How to Train Your Lightning Bolt: Shifting Ontologies of Parenthood

Bayo, Alethea, and Ej Akomolafe

Ej and I are regular Mrs. Grundies. She grew up in India, in a home where one was supposed to apologize if someone else stepped on your toes. And I grew up in a Yoruba household where saying “good morning” and “thank you,” and being able to respond to our mother’s instructions, encoded in rapid stealthy winks and thin-slit eyes, meant you had received proper home-training.

Alethea, our two-year-old, not-going-to-school, shrapnel-of-a-thunderbolt daughter, is nothing like us.

When friends or strangers lean on their knees to say “hello,” she tosses her head in the opposite direction. When someone gives her a piece of chocolate and we plead with her to say “thank you,” she turns to us instead and says it—leaving the proper recipient of her (our?) gratitude in the rough.

The scenario repeats itself like a broken record. “Alee, say ‘hello’?” “Alethea, say ‘goodbye’?” we’d ask her, already anticipating how devastated the other party would be to be let down by a two-year old. Alethea, untouched by the politics of adulthood, would often protest by walking away, or she would simply say “no,” an impish smile stretching across her face. Ej and I would look at each other, trying as much as possible to hide our embarrassment behind nervous grins. Then we would launch into an elaborate explanation to make the other party feel better. She just woke up. She’s having a bad day. She said “thank you”—but you didn’t quite hear it.

This essay is, however, not merely about politeness being overrated or the dialectics of toddlerhood—it’s about how we are learning to trust our child.

Even though Ej and I still feel an uncomfortable churning sensation every time Alethea dances off, leaving the social contract of a handshake or a “hello” truncated, we remind ourselves that our discomfort shouldn’t create her milestones. Or, more effusively, as I said to a journalist from The Times of India who came over to our hotel room today to interview us about our ‘post-activism’ work and our experience raising Alethea, “every child is a disruption of the normal; I feel very strongly that the world resets itself whenever a child is born.”

An even finer point to make here is that not knowing what to do next is part of what it means to be a parent. This evening, when we went out for dinner and Alethea again refused to requite the kind greetings of the bearded chef we had come to admire, we thought we’d talk with her about it.

“Alethea, why didn’t you say ‘hello’ to that uncle?”

“Because,” she said, “you said I shouldn’t watch Peppa Pig”—referring to the oinking little girl-pig cartoon we often allow her to watch. Of course, this was completely made up and quite unrelated to the incident. We stopped ‘our talk’ and came undone. Ej said to me, out of Alethea’s earshot, “Sometimes I wonder if I am doing it right. I don’t know what to do.” I expressed the same anxiety. We didn’t want her to be rude and unapproachable, and our cultures had taught us that early childhood was the soft ground wherein the seeds of ‘good’ behaviour could be planted.


As we ate our sumptuous meals, Ej pulled out her phone and showed me how another mother was dealing with that anxiety. She had plotted learning goals for her home-schooled child with a handy curriculum of sorts. There were colored shapes, questions that ended with fill-in-the-gap lines, and more. One of the questions read “Does he know how to say his name?” with an empty box next to it. The author of this curriculum set out to show how her unschooled child was achieving the same peer goals as schooled children. Ej verbally ticked off many boxes herself—amazed at how quickly and confidently Alethea was learning stuff outside of school.

“But this replicates the same problem with schooling, doesn’t it?” I remarked, “I mean, who is to determine what a child’s learning objectives should be—and at what pace a child is ‘supposed’ to achieve a learning goal?”

Ej’s point, of course, wasn’t to endorse the curriculum but to illustrate how schooling mattered little to what Alethea was ‘achieving,’ untaught and—seemingly—by herself. However, by asking the question, I came to see how schools fill the need for parents to be ‘certain’ about what they are doing with their children.

A child is an existential riddle, a troubling re-opening of the orifices of becoming—like an oríkì we haven’t yet heard but faintly recognize. A material glitch. A lightning bolt. For everyone who has cradled a youngling or taken care of a toddler, it is not merely their unreasonable crying and the utter furore they embody that could oftentimes activate our need to yell, it is their precious obliviousness to the niceties of the supposedly real world of adults. They cut through our tested equations, tearing asunder our emperor’s clothes, bringing us to the edges of ourselves again and again. Could this be the reason why Jesus said children are the Kingdom of God?

In any case, children are trouble—and sitting with this trouble is uncomfortable, partly because we crave a sense of closure; we want to know if we are doing ‘it’ right. I do not mean to paint with broad strokes or to reduce schooling into a pathological monolith, but in a flattened world, where rectilinear cuts and concrete edges now define our social architecture, where communal technologies have been displaced by the singular legitimacy of formal education, modern schooling both feeds and satisfies the yearning to be correct. The ontology of parenting—what it ‘is’—is now defined largely by how well we are able to provide access to schools.

As such, we reject the gift of discomfort and outsource our bundles of trouble to be tamed by standards and empty boxes. We chop them into frequencies of learning expectations and classify them according to just how well they fit into their classes.

I am, of course, not saying that all parents that send their kids to school are shirking their responsibilities to their children. I am seeking to trouble the notion that sending them away is the only way we can be responsible ‘with’ them. You can’t train a lightning bolt. There is something to being a child that undercuts our structures, that calls for a slowing down. Ej and I recognize that the world is a layered palimpsest of temporalities, and that allowing our child to unfurl at her own pace—however befuddling that pace might be to us—is perhaps the greatest gift we could give her. And perhaps, the greatest freedom schooling discountenances.

As we walked away from the restaurant, chirping happily about how well the chicken biriyani and mutton paratha were cooked, we passed by an auto-rickshaw driver, who merely nodded as we went by. A few feet later, Alethea stopped, dragged us back to the driver—pulling and tugging at her mum as she did.

“Hello!” she said, and then walked away—as if saying “hello” to a complete stranger was the most natural thing in the world. Or is it? The man smiled. Ej and I looked at each other quizzically. And then went back to talking about food.