When I first started noticing how people raise their young kids here in Asia, I was pretty surprised. I suppose I’d absorbed too many cultural stereotypes from my television over the years: I expected perfectly behaved, obedient little darlings who obeyed their mothers’ every command.
What I saw was the exact opposite.
While having dinner with a couple of friends in China, I watched their daughter closely. She did not sit quietly at the table. Instead, she wandered around the restaurant, flitting back and forth between the tables, singing, dancing, and generally being four. At one point she sidled up to a couple of older men eating noodles. Instead of being annoyed by this presumptuous little girl, they invited her to sit down and offered up a dumpling. A packed restaurant, a cheeky kid, and no one seemed bothered.
I’ve watched similar scenes play out in each of the other three Asian nations which I’ve made my home. From India to Japan to Indonesia, toddlers across the continent are all running amok. They’re shrieking in fancy restaurants, bolting away from their parents in luxury malls, eating as much candy as they like while simultaneously enjoying unlimited screen time. And everyone seems totally cool with this set-up.
At playgroup, a boy snatches a toy from my daughter. His mother half-heartedly admonishes him, “Remember, share-share!” Not surprisingly, he doesn’t listen.
When the toy snatching escalates, and the little one is on the verge of losing his mind, he’s not given a stern talking to. Instead, offered a handful of consolation candy.
At first, to me, this seemed like irresponsible parenting. What? Give your kid unlimited screen time, no boundaries, and fill them up with sweets? Ha!
But then I started to understand what was happening. Toddlers have terribly short attention spans and even shorter fuses. They can’t control their emotions. They can’t be reasoned with. Everyone accepts this, and understands that toddlers will behave like... well, like toddlers. Even in public.
When my little girl is crying in public, I don't get dirty looks. Rather, a stranger might tap her on the cheek and try to cheer her up. Or a waiter might offer to watch my wriggly girl while my husband and I finish up our dinner.
The standards of behavior do shift as children reach school age. When they're older and better able to regulate their emotions, much more is asked of the Asian child. They're expected to study hard and listen to their parents.
But in the early years? It's all adorable bansheeism and toddler chaos. And I can tell you one thing -- this attitude makes going out with my own little banshee a lot more enjoyable!
Erica Knecht is a mother, writer, and professional nomad, currently based in Jakarta, Indonesia. When not gallivanting across Asia with her toddler in tow, she writes about the lighter side of tri-cultural parenting on her blog expatriababy.com