Out with the old, in with the new? How to balance traditional and modern parenting styles

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  • The battle between old school child-rearing versus modern parenting is never-ending.
  • Experts weigh in on the importance of finding a balance between old parenting traditions and modern parenting styles.
  • Experts also advise against rejecting customs as it may have detrimental effects on children.


Katlego Matsose got into a flat panic after an older woman in the community told her that her newborn baby’s navel was infected. She’d been using surgical spirit to dry it out, even though it pained her to see how it stung and made her baby cry.

She rushed to a local pharmacy looking for a navel care powder recommended on the Internet. The pharmaceutical assistant asked her a few questions, and advised that she rather use salt water several times a day to treat the wound until the umbilical cord’s stump fell off.

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It’s quite common for young mothers to feel conflicted about the advice given by a mother figure or older woman in the family. Modern or new-age moms have alternate sources of information, including their firm favourite, the Internet.

The dilemma of what's best

‘Dr Google’ is her nemesis, says paediatrician Dr Cora Bopape. “It’s great that young parents have access to a lot of information, but people often search for the wrong things. I’d advise people to consult an expert to balance their view. The absence of professional advice can lead to unnecessary anxiety,” she says.

Bopape advises parents to implement what causes them the least amount of stress, as there’s no right or wrong way to parent. “It’s easy for people to judge a mom who, for instance, chooses to co-sleep instead of sleep-training her baby, not knowing that she may be suffering from postpartum depression,” she explains

There’s a battlefield between new moms and their mothers, says midwife Sister Xoli Makabane, who offers home visits to mothers with newborn babies. Part of her services include teaching new moms the basics, like bathing the baby for the first couple of weeks and answering any questions they may have.

She explains that it’s common for modern moms to question some of the African childrearing practices their mothers insist on. When questioned about the importance of a practice, the older women feel undermined and disrespected.

“I find that the reasons why older women feel undermined, is because they themselves don’t understand the significance of these practices. They come from an era in African culture where they were told, ‘you must do and not question’,” Makabane says.

Old doesn't always mean right 

The way in which previous-generation parents raised their children was not always right, and was possibly damaging in some ways, Bopape says.

“For example, I hardly got hugged by my parents and never heard them tell me they loved me. I’ve changed this with my own kids because I feel that holding or cuddling your child is a wonderful expression of love,” she explains.

“Things like gripe water are said to be a mom’s best friend when a child has colic, yet this concoction contains a lot of alcohol and sugar, which explains why a child is happy or keeps quiet after that. The irony is that newer versions of gripe water have no alcohol and no sugar — and don’t actually work,” Bopape notes.

Makabane says she often sees new moms rejecting common practices like the use of Dutch medication, Lennon’s Haarlemensis drops, on the baby’s fontanelle to protect them from ‘negative energy’, even though the leaflet warns against using this on babies. She explains that this practice of protecting the baby from negative energies and calming them down was traditionally done with the herbal mixture, Umthombothi.

“Our grandmothers used to get it from a tree, called Umthombothi, in Xhosa. This was crushed, mixed and given to the baby. We have our own rich and natural solutions to heal and protect babies as Africans,” she explains.

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Young mothers need to learn the art of picking their battles, Makabane suggests. She adds that, chances are, your mother’s fighting her own battle — that of backing off and allowing her daughter to become a woman.

She continues, “If something won’t kill or be detrimental to the health of the baby, then bow down and let her win sometimes. When you disagree with her advice, rather negotiate with her. Find an excuse and tell her you’ll give the child medication, only if he or she’s still not well after a week. Remember, she also wants to feel like she’s a part of the child’s life.”

Cultural relevance

One of the disadvantages of the previous generation’s authoritarian style of parenting is the missed opportunity when it comes to explaining the significance of some of the spiritual and traditional practices. While modern parents have taken charge of raising their children their own way, often rejecting the sage advice from their elders, there are some traditional parenting styles that, if ignored, could have negative implications on children.

Culture is very important, says Zulumathabo Zulu, author and founder of Madisebo University College, an institution seeking to preserve indigenous knowledge.

“Culture controls the mind. What elders did when they’d name a child or teach a child by telling them stories was done to give the child a cultural template that helps them survive. There’s a reason why they say ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. It’s important for children to grow up learning from their granny, uncles and aunts. What we’re seeing now is a lot of children growing up without this template,” he explains.

One of the biggest mistakes modern parents make, is overexposing children to television and cellphones, which has replaced storytelling and teaching children about their family relations.

“This overexposure not only affects culture, but stunts the child’s mental growth,” Zulu explains.

Traditional healer and co-founder of Xhayimpi Traditional and Spiritual Healing Institute, Dr Bonile JackPama, explains that the absence of cultural customs like imbeleko, a ritual performed to introduce a newborn to their clan and ancestors, has devastating effects on the child as they grow older.

“I once had a client with two children aged eight and 10. Both these kids used to soil themselves before they could get to the toilet. Upon looking into the matter, I found that imbeleko hadn’t been performed for them. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of these kinds of customs, even as we evolve as Africans,” he says.

In addition, he says that when parents split up, it’s important for them to prioritise the little ones. “For the sake of the child, I suggest that mothers keep the father’s surname to avoid the child growing up with identity issues,” he concludes.

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