It was the littlest latrine, designed to small-child specifications, and it was a big relief in more ways than one. As we changed 10-month-old Aleshandra on an adjacent plush pad (covered by a soft sheet, as if we were at home instead of in an airport), 3-year-old Olivia hopped on the toilet with no assistance. The changing area was also equipped with a full-on baby bathtub. We’d have tried it, but we had to catch another flight to our final destination, Pipa, a small northeastern coastal town where we planned to live for eight weeks.
We went to improve our Portuguese, train in our mutual hobby (the Brazilian martial art capoeira) and immerse our kids in another culture. (Jason is a teacher and I freelance, so we are able to relocate during the summer.) I quickly learned that the elfin commode was only one indicator of Brazilian culture’s consideration of children. That lifestyle difference seems to reduce parental anxiety by making life with kids easier.
Here’s what we learned during our summer in Brazil.
Kids are welcomed, expected and accepted everywhere. Pipa has no shortage of natural splendor: dolphins porpoising in crystalline bays, trails through jungle and volcanic rock, and spectacular views from cliffs overlooking it all. Jason and I hoped to do some unencumbered exploring once we located a babysitter, but our first lesson was that the concept of babysitting was foreign in Pipa. It was assumed that wherever you went, your kids would be with you, or they would be cared for by extended family living with you or nearby. Our visions of romantic sundown cocktails, small-plate restaurants, strenuous hikes and not trading off kid duty during capoeira classes quickly faded.
My greater surprise, though, was that in Pipa, even “date night” restaurants contained espaço kids — literally, kids’ spaces — including play structures with a staff member to supervise, or a simple trampoline and some toys in a corner. Rather than being taught to sit still in public, kids are given places to play. A sitter isn’t necessary for dinner and a drink when kids are kept busy in the ball pit.
And every space was a kid’s space, with kids’ tables and child-size chairs in cafes, bakeries and acai parlors. Imagine if every Starbucks had a communal tiny table and play area to occupy children while adults talk or work on laptops.
One cafe we frequented was on a narrow wooden balcony, yet frolicking kids were no less typical or accepted in the confined space. During one visit, Olivia made a friend and they tore around among the tables. I assumed we’d be asked to stop them, but patrons and employees waved, smiled or paid no mind. In Pipa, public behaviors that made me feel intrusive as a parent in the United States were welcomed.
The ultimate test came when my mother visited while Jason traveled. We wanted to try a trendy restaurant with seven tables but worried it wouldn’t work, even in family-oriented Brazil. Sure enough, the girls ended up behaving in ways that would have resulted in us leaving a similar place in America. As my mother apologized profusely and gathered our things, one server took and soothed Aleshandra, and a couple at the adjacent table — childless, and on a date — made funny faces to entertain her. Two other diners complimented the kids and played with them, then asked us all if we’d like to try some of their food. We made some new friends and left with two sleeping kids.
Freely interacting with kids is the norm. One warm, rainy night, a friend and I went to a live music bar. Toddlers boogied in front of the samba band along with grown-ups. Kids were everywhere, at all hours. As I danced in front of a long table, a woman seated there waved me over. She’s going to ask me to move, I thought. I’m blocking her view. Or she’s going to tell me this place is too noisy for a baby.
But she smiled as she stood, reached out and whisked Aleshandra off to dance for the rest of the set while I drank a mojito with my friend. (Win-win!) Attitudes toward children were so affectionate, parents weren’t made to feel skittish for taking up too much space. The “parenting by community” approach in Brazil means strangers will come and take your baby and it doesn’t feel strange.
Babies are showered with love. Pipa’s beaches are dotted with family-run umbrella-seating-and-eating setups, with movable kitchens flanking the bases of cliffs. As you finish descending steep staircases to the sand, employees congregate to persuade you to use their business. For families with children, having a freshwater shower on hand was used as a selling point. Constant bathing is big in Brazil. (Remember that built-in baby bath in the airport bathroom?)
On our last day, as I carried Aleshandra up to the shower before heading home, the man who ran the stand apologized because they’d run out of water. Não importa, I said. We’d wash her at home. But he asked us to wait, and his wife filled a water bottle from the sink. The whole family gathered around with more two-liter bottles full of water we sprinkled over the baby.
When I described my Pipa parenting experience to a Brazilian friend living stateside, she validated my observation that American society is, by comparison, mais fechado — closed.
Brazilians’ inordinate amount of time and patience for children made me question our attempts in the United States to force children to adapt to the adult world, or separate them into a kid world where parents also get relegated. And I notice it more since we returned. I got stink-eye when my stroller momentarily blocked access to peach samples at the farmers market. And if I see a cute baby in a cafe, I can’t go hold him because that would be weird.
I miss the warmth and openness Brazilian culture has toward families with small children and try to conjure it back home. In the meantime, when I visit restaurants and cafes, I visualize where the miniature table and kids’ space should go — and in bathrooms, of course, that tiny toilet.
Liza Monroy is a writer in Santa Rosa, Calif. Find her on Twitter: @lizamonroy.