Some time ago I was offered a short term position as a special needs teacher at an international school in Kuala Lumpur. With my partner, Liza, on maternity leave this was an ideal opportunity; she could have a holiday of sorts with our three-month-old daughter, Ksenya, while I worked. We’d been to Thailand when Ksenya was two months old so had an idea what it would be like living in South East Asia with an infant. Little did we realise that after a few months living in Kuala Lumper we would view returning to Australia with trepidation because of the cultural anxiety surrounding children and how this affects social relations between children and adults.
Within three weeks of being offered the job we were waking to the sound of temple bells and horns mingled with the haunting murmur of the call to prayer, the grind of the monorail and the ever present undulating white noise of Kuala Lumpur’s traffic. Our weekends and holidays were filled with indulging in the great variety of cuisines available in Malaysia and travelling through the ethnically mixed South to the predominantly Malaysian Muslim North East, and all points in-between.
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 we saw the behaviour exhibited towards Ksenya repeated with local babies. The spontaneity and naturalness of people’s reactions was a reflection of a cultural practice 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 Ksenya. This wasn’t just women; men also demanded to hold her, made faces and baby sounds at her, tickled her chin, stroked her cheek, offered 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 glares.
Eating out became a pleasure because invariably someone would offer to hold Ksenya as we ate, especially if Liza was juggling a squirming Ksenya 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 had numerous baby chairs and they were whisked to our table the minute we sat down so, on the odd occasion no one wanted to 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, 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 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 internalism 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 talkback radio, from people complaining their taxes are being used to pay for childcare places they will never use is a reflection of this mindset.
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, whereas in Australia, it’s a pleasure reserved for family and close friends only – and lowly paid childcare workers, of course.
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 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, 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 we returned 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’ is what every child needs to learn in these dangerous times. As anyone one who works in the area of child abuse will tell you, family members or friends of the family perpetrate most abuse. Certainly as a teacher that’s what I’ve found.
There is a vast difference between telling a child not to get into a stranger’s 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, in my opinion, dead.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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