneously where my spine went and what the right response should have been anyway.

As ambivalent as I was about my own discipline techniques, Mary*, Caleb’s caregiver, was sure of hers. In that she didn’t have any. She would never hit Caleb but was also loathe to tell him ‘no’ or give him any consequence for bad behavior. I became worried that he would, unlike his Kenyan playmates, ultimately become irrevocably spoiled.

I know this is typical of nannies around the world. Why discipline the child and risk incurring their wrath when you are mainly judged by how the kid reacts to you on mom’s departure to work? You need to be the softy. There’s little incentive to discipline no matter the cultural norms.

So, we had a lot of discussions with Mary about not wanting to spoil him and wanting Caleb to grow up with humility and discipline and to basically be a “good guy,” and she would always fully agree. But given she had grown up in a context in which behavior was generally corrected by a thwack or the threat of a thwacking, she’d need to learn about “time outs,” and the only way was to model what they’s look like.

So, one day before I left for work but after Mary arrived, Caleb did something I told him not to. I can’t even remember what it was. He probably threw his food or refused to get dressed. After a warning or two was issued, it was time for our newly instituted “time out.”

Caleb HATED time outs at that particular time. A thwacking would have probably been more welcome. I had to carry him kicking and screaming into the corner. He was writhing and protesting so much in my arms that he almost threw me off balance, and I had to turn my head away to avoid ear damage. When he got in the corner, he tried to run away several times after which I repeated my fireman’s carry back to the corner. I was firm and consistent, and, finally, he was defeated. He served his “time out” with bitterness and defiance, but ultimately apologized and settled down. Nanny 911 would have been proud.

I felt mildly triumphant until I looked over at Mary doing all she could to suppress laughter. I could almost hear her internal dialogue “You want me to do that!?!? You’ve exhausted yourself fighting over god knows what started this whole thing in the first place.” I saw the whole exchange through her eyes and could almost agree. It was a ridiculous spectacle totally out of proportion with whatever petty offense started the whole thing.

And I can see why a village mama, raising 12 kids (Mary was one of 12), while also busy with a daily regimen of fetching water, fire wood, washing clothes by hand, and tending the shamba would chose the path of least resistance when it came to discipline. Indulge the little ones, whack the bigger ones and don’t negotiate. Spending 30 minutes sticking your ground on a point of principle to teach a lesson would seem absurd.

I know. I know. I’ve read the books too. Time outs are hard at first and it takes time, but then they learn. It’s kind of what we have if we want to discipline our kids without hitting them. And Caleb now responds, most of the time, to warnings, time outs and 1….2….3s making our lives easier while avoiding physical punishment.

So, we’ll still discipline our toddlers the way the latte drinking yuppies at the DC park would. But I won’t be as dogmatic about it. I won’t feel like a failure if I have to give up and try again. I’ll laugh at the absurdity of it all even as I know about the eventual pay off. And I’ll recognize that there’s more than one way to tame a toddler.

* Not her real name

You can see more of Kim’s work at You might want to start with one of her favorite posts.

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Cross-Cultural Miscommunication

2 responses to “No time outs in Kenya”

  1. Mud Hut Mama says:

    I loved this Kim! I’m at home with my girls so I do most of the disciplining but I’m sure our housekeeper has had a good laugh at my expense.

    • Kim @ Mama Mzungu says:

      I know! I’m constantly know looking at how I parent through “Mary’s” eyes and things that I once thought made perfect sense now look a bit absurd to me. But other things Mary has become very open to and interested in. I love the exchange we have!

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