Thais and Children
I have always thought one of the joys of being a parent in Thailand is the attention that Thais pour onto children. Thais love children. Any child will receive playful looks and taps from passing strangers. Many Thais think nothing of picking up a strange child for a quick play. Light-skinned western or mixed-race kids will attract even more interest than Thai kids. Wherever we take our two little-uns, they receive lots of attention.
A trip to Big C and the shop assistants are sure to gather round. A visit to the beach and soon our kids will have some play guardians. Visit a restaurant and the staff will likely whisk our kids away so we can enjoy our meal in peace. I always think it is great. It entertains the kids and accustoms them to interacting with people.
So I was a little surprised when I recently discovered that many western parents in Thailand do not like the attention their children receive.
Firstly, two parent friends recently told me the same thing. The first friend is a mother in an all western family and the second friend a father in a mixed Thai-western family. They both hate it when strangers pick up their children without permission.
Then I saw the same issue raised on a Thailand internet discussion forum. A western mother raised her concerns about how stressful she found it when strangers touched or held her child. She used terms like 'stranger danger' and said she would literally push the person away or run them over with her pushchair.
I thought the general response would be a 'don't worry about it, the Thais just love children'. To my surprise as I read through the replies, lots of parents agreed it was a major concern. They felt their children were being scared or even traumatised. They were worried about germs. They even felt it was putting their children at risk of abduction.
It was noticeable that the mothers were much more protective and vociferous than the fathers. Many fathers had the same view as me; that it is generally a good thing and they had nothing but positive experiences. While I am sure mothers and fathers love their children equally, I do think that perhaps the maternal instinct to protect is stronger. The mothers were united in their belief that all this attention was an intrusion and a threat to their children.
The tone of the debate became one I often notice when westerners are discussing Thai behaviour. It is a simple belief that we are right and they are wrong. Of course, it is natural to believe that your own perspective is right. You will often hear the same thing when Thais discuss farang behaviour. Personally, I believe that discussions of right and wrong do not fit debates about cultural differences. It is simply a case that we are different.
When it comes to an issue as important and emotive as taking care of your children then every parent must make their own choices. If you believe that a safety first at all costs approach is best then nobody else has the right to argue with that.
What I didn't like was the tone of the discussion was that the Thais are wrong and should be taught to behave differently. Of course, every parent has the right to protect their child from unwanted attention. But the suggestion was that the Thais should be taught a lesson. That we should grab them and see how they like it. That it is about time they learned to behave like civilised westerners.
It is a common thread that the Thais should change to be more like us. Well in this case, probably more than any other, the Thais absolutely should not change to be more like us. They have got it so right. They shower love and affection on their children and ours. From their earliest days, their children learn that it is normal for people to be friendly and kind. They grow up in this environment and generally, they grow up to be happier and kinder than their western counterparts. And when they are grown, they pass the same treatment on to the next generation.
Nothing could highlight the difference between Thai and western outlooks more than the way we treat our children. There are some things we do better such as education, health and preparing our children to be independent and individual. The Thais are better at teaching their children to be friendly, social, open and part of society.
There have to be limits on how far parents allow strangers to go with their children. It is just a question of where the parents set those limits. In this forum discussion, it was claimed that Thais regularly overstep the limits. That they were taking children from their prams while the parents weren't looking, pretending to run away with the children or swarming them in huge groups. If that is the case then I would agree they are taking playfulness too far. But I have never seen such behaviour from Thais and to be honest I didn't find the accounts of these stories very believable. It seemed like they were being exaggerated to justify the defensive stand of the parents. I wouldn't say these things never happen but I do not believe they are common.
It is about balance but generally, the Thais get it right. They play with the child, tease the child, they will often pick up the child and show her to colleagues or friends. They are good with children and react to the child's reactions. If the child laughs they play more, if the child cries they return her to the parents.
In this forum discussion, the mother who started it said that her child now acted stressed every time a Thai approached her. The problem is the child is probably reacting to her mother's anxiety rather than the attention itself. If the mother acted happy when people played with the child then the child would feel good about it. The fact that the mother is stressed and tries to push the offenders away is probably what is causing the child's stress.
As for the worry about germs; this really struck me as rather silly. You cannot hide your child away from germs. They are a part of life. Even if you could, it would not be a good thing. Exposure to germs is necessary to develop a strong immune system. Anyway, most Thais are very hygienic people. Of course you would steer your child away from a drunk or ill looking person but to use germs as an excuse to keep away all Thais is just nonsense.
Every parent should worry about child abduction. It does happen in Thailand. I cannot find any reliable figures but I think it is fair to say it is probably on a similar scale to the west. That is rare but enough that every parent should be on their guard. But the abductor is not likely to be a sales assistant or a waitress. For a start, you would be able to track them down too easily. An abductor is not likely to pick your child up in front of you and then sprint down the road carrying her under their arm. That is just not how child abductions happen.
Abductions generally happen when the child is out of the parent's sight. So you will feel a little concerned if the shop assistant takes your child out of sight to show her colleagues. However, even this is common in Thailand and not a high-risk situation. You have met the person who has your child; they are not going to get away with abducting her. In the end, it is a judgment the parent must make. You have to be aware but that does not mean you need to shield your child from contact with every stranger.
The friendliness shown by Thais to children is in stark contrast to the way children are treated in the west where many still believe in the old saying that children should be seen and not heard. From our earliest days we are taught that strangers are dangerous. It is no wonder we grow up so wary, so reluctant to befriend strangers.
I know if I take my children to a Thai restaurant and they start playing around then the staff will laugh and play with them. I know that if there are other Thai customers they will also laugh. They are not pretending to be polite; they are pleased to see happy children. I know that if there are other farang customers then I have to check to see how they react to the disturbance. Some may not like it and I might need to rein in the kids. I know the reaction I would get in a restaurant in my home country - withering stares and very quickly complaints about not controlling my kids.
Last week I took my two children to the beach. The tide was out, there were plenty of shallow pools for them to play and they were having a great time. I realised I would like to take some photos but I had left my camera in the car. It would only take a minute to go and get it. I didn't want to leave the kids on their own even for a minute but I didn't really want to carry them back to the car with me.
I looked around the beach - it was Sunday and there were lots of Thais there. I knew, I just knew that if I left the kids playing on their own then the Thais would start watching them. They always do. Thais are very protective when it comes to children. So I stood up and went back to the car. Even as I left, I noticed a couple of concerned glances towards my children. When I returned, exactly as I expected, they had been befriended by a Thai family and were happily playing with them in the water. The children were laughing and the photos came out great.
What I am saying is that yes every western parent in Thailand has the right to protect their children and guide them away from unwanted attention. Every parent has the right to judge what is and is not acceptable attention from strangers. But what you do not have the right to do is to tell the Thais to change. To tell them to stop showering children with attention because you think it is wrong.
This affection the Thais have for children is genuine and an important part of their upbringing. It is one of the major reasons why the majority of them grow up to be kind, friendly and happy people. So yes, if you must shy your children away from this attention then you should do so. But do not tell the Thais they are wrong to give it.