Reluctant Role Models
Albert Einstein once said that “setting an example is not the main means of influencing another…it is the only means,” but you do not need to be a genius to know that. Children like to copy their parents, and they grow up watching their parents. I believed in what Einstein said, and I also agreed with whoever said that actions speak louder than words.
I was determined to set the right example for M at all times. Her parents were going to be her role models in life. She was going to grow up seeing her parents do what they preach. And her parents included my husband who had no idea that he was now required to be perfect at all times, or at least when M was around.
We left Japan for Nigeria when M was about a year and a half, and knowing that a visit to the pediatrician or the dentist meant boarding a flight to London, I had to make sure that she did not need to see them unless it was for scheduled check-ups. I was especially concerned about her teeth which were just coming out one after the other. From our previous experience in Liberia, I knew that in Africa, dentists were even more rare than doctors. There was hardly enough money to save lives, much less teeth.
My readings told me that toddlers who drank lots of juice and ate candy often were likely to have a mouthful of cavities by kindergarten. And although tooth brushing was an important habit to teach children, the secret to having healthy teeth was in avoiding the sweet stuff.
Armed with data proving that the culprits behind tooth decay were juice and candy, both grandmothers were strictly forbidden from giving them to M. Protests were quickly silenced with a reminder about the absence of dentists in Lagos. Both grandmothers were made to realize that the way to M’s heart was not paved with candies but with silly games like “Now you see me, Now you don’t,” and “Let’s make music with the mixing bowl and chopsticks”.
M had her very first candy a few weeks after we had arrived in Lagos, and curiously enough, it was not from an adult eager to please or appease her. It was from a boy a year or two older than her. He had given her a small round piece of candy, and the colorful wrapping indicated that it came all the way from Japan. It was an extremely valuable offering of friendship considering that all food items from Japan either travelled in someone’s luggage, or were sent by airfreight at exorbitant rates.
Within the walls of the compound was a small playground for children. It had a sandbox, a small house, a couple of swings, a slide and basic monkey bars. To the world outside of Lagos, it was not much of a playground, but it was most probably one of the very few playgrounds in the city. On the weekends, all the Japanese children living in Lagos would come and play in the playground while their parents played tennis. No one really noticed the children of the Nigerian servants watching from the other side of the fence which separated the homes of the masters from those of the servants within the compound. Nigeria was full of these fences. The visible concrete ones kept the foreigners separate from the locals. The invisible ones, and there were much more of those, divided the fabulously wealthy Nigerians from their impoverished fellow countrymen.
M had never seen candy in all of her one-year-and-six-month life, and I must have been preoccupied elsewhere because I did not see her accepting that most precious gift. It was once all the children had left the compound and we were back home that I saw our housekeeper put something in her mouth.
By the time I realized it was a piece of candy, it was too late. The moment the lump of sugar and artificial flavouring entered her tiny mouth, M’s face lit up in the same way that fireworks light up the evening sky. She knew instinctively that to enjoy this sweet manna from heaven, it had to be slowly sucked and not swallowed. She sat there savouring her first piece of candy, and I sat watching her in horror, thinking of little devils hacking away at the enamel of her baby teeth.
All good things must come to an end, and that includes candy. As soon as her mouth stopped moving, M stood up, and uttered a word that I had not heard before, pointing towards the direction of the playground at the same time “Pokono.” The word she repeatedly said was unfamiliar, but being the all-knowing Mommy, I knew that she wanted to go back to the playground, believing that all the candy or “pokono” in the world was waiting for her there.
The sun had set, and the last tennis game of the day was over. The playground was deserted, and vampires in the form of female anopheles mosquitoes were waiting to give malaria to anyone who dared to venture out. It would be madness to leave the safety of our home, but M was insistent. There was no wailing or screaming, just doggedness that I could not ignore.
We both changed into long thick pants, and long-sleeved turtle-neck shirts, clothes that we wore when we escaped to London for brief periods of normalcy. And much like carrying a crucifix and garlic to ward off vampires, I attached a mosquito coil to the back pocket of her pants, and carried one in my hand.
We set off for the dark and empty playground which was really only a few meters from our house, but for a pair of very small feet, it was a long walk. I could see by the light of the driveway lamp that M was very disappointed to find neither her generous friend nor another “pokono” there.
I led her back home, and in spite of her disappointment, there were no tears along the way. I understood though that I could no longer control her experiences. She was barely two years old, and yet she was now a member of a social group that I was not a part of, and whose comings and goings I am not always aware of. I could no longer completely shield her from all the things that were not to her advantage, but I could teach her to choose wisely. And I was going to teach her to be discriminating in her taste for candy.
The following day, I went to buy candy, a can of English candy. Japanese candy was nowhere to be found, but with Nigeria being a former British colony, and a present member of the Commonwealth States, there was an abundance of English candy in the supermarkets. There were periodic shortages of pasteurized milk, but candy was always available. I took this to mean that children drank more milk than they ate candy. When I mentioned this theory to a friend, she thought that I had been locked up in the compound too long.
Although I have a weakness for all things chocolate, I was never much of a candy lover. My husband enjoyed everything sweet though, and now that the prohibition on candy had been lifted, he assumed that it would be available to one and all at anytime. I failed to mention the little matter of parents being role models.
Believing that children break rules because there are too many of them, I had very few rules. One of them was no food anywhere except on the dining table, and candy was food. M had to eat her candy while sitting at the dining table. Candy became a part of the snack that she had twice a day, and I made sure that it was the last thing she had, after fruit, or something I baked myself. Baking was not a hobby, but for fear of being the latest carjacking victim, I rarely left the compound. With unlimited time on my hands, I found practical things to do, and baking just happened to be one of them.
My husband though was not around for snack, and he liked having his candy whenever and wherever it pleased him. Be it while reading the papers before dinner in the living room, or while watching television after dinner. Learning that as role model, he had to be perfect at all times, he was not pleased. Adding that he could be imperfect when M was not around did not make him happier, but he had no choice over the matter of the candy. He had candy only when M had hers, or only when there was no danger of her walking in on him with a tiny bulge in one cheek. I simply hid the can of candy, and when he wanted one, he had to ask me for it.
Being role models meant that we ourselves did what we wanted M to do. Having read that meals consisting of a hamburger, french fries and a sweet fizzy drink led to overweight children with a collection of small Happy Meal toys, we only had hamburgers at restaurants that did not pretend to be playgrounds. And in spite of the occasional hankering for a sugary soda to go with my hamburger, I always ordered water or milk, the only two beverages that M ever had.
Setting an example for M to follow was not always easy. It often involved making changes in our own lifestyles. To ensure healthy eating, I banished all deep-fried foods from our dinner table with the unexpected benefit of having much cleaner kitchen walls free of oil splatter, and much lower cholesterol levels. To prevent television addiction, we learned to turn off the television instead of having it on constantly, and discovered that it was much more pleasant to have music playing in the background. To emphasize the importance of completing tasks that are not particularly enjoyable, such as reading for fifteen minutes a day in Japanese, I limited myself to reading only Japanese newspapers, knowing that it would be a bit of a struggle when I got to the financial section.
Children copy their parents, and as a toddler, M followed me around the house as I went about my chores. When I was hanging the laundry, she was hanging Barbie’s clothes. When I was vacuuming the floors, she was cleaning Jenny’s house. When I was cooking, she was busy in her own little kitchen chopping plastic vegetables.
I later discovered that M not only liked to copy me, she wanted to be better than me. Influenced by two Japanese friends in first grade, she asked for piano lessons, and I began to take her to Miss Christina at the Turtle Bay Music School. I was required to be present for her piano lessons so that I could supervise her daily practice at home. Listening to M practice simple music pieces reminded me of my own piano lessons as a child, and before I knew it, I was playing not only the same pieces, but all the other pieces in her first piano lesson book. And I was playing them much better than M because I had the advantage of being able to read music notes.
Whenever I sat down to play the piano, M would leave whatever she was doing at the time to show me that she could play the piano, too. Watching me go through the other pieces in the book, she implored Miss Christina to teach them to her at once, but Miss Christina only moved on to the next piece when she was satisfied with M’s performance of the present piece. That was enough to make M practice daily without my prompting her. My days as the better pianist were, however, numbered. With the second piano lesson book, M steadily progressed while I was stuck on the first few pages, unable to read the complex combination of notes, and unable to play by ear alone.
It was the same story for the German language. When we arrived in Vienna, we all started German lessons. But while M left Vienna speaking German like the Germans, which I thought strange because Vienna is the capital city of Austria and not Germany, I never went beyond stringing German words together with total disregard for tense and grammar.
Having M at home is very much like living with George Orwell’s Big Brother. Someone is always watching us. It will be such a relief to see her off to college. We can go back to enjoying our lives. My husband can eat all the candy he wants whenever and wherever, and I do not have to sneak around with my can of sweet soda and English newspaper.