A network for women by women



Learning by example

I find it fascinating the way different cultures do things differently, and one particular area where this is especially noticeable is in parenting. When I hear about how my UK born and bred friends were raised, it often seems a world apart from my own childhood in South Africa and again, different to what I saw and experienced in the USA as an au pair. In any one country, parenting differs massively among different cultures as well. In South Africa, it is common to have a domestic worker. Ours, Iris, lived on our property. I cherish my memories of Iris and often remember the ways in which she cared after me as though I was her very own – the many times she helped me get to sleep at night, the songs she sang to me and the times she tried to teach me her mother tongue, Xhosa. During the time Iris was with us, my eyes were opened to another style of parenting and I was able to glimpse into her own culture and how much it differed to my own.

And then there are individual differences; people from the same culture may parent in hugely different ways. Although I shared the same culture and background and many other similarities as some of my friends, our childhoods seemed vastly different, which is partly why I loved using the following line on my mom: “But Lynn’s parents let her….” To which she would simply respond: “We’re not Lynn’s parents. End of discussion” (or so she wished).

I think that, when it comes to parenting, it can sometimes be a good thing for people to learn from other cultures or styles. From the different relationships I’ve had over the years, I’ve been able to see how people parent differently – sometimes it’s been positive, and sometimes it hasn’t. The following examples are some styles of parenting that have really stuck with me, and methods that I would like to adopt myself, whether with my nephew, for example, children I look after, or my own kids, should I have them one day.

Lucy’s parents

As a young child, my family was very close to another family and the two spent a good deal of time together, partly because of my close friendship with their oldest daughter, Lucy. Lucy’s parents were thus like my second parents, and Lucy’s mom and dad treated me just like their own. This included the fun and not-so-fun parts of parenting, and extended to cleaning up my mess, both bodily and otherwise, and disciplining me when I needed it. It also meant double the hugs and kisses, and a huge amount of love and patience. Lucy’s mom was full of kindness and warmth. She was always making everyone feel welcome and loved, she always extended invitations for delicious homemade meals and constantly offered to patiently teach new skills should a child be interested. While Lucy, to my astonishment, would fall asleep in seconds, I, on the other hand, could take hours before nodding off. And on those nights I slept at Lucy’s house and struggled to fall asleep, her mom would read to me to help me feel sleepy and speak to me with comforting words if I was scared. Lucy’s dad, a typical South African man with a love for fishing and hunting, was the father of three girls, as well as a second father to girls like me. But being surrounded by girls didn’t mean he treated us any more gently than he would boys, it seemed, and he teased us mercilessly, encouraged us in sport and employed a unique method when waking us up – by pulling our toes until we moved, whether due to our own efforts or his strength. Being a sister to older twin brothers and having a father who took to teasing just as easily, his parenting ways spoke my kind of language, and I doted on him much like I did my own father. Lucy’s parents were so obviously loving, supporting and warm, not only to their own children, but to their friends as well. They have thus remained very close to my heart and will continue to do so, and I hope that I can offer children, whether my own or not, the same amount of tenderness and care that they showed me.

Lynn’s mum

In my pre-teen stage, that awkward time when we try to find a group of friends where we fit in, I found firm friendship with Lynn and her group of friends. My friendship with Lynn spanned high school and university. Although our cultures and backgrounds are the same, our families are pretty different. I was often envious of her lifestyle as a child, and her wealth, privileges and freedom were sometimes the focus of my childhood dreams. But I was thankful to be a part of her seemingly fun and fabulous life, and she was, and still is, a great friend to me.

Lynn shared a special friendship with her mom. I’ll always remember her mom’s laugh – one of those deep, warm, slightly mischievous chuckles – partly because I hear it today escaping Lynn’s own mouth! Lynn’s mom gave Lynn a lot more freedom than many other girls enjoyed during school days, and it was definitely a contrast to my own upbringing. But it wasn’t that Lynn’s mom let her get away with murder – she always knew what she was doing and put in place certain boundaries – and Lynn always felt comfortable confiding in her mom about her private life and asking her for advice about personal matters. They had a relationship of trust, one with openness and honesty between them.

Host parents

I was an au pair to two children, a girl aged seven and a boy aged six, in New York, USA, for a year. The family lived in the suburbs outside Manhattan, but worked in the city. I was truly blessed to have them for my host family. They said from the start they would treat me as their very own daughter, and so they did. Tim and Grace loved their children dearly, and it was clearly evident. Though both working in demanding jobs in the city, they made it a priority to come home as early as they could, as often as possible, and I hardly ever worked weekends because of their desire to spend as much time with their children as possible in the times they were free.


Iris was more than our domestic worker for many years of my childhood, she was something of a mother and a best friend rolled into one. Iris would bear patiently with me while I occupied her lunch break with games of ‘waitress’ – yes, besides co-owning a bakery with my friend that had its very own ‘special chocolate section’ (I’d manage this section of course), being a waitress was another one of my ambitions. Many a lunch break, I presented Iris with the options – a glass of water, a glass of milk or a bowl of berries, handpicked from the tree on our street by yours truly. If I wasn’t bothering her on her lunch break, it was during working hours. While Iris washed the dishes, she had something of a leach attached to her back, my arms wrapped tightly around her warm body as I swayed with her from side to side while she taught me the national anthem in her own language. Looking back, had we switched places, I think I would have been more than frustrated that my lunch breaks were so often taken over by my employee’s daughter and her repetitive games, or that the pesky little thing seemed to have an excessive fondness to bear hugs. But if this really was the case, I’d never have known, because I don’t think Iris ever once greeted me with nothing less than a smile, and her infectious, hearty laugh has since stuck with me.


  • Margot, I so enjoyed this piece- very readable and attention grabbing!
    There are no perfect parents. As a mom of a grown son, I will be the first to admit my mistakes. I adore my son however, and tried my best.
    An American, I see differing parenting styles across the board…from abuse to overly lenient. In a few cases, I have seen what either can do to a child’s emotional health. I believe there is cause and effect and that all parents need be aware how their actions can either aid a child in becoming a content and moral adult or a miserable, angry being.
    Thanks for allowing me to recall many memories!

  • Margot says:

    Thanks Kathleen! I definitely agree that no parent is perfect. It’s a huge responsibility. Well done :)

Leave a Reply