Parenting as a Westie in the East is hard, dear internet diary.

The other day, my daughter's nanny came back to work after a few days off. She asked me, "What happened with Stella on Monday morning? Why was she crying?"

 

Monday morning was totally unremarkable. We went through our usual routine of tidying up the detritus left by the weekend weekend (me), and tantrum-ing over the injustice of being forced to play alone with a room full of educational and aesthetically pleasing wooden toys (not me. Two guesses.)

 

"I don't remember….ummm, I guess she was crying because I was doing dishes?" I answered. "Or making the bed? Dunno. Why?"

 

It turns out that one of the hotel housekeepers had heard Stella screeching. She texted our nanny to find out why the child's incompetent mother was incapable of appeasing a innocent three-year-old. 

 

"I heard Stella crying. I felt so sad!" The housekeeper (who, btw, we love and adore), texted to Stella's nanny.

 

(Incidentally it's a good thing that the housekeeper in question wasn't around a few hours later when a certain small person was wailing in the hallway for a good 20  minutes because I asked her to walk 25 meters to our apartment door and therefore life is all bullshit.)

 

But still. COME ON!!! My kid was crying. What's so remarkable about that??? And PS, privacy is also a thing.

 

In  Indonesia, a screaming kid is kind of remarkable. The typical toddler does not tantrum. Or, at least, does not tantrum to the degree that Western kids do.

 

Kids here are cajoled and mollified. They are carried around by their caretakers, given sweets, spoon-fed and bottle-fed well into big-kid-dom. Their demands for attention are always acknowledged. Their requests for toys, playtime, or other sorts of entertainment are granted without question. Keep the kid happy. Don't let the kid cry. 

 

When faced with a crying child, the typical response is to give the kid whatever he wants: iPad? Here you go! Candy, Okay! No problem! All of my attention all of the time? YES! You can have it!

 

This sounds, on the surface of things, to be a recipe for a total parenting disaster. And were the children in question growing up in a Western context, I'd argue that it would be. But these kids are growing up in Indonesia where culture dictates that little kids can't be left to cry. And it works here. 

 

But I'm raising a kid according to Western parenting practices, and that means I keep running into cultural conflicts. People regularly question my competency and judging my parenting based on their cultural norms. 

 

For example, I recently got some serious attitude from my daughter's babysitter because I threw out a crappy, super branded plastic toy that just wasn't my aesthetic jam. My daughter's babysitter thought I was being recklessly wasteful, and mean in denying her access to a great (pirated!) mouse-shaped plaything! I thought I was controlling clutter and making good judgments about what type of toys come into our home.  

 

Or, when I shield my daughter from unwanted pictures, I think I'm protecting my kid, teaching her that she owns her image; would-be photags think I'm being an asshole, denying them an awesome photo op.

 

Or when I refuse my child ice cream at 3 PM, I think I'm making good choices about her nutrition; restaurant waiters think I'm being a grinchy miser.  

 

It all makes me want to announce to everyone,  Hey! Guys! I'm, like, dooin it rite here! Super A++ gold star glitter parenting! Look! It says so in this book!!!

 

Which is silly. And kind of useless.  

 

Still, the majority of Indonesians don't have any awareness about this vast parenting cultural chasm between East and West (and frankly, neither did I until I began parenting as a Westie in the East), and so they look at me (or listen at my door as the case may be) and assume that I'm a total parenting dummy, and my crying child is evidence of my cold, cold, bitter heart. And, dear internet diary, this bothers me way more than it should.  

Another Parenting Expert Who Can Shut The Front Door

A parenting article crossed my path this weekend that turned me 14 shades of stabby. Another hack job, poorly researched with a clear agenda.  Another treatise  based not in science, but in fear.  Another article that equates correlation with causality. Another piece written by expert with an agenda: to justify her own parenting choices while cutting down those whose child rearing philosophies are divergent. Oh, and hey, while she's at it, why not install fear in the hearts of new mothers and fathers, threatening suicidal children if her prescribed method of childrearing is not followed.

 

The article in question asserts that "Modern parenting is making our children miserable" and advocates allowing children plenty of unstructured time to explore the outdoors, fend for themselves, and learn independence. A noble position, to be sure, one with which I take absolutely no issue. The problem comes from the alarmist tone, the chiding remarks, and obvious lack of scientific rigour. Or, even a quick google search for that matter.

 

Jay Girffiths calls for high contact parenting in the early years, followed by plenty of independance from toddlerhood onwards. She starts off her piece with the tired old argument that leaving babies to sleep on their own, crying it out, abandoned in their dark rooms is tantamount to torture. Sure. Obviously. Right. Loving parents teaching their children to get adequate sleep is certainly right up there with water boarding, profound neglect, and abuse. 

 

Griffiths then goes on to explain how other cultures raise their babies in tactile closeness, carrying them next to their bodies, mollifying infants with milk and toys, lest they wail for even a moment, and allowing co-sleeping to continue for many years. Indigenous cultures such as Inuit and the Sami are cited as excellent examples of this early dependence / later independence model. They keep babies close, then send older kids out to play by themselves, learning to hunt and cook their own food, their time unstructured, belonging fully to the children. 

 

 

This closeness is in opposition to Western practices of abandoning their babies in cribs, allowing them to cry themselves to sleep, and then, when the children are older, parents hover and over-schedule, stifling children's independence and freedom.

 

Griffiths suggests physical proximity to caregivers in the early years is necessary for the healthy development of infants. And certainly, babies do need love and attention, security and nourishment from their primary caregivers. But controlled crying is not torture. And the research does not bare out the claim that it actually harms children. 

 

The most manipulative (and frankly dishonest) aspect of Griffiths' argument is her threat that children who are parented according to the Western model of distance then freedom (as opposed to the "indigenous model" of closeness then freedom) leads to higher rates of suicide. 

And, here's where Griffiths equates correlation with causality: she claims that the lower rates of suicide reported in Norway where the closeness then independence model is followed, as compared with other Nordic counties where the independence then closeness model is the norm is proof that babies should cosleep while children should be sent outside to hunt and gather, build their own fires and cook their own food. 

Oh great. Just what every parent needs to hear. Raise your kid my way or, he'll off himself when he's older. It kind of reminds me of other parenting experts who suggest that if you let your child cry, they'll end up with attachment disorder. You know, like children who are abandoned in institutional orphanages and are never shown love, or even held, for that matter. Children who are profoundly neglected get attachment disorder. Not kids who are loved, and cared for, and maybe, perhaps left to sleep on their own if that's what works for them and their parents. 

 

BUT, let's look at this for a moment. Griffiths praises the parenting practices of several indigenous cultures, including Inuit and the Sami, holding them up as bastions of righteousness against our modern, broken system of childrearing. Parent the way these communities do, she suggests, and we'd do away with suicide. Our children would be free from the torture of CIO; they'd be free to to run through the woods; they'd no loger be miserable.  

A cursory google search reveals that Inuit communities in Canada have suicide rates up to 30 times that of the general population. Suicide rates amongst the Sami, similarly, are significantly higher then those of the general population in Norway. Huh. Weren't these the exact populations Griffiths argued followed the preferred model of child rearing? The model that would ensure lower suicide rates?

 

Huh. 

This is all sorts of wrong. I mean, let's set aside the fact that such epidemic levels of self harm amongst indigenous populations is a terrible, tragic, and unfair thing. And ignoring the very real social problems faced by these populations does a tremendous disservice to us all. AND then there's the whole noble savage thing going on which, frankly, denies the the humanity of these people, and is just, frankly, kind of colonialist. Let's just put all that away for another day, and focus on how Griffiths and other parenting experts are hurting parents. 

The guilt trips, the dogmatism, the dubious science, it does no one any good. It's way too simplistic. It's disingenuousand frankly, it's kind of mean. So, cut it out, parenting experts. 

Sure! Making an infant feel loved and secure is a good idea. So is unstructured outdoor play. But maybe, just maybe, your infant (like mine) needs to cry to fall asleep, and no amount of holding or rocking or breastfeeding can change that. Maybe your infant needs to cry it out because hourly night waking are not sustainable for you or for the child. Maybe your baby sleeps best in your bed. Or maybe in a crib. Maybe you live in a massive urban centre where parks are few and far between, and freedom to roam is not an option. Maybe your kid goes bonkers if he doesn't have enough structure in his days. Maybe your kid needs the to roam the woods, catching fish and cooking them over a self-made campfire. And that's totally fine.

 

You know your kid. An expert does not know your kid. You know what your kid needs, and this particular parenting expert can shut the front door. Let's be, as Georgia calls for, experts on raising our own children, and forget about so-called experts in generic child rearing. 

 

What's really happening here is clear: an author bent on selling a book; an author who knows too well that fear is a primary motivator (and what fear is greater than the thought of loosing one's child to suicide?); an author who may be insecure about her own choices so she moulds the evidence to prop up her position; an author who would rather undermine parents' confidence than building it up. 

 

And that, my friends, is a total dick move. And one that's rife within the parenting cannon. You see this same kind of thing everywhere. Do it this way or your kid won't sleep. Breastfeed or your kid will die of SIDS. Ban screen time or your kid will get autism. Do it this way. Buy this book. Use this product. These flash cards. this method. Be on edge. Fear. Fear. Fear.

 

No thanks.

 

Most research actually does not support the idea that parents can actually affect that much influence on their child's personality, development, intelligence, or future. If you want to help your children to grow up to be a happy, well adjusted humans, here's your best bet: Love them. Feed them. Make them feel secure. Be kind to them. Don't abuse or neglect them. Don't worry about the rest. 

 

Play across Cultures

On Fridays, we ride the elevator up to our favourite restaurant. As we walk up the path that leads to the outdoor tables, the kitchen begins preparing Stella's food. They know she'll order a margarita pizza and a glass of fresh milk. She's two, and two-year-olds are predictable.

We sit down at the table, greeted by our favourite server. And then the games begin. 

"Is that Baby Honey, Stella? That's my baby. Okay? Give her to me. I'm going to take her home, okay?"

"That's MY milk, Stella. You give me the milk. It's mine, right?"

"Can I have your pizza? Please? Why not? I'm hungry!! I didn't eat lunch. I eat your pizza, okay??!"

+++

I came across a beautiful collection of images by Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti (sorry, I can't remember who lead me to them; somehow via Facebook, I think.) Galimberti traveled around the world and taking images of children with their most prized possessions. In the process, she documented a universal truth of the childhood experience: Play. "No matter at their age, they are pretty all much the same; they just want to play,” says Galimberti.

But Galimberti did find a difference in how children played. Kids from rich countries were more possessive of their toys. Kids from poorer countries were more quick to share. 

+++

I've been thinking about play and cultural context since we arrived here in Indonesia and the games of "that's mine!" started. Always lead by an adult somehow revolving around the idea that the adult would pretend to "take" Stella's toy, these games are vastly different from the sorts that we in North America initiate with our kids.

Play teaches kids all sorts of things. We play peek-a-boo with babies and teach them about object permanence. North American kids play house and learn about social and cultural norms. They play snakes and ladders and learn about following rules, how to win and loose with grace. 

So I wonder what's behind this "that's mine" game in Indonesia. Does it help kids learn about community and relinquishing objects that are needed for the group? Does it teach kids lessons about power and control? Maybe about generosity and giving? 

I'm not too sure. 

I also think about Japan, and how play differed there. When we left, Stella was still too young to be really getting into imaginative play, but I did notice glimpses of small differences with the kids in my general periphery. There was lots of parallel play between big kids, each sitting next to each other playing a video game. And quiet, tender play between mother and child as the mother patiently folded origami for her girl. 

In both cultures I noticed much less of the roughhouse-run-around-screaming-like-a-deranged-monster-and-pretending-to-tickle that I'm cast as "Canadian" play but might just be the kind of play that I prefer. Is that how most North Americans play with their kids? I don't know. I'm kind of totally out of touch with the minutia of North American parenting. 

Anyway, I have no real point here. But I suggest you go look at that photography project.

Also, what have you noticed about the culture, kids, and play?

 

 

Vote For Us @ TopBaby Blogs! The Best Baby Blog Directory

Playing sucks a big bag of marbles. #nablopomo

In what is the thrill of a blogging lifetime, I'm writing today on The Happiest Mom about play. Specifically imaginative play. And how I'd kind of rather scrub toilets than play yet another rousing game of HOT HOT HOT I burnt my mouth on stone pizza. And how this nomadic life has shown me that, actually play is boring because play is for children. 

As I've written before, I've gained a great deal of parantal confidence by raising my girl over seas. I've learned that maybe what appears on the face of things to be wrong is actually fine. If it works. I've learned that my kid won't sleep the request 12 hours a day with two hour naps, and though highly annoying insofar as it cuts into my imaginary Etsy shopping time, that's also fine.

Which is not to say that I am elevating Asian parenting to some sort of reveared, miracle working, book worthy method. Because it's not. Not by a long shot. (I mean, only yesterday I overheard a mom in the toy store explain to her son that he didn't need new toys because he had an iPad and that was better than toy.)

But what I am saying is that we need to check our assumptions about what is good and right about parenting. Because there are sometimes deeper things going on, things that we don't understand or appreciate, and the world is full of aceholes, and parenting is hard, so we don't need any extra parental judgy aceholery.

Alright. Erica OUT! Soapbox done!

We will return to regularly scheduled nonsense tomorrow.

And until then, I'd love for you to go and check out my post about play.  

If you're interested in this subject at all, here's a podcast from CBC Radio about culture, emotion, and child rearing within an Inuit village in the Canadian artic. There's a lot of great stuff about how actions such as hitting or even biting a child which are normative within that context (and obviously shockingly abhorrent withinours) are subtle ways of teaching kids how to be humans within their own society. I highly recommend giving it a listen. 

(See, sometimes I do have smart thoughts. but mostly I like to think about toddler fashion, chocolate milkshakes, and how I might trick my kid into sleeping for more than zero hours a day.)

 

You have a cute son who is actually a daughter. #NaBloPoMo

My girl and I got into a taxi this morning on the way to pre-school. She went through her usual routine, saying "Good-bye new one house! See you way-ter new one house!" before breaking into a rousing rendition of the Wheels On the Bus, and the taxi driver looked back in the mirror and asked me, "How old is your son?"

 

Boy outfit.

After so many years in Asia, gender mix-ups no longer catch me off guard. Many languages do not have gendered pronouns like in English, and so learning to differentiate between him and her, his and hers, he and she is not that simple a task. But this driver had a great grasp of English, and he said "son." The driver obviously thought that my "she" was a "he."

 

Which I mean, is totally ridiculous, right? She was wearing a dress! Albeit a white and blue dress, but a dress nonetheless. 

 

Again with the boy outfits!

I've had a fair few conversations with Stella's nanny about this. Nanny laughs at me, and my strange, semi-feminist, 'progressive', anti-pink ways. I don't think Nanny appreciates my disdain for ruffles and pink. I suspect that for her, it's just part of the weird foreigner package, along with not eating rice, or being a wee sacredy kitten who can not handle fiery burning spice. 

 

You see, here in Asia, notions of gender are much more codified than they are in the West. Girls wear pink, boys wear blue. NBD. Oh, and PS, seven-year-old girls also wear high heals. 

 

Before you go telling me about systemised gender stereotypes and inequalities, let me just state that I've seen this girls = pink boys = blue pattern equally in places like China where women hold a good deal of power as in places like Japan where women are sidelined almost completely.  

 

Boy.

Now, let's be clear. I do adore a tasteful hair bow, and a pair of sparely shoes as much as the next person. And I fully intend to enrol my girl in ballet solely for the purpose of getting her into a tutu. I just believe in moderation. Balance. A bit of blue for every bit of pink. It's not that I ban ruffles and dolls outright, but I am mindful of hoisting artificial notions about gender expectations on tiny, innocent child, who has yet to form her own ideas about what she wants out of life, and the possibilities that are open to her.

 

So, in this vein, she wears a lot of blue and green, and not a lot of pink. 

 

This, coupled with her tendency for wild hair, refusal to bow down to a clip or a barrette, and instance on wearing boy shoes, is apparently the source of the problem. 

 

Nanny, unfortunately bears the brunt of inquiring comments, fielding off remarks of "cute boy!" When it is relived that Nanny's charge is actually a girl, she's judged for her inability to dress her take-care-kid in appropriately pink and sparkly attire. People outright ask Nanny why she doesn't put a clip in her hair? Why she dresses her kid in shorts?

 

Ummm, okay. This is sufficiently girl.

So, not wanting to reveal the fact that neither one of us can hold this baby down and clip a little tiny bow on her head (because let's face it, for all my posturing, that is the real reason behind wild hair it's lack of adornments) she blames me, and my strange, feminist, foreign ways.

Pas Possible

“C’est pas possible.”  When I lived in France, I heard this phrase countless times and in countless ways and it infuriated me. It was the rigidity of the answer that bristled. Of course it was possible. Creating gold from stone lead is impossible. Issuing a permit or opening a bank account is, in fact, very possible. You just didn’t want to do it! There’s always a workaround. There’s always an unexplored option or yet-to-be brainstormed compromise. Flexibility. There’s always a way.

 

Yet, after reading an excerptt (linked to on Facebook by a lovely writer friend) from Pamela Druckerman’s Bring up Bebe which appeared, Tiger Mother style, in The Wall Street Journal, the frustration with which I met this phrase has now been replaced by optimism. C’est pas possible might just become my new parenting mantra.

 

I’ve long been interested in the ways, varied and sundry, that parents of the world flout North American parenting advice, yet still, somehow, miraculously (if you’d believe the Searses and Weissbluths of the world) raise well adjusted, happy, functional adults. And, according to Druckerman, the French are doing just that, despite the manifest absence of whirring parental helicopter blades. 

 

Druckerman describes the French notion of a cadre, or frame, which confines children within limits of acceptable behavior. What is outside that cadre is pas possible, and rigidly so. But inside, kids are free to do as they like. For French parents, a firm but polite Non! is what keeps their tots firmly within the cadre. A Non! delivered with authority keeps a child within the bounds of the sandbox while his mother chats, unperturbed, on a nearby bench. 

 

French kids cry it out. They sleep all night, alone by age three moths. Their mothers don’t often breastfeed beyond six weeks. They are not pumped full of goldfish crackers and Cherrios. Yet, they are read to, doted on, and ferried to and from enriching lessons, but family life is not dictated by the needs and wants of the progeny. 

 

Bottom line, it works. French parents love their kids, make them eat their vegetables and sit at the dinner table and their babies grow into adults and they turn out just fine. 

 

Japanese kids, by contrast, seem to have no cadre at all. At least when they’re young. Recently I was with my daughter at a drop in play center, and she was on the receiving end of a pint-sized cuff. While my lizard brain responded defensively, my logical mind, for once, overrode the impulse to shoot dagger eyes at the kid and his mother. The mother of the offending tot did not make any showy displays of discipline; the wee boxer was not sidelined, or timed-out, or even scolded, really. Instead, she proffered an apologetic glance and bow, and then brought her kid to another part of the room. No biggie.

 

It was as if the mother felt that such behaviour was totally possible, in fact, it was inevitable. Kids will be kids, and part of that state of being means occasionally walloping other kids on the head. 

 

In Japan, as I’ve written before, children are not expected to go to bed at a reasonable time. They sleep with their mothers beyond the age that would be acceptable to even the hippiest of North American hippies. Children run freely. Candy is administered liberally.

 

It’s not till much later that the cadre descends swiftly and suddenly, and, perhaps, claustrophobically on Japanese kids. A full, rigorous day in school is followed by an entire evening, and often weekend at juku, or cram school. Kids can’t be kids. They don’t get to play. And when they do get downtime, their faces are glued to all manner of electronic screens. 

 

But. It works.

 

Bottom line, Japanese parents love their kids, let them eat candy, make them study hard, and their babies grow into adults and they turn out just fine. 

 

So, it stands to reason, then, that a parent should not worry so much about what is right and instead do what’s right for them. Maybe for French parents, it’s more desirable to let a child cry it out so they might rest. Or maybe a sharp reproach that corrects a child who is impinging on carefully guarded adult time is what is right. For Japanese parents, perhaps it is right to bypass the hours-long struggle to cajole a sleepless babe to slumber and just keep the kid up till 11 pm. Maybe the value of avoiding whining pleas for candy is greater than the potential damage of tooth decay.

 

Which is where pas possible comes in. For the French, it’s pas possible to allow a child to run wild at dinner or be up multiple times during the night. For Japanese, it’s also pas possible to expect a one-year-old to sleep solo, let alone though the night.

 

It’s a mindset. 

 

For me, it’s been exceedingly vexing that my kid climb my leg and whine and cry and scream and flail and throw her snot-encrusted body on the ground because I’m washing the dishes. But until now, it has still been possible. And it’s been equally possible (and equally infurating) that she be unable to entertain herself while I take five minutes to drink a coffee and write a grocery list. And you know what, I’m giving up my ambivalence about that. It’s now pas possible. And I don’t feel one wee bit badly.

 

Pas Possible. Polite but firm. Rigid. Still kind. But, pas possible.

 

Its my new parenting mantra. 

 

Watch out, kid.

 

Read More

Uniforms and Foreignness

Late afternoon, as school lets out, children pour into the streets, lithe and exuberant. They are unburdened by the texts they must read, the exercises that must be completed, and the kana to be memorized, the heavy load carried by their blue and red leather packs will be ignored until after their okashi. 

 

They all carry the same backpacks. Red for girls. Blue for boys. Subtle differences can be spotted, if you look closely: this one is a pinker shade of red; this cheaply constructed, ignoble in it’s vinyl exterior; this one crafted of the finest leather, whispering of luxury expense, and doting grandparents. But they’re essentially all the same. Same shape. Same size. Same. Same. Same.

 

I asked my friend, a mother to a gaggle of Japanese-born foreigners, if the backpacks were a requirement, a uniform of sorts. “Not really,” she replied. “But what if they wanted, like, a Thomas The Tank Engine school bag, or something? What about individuality? What about personal expression? What about fostering a sense of uniqueness,” I challenged. “You just wouldn't do that. It’s not really done. And anyway, my kids are all blond. I wouldn’t want my them to stand out more than they already do.”

 

Japan is a nation of ingroups and outgroups. Its a place where belonging, and conforming are more important than in any other country which I have ever visited. Japanese wear uniforms their whole lives. At birth, babies are dressed alike, in a kimono provided by the hospital. They enter kindergarten with white shirts and blue shorts, knee socks and blazers. By high school they’re in mao suits or plaid skirts, all sporting the same hair cut --straight black hair, bangs, low pigtails. By adult hood the uniform is less obvious, no less important. Spiky orange hair, fussed over endlessly, and flashy suits for too-cool-for-school young men who hope to emulate red-light district pimps. Sensible dark suits, sensible blue shirts, sensible striped ties for salary men. Perfectly quaffed housewives, in perfectly matched skirts and twinsets, LV bags on the crock of their arms. Young women in the same floral romper, the same pot-pie hat, the same chambray shirt.  Belonging is important. Sameness evokes acceptance.

 

Stella is just starting to notice difference, I mean, for what I can deduce based on gestures and the odd utterance of ammmm!!! (cat). Last week at breakfast, she was mesmerized by a group of caucasian children pictured in a German magazine. She kept pointing to her hair and then stroking her own, as if to say, “Look! they’re like me.”

 

I don’t know when, exactly, children start to become aware of ingroups and outgroups, of difference, of race, of cultural vairances. I don’t know, really, if my child feels left out, if somehow she is, already, at the tender age of one-and-a-half, having a minority experience, longing for role-models who look “like her”, feeling the prick of isolation and exclusion, or if her heart aches, even if only slightly, for feeling different. I have no wise words to offer here, no thoughtful conclusions. I just wonder, and hope that she feels good. (Wise words and thoughtful conclusions would be greatly appreciated from you, though).

 

If she wants one, though, I’ll probably buy her a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack. 

 

 

Read More

Why Do You Hate My Baby?

If I were to ask you if I could bring Stella to a grown-up party, would you shoot me eye daggers and mind-punch me right in the kisser? Apparently, you would, if you are a reader of and commenter on NYT’s Motherlode. 

 

KJ Dell’Antonia posted about a timely parenting quandary: to bring or not to bring one’s 18 month old child to a fancy adult New Years Eve party in the wake of a canceled babysitter. A Motherlode reader was invited to a party in a fancy resturant. At the last moment her babysitter canceled, and so she called the host and asked if she might bring her child. Dell’Antonia threw the query out to her audience: was the mother of the 18 month old rude to ask? And how should the host respond?

 

My initial reaction upon reading this post was to think, of course the mother was not rude. In fact she responded appropriately, asking, rather than just assuming her child would be welcomed. And the duty of a host is to accommodate one’s guests graciously. Thus, the doors should be open widely, even to unexpected pint-sized revelers.  Nearly every single commenter disagreed with me.

 

The vigor and vehemence of the commenters collective and universal abhorrence of children at grown-up events shocked me. I thought back to my own childhood, and the adult parties I went to. I reflected on the numerous times I’ve seen small kids here in Aisa out well beyond bedtime. I thought about kids running wild through the halls of five star hotels in China. And all that left me wondering, are we living in an era and a culture of pediaphobia?

 

One need only to look towards the intolerance with which children are welcomed onto airplanes for further evidence in support of this hypothesis. Our culture is rife with parental judgment and competition, as well as with parental anxiety. We criticize, sometimes inwardly, sometimes overtly and viciously, parents whose choices are not in line with our own child rearing practices. We disdain and mock big kids in strollers.  We curse our children for their wakefulness. Still we invest exorbitant  amounts of time, and often money, in baby betterment projects, and are always vigilantly on guard, observing our children for any sign of delay, deficiency, or some sort of diagnosable problem, be it simple as tongue tie or complex as Autism. 

 

The culture of parenting hums along at the low-level frequency of anxiety. We worry that our kids will misbehave, that they’ll not sleep properly, that people will judge our parenting, that there will be something wrong with our kids, that we’ll do something wrong with our kids. We’re frightened of them, their mess, their demands, and what they might say about us. So we want to keep the kids contained in kindergartens and Chuck E. Cheeses’, and the hell outta grown up parties.

 

I wonder what exactly the impetuous to all of this is? Is it the aging, child-free (and thereby sticky, screamy mess-free), baby boomers, with their grasp still hanging on firmly on the tiller of popular culture who are driving this? Is it a backlash against the fetishizing of motherhood? The tabloids celebrating celebrity bumps and celebrity babies? Is it just because we’re selfish and don’t like to be distracted from our drunken revelry by some kid who may or may not be crying?

 

If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them. Because really, what the what, people???

 

Read More

On Danger

The doors open, and we walk into the subway car. Quiet and staid in the florescent light, passengers are engrossed in their mobile phones. The screenless examine at their hands, wordlessly, careful not to catch, accidentally, a stranger’s eye. The train pulls out of the station, and we sit down. Stella looks around, catches sight of a middle-aged lady across the car, then flashes a smile and a shy wave. The lady doesn’t see at first. Stella persists. And then the lady looks up and smiles, welcoming engagement. We’re foreigners. We can break the rules. Stella hops down off the bench, ventures into the aisle, no further than the reach of my arm will allow. The lady hides behind her hands, then peaks through, BA! Stella smiles brightly. The lady offers a hand. Stella grabs it, and is lifted up onto the bench beside the stranger. She sits there a moment, and then comes back to me as we pull into the next station.

 

***

 

We hear the cacophony of children before we see them. Its 2:30. Kindergarten has let out for the day, and the park is full of little ones in white shirts and blue shorts, brightly capped heads darting around the playground. The mothers are gathered together under a tree, gossiping I think. A group of children run up, demanding candy, and they’re off again, mouths full of sweets. A young mother in heals and full make-up keeps half an eye on her baby, not quite waking yet, but crawling expertly. He scrabbles up a rope net on a play structure, unassisted. He’s not even one. A group of girls, barefoot in the cool afternoon, gather at the bottom of a slide. They bound halfway up before losing momentum and  tumbling down again. Boys stand at the top of the slide, waiting. They negotiate, shrieking a little. And then slide down. There are no collisions. No parents hover. 

 

***

 

Early morning, on the way to daycare. Uniformed children, yellow caps and blue leather backpacks walk together on the sidewalk. They are, perhaps, six years old. Then suddenly they’re racing towards the post, clambering to be the first to press the button. They wait. The light changes. They cross the street. There are no adults to usher them across.

 

***

 

I asked my pediatrician about his impressions of America. He completed a fellowship at Harvard Medical School, and spent two and a half years in Boston. He told me, “I am a pediatrician, I love babies. When I see one on the street, I smile.”  It’s true. When we walk through the curtain and into his office, his face opens, almost to the point of a silent laugh. He told me of american parents, and how they would shrink away from him, shielding their babies from the smiling gaze of a stranger. Worried. Stranger danger. “But I’m not a bad man! I’m just a pediatrician!” he told me.

 

***

Kids run free in Japan. They go to bed with tiredness, not with the clock. They play well out of hovering range. They walk to school alone. Candy is offered liberally. They ride in the car in the front seat. Sometimes even on their mother’s lap. They don’t wear helmets. There does not seem to be a low-grade paranoia humming through the air. That paranoia, absent here, governs all parental decisions back at home in North America. 

 

***

 

I feed my daughter whole grains, everything homemade, but I let her share a a piece chocolate with me. And a sip of my iced latte, if she asks nicely. I strap her helmet on, even just for a ride around the block. She rides in a car seat, facing backwards, because its safer. But I’ll leave her alone in the sandbox for a moment while I get her bucket. And I’ll happily let a stranger on the train pick her up or pinch her cheek. She loves the attention. 

 

There is much that I find frustrating about living in Japan, and much that makes my blood boil. Yet, even on doomiest of dark days I can always see that Japan is a wonderful place for little children. And parenting here has clipped my helicopter wings. If ever so slightly. 

 

Read More