Before I left for China, the conservative American I was would have scoffed at that headline.
Children are obviously loved. We have playgrounds. We have kids meals. Everyone has three kids and counting to nineteen. We have great free education. We protect children.
Americans loooovee kids. And so do all other westerners.
In truth, I personally couldn’t critically think about our society in relation to children until leaving the States altogether.
I remember during my first winter in Beijing, I would get so angry with my sweet little girl because she climbed on tall rocks, (while Chinese grandmothers would rush to her safety). Or she was loud. Or she would run away too far toward a street. Or she would touch something dirty. Or get her clothes dirty. Or she would be silly and do silly things.
I had a problem with anger and pride.
I believed that the way that my children acted represented who I was as a parent. That if I couldn’t control my daughter, I was going to be labeled a “bad mom.” This type of thinking isn’t in line with Chinese culture, though. Young children here are expected to be naughty. Naughtiness is cute at a young age, especially if the instigator looks like my daughter or son.
Children scream and babies cry, here, and no one is saying that’s the parent’s fault, unless the screamer is cold or hungry. Everyone starts frantically trying to figure out how to help, (for example, inexperienced single dudes). Or they are used to seeing children cry, and they laugh about everyone’s chaotic response, (grocery store clerks).
Most people are well meaning, even in the forms of critiques. Grandmas have told me my kids aren’t dressed warm enough in the summer time, or that they’re shoes are too hot in the summer time, but they just want to help, despite how annoying it is to everyone else, regardless of the young mom’s birthplace.
So, where does this “if I can’t control my kids, I’m a bad mom” thinking come from? I’m guessing this stems mostly from a mixture of the American 1950’s controlling type parenthood and the self-centeredness of the Entertainment Era.
At my friend Florence’s beautiful wedding earlier this year, a mix of east and west guests gathered at a beautiful Beijing hotel to rejoice with her and her soon to be husband. At one point when the celebrations had moved to a dance hall, someone placed the wedding cake on a low table.
Low table with a tall gorgeous cake plus lots of curious children?? Sounds like the start of a funny YouTube video.
Florence had already told me not to worry about our kids touching the cake. She teaches young children; she totally understands. Plus, if she was that worried about it, she would have moved the cake to a higher spot or cut quickly. She wasn’t worried and told me explicitly not to worry.
But a western guest had the audacity to tell my husband to, “Control your kids.”
Excuse me? They are two and three. Children are not mini-adults.
They have very little self-control.
The tactic at this age is removing temptation because they cannot resist.
And, for those that didn’t attend the wedding, there was a five or six year old Chinese child who couldn’t resist touching the cake either. He was not being supervised by anyone.
American moms have all either heard first hand experiences from close friends or have been the target of snide remarks like these while in public places.
In China, when I apologize for my naughty toddler’s behavior, the most common response is, “He/she is just a child.” (AKA Lighten up, mom!)
Another common scenario:
An expat family is invited by a Chinese employer/friend to a very fancy and expensive restaurant. The expat toddler breaks something, is loud, and walks around the restaurant the whole evening because he/she can’t sit still.
What would happen in the States? Just pause and think about it for a second.
The mom would have been asked to pay for the broken item, of course.
She might have gotten mean stares.
She might have gotten snide remarks.
A waiter might have come and told her that she would be requested to leave if the toddler continues to act up.
Mom and dad might have felt extreme shame by ruining the evening of the employer or friend. They should have just gotten a babysitter. The invitation didn’t include a “plus one.”
That doesn’t happen here.
Sometimes other children come and play with expat children.
Typically someone will pick up conversations with the mother of the toddler.
“How old is he?”
“He’s so cute!”
Sometimes complete adult strangers will pick up the child or play with the child.
If it really will be a problem, a restaurant might give this group a private room, but this is common for big groups over six anyway. There isn’t a “if you have kids, we must hide you” mentality. There’s a “you’re a big group and you will probably get loud and you will probably want to laugh with each other” mentality.
Although there are no doubt problems with China and the protection of children through laws, I’m thankful that my child is only expected to be a child in public life. We could get into a whole list of different issues with both of these countries, standardized testing, those kids meals, school structures, family discipline, forced abortions, minor sex slave trafficking (referring to the States) and underage marriage, and on, and on. Neither society is perfect, far from ideal, but I appreciate how China has taught me my child is just a child. Not a mini-adult.
Too lofty of a dream would be that American entertainment, our new adult social educator, would portray a life with messy, loud and normal kids. Ones that break stuff and do really annoying things. And, I mean to portray that in megabucks movies, because sitcoms portraying family life are only typically watched by parents. Not the cranky dudes making snide remarks at weddings.
I’ve recently noticed more of my American moms feeling the heat of these types of situations. An old high school friend, Jodi Lee, outlined how dangerous this is without even realizing that she outlined the danger.
I perceive that a public life that requires children to act anything other than childlike is just as unhealthy for the parent as for the child. A public life that requires children to be “in line” puts a lot of pressure on parents to force little ones to conform before they’re anatomically or psychologically able to do so.
Parents who don’t know that this is actually wrong will react by saying things like, “I’m going to pop you in the mouth if you don’t be quiet.” Or the mom who is embarrassed by her daughter’s behavior, “You are acting just like a monkey! Stop it, right now.” These kids probably don’t experience this type of anger just once. I think these are light examples, but American parents can probably come up with examples on their own that they have witnessed or guiltily perpetuated themselves. Or you can go revisit my own list of past inappropriate reactions several paragraphs above.
If we move back to the States one day, I hope I will be able to find the right words (or actions) of grace to tell a mom whose toddler is screaming, especially if she is fuming, too.
“She isn’t bothering us, (my kids and me). I bet others understand. Do you want some help? We could walk with you through the grocery store. We have time.”
“I have an extra little toy here. It was free. Do you want it for your toddler?”
If I were there, I would encourage young expectant mothers who have never been around young children to come to my home to see how children actually act. I had really no clue what I was doing with my first two. By the popularity of parenting magazines, I’m guessing a lot of American mothers feel clueless, too.
For a great deal of the American public, we have no point of reference for how children should behave naturally and normally from birth to five years old.
What do you think? Am I completely off or right on?