Motivational Strategy: Comparison

Emma loving the spotlight, Hannah shying away

I like many things about Egyptian culture, and am happy to be raising our children here, but one aspect of the way many Egyptians interact with children has been grating on me recently.  This is something I have noticed in Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt, so it may be safe to say it is a tendency across the Arab world to do this.  Before I mention it, let me remind the readers that we have found a tremendous welcome and interest in small children in every country we have been in.  I can’t count the number of strangers I’ve passed on the street who have verbally blessed our children, wanted to kiss them or give them lollipops.  In general, Arabs love children and aren’t afraid to show it.

And now for the flipside: we have often experienced that if children do not respond in a favorable way, no matter their age, they are told they are bad.  And this isn’t the big problem.  What I have usually witnessed goes something like this:

A stranger or friend greets baby Layla enthusiastically, and Layla reaches for her or smiles at her.  (This makes the stranger/friend very happy).

After this, the stranger/friend greets 3-year old Hannah just as enthusiastically, wanting a kiss or handshake from her, and Hannah promptly frowns at her, turns her head away and definitely does not reach to shake hands.  (This does not make the stranger/friend happy at all).

Inevitably, the response of the stranger/friend is, “inti wahash wa Layla kwayyisa.”  (Translation: you are bad and Layla is good.) 

Keep in mind that three-year old Hannah probably knows enough Arabic now to understand she has just been told by a stranger that she is bad but her baby sister is good.  And why?  Because she didn’t want to kiss someone she never saw before?  So how does that make her want to respond the next time?  Well, if it’s the same person, she probably still won’t care to kiss her.  If it is a different stranger, same story.  She is three years old and has sense of who she knows and who she doesn’t, and how she cares to interact with them by this point.  Being compared like this to her baby sister will not motivate her to change!

All that said, we are working with both Emma and Hannah to be polite to the adults that we interact with.  It is important in this culture to greet people and shake their hands.  Sometimes the problem is that when I convince the girls to be kind and return the handshake, they are then pulled in for a kiss on the cheek.  That’s not helpful for their learning process!  They don’t always feel like responding to people’s greetings, but again, as they are getting older, they need to politely respond and we are working on this.  But they don’t often want to smile and answer people who last time they saw them said they were bad!

The crazy thing is, I have been through this with each of the girls over the last couple years.  Emma was a friendly baby and smiled at strangers and they loved it.  Then she grew a little older and didn’t want to just go to anyone who held their arms out.  I think this is natural.  Problem is, by the time she reached that stage, her baby sister was the friendliest baby on the block and won everyone’s affections.  Then all of the sudden, Emma was “bad” and Hannah was “good.”  Now Hannah has grown some and has a friendly baby sister, Layla who gets all the compliments.

I’ve heard from others that this habit of comparing children to each other is quite common and can be quite damaging.  So far for the most part, these have been quick and minor occurrences, but I try to let the stranger/friend know that the older one was just as friendly when they were a baby.  And I try to talk to the older kid after the fact to be sure they aren’t getting negative messages from people.  Sometimes it is a fine line between being polite to adults, and having them take advantage of the kids.  As I said, I finally convince my girls to shake an adult’s hand, and then they pull them in for a kiss too …. again, a common form of greeting here, and one they can get used to.  But one I wish the adults would ask for and not just take.  Of course, I do have friends who are gentler with the kids, and these are the adults my kids like and feel comfortable with.  But it is something I have to watch and work on to correct the negative messages and reinforce the good.

One reply on “Motivational Strategy: Comparison”

we can relate with our kids not wanting to be kissed! they don’t shake hands with kids here that i have seen, but do give unwanted kisses. or pick up the kids and hold them without asking them. oliver especially struggled with it and still doesn’t like it. we’ll see how it goes with nicholas. it seems to be a fine line of standing up for our kids and helping others to understand their comfort zones and then helping our kids to understand the good intentions of those around them. not always fun!


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