Part of my Montessori training involves spending 250 hours observing children under 3. In the past four months, I’ve spent 100+ hours observing several children in New York. When we traveled to Taiwan in January to spend Chinese New Year with my family, I decided to observe my niece, Renee, who is 2 years and 5 months old.
During my observation, what I noticed were stark differences in the way children are raised in New York versus Taiwan.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, in Taiwan, that’s what Renee had.
Chinese people are very big on family. We take pride in having three, four or five generations living under one roof. My brother’s family lives with my parents, and until two years ago, they lived with my 85-year old grandmother, who passed away last January. With so many people under one roof, it’s easy to pool resources and hire nannies to help take care of the house and children. It also makes sense to hire a cook to cook for the 10 people who live under one household.
Of the 100+ hours I spent observing New York families, every child had contact with just these people: Mom, Dad (if at home), babysitter (sometimes), sibling (if any) and me.
I observed Renee in Taiwan for 10.75 hours. In those hours alone, I observed her having contact with her parents, grandparents, two sisters, aunt and uncle (me and my husband), an older cousin, two younger cousins, her nanny, our cook, an electrician who came to fix the lights (her mother asked her to show him where the lights were broken), two teachers, 6 classmates, 2 of parents’ friends we had dinner with. Those are the people she came in contact with while I was counting my observation hours. During the two weeks I was visiting, I know she regularly saw her maternal grandmother, paternal great-grandmother and great-aunt, maternal great-grandmother, maternal aunt and uncle, 3 other older cousins, administrators at school, school bus driver, at least 10 of parents’ friends and their children who came over for dinner, etc.
Imagine what it’s like for a two-year old to grow up in an environment with that many people. Each person requires a different kind of social interaction: how you are with the electrician is different from how you are with your parents’ friends. Navigating your relationship with seven cousins alone takes a set of good social skills if you want to get along with them, not to mention all the maternal and paternal grandparents and great-grandparents! Just remembering what to call each of these people is a skill set that most Chinese children have developed.
For me, the starkest difference is the mother’s experience of child-rearing. For a mom, all these people are like free babysitters. The child spends 3 minutes with great grandma, 5 minutes with grandma, 45 minutes with the cousins, 20 minutes in the kitchen with the cook, 7 minutes talking to the electrician, etc. There’s a different kind of pressure on mothers there. On the other hand, New York mothers have to play so many roles. They have to think how they will entertain and manage their children from morning to night, praying for naptime and bedtime. I often see tired, exasperated mothers at the park or at the café with their stroller. Of course they’re tired! Children require so much attention and they have endless amount of energy, I personally think it’s too much for one adult person to take care of them 24/7. It doesn’t matter how young, energetic, well-intentioned and loving a mother is, you are sure to become exhausted and depleted. That’s why there are so many studies done in America that say mothers who go to work are much happier, well, it’s no wonder. But imagine what it’s like for the nanny you’ve hired to be with your child 40-50 hours a week, having to entertain them. That’s why I see nannies who get together to hang out, watch TV together in the common room of the Condo. Though I don’t approve of their behavior, I understand why they do it. Sometimes I wish I had a bunch of mommy friends that I meet up everyday to get together to watch TV too!
In my own experience, my kids were less clingy to me when I was in Taiwan. Usually, their uncle was holding them and reading them a book, grandpa was showing them a cool trick, the cook is feeding them a snack or they were playing with cousin 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. Here, they have just me or the nanny. Frankly, as a mother, it’s much more exhausting.
So what happens and what does it all mean for your child? Well, children absorb their environment, so they will become what the environment offers them. A socially-rich environment will produce a certain kind of child and a less socially-rich environment will produce a different kind of child. I will not make gross generalizations. However, as a mother raising children in New York, I try my best to give my children a variety of experiences by scheduling as many play dates as possible and go outdoors as often as the weather permits. Overall, since our trip, we’ve settled into a much quieter life.
Today I was out at a café with my friend. A toddler was crying. Everyone was looking for the mother. Then a woman comes out of the bathroom with a baby, doesn’t say a word, puts the baby in the stroller, picks up the toddler, puts him in while he cries and wheels them home. And I thought to myself, everyone tries to make American mothers feel badly about themselves by comparing them to French parents or Asian Tiger Moms. I look around and see the moms around me. These moms are doing their best, so give them a freaking break already.
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