Cultural differences are expressed in many ways. As members of any group, we are predisposed towards understanding experiences from an in-group perspective. Casual observations and judgments about others are common. Often unsubstantiated, these opinions can exert an influence on the ways in which we interact with others, and are therefore interesting to study. Based mostly on sporadic encounters rather than systematic observations, stereotypes are, therefore, significant, and our chosen topic for today’s essay. This also holds true about people’s opinions of children.
A calm child is a good child!
In a recent article titled “A calm child is a good child” Otto and Keller (link below) remark that their research supports the view that children’s behaviour is a product of culturally constructed experiences, thereby suggesting that the ways in which children are brought up is an adaptation to the settings in which they grow. They were examining differences between the way babies were disposed towards strangers among the Nso in Cameroon and middle-class Germans living in Germany.
“We clearly stand out!”
Much has been written about people’s opinions about children, their appearance, their temperament and their conduct, especially on social media. In this regard, Indians are quite used to being judged for the ways in which they (we) bring up children, both from within and outside. Even within the family, others keep a vigilant eye on how children are cared for and one is used to seeking, out as well as listening to, solicited (and unsolicited) advice from others. In public and private spaces, children are assumed to belong to everyone, to some degree, and random strangers feel free to walk up to a child and play social games. Despite this ‘supervision’ of others’ kids, we are a fairly tolerant people of children in public spaces. Even if it arises, any manifestation of annoyance is strictly kept under cover. Let me push this a bit more and state that we are actually quite affectionate and indulgent towards children in public spaces, sometimes even having to hold ourselves back from expressing affection to another person’s baby in alien places! No such restrictions are seen locally, though. In most spaces, children in India may be heavily scrutinized, but they are always celebrated, overtly at least. Yet we can be selective, street children may not receive the sort of indulgence one sees towards a “well-dressed” child!
When it comes to ‘outsiders’, attitudes can range from friendly acceptance to dismissal, even contempt. Pooja is presently travelling through Scotland, and as she was reading this draft, she couldn’t resist a remark. She finds that the people around her, locals and tourists, are so friendly and engaging with her daughters, that this realization came to her as a pleasant surprise. Most places are open and welcoming towards children and even sulking episodes by her younger one, a firebrand, are handled with affection. I quote: “We clearly stand out as Indians with very ‘Indian’ kids. My younger one has had multiple meltdowns and rather than been ignored or frowned upon, people around engaged and assisted in cheering her up, saying in one instance: ‘Ah! This sadness would definitely make me sad. Come on, give me a sunny smile’. 😊 I do mean to ask Pooja once the holiday is done, exactly what she meant by “very Indian kids”. 😁
Some experiences have not been pleasant, I have often read accounts on social media about Indian kids being misbehaved, unregulated, uncontrollable and overindulged. A recent announcement to Indian tourists by a Swiss hotel that’s doing rounds on social media was, I believe, in bad taste. They marked instructions exclusively to Indian tourists they they should remain quiet, implying that they tend to be loud and disruptive. Surely an announcement marked only to Indian clients with a list of ‘rules’ indicates intolerance and a lack of respect for clients who pay large sums of money to travel to these destinations. On the other hand, hospitality in Indian hotels is deeply respectful, perhaps even more respectful towards foreigners, but that is another story. I once heard a co-passenger remark to his companion in a scathing tone, that “a bomb should be dropped on all these people”, because he couldn’t get to sleep on account of a crying child! Undoubtedly, fussy kids can be a disturbance during travel, especially within the confines of an aircraft, but a “bomb”? Seriously? I thought the use of that word on an flight can get you behind bars? I remember when I travelled with young children, my main fear was not the children’s or my discomfort, but the comfort of other people on the flight. I think I did transmit some of my anxiety to my kids. In hindsight, I feel this was so unfair because as it is, travelling with young kids can be, both for the young ones and for the parents, a huge challenge. The last thing one wants is an additional burden of ensuring the convenience of a whole cabin full of people. As I have grown older and more distant from those journeys, I always offer my assistance to young parents on flights which they are free to refuse. In many instances, I have experienced unrestrained relief on a mother’s face when she could hand over the baby for a few moments to rush to the loo, or get herself something to drink. I have also noticed that different airlines have different approaches to the care and handling of babies. More recently, Reshu was instructed on a daytime flight from Mumbai to Colombo to “see to her daughter” repeatedly. The parents couldn’t really understand the expression until it got more and more harsh and he snapped at them to keep the daughter calm because he (a foreigner) and his wife were getting disturbed. The young girl was excited at the prospect of being in the air and was expressing herself to her parents without restraint. Her vacation started when they left home and the flight was part of it! Reshu remembers how mad she was, but I doubt if she said anything to the couple, perhaps she should have. I should check with her.
The anthropologist couple, the Nichters once commented about their trip back from India to the US where they were returning with their young children after a long period of field-work, that as they approached their country, the atmosphere and warmth towards their children from co-passengers gradually diminished, becoming quite icy by the end of their journey. Their account has been published in Margaret Trawick’s ‘Notes on Love in a Tamil Family’, a must read, if you’re interested in ethnography.
Travel stories apart, we do, as people, often judge children quite harshly in everyday encounters, whether or not we share our evaluations. Furthermore, children’s conduct is always attributed to parents’ attitude and handling, and only rarely to a child’s temperament.
Laughing about differences
Thus, similarities among communities are expected and differences between them are also justifiable. Given the diversity, we are also aware that as members of a culture, we grow to understand familiar practices best, and until we encounter differences, we are blind to both the familiarity and the difference, as the eminent cultural psychologist Michael Cole has argued. Depending upon our exposure and experience, other ways of living can be judged as unfamiliar, odd or even bizarre. This familiarity with one’s own cultural practices can take on dramatic differences, but it can also be approached with humour. For instance, stand-up comedy has recently provided an important forum to ease tensions around cultural practices in general and Indian parenting in particular. By taking issues like spanking (yes, I’ve said this out loud!), feeding and co-sleeping head-on, comedians brought a lighthearted openness to the discourse about parenting. The hugely popular Lilly Singh from Canada does a hilarious take on Indian parents reluctance to speak about sexuality in a video which had me in splits at her clever manipulation of facial expressions and theatrical avoidances. Perhaps because it is not a laughing matter, and since we have not been used to this form of satire about family issues, parenting and the care of children has become a popular topic for Indian audiences, both within and outside the country. Through these dramatic performances, comedians are able to reach deep down into cultural stereotypes.
“Somebody gonna get hurt real bad. Somebody…….”
Let’s say it out loud. Yes, it’s true. Indian parents are known to endorse the use of verbal threats of physical punishment as well as spanking with children, although it is frowned upon in public, and people are likely to intervene of they witness a spanking. It is believed to be an efficient and effective strategy to keep children in check. The conversations about punitive action takes on a serious tone in schools where punishment is illegal, and can become hugely problematic. In the home, popular belief revolves around the frequent use of threats, and reliable data about spanking is hard to obtain. Some research sanctioned by international NGOs have provided alarming figures in the past, but these claims are contested (See links to a rejoinder to the UNICEF report by Suranya Aiyer below)
Taking on the delicate and controversial issue of physical punishment as early as the 90’s, Canadian born Indian Russell Peters, was one of the first to create a satirical piece about his father in an episode “Somebody gonna get hurt real bad” (link below). For those who watched these videos, spanking became something we could laugh about. Having had training in Developmental Psychology, I laughed so much when I saw it, too much, perhaps. It was my first encounter with a public examination of Indian parenting in a lighthearted, a comic vein. Others have followed his lead and one example is a recent video of Sindhu Vee (link below) that has been viewed almost a million times. She too raises her voice about disciplining children without a sense of embarrassment or apology, mentioning theatrically under her breath, that this behaviour is not just frowned upon where she now lives, it is illegal, and the audience erupts into a loud burst of laughter.
In a blogpost I came across recently, Saranya Misra raises similar issues about her own parents’ peculiarities, ranging from being awfully over-bearing to hugely supportive. She draws a sharp contrast between Indian and American parents with wit. In another forum, the podcast India explained takes on several critical topics drawing mostly from encounters trending on social media, train travel, social life, politics and sport. The two hosts have an engaging style of approaching the content, whether you may agree with them or not. These articles, videos and podcasts (links below) provide new insights into cultural experiences and we believe these are important resources in our attempts to understand human cultural experiences, beyond and beneath academic sources. We believe that these have helped to raise some of the unspoken aspects of family life and culture without reservation.
Stereotypes about “them”
In today’s post, we thought of reversing the lens, asking Indians about what they believe about Westerners. We realize this is neither scientific nor politically correct, given that even the labels “Indian” and “Western” are contentious and even inaccurate. But at the risk of overextending our play with words, let us place these opinions before you for fun. Which practices to “we” consider odd and why. This was the question we posed to our participants. We hope to have done it in a manner not to cast any offence on anyone. We understand that childhood is a sensitive and precious topic for everyone, and often wish people would grant us that privilege as well!
In the responses we received from a small number of people (mostly women), answers move beyond the care of children to other issues as well (“putting loads of ice in water…..where’s the sense in that?”), since we facilitated the respondents to speak freely. Please also note that these are opinions and not research data; and must be read with that in mind. The answers below are not verbatim responses. They have been developed from the feedback received so they represent neither individual people, nor group beliefs, but are illustrations of the topics people mentioned, sometimes including other voices, and sometimes in our own words. Please read the post with this detail in mind, these are stereotypes. Each domain has a brief context description to set the space from where the voices are emerging.
Question: “What are some of the things you find unusual or unfamiliar about the care of children in the West?”
For anyone who visits public spaces in India, the ubiquitous presence of children is both endearing and annoying. There are very few spots where people can prohibit children from entering, it is taken as an affront to family togetherness. Thus, noisy kids at cinema halls, music concerts, social gatherings, even funerals, are commonplace. It isn’t surprising therefore, that the separation of children from the lives of adults was an important observation from several respondents. From the strict scheduling of children’s sleep, early eating consumption of dinner, leaving children at home for evening events, were mentioned as unusual and unfamiliar practices.
Several responses were related to sleeping arrangements. “How can you leave children alone? They get scared at night. With whoever……..it need not be the mother only”. Regarding separate rooms it was mentioned, of course, if the family has one, then it should be up to the child to decide later in childhood when she or he would like to sleep separately. But even then, the minute a guest arrives, the children’s space is the first to be taken over.
Having seen children on a leash in a marketplace in Europe, one respondent felt that this was quite odd for her, as “we are used to carrying children around and watching them all the time”. A discomfiting sight although it seemed like a practical solution to prevent children from running onto a motorway. In some countries like Denmark, leaving children by themselves, outside restaurants even in the cold, was scary for one mother. She felt she could never do that.
About what she identified as children’s calm temperament, another mother felt that “I think children are trained not to cry, not to make noise, not to run around, sit quietly, behave nicely, in short act like adults. Maybe that is why they are so ‘disturbed’ when they hear children’s voices. Haven’t we read about children being seen and not heard? I wonder if that is still true. I haven’t traveled enough to know for sure.” Further, their schedules were believed to be very strict, leaving little space for negotiation and children were believed to be managed more by schedules than by demand. “Our children don’t follow schedules in the same way, we usually follow children’s demands for food, sleep etc. When visitors are around, my children want to be part of everything rather than going an sitting in their rooms. Where’s the fun in that?”
“Western parents tend to favour bathing their children at night, before sleeping. For us, the morning bath is a must!”
“Cold meals. I find that eating cold or pre-prepared meals is different. We focus so much on freshly cooked, warm food by the mother”
“I find that unlike our society, children are protected from seeing death. They are kept away”
And the pacifier, this was repeatedly mentioned as an unfamiliar practice, another instrument for keep children quiet and in check, perhaps. “Maybe they find children’s voices annoying, I don’t know”.
Conversations with children
Respect for elders and social conduct that is sensitive to status and relationships is highly valued among Indian families, and therefore, it is not unexpected to find remarks about the democratic and friendly nature of talk in Western families.
“I find addressing older people like teachers, elders, in-laws by their names unfamiliar to me. I feel it is lacking in respect. Also how they talk to elders….it’s too friendly”
“I just can’t get used to the fact of addressing in-laws, grandparents, by their names”
“I sometimes feel they just don’t respect elders enough. There is too many discussions and debates. Too much freedom, too much choice”
“I feel that intermixing of the sexes happens a bit too early, like dances between boys and girls and the expectation to have partners who are decided. I feel this brings too much pressure on children, too early.”
“I also believe that Western parents are scared about safety, and sending children to play outside.”
“I feel that too much important is given to children’s opinions. My view is giving too much choice and too much autonomy too early is a problem.”
“Legally, the fact that you cannot add parents to your insurance policy is also a reflection of the cultural climate and the importance of seeing children separately from their parents and family.”
“I find that what used to happen within the family has now been institutionalised, like mom’s groups, birthing classes……we used to learn all these things from family members, older sisters, mothers”
“What is this fuss about arranged marriages? Marriages everywhere are arranged by someone, no? And they also seek parents’ approval, yes or no? And why do they take so long to make up their minds? If they don’t know after many years of living with someone whether this is the right person, when will they know?”
“I feel they are given too much choice, too early”
Regarding choices, one of our advisors remembered an incident when she was in conversation with Alan Roland, a renown psychoanalyst in the US during one of his visits to India. The discussion was about freedom and choice, and Roland mentioned that American parents will give children so much choice in a candy store, for instance, to which my friend responded, “Indian parents give children freedom to choose when and where she will sleep, and with whom!” (Everyone laughed). So, separating people as favouring autonomy or being controlling is too simple a way of looking at childhood experiences. Scrutiny, emphasis and control is exercised in all cultures, just not about the same things.
A well-known social scientist once remarked that Westerners were friendly without being familiar, whereas Indians were familiar without being friendly. This came up in one of the responses where it was remarked that passing greetings by unknown people to every person you run into was believed to be unfamiliar and unnecessary. “Living in xxxxx facilitated our contact and friendship with a wide range of people from different parts of the world. I admit even after so many years, I am still adjusting to the expectation for physical contact, greeting people with a hug or a kiss on the cheeks, even with strangers.”
“And on the other hand, if you so much as speak to someone else’s child, it is taken as an offence. This is hard for me to understand”, one respondent said.
Taking a break!
Backpackers are a common sight around the world. Often these are young people on shoestring budgets in search of adventure. These periods of moratorium are seen as an opportunity for self-reflection and introspection, even finding yourself before embarking on a career path and committing yourself to a relatively settled life. Most Indian families see this as an unnecessary, uneconomical and even a dangerous indulgence. Growing children are hurried on to quickly finish studies (whatever level of education they are able to reach) and get on which earning a living. Although it may not necessarily be seen as favouring self-sufficiency or autonomy, productivity and earning capacity is highly valued. Holidays and travel are indulgences that always be undertaken once the feet are firmly on the ground. After you start to earn a living! In this regard, some changes are visible among contemporary families in India, but we believe this is limited to wealthier sections of society. “I cannot understand the need for children to take a break, they should get on with work as soon as they leave college”.
Ice, ice baby!
And finally: “Frankly, I just think they add too much ice in the water! Everything is consumed cold.” This is related to the belief that water should be had warm or at room temperature, else one is likely to fall sick, at any age! 😀
Here are the links to the videos and other sources:
Article by Hiltrud Otto and Heidi Keller: https://www.academia.edu/20976514/A_Good_Child_is_a_Calm_Child_Mothers_Social_Status_Maternal_Conceptions_of_Proper_Demeanor_and_Stranger_Anxiety_in_One-Year_Old_Cameroonian_Nso_Children?email_work_card=thumbnail
Link to Lilly Singh: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilly_Singh
Suranya Aiyer’s rejoinder to the UNICEF report on child abose and physical punishment: https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/news/1567-unicef-misrepresented-indian-families-being-abusive-when-data-suggested-otherwise
Russell Peters’s early video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wclEIUOhjs&list=RD8wclEIUOhjs&start_radio=1&t=97
Sindhu Vee at her best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-YgKtSzdlM
The magazine article about differences between American and Indian parents: https://yourteenmag.com/family-life/communication/indian-parents  http://india-explained.com/about-1