Play on a Third World Playground — Check!

 Hi folks! Our Sunday reading comes to us from far away — Hyderabad, India. It’s by Stephanie Smith Diamond who writes, runs, and studies for her master’s degree in political science there. She blogs at Where in the World Am I?  – L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I recently came across your blog and read your book. I’d heard of your son riding the subway alone a couple years ago and didn’t know what the big deal was. I felt like mainstream media didn’t give the audience the entire story. If your son was raised in the city and was used to taking the subway, then it seemed to me like there wasn’t really any story at all.

Then I had a child. In the parenting books and blogs I read I started seeing a trend toward too much safety and security for children. We moved to India when our daughter was three months old. She’s two and a half now and we are known throughout the expat community as having a wild child. She runs around barefoot. She goes to a preschool and playgroups where she’s the only non-Indian child. She eats street food. We expected this kind of reaction from some people because we’ve lived overseas long enough to know that there are families that want to experience everything a new country has to offer, and there are those that want to stay in the house and pretend they are not really in another country.

I got the idea to write to you when your book mentioned something about parenting magazine articles that cautioned against running around barefoot and not flying kites. By the time my daughter was two and a half years old, she’d done both at the same time! I smiled when you said you may have to go to a third-world country to find a pre-safety-era playground. The playgrounds here are new, but I think all the old equipment was sent here when the upgrades started happening in the United States.

We’ve been in more than one restaurant where the waitstaff has taken her away from the table for a few minutes so we could eat in peace. She loves it. They take her back to the kitchen to watch the chefs. We’ve hired hotel baby-sitters and local baby-sitters based on friends’ recommendations. It’s okay for parents to have a couple minutes or a couple hours of peace and quiet to eat a meal together. We need it! Other cultures seem to understand this. When we hired our housekeeper in India, she said our daughter was the first baby she’d really taken care of. When her own children were born, her sisters and mother took the babies away except for when they needed to nurse because new mothers are expected to rest. (She seemed a little annoyed that I insisted on doing so many things myself rather than resting and letting her do it all! It took me a while to get used to having help.)

I’ve noticed that what’s been happening with much of the parenting world in the United States is happening in upper-class India now. When our daughter goes to the park, she’s not playing with our neighbor’s children, she’s playing with the children of their drivers and housekeepers because “rich” children aren’t allowed to play outside.

We’re sad that because of our lifestyle of moving to new countries every few years, our daughter is not going to have the same childhood we had of running outside all day long with a gang of the same neighborhood children year after year. But we’re confident that eventually she’ll be able to walk to the corner store at an earlier age than her American-raised peers.

Because of my husband’s job and the places we live, some of the worries of parents in the United States are slightly more realistic for us. My husband investigates some pretty big crime rings; it’s possible they’d want to retaliate by kidnapping our daughter. We live in a Muslim city with ties to Iran and Pakistan, two countries where anti-American sentiment runs high. There was a terrorist bombing here less than a month ago. The probability of us being harmed from any of these things is still tiny, it’s just larger than in the United States. We don’t let it stop us from going outside. But I’m looking forward to being back in the United States for a while, where I’ll be able to relax and not have to worry about them.

If Americans spent more time overseas they’d have a completely different perspective on danger. – Stephanie Smith Diamond

30 Responses to Play on a Third World Playground — Check!

  1. JN March 31, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    “If Americans spent more time overseas they’d have a completely different perspective on danger.”

    Amen. As an American living abroad with my four children for the past four years, I think I can safely say that most Americans have little idea of what goes on in the world around them. I know I didn’t before living elsewhere.

  2. Libby March 31, 2013 at 9:56 am #

    Stephanie, what a beautiful childhood you’re giving your daughter!

  3. Cindy Karlan March 31, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    Our 3 children each had been to 5 different continents by the time they were two years old. We travel for my husband’s work and spend a significant amount of the summer in East and West Africa as well as the Philippines and various other developing countries. We parent differently than most Americans precisely because we can see so many different ways to do it around the world. I often say that some parents need to be airdropped into a random part of Africa in order to get some perspective. Thank you, Ms. Diamond, for writing this blog post.

  4. Julie March 31, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    I agree! Luckily, I live in a small farming community. My children attend a PK-12 in one school with maybe 200 kids, total. They chase chickens, turn the round bale holder on the side and pretend it is a hamster wheel, climb stacks of hay and ride in the beds of trucks. They have practically been raised at our fair grounds, so when we go for any event, they take off, meeting people they know in the community. I let them (ages 8-12) ride (horses)or walk the two rural miles to my mother’s house, by themselves. Our biggest fear? Snakes and feral dogs, both of which they now have an education about.
    I applaud you for your happy, barefoot child. She will grow with a level of self confidence that America seems to be repressing. Here’s to living over seas and small farming communities!

  5. Donna March 31, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    It is amazing how much the paranoid feed on each other. I was talking to an expat at a party yesterday. She says that she never plans to leave A. Samoa because she likes how all the kids run free and she always felt she had to watch her children in California.

    The thing that struck me is that she clearly has made the decision that it is safe because all the Samoan children run free. It isn’t an independent evaluation of the safety of A. Samoa. It isn’t a realization that the world isn’t all that unsafe. It is thinking “Samoan children run free so it must be safe here.” And many here have that attitude so the belief that A. Samoa is safe is is spread and no rational basis is ever given for that. It is just that there is no fear of kidnapping, etc here.

    Which leads me to believe that we are wrong. The media is not to blame for the fear. Helicopter parents are responsible for the fear. Since kids are no longer on the streets playing, people believe it to be unsafe. If kids are outside playing alone, people believe it to be safe.

    Which is all funny since I am more concerned with my kid running free in A. Samoa than the US. Not because of rapists and abductors but because of the packs of half wild, starving dogs that roam around the island.

  6. missjanenc March 31, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Donna, if you’re worried about the packs of half wild, starving dogs roaming around, what a wonderful opportunity you and your kids have to do something about it like organizing spay/neuter/rabies clinics to control the population and create a safer environment for both dogs and people.

  7. Donna March 31, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    Missjanenc – If only we could. There are no vets on island so spay/neuter clinics cost thousands of dollars in airfare for personnel alone and only handle a very small number of pets. Some volunteer vets come down for a week every couple years and spay/neuter 300 or so dogs but that doesn’t even put a dent in the population. More than 300 babies are born between visits.

    What we need is a licensing program and then round up and put to sleep all the unlicensed dogs. But the government needs to be involved in this and it is, and always has been, completely unwilling to address the dog issue. Many have tried repeatedly and you just hit a brick wall.

  8. Tsu Dho Nimh March 31, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    She runs around barefoot. She goes to a preschool and playgroups where she’s the only non-Indian child. She eats street food.

    I’m not an alarmist, I’m a microbiologist. I’m all in favor of free-ranging that verges on feral, but those two behaviors are significantly risky.

    Barefoot children are more susceptible to hookworm infections.
    http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-07-15/varanasi/29777053_1_rural-areas-infection-hookworm

    And don’t get me started on the street food – between the hepatitis, the parasites and the cholera there’s no time to worry about the norovirus and the staphylococcal enterotoxins.

    ========
    We had several strict rules growing up feral, and they were based on health hazards: don’t mess with dairy bulls, don’t drink the creek water (liver flukes) and don’t mess with rabbits (tularemia).

  9. Racheleh March 31, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Tsu Dho NimH You are correct that some worms can be a problem if you are barefoot, however in my experience with that matter it has to do with being around unimproved human waste disposal. What I picked up was easily cured by massive amounts of garlic and moving our slit trench or where possible using outhouses. I suspect that even though they are in less improved countries they have medical care that would pick up on a worm infestation. There are definite symptoms that are easy to pick up on.So inconvenient yes. worth freaking out about? not if your paying attention.
    Gross – Very

    Street food vs restaurant I have not dealt with that. Its probably the same kind of risk one runs eating the warm potato salad with eggs at a typical US Midwest family reunion. It happens, but with care most cases wont.
    Don’ mess with cattle is a wise rule. Getting stepped on is not fun. Creek water also has pesticide runoff and other issues so that is a good rule.

  10. LTMG March 31, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

    The sheer ignorance that Americans can display when in another country can be appalling. Cultural, social (manners), linguistic, and geographic ignorance, for starters.

    I recall stopping at the Czech border to clear Immigration and Customs. Many of the tour group left the bus to visit the shop. One vacationing teacher from New Jersey bought a bottle of Pilsner Urquell and was drinking it. After a short while she very loudly proclaimed it to be the very worst beer she had ever had. This notwithstanding that among people who know beer, Pilsner Urquell is among the very best of its type in the world.

    Possibly the very best compliment I ever received was while with a tour group in Portugal to have been mistaken by a British gentleman for a Canadian.

  11. Let_Her_Eat_Dirt March 31, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    Great guest post! I think Stephanie is absolutely right. As a Foreign Service brat, I grew up in a number of different countries (and have lived and abroad again as an adult), and I witnessed all kinds of different parenting styles. None is a safety-crazed and lawsuit-averse as what we do here in the States. Don’t get me wrong — I love this country and appreciate what we have here, but we have lost much of our common sense when it comes to parenting. When my wife and I visited Israel a couple years back, we were in awe of the playgrounds there — so dangerous, so rough, so much fun.

    Let Her Eat Dirt
    http://www.lethereatdirt.com
    One dad’s take on raising tough, adventurous girls

  12. hineata April 1, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    @Tsu Dho Nimh – not a microbiologist, just wondering – have never been to India, but have eaten out on the street regularly in SE Asia, and never had issues, even the immuno-stuffed child. Husband thinks the issue in India is usually with the salad-type food, as in the water it’s washed in is often crap, and that the cooked stuff should be fine. That seems to be the opinion among his mates who trave up there. Is he right? Or do we just have cast-iron guts?

    Great to see Americans getting out of the country – the more that do it the better foreign policy we might get out of the place, LOL! Good on you Stephanie.

    Donna, do the same gun laws apply in A. Samoa? In other words, could you, or someone who has ‘skills’ in the area of hunting cull the dogs? That’s one of the ways we get rid of possums down here. Or are they all in built-up areas – which I suppose, being dogs, they probably are?

  13. SKL April 1, 2013 at 12:38 am #

    Of course, in India, the middle and upper classes consider it dangerous to let their children play with lower-class kids, let alone go to places where they congregate. They are also extremely overprotective in many other ways. My Indian friends got pretty horrified when I let my 5yo go to the bathroom in a restaurant we frequent, and that I let my daughters play together outdoors (in a safe area) without personally accompanying them. These folks haven’t let their 6yo learn to ride a bike yet, and she is afraid to sleep in her own bed.

    We’re planning a trip to India in June, so it will be interesting to see how people react to my parenting.

    We went to Guatemala over Christmas break, and I didn’t see any little Guatemalan kids (rich or poor) playing outside without direct adult supervision.

  14. Donna April 1, 2013 at 2:33 am #

    Hineata – Although it is America, guns are a rarity in A. Samoa. There is no gun culture here. They are not sold on the island at all. They can be imported from the US but it is difficult. Cops don’t even have them.

    And since most dogs are not confined and there are no leash laws, even if you have a gun, you run a real risk of shooting an owned dog and Samoans are highly protective of their mangy mutts. And you know what happens when you piss off a Samoan.

  15. Donna April 1, 2013 at 3:10 am #

    Since we are talking about India – do Indians prefer not to swim?

    We have several Indian families living in our government compound with kids ranging in age from toddler to teen. None have ever been near the pool or appeared to be heading out to the beach. Since I’ve never met a child with unlimited access to a pool that never used it, let alone 5 of them from different families, I’ve wondered if this was a cultural thing or if these families are just odd. I’d ask them but they are an unfriendly bunch.

  16. Kay April 1, 2013 at 4:08 am #

    We live on Borneo, and I often find myself grateful that we have “real” dangers to worry about– like cobras in the garden… (worrying, but in fact no more dangerous than driving here…) Gives a certain perspective.

  17. Kay April 1, 2013 at 4:09 am #

    PS: Donna, my experience has been that many Indians worry about getting dark in the sun, that might be the reason?

  18. Donna April 1, 2013 at 4:31 am #

    Kay, that could be it since they really only play outside for a short time in the evening. They are the only other kids in the compound and, although the youngest non-baby is a few years older than my daughter, I had hopes that my daughter would have someone to play with occasionally but they are outside so rarely that she’s never connected with them.

  19. hineata April 1, 2013 at 5:08 am #

    @Donna – not sure, but might also be that the parents don’t know how to swim and so don’t allow the children to. Alhough I swim every chance I can in Malaysia, which isn’t that often as there aren’t many public pools and the water in the creeks is bleuchy, very few Malaysians of any type, including the Indians, seem to swim…..Instead they stay out of the sun, which is why their skin is often so lovely and mine is like dried up leather, LOL!

    And yep, wouldn’t want to piss off any Saas..:-)

  20. SKL April 1, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    Donna, I recall one of my Indian friends expressing surprise that “educated Americans” would swim in a public pool. His concern was that some people urinate in pools. This was before either of us had kids. Now he and I have kids the same age, and I was trying to plan an outing halfway between our homes (they live an 8-hour drive away and we try to get together at least annually). For my kids, a waterpark would be the perfect choice for an outing. However, I doubt he lets his kid swim. I’ve never heard them mention swimming.

  21. SKL April 1, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    Re the swimming, I should add that I think it’s another aspect of higher-class Indians not mixing with lower-class ones. In a public pool, there would be lower-class swimmers and there is an assumption that these folks are dirty.

  22. SKL April 1, 2013 at 11:46 am #

    PS, what happens when you piss off a Samoan?

  23. afroDude April 1, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

    Re: roaming dogs.
    I have very, very fond memories of playing with packs of roaming dogs in my neighborhood (west african country) when i was a kid :)
    I don’t think my parents knew that i was doing that, and they wouldnt’ have liked it . The alpha male in one of the local roaming dog packs was my friend and for a while he’d walk me to school !

    Re: swimming
    Significant proportions of the population in 3rd world countries just aren’t into the swimming thing.

    Re: street food
    When you live in those countries you simply develop a stronger stomach, i think. I recall eating sandwiches as a kid that’d give nightmares to the average american. It was no big deal, as long as there isn’t an actual break out of a disease going on.
    As a kid i caught worms and then my parents got me treated. Also, i’ve read that it was a good thing for kids to have at least *some* exposure to parasites while growing up.

    Overall i enjoyed my free-range childhood very much.

  24. Donna April 1, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    SKL – Samoans are a very hotheaded culture and tend to react violently to the slightest provocation. Fists, rocks and coconuts mostly. And they tend to retaliate in groups – family or village. So if you killed a family dog, your family is likely to get jumped by their family. And they hold grudges. Killing a family’s dog could result in a several generation long feud with the other family. We’ve represented several people involved in fights over dogs. I doubt that they would do anything to a palagi but they also outsize palagis by a substantial amount. Polynesians are a large race and Samoans are the largest of the Polynesians, hence why you are something like 30 times more likely to play for the NFL if you come from Samoa than anywhere else in the US.

  25. Donna April 1, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    I know that many in the 3rd world don’t swim per se. Most Samoans don’t know how to swim (and legend is that many can’t float due to bone density but I can’t confirm or deny that). But those who live in the coastal villages wade into the water to cool off and fish. To be in such a god awful hot place with no air con but with plenty of water to cool off in and not use the water seems odd to me. Which is why I thought it may be a cultural thing.

  26. Stephanie @ Where in the World Am I? April 1, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    I want to thank everyone for their comments! I’m hopeful I’ll find some like-minded parents when we’re back in the US for a year.

    Re: Barefoot. We’re under the care of an American doctor here, and no doctor, American, Indian, or otherwise, has warned me against being barefoot except in obvious situations when the ground is covered in waste or garbage. There may be a risk, but I believe it’s too small here for me to worry about. We certainly wash her feet and hands as soon as she comes back inside.

    Re: Street food. We’re cautious with it. We trust our senses of sight and smell before we taste anything. We tend to go to the same vendors in our neighborhood who we trust. We’re vaccinated for hepatitis and typhoid. But either you only hear about the times people get sick rather than stay well or we are extremely lucky (or both!) but we’ve been very healthy. We lived in Central Africa before India, and the only food-borne illness I’ve had in five years overseas was at an American expat’s Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone got sick that night. With poor food safety practices, anything could be a risk, from cheese from the most popular expat grocery store to fish at a five-star restaurant. You have to eat, though.

    Re: Swimming. Now that I think about it, I suppose it’s mostly expat kids I see at the pools. There aren’t many public pools in our city but many of the housing communities have them. I’ve heard there’s a superstition in this region about going outside in the middle of the day. A lot of the parks are even closed from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm! The lakes are not safe for swimming in, they are so dirty.

    We weigh the risks wherever we are. In one place where there was a high percentage of expats contracting bilharzia from the lake, I stayed out of the lake. Here in Hyderabad I’ve known two people with dengue (one was my husband) and three with malaria in the last year, so our prevention against mosquito bites might seem extreme to people in the US.

    @Cindy Karlan: We love Africa and can’t wait to bring our daughter there. I was pregnant with her in Burundi and would love for all our Burundian friends to meet her.

  27. Stephanie @ Where in the World Am I? April 1, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    Oh, I forgot that our water distiller became infected with E. coli, which just goes to show that even if you take a ton of precautions, something could still get you. But like I said before, you have to eat (and drink water), so you take those risks regularly.

  28. hineata April 2, 2013 at 3:08 am #

    @Stephanie – probably silly to ask, but wouldn’t boiling your water eliminate e coli risks?

    Also, wondering if it is a superstition about going out in the middle of the day, or the old saying about ‘Mad sogs and Englishmen/go out in the midday sun’? Was told in Malaysia not to take the kids to the park in the middle of the day, but was so bored one day I dragged them out anyway. Turned out the play equipment was that hot that Boy burnt his butt on it, and that was the end of that excursion! Stuck to the malls during the hottest hours after that…

  29. Stephanie @ Where in the World Am I? April 2, 2013 at 5:58 am #

    Boiling would take care of the e coli and other bacteria but there are heavy metals in the water that boiling doesn’t remove. We clean the distiller regularly and test it twice a year.

    During the summer, the playgrounds are definitely too hot at mid-day. But the winters here are pleasant. It’s perfect weather for playing outside all day, yet the parks are closed.

  30. Gina April 2, 2013 at 7:31 am #

    Until recently, our kids grew up overseas in different parts of East Asia. We had a very similar experience to Stephanie – we’ve done the street food, the wait staff taking care of the kids, household help, and just a general sense of freedom to play out in the neighborhood unsupervised. Now that we’re back in the US, we’re thankful that we live in an area where kids seem to have the same freedom to play outside. I was concerned, not that they wouldn’t be safe, but that someone would object to my kids playing on their own!