I recently got back from a family trip to the Middle East where my husband and I took our 3-year-old twins to Jordan to get to know their cousins and our friends, and visit the country where their mother was born, and where their parents met and married.
The trip was revealing on so many levels, including the fact that my kids unexpectedly started speaking Arabic in Jordan after refusing to speak it in the suburbs of Washington.
However, the most revealing fact was how striking the difference in the attitude towards children in Jordan- or the Middle East in general- compared to that in the United States, or at least in the D.C. area where we live.
Having raised my children exclusively in the U.S., and then heading to Jordan with them, has opened my eyes to the fact that my attitude towards children has changed as a result of my 10-year residency in the U.S. Now, I tend to think the worst if strangers come near my kids. Yes, there is the mother’s instinct to protect her kids from any harm, but the trip to Jordan has shown me that this instinct gets heightened at least triple fold when I’m stateside.
Let me give you one scenario: Let’s say you were staying at a hotel on the Red Sea, and your kids are enjoying the beach when the hotel security guard decides to talk to your daughter without your permission and then asks her directly for a kiss. If I were in the U.S., I would probably call 911. In Jordan, however, I laughed and handed over my daughter to him so as that he can shower her with kisses. Why? Because when you are in Jordan, you do like the Jordanians. Kids there are celebrated and admired openly, and you don’t expect the worst from strangers talking to your kids. Random people stop you in the street to admire your kids, ask to kiss them, and even offer them candy without asking for your permission. It is rude to shield your children from these people, or to decline their sweet offerings. The fascinating part for me was that as I soon as I got to Amman, the overprotective side of me was thrown out the window. I never for a minute thought of the individuals- including young men- who asked to kiss my children or take photos with them as sexual predators. They were just being nice to my kids.
On the last day of my trip, my daughter’s helium balloon flew off from her hand at a street fair in Amman and got stuck on the roof of a makeshift tent. When that happened, she unleashed a flood of tears. Immediately, an impromptu rescue operation took place where random young men gathered, brought a plastic chair and formed a human ladder to get the balloon so that she could stop crying. They succeeded, and she was happy. I was, like the balloon almost was, blown away.
My recent trip has taught me that with all its issues, it seems as if Arabia, the land of ISIS and endless conflict, is still operating in the village mentality when it comes to kids, where all are welcome and there is a minimal fear of predators. Although Amman has grown dramatically over the years with refugees fleeing there as a result of the region’s endless conflicts, somehow the tribal, hospitable mentality has still managed to survive. This mentality drives many of the behaviors in modern-day Jordan, including the societal embrace of kids.
Meanwhile in the U.S., the land that was built by the huddled masses, the village mentality is absent. The recent viral news about the baby who cried in a diner, then was yelled at by the diner’s owner might be a proof of the dying village stateside. What I’m seeing is that children here are not a trophy we show off to the public, but rather precious beings that we shield from strangers, and from those who are intolerant of them.
So since my trip, I’ve wondered: Do we overprotect our children and keep them away from strangers in a way that robs them from the joy of getting attention and for just being kids? Has minimal interaction with other people’s kids made us more intolerant to children?
Would a human ladder to get the balloon ever happen in the U.S., or would people just prefer to keep their distance from other people’s kids? Or, like in the case of the diner, would the balloon float away and the crowd nearby roll their eyes at my crying daughter, wishing she would just disappear?
As a mother in the U.S., I wonder if we have become a land of paranoia where kids are shielded and the “free-range” movement has no place to dwell.
Maybe, but while part of me is happy that my kids get to enjoy the unsolicited attention in Amman, I’m also glad that they have the U.S. to balance them. Being too friendly to strangers is never a good thing as shown here in this social experiment gone viral.
I have always known my kids were lucky to be raised multicultural. Not only do they feel the benefits of a village, they also know to be wary of strangers. Maybe they can one day learn how to combine those practices into one and help guide the world – and their own children – to a perfect middle.
Natasha Tynes is a Jordanian-American journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the founder of Tynes Media Group. You can read her thoughts on parenting, digital media and the Middle East on her website, and you can also follow her on Twitter.
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