Parenting in a Global Pandemic: A View from Tanzania

The whole village in one household.

Posted May 04, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting measures taken by governments worldwide present unprecedented challenges for parents. Measures include school shutdowns, shelter in place, and lockdown orders. In many places, travel and outdoor exercise are restricted. Shopping and recreation are limited. Parents with children at home face a range of challenges:

  • Many workplaces are closed, putting families at economic risk. Parents are home and can supervise their children, but they may be experiencing severe stress.
  • Other workplaces remain open, but government actions prevent schools, daycare centers, and informal caregivers from providing the supervision needed for parents to work. 
  • Still, other workplaces take advantage of internet technology to allow parents to work from home. Although parents can continue to work and are available to supervise children, they can’t do both at the same time.

Parenting challenges vary with the age of the child: 

  • Infants and toddlers need constant supervision and – while they can’t understand what is happening – will react to the stress of their parents. 
  • School-aged children are being told to continue their work, but are not given the instructional support required to complete it. Their emotional need for play and companionship, normally fulfilled by schoolmates, are now focused on the family. Thus stress has grown but supports have shrunk.
  • Adolescents face unique challenges. Although able to supervise themselves, the complexity of school work may be particularly tough. And parents may not be able to help them with schoolwork they themselves are unfamiliar with. Normatively, adolescents shift the source of their support from parents to peers. Schooling apart and social distancing has revealed the limitations of a world that is entirely virtual. In addition, adolescents making normative transitions – beginning romantic relationships, graduating, entering the workforce – may be doing so under entirely novel conditions, are facing strong competition, and are doing so with limited guidance.

In sum, children’s needs are exceptionally high, parents’ lives are exceptionally stressful, and the ability of families to nurture each other is sharply diminished.

A View from Tanzania

Lusajo Kajula, PhD., is a social policy analyst at the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti. Her research interests lie in parenting, adolescent health and well-being, gender, and violence. She was previously a lecturer and psychologist at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

In Tanzania, school closures were one of the first measures taken after COVID-19 patient one was identified on 16th March 2020. Most workplaces, however, remained open. Parents who had sent their children to a day or boarding schools had to fetch their children and make plans for childcare. At the time of this writing, some offices have closed while others continue going to work. While work closures ease childcare issues, the pandemic has also caused massive stress for parents and guardians due to loss or reduction of income. 

Nevertheless, parents have a critical role in ensuring that the COVID-19 crisis has less of a negative effect on their children. Parents whose work allows them to work from home have been very creative in multitasking, including attending Zoom calls while feeding children. There are several strategies that parents can utilize including the following:

It begins with you. As parents, we are the adult in the relationship with our children and it is vital for us to have a positive attitude while we circumvent the COVID-19 crisis. To maintain a positive attitude, utilize some stress management techniques, including carving time out for yourself for rest and relaxation. Having a negative attitude affects how we parent and may lead us to use parenting styles that have been shown to have a more negative outcome on children.

Tanzanian parents are mostly authoritarian—of the “because I said so!” variety. We tend to be high in demandingness (punishment, high expectations, emotionally distant, dominating and controlling, autocratic, high expectations, and clear rules) and with low warmth and communication. Many parents believe that more warmth will spoil children. Other parents may feel it easier to use a more permissive style by avoiding confrontation, being indulgent, having fewer rules and low expectations, more lenient, and accepting. However, this parenting style has an increased likelihood of emotionally exhausting the parent and therefore increasing their stress. Parents should minimize unnecessary stress by utilizing a more authoritative style by being responsive and reciprocal, being democratic with high expectations, and setting clear standards. We should try to be assertive and flexible, utilizing power while communicating “let’s talk about it.”  

“It takes a village...” A famous Igbo saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” means that raising a child needs support from different people within your community. Unfortunately, right now the whole village is at your house!

In Tanzania, as is the case for most African countries, daily life involves interaction with others who are not necessarily related to you. Most children can freely go out to play and come home for lunch, go out again and come back in the evening when the sun is going down. On school days, children can come back from school, eat, do homework (or not, depending on the type of school they go to) and then go out to play. However, this is not the case in this global pandemic. Even in Tanzania where no lockdown has been announced, we are all being urged to “Stay home if you have nothing to do outside” and children are not allowed to go to Sunday school or madrassa. Due to the call to “stay home,” the social networks that parents would have utilized to support in caring for their children are now all in one household.

This can be stressful but can be a blessing as well. Parents can use this time as an opportunity to improve connectedness with their children, while also fulfilling the role of supporting their educational needs. The following are some ideas that parents can add to what is already working:

Have a one-on-one. The silver lining in this crisis is the fact that it has reduced commute time for parents and children, and most people have more time. The frantic pace that parents and sometimes children have is now reduced for a few months. Parents can use this time to improve connectedness (defined as the degree of closeness/warmth experienced in the relationship that children have with their parents) and become more aligned with a conscious, positive, and peaceful approach. Building parent-child connectedness is energy and time consuming, but the outcomes (including delay in sexual debut) are worth it. During this period when time and proximity are available, build time to get to know each of your children personally. Engage them in tasks around the house and do tasks together so you get time to chat in a non-serious way. Talk about your child’s likes and dislikes, their friends and why they have them as friends, their fears, their dislikes, experiences of bullying, etc. Also, share with them (again in some cases) your family tree. If you haven’t done so and the child is at an age where they can understand, take out a pen and paper or a computer and draw a family tree. This is a unique time that you can make memorable for your child.

Bring the world home. Children are always curious about other places. I have also met (and heard) of stories about people who sometimes do not know where most cities or countries are (including those who confuse Tanzania and Tasmania). Right now there is important news coming in from all over the world. This is a good time to take an atlas or phone and play a game that involves learning where different cities, landmarks, countries, and continents are. Talk about the transport you can use to go to these different places. Let the child tell you what they think they know about different places. You can decide to “visit” one continent per week, and use the time to learn about the different contexts and cultures. While this is a lesson in geography and history, it is also another chance to bond and increase connectedness with your child. Learning always extends beyond the classroom. This can be a good time to consciously introduce this into your children’s lives.

Surviving or thriving

Children look to parents for guidance. Whether the child survives (manages to exist despite the circumstances) or thrives (does well and flourishes) will depend mostly on the strategies the parent utilizes to get the best experience through these tough times and hopefully after the pandemic is over and life goes back to normal. Children living through this COVID-19 pandemic can come out of it okay having managed to survive through it, or they can come out having connected more with parents, learned more and grown positively.