I recently returned from living in Kuala Lumpur for six months with my partner and daughter. Little did we realise we would view returning to Australia with trepidation because of the cultural anxiety surrounding children and what it does to the social relationships between them and adults. In fact we view South East Asia a better place to bring up children in many respects.
We travelled extensively in Malaysia and one commonality we found was the adoration and sense of community responsibility for children from all ages and genders. This wasn’t a matter of the exotic otherness of a white baby, as the behaviour exhibited towards our daughter we saw repeated with local babies. The spontaneity and naturalness of people’s reactions was a reflection of a cultural practise and understanding that is a radical contrast to the social construction of infancy and childhood in Australia.
In almost every cafe and restaurant we were greeted with cries of pleasure as staff left their posts and asked to hold our daughter. This wasn’t just women but men as well who demanded to hold her, who made faces and baby sounds at her, who walked past her and tickled her chin, stroked her cheek, offered up their fingers to be held and gently mopped her face with tissues. And this didn’t just occur in cafes and restaurants but at markets, walking the street or waiting for a bus or train.
Imagine if an unknown male asked to hold a woman’s baby, stroked its chin, made baby sounds or asked questions about the baby in Australia. He’d just as likely be lynched or at the very least the shadow of PAEDOPHILE would haunt his days with snide whisperings and anxious angry glares.
Eating out became a pleasure because invariably someone would offer to hold our daughter as we ate, especially if my partner was juggling a squirming baby and a Laksa. In most cases the staff would hold her and she’d do a tour of the kitchen, the street outside and the cash register. If they were too busy often a customer who’d finished eating would offer to hold her and take great pleasure in doing so. Every cafe and restaurant has numerous baby chairs and they were whisked to our table the minute we sit down so on the odd occasion no one could hold her we could still eat easily. You’d be hard pressed to find a baby chair in any Australian restaurant and lucky to find one in a cafe.
There are of course mandated areas for infants in Australia; cry baby sessions at the cinema, childcare centres, Gymboree and the local park. But should you want to go out to dinner, or even lunch, and don’t want to manoeuvre a bulky pram between tables then your options are limited. Such a situation would be unheard of in Malaysia, it’s assumed that infants will accompany parents into almost any situation and allowances are made on a commercial and a social level.
In Australia children, particularly infants, are seen as the exclusive property of the parent(s). The family is almost cultish in its psychological parochialism and fear of strangers; the relationship is exclusive and insular save for the intrusion of in-laws and the odd friend. Children are not seen as part of the community. The occasional outbursts, in letters to the editor and on talk back radio, from people complaining their taxes are being used to pay for child care places they will never use is a reflection of this mind set.
There is a sense in Malaysia that children are part of the community, their presence brings joy to those around them, which is why people are so keen to hold, to touch, to tickle and tease. The pleasure of children is shared pleasure where as in Australia it’s a pleasure reserved for family and close friends only, and of course lowly paid childcare workers.
We like to think Australia is a good and safe place to bring up kids. We’ve legislated and mandated our interaction with children to achieve that effect but somewhere in the process we’ve removed the community from the picture. The ability for strangers to interact with our children in the smallest ways, the sense of collective care and love for infants and children has become a predatory fear, a horror.
It hasn’t made it any safer for children and has only made society a lonelier and more fearful place. Is it any wonder kids are spending most of the day indoors playing with gadgets and conducting relationships through the internet when we’ve constructed the world outside of the home as the badlands filled with predatory strangers.
This mindset begins with the social relationships we encourage and discourage with infants. By reducing the social sphere of infant relationships to childcare workers, friends and family we begin the process of severely limiting their social world and inculcating a fear of strangers.
Infants learn reactions, smiles, laughs, grimaces and so on from those around them and these reactions influence their developing psychological relationship to the world. If their social world consists of overworked childcare workers, family and a few friends, all of whom have a limited capacity to smile in any twenty four hour period conversely the infant will spend less time smiling and being happy. If the infant lives in a social reality where they are being smiled at, tickled, held and played with by any number of people over a twenty four hour period conversely the infant will spend more time smiling and being happy.
So it is with trepidation I view our return to Australia because it’s an emotionally cold place, a place where children are ignored by most people and where they learn to fear who and what they don’t know. People may say the sad reality is that children need to fear strangers; that ‘stranger danger’ what every child needs to learn in these dangerous times. As anyone one who works in the area of child abuse will tell you most abuse is perpetrated by family members or friends of the family. Certainly as a teacher that’s what I’ve found.
There is a vast difference between telling a child not to get into a strangers car and allowing a stranger to interact with your infant or child in a cafe or on the street. An interaction with a stranger with a parent present does not lead to your child jumping into a stranger’s car one day in the future. Somehow we’ve forgotten that distinction, that predator in the car has become every stranger who smiles and waves at an infant.
A society that doesn’t encourage the natural inquisitiveness and sociability of infants and children is a society whose soul is dead.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem