My family and I live near Coimbra, in Portugal. When my youngest was a few months old, we started going to the cafe in a local supermarket (such was the glamour of our lives). We tended to pop in after dropping the older kids at nursery. There was ( and still is) lively gaggle of retirees from the neighbourhood, who would convene for their morning coffee and gossip session.
One of the ladies used to come over to us and say ‘Ola!’ to our daughter. She would deliver a torrent of Portuguese expressions about how lovely our baby was.
‘Oh she has blue eyes, how precious! Just like my daughter when she was little. Can I take her to show my husband? Oh he’ll be so thrilled!’
Hmm. Had she asked this of me with my first child, I might have taken my baby myself, then hovered in awkward politeness, as the baby show commenced. Depending on my mood, I might have flat refused, then cringed into my coffee awhile.
This ‘Can I make off with your little one for a bit?’ scenario is not unusual in Portugal. A friend of mine’s other half ended up in a tug of war situation, when he was unwilling to let a lady in a restaurant take their baby to show to her son. My friend looked on incredulous, as the stranger not only ignored the hint, but attempted to pick up her baby, despite protests.
I am not talking about my first child though. This was my third baby. She seemed very happy with the situation, as I waved her off to meet her new friend. I enjoyed having my coffee without having to worry about tiny grabby hands. I could see and hear my baby girl laughing among her ‘amigos’. There was a mutual benefit to this arrangement.
This became a regular thing, and now the lady and I often exchange pleasantries when I bump into her, baby or no baby. Her name is Maria, and she is a retired nurse. Our daughter forgot about her friend after a summer in England, but smiles hello when she feels like it. From a kind stranger’s enjoyment of interacting with my little girl, I got to know someone new, and to have a few moments without a babe in arms. At the time, that was none too common a thing, and I was grateful.
So, what changed between babies one and three? My attitude to their preservation has not altered. I have to admit I am rather attached to them in the long term. I think the change must have something to do with cultural expectations.
While there are exceptions, Portuguese people tend to act as if engaging babies in play is a national pastime, whether they know the child or not. In England, people tend to imply that keeping kids out of others’ way is a vital part of parenting.
When I had my first child, my behaviour was more rooted in the norms I experienced in England. After living in Portugal for some years, my ‘normal’ is changing.
Correct me if I am wrong, but I can’t imagine this situation arising in my native country. In England, people would think you were mad if you suggested that giving your baby to strangers was a positive thing. Even if you were only a few feet away. Even if you could see and hear them the whole time. Not ever.
In Portugal however, it is customary that babies get attention heaped upon them, from everyone they encounter. As you push your buggy past bands of teenagers, they exclaim how sweet your baby is. Waiters wink at children. Shop assistants wait with indulgent smiles, while toddlers take all the products off the shelves they just stacked. It is rare that you hear of someone slighted because their baby trespassed on the patience of strangers.
The feeling I get in England is that, though many people like babies and are kind to them, children are a private joy. It would seem presumptuous to intrude on a family outing, unless there is need of assistance, or the parents make the first move. Likewise, as a parent, I feel the need to mitigate my children’s impact on others. Most people are nice to kids, but little people are not always welcome, as they are in Portugal.
To someone who makes a personal study of these things, it is entertaining to watch an English parent in a lift trying really hard to pretend you do not exist, while their kid is attempting to feed you a bite of their sticky bun. You might get an embarrassed smile, as if to say ‘I can see what an inconvenience this is, let’s just get to the third floor, then we can go our separate ways and forget the whole thing’.
There is no lack of goodwill among the English, but preserving a polite distance feels more important. Sometimes people do reach out, but there has to be more than the simple ‘fact’ of a baby being present that inclines them to do so. In Portugal, people might be reserved with strange adults, but the presence of a child is a bridge between you and the rest of the community.
You might assume that this cultural difference was down to a lack of stranger danger in Portugal, but this is not the case. Especially after the horrifying abduction of Madeleine Mccan in 2007, child-snatching is on the radar, taking its toll on the national psyche. A neighbour warned me that I must not let my toddler out of sight, for fear someone would take off with her.
In Portugal, the people who you see around the shops, or eating at the next table in a cafe, are considered to be acquaintances of sorts. Therefore, they are to be viewed with a certain degree of trust, not least when entertaining your baby. Not forgetting that you are right there to keep an eye on the kid, there can be a degree of discretion rather than an assumed taboo on contact with people who have no prior relationship to a child. In England, it seems that without a more solid prior relationship, one should be wary.
Now, I would not hand my kid over to just anyone, and never if the child were upset by it. I would put my child’s wellbeing before politeness every time. Beyond that, I am willing to relax and exercise judgement, rather than jump to an immediate decision that my kid cannot leave my side for a moment.
Through living in Portugal, I have experienced a shift in my cultural expectations, in that I have a greater sense of confidence in the people around me, and a willingness to reach out to them, as they reach out to my children. The world is a nicer place for your child when people welcome them with open arms. It is rather nicer being a parent when you know that this will happen, even if you have three marauding rascals following in your wake.
I am also reminded that culture is not a fixed point of reference, but a conduit which flows between people whenever they interact. It is helpful to consider, not just what seems polite or normal, but what feels right when it comes to the person in front of you at a particular place and time. By following the feeling, you can connect with lovely new people, and convert kind strangers into known persons. You also get a little more help along the way than you might otherwise have expected.
So, what do you think? Brilliant or barmy? What is your experience of normal or strange parenting culture?
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The Culture theme continues in ‘The Amazing Ability That Most a People Ignore‘