conscious parentingUBUNTU: Shared Humanity – Lessons from Africa

4 June 2022

Last week, I briefly talked about me making a mistake. Most adults in the audience were quick to call me out, some with a considerable level of aggression.

My mistake was a genuine oversight, not intentional, and it did not endanger anyone’s life. It was a “human mistake”; a thinking error. This experience forced me to do some serious self-compassion work; to learn from the mistake itself; make sure it doesn’t happen again AND it also invited me to reflect on the Western values when it comes to “making a mistake”. It seems to me that we have no room for error in our culture; perfection is expected; and super-expertise is applauded.

Highly individualistic cultures, like the United States of America (with the highest score on Hofstede’s Individualism/Collectivism dimension), place the individual’s personal success and self-realization at the center of their values system. Therefore, competition is fierce and inculcated in children from a very young age; individual’s interests are above the group’s interest; self-sufficiency and independence are everyone’s goals; dependency on the group/family is seen as a weakness. Because personal excellence is expected from everyone, failure is punished and shame-inducing. You are only as good as your last achievement.

In contrast,

“In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted.  All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and acts of kindness are recited carefully and at length. This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. In the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe,” writes Jack Kornfield, an internationally renowned Buddhist teacher, in his book, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace.

UBUNTU comes from a group of sub-Saharan languages known as Bantu, and it implies that : “a person is made a person by other persons” (munhu unoitwa munhu nevamwe vanhu). In other words, it teaches us that a “person’s humanity is dependent on the appreciation, preservation and affirmation of another person’s humanity.” (article cited on Relationships, forgiveness and community are important values in the UBUNTU -approach to life.

What can we do as parents with this knowledge? Here are my recommendations:

  • pause and reflect before shaming a child for making mistakes, small or big;
  • adopt an attitude of humbleness and curiosity in the parent-child relationship;
  • admit your own mistakes to your child and show them what you’re doing to correct, repair and learn from it;
  • welcome failure as a friend; share daily “failures” at the dinner table- all family members must share, from the youngest to the oldest;
  • refrain from criticizing or judging other adults in front of your child;
  • become aware of the vocabulary you use around your child, especially when labeling people or events as good/bad; smart/ stupid; beautiful/ ugly; in reality, nothing is good or bad- it just is;
  • create a family value system centered around “Shared Humanity” – which means that we all make mistakes; we all suffer one way or another, but we are not alone; we have each other;
  • build a strong support system around you as a parent; cultivate meaningful relationships with trusted people who can be there for you and your children when needed; build your tribe; do not raise a family in isolation.