We survived our first international trip as a family. Taiwan, thank you for a fun week. One week of fun for two weeks of jet lag and cranky moods. Worth it? Absolutely.
Our time in Taiwan can be summed up by the two new words picked up by my kids. MM picked up the phrase “night market”. He woke from his nap one day declaring, “Let’s go to night market tonight! That’s what we should do!” Not surprising since night markets there are an essential venue for yummy eats. Why haven’t they sprouted up here in the U.S.?
TL, on the other hand, picked up the word “lollipop”.
I had given her a lollipop during take-off and encouraged her to suck on it to help with ear pressure. I heard her utter “lollipop” for the first time by day two. Little did I realize that the word would become ingrained while we were in Taiwan, representative of how well a little sugar works to quiet down a fussy child. She saw other kids pacified with a lollipop. A tour guide offered her lollipops twice during a boat ride to a nature reserve to help calm her protests against the ill-fitting life jacket. She was also offered sweets and other goodies by extended family whenever she began to fuss. It didn’t take long for TL to realize that her cry wielded a power in Taiwan that she did not experience back home.
She may not have understood the exact reason for this, but I did. As her mother, I became keenly aware during our trip that children in public were meant to be seen, not heard. Perhaps the children I saw are also loud and boisterous like my own. I wouldn’t have known it though, based on how quiet and behaved they were in comparison to my children’s constant squirming, intermittent shrieking (they like to shriek at each other for fun), repetitive questioning, and endless commentary. They weren’t misbehaving, but their curiosity and playfulness tends to get loud. By the middle of the week, I became sensitive to how much my kids stuck out like a sore thumb. Folks would often glance over with this curious expression as if to wonder why these children talked so much and so loudly. Ahhh, yes, Americans….
By the end of the week, I accepted the fact that my children were obviously foreigners, even though their faces are similar to any other child there. Smartypants also pointed out that most of the children I saw in public locales looked to be at least 4 years old or infants who slept contentedly in their mother’s arms. Young toddlers probably stayed home with the grandparents or played in designated areas set up for children. I suppose that’s no different from other urban settings that aren’t as kid-friendly. I’ve probably grown too accustomed to San Diego suburbia where kids are dragged along on errands and parking lots are littered with identical minivans and SUV’s. No such waste of space in Taiwan.
I also took for granted how much I allowed my kids to make a mess. We went to a nature reserve off the coast of Tainan that had a beautiful stretch of beach. Coming from San Diego, MM sees beach and knows exactly what to do: take off his shoes, run to the shore, dig , and throw globs of wet sand at the waves. It didn’t take long for him to be a wet sandy mess. I was giggling at how cute he was. Then I looked around and realized he was the only kid that was wet and sandy. The other kids kept their shoes on, stayed on dry sand, and found sticks to poke carefully into the sand. Okay, so maybe those other kids were a tad older. And they’re probably not used to going to the beach. But really? How does a kid resist digging into the sand with bare hands?
Smartypants reminded me that not all parents view a mess as developmentally appropriate and beneficial like I do. A mess is just a headache. Period. Smartypants also reminded me that he wouldn’t mind if there was a little less mess in our lives as well. Point taken.
Despite these differences I felt, it’s obvious children are cherished in Taiwan. Expectations may be different but they are no less loved. Family is deeply honored with tenacious loyalty. We experienced kindness from strangers based on the mere fact that we had young kids with us. People would jump out of their seats on the metro and usher Smartypants and me to sit down simply because we had children with us. Sometimes we were shuffled to the head of a line so that we wouldn’t have to wait long as a family. Even the airport and public transit stations had beautiful diaper changing rooms with inviting chairs for nursing.
I am reminded why I love travel: There is always something that can be learned from other cultures.
After our trip to Taiwan, I continue to contemplate some of the similarities and differences in parenting. I remain impressed by how quiet and respectful the children were able to be in public. The culture of parenting and how we form our expectations (of both ourselves and our children) never fails to intrigue me. What do we dream and hope for our children? Why do we discipline the way we do? What do we tend to applaud? Why do we value what we do? Sometimes you don’t even think about it unless you’re plunked into a different social and cultural context. And only if you get past that defensive stage of judging or criticizing.
Ultimately, I realized that I was unfairly judging what I observed in Taiwan. Pacification and other attempts to control a child’s behavior are no less common in the U.S. It may just look a little different. Lollipops get substituted with McDonald’s french fries. Or better yet, there’s an upgrade to Nintendo DS and iPhone apps — far more effective than lollipops.
I may not agree with pacification by lollipops or the expectation of children to be (mostly) silent, but I do appreciate the challenge to hold my children to high expectations of behavior while still encouraging them to be themselves. It is an ironic tension: Children are often capable of more than we expect of them, and yet children often need a lot more grace than we tend to give as well. Irregardless of our personal opinions on managing the behavior of our children, it is a difficult balance of discipline and love that is also impacted by a respectful consideration of others. For all the differences that may exist, we as parents across nations and cultures truly hope for the same thing: to raise our children the best we can with the resources we have.