Where The Wild Kids Are

6 Jul

I was completely taken aback the first time I saw a small child get sent on an errand by himself by a perfectly reasonable, respectable adult. When I was visiting Mexico a few years back, I had seen a five year old get sent for beer- which yes, was sold to him. I was able to rationalize that, since it was an incredibly small town, and I could hardly say anything, since I was the beneficiary of the procured beer, being a guest at the house. Although I admit I might have had some judgmental little thoughts about the situation.


This time, though, as a brand new resident of the fairly small town of Juquila, Oaxaca, Mexico, I tried to insist that I would go to the store instead of the four year old in question. “You don’t even know where it is,” Paulina sensibly reminded me. “And Emma’s really fast. He’s a very smart and helpful four year old,” she said, in that special way that moms say things, talking to someone else but making sure the child can hear what you’re saying, praising them so that they continue to do whatever positive thing it is that you want them to do. (I bet some parent or the other invented psychology way before that jerk Freud. Necessity is the mother of invention, and mothers have lots of necessities, right?)


Emmanuel, now almost 7 years old

Emmanuel, now almost 7 years old

Wild children of Oaxaca: Lucia and her cousins having unstructured playtime!  Yes, they are riding a horse (broom) together

Wild children of Oaxaca: Lucia and her cousins having unstructured playtime! Yes, they are riding a horse (broom) together

“But are you sure he should go by himself?” I asked skeptically. When I was a kid, back in the late 80s and early 90s, I wasn’t allowed to go to Walgreens, just a couple blocks away, by myself, until I was probably seven or eight. By then I had been well trained in the ways of dealing with strangers, tactics in avoiding a kidnapping, including a “safe word” that would be used if anyone ever had a legitimate reason to pick me up because my parents couldn’t. I grew up with clear and small boundaries; we didn’t cross the alley without permission, we didn’t even go inside another kid’s house without letting our parents know where we were. Over time, of course, my boundaries expanded, but always with a bit of hesitation. The reminders were everywhere- kids’ faces on milk cartons, news report and stories of missing children, abused children, molested children. These things make parents cautious, with good reason. Nevermind that most child abuse happens via family and close friends. Nevermind that we all got flashed by that poor homeless guy that talked and yelled to himself, without us having crossed the alley. We still grew up learning that the world of strangers is a dangerous one, and that going anywhere without parents is a grave responsibility, not to be taken lightly.


But little Emma (short for Emmanuel), about to turn five at the time, was full of confidence and determination. “Tsí, yo voy!” (Yes, I’ll go!) he said, still not able to pronounce his s just right. “Give me the money,” and he held out his little hand. Paulina made him repeat back the order- Lala semi leche, the the Lala brand blue carton of milk. “If it’s more than one thing I write it down and he hands the paper to the clerk,” she told me. “But it’s fine; it’s just right down the street. I never send him on far-away errands by himself,” she assured me.


“What about cars? Does he have to cross the street?” I asked, still concerned.


“Ah, Emma knows how to watch for cars,” she said. “I’ll tell you some more about Emma in just a minute. Don’t you worry.”


Emma is one of Paulina’s neighbor’s kids. The neighbor is a single mom with 3 kids under age 7 and, at the time, another on the way (who’s just a couple months behind Lucia). She has very little help and almost no family support, other than her mother begrudgingly giving her a room, which she pays off by helping work in her mom’s hotel down the street. There are no food stamps in Oaxaca. There is very, very little financial help of any kind for single moms, or really for much of anyone. So somewhat understandably, Emma had not been the most well-cared-for child on the planet. He had had to learn all kinds of important lessons on his own, through trial and error.

In addition to being what Paulina calls a survivor, he is a sweet as pie and thoughtful as all get-out when he’s not being jealous or grumpy. He had started to go next door and “bother” Paulina and Arturo regularly, from the time that he could walk- hanging out with them, sitting on Arturo’s lap. Over time he spent more and more time there, until Arturo and Paulina started to call him their child- half-jokingly, but only half. His mom still has the major responsibilities for things like getting him to school, making sure he gets his lunch, things like that. But he eats as often at Paulina’s table as he does at his mom’s (chow-hound that he is, sometimes eating a meal in both places!). He often goes out of town with Paulina and Arturo; we met him when he came to the Oaxaca airport with Paulina to pick us up. It’s a unique and lovely relationship that they have, and I think it’s beneficial for everyone concerned in distinct ways.


So Emma and his over-sized baseball cap came back from the store with the carton of milk and the change. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Emma’s independence wasn’t an anomaly, nor was it an exception caused by his mother’s difficult situation. I thought at first that Paulina was emphasizing the fact that Emma had had a difficult start to life and that’s why he could cross the street by himself, when really what she was telling me was what an exceptionally smart and helpful kid Emma is despite his difficult life. What she really was telling me was that Emma took pride in washing his own clothes at Paulina’s house, while his one-year-older brother did no such thing to help his mom. What she really wanted to stress was that Emma had learned how to cross the street from a very early age, that he always volunteered to go on errands, that he is a fabulous kid, in part, of course, thanks to her influence. She wasn’t telling me, like I interpreted initially, that she could give him more responsibility because nobody had bothered with Emma’s welfare for periods of his short life. She was telling me she could give him more responsibility because he’s a great kid.


Lots and lots of kids around here get sent to the store by themselves, practically from the time they can toddle, on. Lots of kids get to go outside and play without telling their parents exactly where they’re going and how soon they’ll be back. Kids wander farther than I was allowed to with twice their age. Kids get sent on errands. Kids get sent out to sell the milk from their family’s cow, to sell the tamales their mom just made, to go get change for the family storefront from some other business down the street. The twelve year old whose parents run the plastic store in front of Paulina’s house would sometimes be left alone to take care of the business, plus his four year old brother. A friend of ours would leave her ten year old alone asleep in the house and go out for a while, making sure the door was locked for protection, of course. This is all normal here.


I was shocked and, yes, maybe a little appalled by this when I first arrived. But the thing is, it is not some desperation that makes parents give this kind of independence to their children. It is not a laziness in parenting, as the average U.S. citizen might assume. Of course, there are kids who are victims of necessity, who are out selling stuff at all hours of the day and night, whose education suffers or is nonexistent, who live in extreme poverty despite everyone in their family’s best efforts, or sometimes because of a parent’s alcoholism, or a parent’s lack of other options. But for the most part, the kids you see out running errands, the kids helping run the family business, are just learning to be productive members of society as their parents and their culture see fit. They are learning independence in a world where, unfortunately, there are kidnappings and other horrendous crimes against children, but that isn’t the driving influence in how people treat their children. The fear of those things doesn’t make parents restrict their kids more and more.


Of course there are some parents more protective and worried than others. One of Conan’s family members won’t let her 15 year old take public transportation to school, not because she doesn’t trust her daughter (she says), but because it’s too dangerous a world out there. No matter what culture you live in, there has to be some kind of balance between trying to protect your children and teaching them to be relatively self-sufficient, contributing members of society.


I think for the most part, Mexican parents do really well at this. I think that kids like Emma who learn how to wash their own clothes (by hand, no less), run errands, make change, and a plethora of other useful life skills from a very early age have better “self-esteem” than kids who are praised for every squiggle they draw on a piece of paper, whose parents see every soccer move they make, who are micro-managed and not given “free time” ever.

Should there be a balance? Of course. As parents, we all struggle with this. You know your kid needs you to “ooh and awe” over their beautiful squiggles sometimes. They need someone to remind them that their effort in the game was great, even though they lost. They need some supervision. They need some rules and structure. They need attention and for you to play with them sometimes. But there are practical limitations to that as well as philosophical ones. You can’t play with your kid all the time because you have to cook dinner, you have to do the laundry, you have to go to work, etc. etc. You need some “you” time occasionally, too. And I think we would create ridiculously dependent, helpless children if we were only focused on their needs all the time. We have to think of the needs of the whole family, including our personal needs.


Furthermore, children need and deserve to have their own role in the family, to be contributing members of the family, with some age-appropriate level of self-sufficiency and independence. One of my life’s heroes, Dr. Maria Montessori*, talks a lot about this kind of thing in her philosophy of education. Whether it’s just pouring their ownmilk in the morning, or setting the table for the family, or selling some of their mom’s tamales, children are growing, blossoming humans who need to feel useful just like you and me. And so while I won’t be letting Lucia stay home alone at night (even for a little while) anytime soon, I will, someday, be sending little Lucia off to the corner store, a note and the money in a bag. I can already see the huge smile on her face when she’ll come back, another mission completed by my developing, proud, independent little human.


*She was the first woman in Italy to become a doctor, but she got interested in education by working with children who were thought to have problems learning, and she ended up dedicating her life to education. Her ideas about education are revolutionary, beautiful, and practical. You can read more about it at this site or a host of others: http://amshq.org/Montessori-Education/Introduction-to-Montessori

-On another note, you can probably see, after reading this post, how easy it is for perfectly good parents (from other countries who are living in the U.S.) to get Child Protective Services called on them. Another important role of adult ESL teachers, journalists who write in other languages for immigrants, and other ambassadors in the immigrant community- education about these important cultural differences!

4 Responses to “Where The Wild Kids Are”

  1. Kirsty Erikson July 6, 2014 at 7:35 pm #

    I work on this issue all the time. I hate to let my kiddo’s ride their bikes around the corner (10, 7) and out of my line of sight. It freaks me out. I’m not a “helicopter” parent — I’m all for letting them go out and if they get hurt, we patch it up and move on. But that stranger-danger thing hampers me. It’s all about balance, though. I’m letting go slowly (and they are not feeling “contained” when I set parameters)…but it sure isn’t easy.


    • exiletomexico July 8, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

      It is so hard to find a balance in this. I read this quote from Mr. Rogers the other day though that I really liked, where he talked about how much he loved how his grandfather would let him climb to the highest branches and do all this other stuff that his mom and grandmother thought was too risky. He said he really appreciated his grandfather’s confidence in him. It just reminded me that some things are worth the risks, even if the risks really scare you. But yeah, I’m right there with you on it being difficult!

  2. fml221 July 7, 2014 at 7:03 am #

    I really like the perspective here – you’re so right, we’ve gotten a bit crazed about our children’s safety here, and have forgotten that they need to feel useful. Certainly, the way you describe it in Mexico is more the way it was here when I was a child. I was doing all kinds of things at an early age that would be so far out of the range now, I can’t even imagine. I was babysitting by the time I was 10. Babysitting for real.

    And yes, it really brings it home how easy it would be for an immigrant family to get in trouble with CPS. Educating parents on that is so important. Thanks for this post.

    • exiletomexico July 8, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

      Right, I realize that things used to be different. And I suppose it is a more dangerous world, but I wonder how much more dangerous it really is in relation to how much more cautious/limiting we are with our kids, you know? Like are we taking precautions in direct proportion with the real dangers out there, or are we overzealous because of the way news media reports things. And how much are we willing to limit our kids when even with all of the precautions in the world bad things can still happen to them? Lots to think about….

      And, you know, I didn’t note the fact that I’m talking about small towns down here and not the (albeit rather small) city that I grew up in, which does make a difference.

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