By moving from the States to Costa Rica with young children, we’ve allowed our surroundings to be replaced with a whole new society, a place where the village does indeed raise a child. Not wanting to keep my family in the bubble of set methods and practices, I have made an effort to observe the atmosphere that the local children grow up in. Here and there, I’ve noticed ways of rearing children that at first caused me to raise my eyebrows, but I’ve come to see wisdom where I once saw error. In my limited experience, I’ve become aware of the decency of their youth–children and teenagers who are socially respectful, happily industrious, and quite independent at an alarmingly young age.
Through flexibility of my own mothering habits, I hope to infuse some of these lessons into my children’s lives. Here are some ways in which the parents of Costa Rica raise their children in a manner that might shock some folks of my similar upbringing:
They let their children talk to strangers.
They not only let them, they expect them to communicate politely with strangers in public. It is no surprising thing to see a grown man come up and have a conversation with a little child he has never met before. In my first week here, a Costa Rican man came up to my then two year old in the grocery store and picked him up, without asking me. Thankfully, there was no reason to scream for help or to call the cops. He was just trying to help with a fussy toddler, in a way that I found much too friendly.
As the months have passed, I’ve noticed that all the young children are very well-mannered in public. Unattended six and seven year olds pause their play to say hello and ask me how I am as I walk by on the street. We’ve found that the best directions are given by children, who clearly and simply speak and gesture the road ahead. Oftentimes, I have a vey useful conversation with a lone child in line at the grocery store, picking up a few necessities for their family. Not one Tico child has resisted meeting us with a smile and a salutation in our time here. While growing up in Maryland, one of the big rules was “Don’t talk to strangers.” There was good cause for this command, but perhaps we take it too far. Looking at the friendly and inviting faces of Costa Ricans of all ages makes it hard not to sigh over the generally colder manners in the States.
They put them to work at an early age.
Set aside our views on child-labor for a moment and think about this. It is not unusual for a kindergarten-aged child in Costa Rica to work. Many grow up on farms, and spend their afternoons and weekends harvesting crops or caring for animals. A neighbor of mine recently told me that she has been working since the age of five, picking coffee beans and helping with the house in addition to going to school. She was not paid for this work, she was expected to be helpful as a part of the family. Wow. I let the pity pass quickly enough to realize what a strong, cheerful and successful woman that upbringing has made her. She has the lovely, well maintained home that she grew up in, and she has three charming teenage children that work the same coffee fields and assist her with the same household chores. They are studious, diligent, and very hardworking people, and I hope that my own children have a work ethic that resembles theirs in the future.
They leave them unattended.
Again, this is something that utterly shocked me when I first noticed it. How could a young girl, no more than six, be getting on the public bus alone? What is this toddler doing awkwardly attempting to ride a tricycle in his front yard, with no adult supervision, and with cars whizzing by just feet away? Why is an eight year old girl spending full afternoons at my house, not knowing us more than a week, not speaking our language, and not being checked on by her mother? However, when I finally let my mind wander from my own ideals, I saw that these children were fine. That girl getting on the bus plopped down on the first seat and laughed with the driver until he saw her safely to her stop. That toddler near the road wouldn’t come close to the street, because he knew that he must stay in the yard. That neighbor’s daughter was old enough to take care of herself, and decide if our home was a safe place to play. While I can’t imagine letting go of my own fear enough to let my three year old play near the road alone, I have much respect for the culture that creates these self-reliant, independent children.
Urge your children to speak to adults, under your supervision.
Children are capable of respectfully addressing adults, and should be encouraged to do so. Not only would it impress your friends, it would plant the feeling of mutual respect in the child’s mind–s/he is an individual too, why should s/he be ignored by others? They are entitled to polite conversation as well, and should not be kept from socializing with adults. This may cause an increase in respectful, thoughtful people, and a decrease in loud trouble makers in those hormonal teenage years. (Just a thought, but worth trying, right?).
Give your children jobs at a young age.
Take advantage of those windows of opportunity, when your child actually wants to work. If your daughter is an animal lover, make her in charge of feeding, walking, and bathing the dog. If your son wants to be a big boy and help Dad with the lawn, give him the task of pulling the weeds or raking the leaves. If your preschooler loves to help with the laundry, make folding the towels and mating the socks their special responsibility. Expect your kids to clean up after themselves at a young age, when they enjoy the task, and then you might not need to demand it later. (My kids are three and one, so this might be hopeful wishing). If this is the culture in the homes of the Ticos, why can’t we implement it where ever we are? Personally, I want my kids to take pride in their work and enjoy being helpful.
Back off a little.
Now, I am not suggesting we put our young children on public buses alone–not in most neighborhoods of the States, anyways. However, we can let go a little. We can let them explore a park without our shadow looming over them. (Still keeping them in view, mind you). We can let them stir the cookie batter themselves, even if flour ends up everywhere. (Another chance to clean up after themselves). We can encourage our toddler to pick out their own outfit and get dressed themselves. These are slight alterations that I’ve been implementing in my own household, and I am rewarded with that priceless look of accomplishment on my son’s face with each new independent triumph.
What are some ways in which you teach the values of politeness, hard work and independence to your children? Let’s share our tips!