A Matter Of Discipline
Every culture views life through its own unique cultural prism. Everyone has their own ideas about the right and wrong ways to go about getting things done. I certainly am a product of western society, and have many western attitudes. (Some may say prejudices.) Nowhere are differences between Thai and Farang as clearly illustrated as in the philosophy of child rearing.
What follows here is yet another slice of domestic life here in the Land of Smiles. If you are not a parent, or not even vaguely interested in raising children, please feel free to skip this submission. (Perhaps Bart or Aha has something intelligent to say today…LOL!)
Anyone who is a parent knows that child rearing is not for the faint-hearted. It is a job that requires your full attention, 24/7. Parenting guide books, written by “experts” may claim to have all the answers, but in the end most of the time even the most dedicated parents are scrambling trying to keep on top of things. From childhood illnesses, to fussy eaters; from teething woes to trying to keep your child out of the cat food, there are a myriad number of balls that a parent has juggle. I for one have been known to drop one from time to time, but oh well; I try to do my best!
Coming to a consensus of how things should be done can always be challenging. Moms and dads have been arguing since Day One about “who knows best”. When your spouse is Thai, this can be especially challenging. My wife and I simply see things based on our personal experiences, which are vastly different. When it comes to the matter of discipline, we inhabit two entirely different universes. From my perspective, a large percentage of Thai children are spoiled brats. Yes, this is true in Farangland as well. Like everything else in Thailand, the nature of this bratty behavior has its own unique Thai twist. What you may ask makes Moi an expert when it comes to Thai children? Well nothing I suppose aside from having thousands and thousands of kids of all ages in my classroom over the years. I might add that this includes kids from every social and economic strata of Thai society. Based on my personal experiences in mentoring mommy and daddy’s “little darlings”, I’m convinced that too many boys and girls could have used a “trip to the woodshed” at some point in their young lives. These kids have only one mantra: “ME, ME, ME. WHAT ABOUT ME?”
Anyone who believes that children are born with the desire to yield one inch or “territory” to someone else probably believes in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. We are born wanting the entire world to revolve around our axis. It is only through years of socialization that children learn to share and take others' concerns into account. Okay enough psychobabble. Let’s look at some “real life examples of how Thai and Farang viewpoints on this subject differ.
I believe that as adults we need to put clear limits on what children are allowed to do. For very young children, this should be obvious as a matter of simple safety. A toddler doesn’t understand that putting his hand into a pot of boiling water is not a good idea. It is a parent’s job to simply prevent him or her from doing so. Intellectual explanations have to wait until a child is capable of understanding. For now all a child needs to do is know that they are not allowed to go near the boiling water…or there will be consequences! That sounds reasonable doesn’t it? Apparently this isn’t necessarily true in Thailand, where children are routinely allowed to do dangerous things by their erstwhile guardians. Down in my wife’s village in Buriram, her nephews have managed to incur a list of injuries a mile long. One of them had his spleen removed after falling off a wall where he had no business being – right under the nose of his father. One infant severely burned himself after putting his hand in a pot of boiling water. In this case the child had not even been shooed away or warned in any manner. Of course there is the question of why the pot of boiling water was where he could get into it is another question altogether. I won’t even go into all the broken bones, severe cuts, punctures, etc. that were the result of little or no parental supervision. Needless to say my in-laws' attitude when it comes to watching out for their children is cavalier to say the least.
I will be the first to admit that I am not any paragon of parenthood. Lord knows I’ve made my share of mistakes in raising my older children. But I really did try to do my best, as I’m sure many of you out there with children have done. At least the first three times around, my ex-wife and I shared a common sense of values. We may have had some serious problems, but I can’t say that she was a bad mother.
This time around, my Thai wife and I seem to have a completely different idea about the need for discipline. This became clear from the moment we brought Sam home from the hospital. Obviously as a new mother, my wife wanted to sleep with the baby. No problem. Since she was going to be nursing every few hours, it made complete sense to get as much rest as she could. Since I am a light sleeper, she decided to sleep in the room we had fixed up for the baby. After 2-3 months I told her that it was time for her to move back into our room. We had a baby monitor. I’d used one for all of my previous children. If Sam made the least peep, she could get up and provide “room service”. Like most first time mothers she was a bit overprotective, but I couldn’t fault that…especially considering the lackadaisical attitudes of her sisters. At some point though I said that she really had to let Sam get used to sleeping by himself, otherwise he would become dependent on being with her 24 hours a day. I do understand that some cultures view the Western idea of children and parents sleeping in separate bedrooms barbaric. Why shouldn’t the entire family curl up together…along with the barnyard animals and settle in for the night? I know many of you fathers there with Thai wives know exactly what was coming. My wife moved back into our bed…and brought the baby with her. While we do have a queen size bed, there was simply not enough room for the three of us. Even though the baby was a wee thing, he seemed to need the entire bed. Call me selfish, but I need my own damned space! So my wife and the baby moved onto the floor, which was no hardship for her since that’s where she spent the better part of her life sleeping. Now at over two years Sam is incapable of sleeping away from mommy. I have an American friend here who is married to a lovely Thai lady. They have a lovely five year old daughter who still sleeps in their bed! I once asked him if that made “intimacy” a little…sporadic. One roll of his eyes told me all I needed to know. Thai birth control in practice.
Now that our son is running around and babbling away in three languages (Thai, English and “Isaan”) the need for some rational agreement on discipline is needed more than ever. Anyone who has raised a child or two knows all too well about the “Terrible Twos”. Kids are just beginning to learn what boundaries are all about, and believe me they will push limits as far as they can get away with. Being so young and inexperienced, they have no idea of the consequences of their actions. Our little guy is to put it mildly “a little monkey”. That is to say that he will climb anything without the least worry about hurting himself. What’s a parent to do? Well, first I started with a smiling but firm “no climbing”! Then I would try to get him interested in a less dangerous activity. This worked as well as you might have expected, that is to say not at all. The next step was to say the same words in a loud and commanding (scary) voice. Now the wailing began, followed by a quick run to mommy. Of course five minutes later he was back at the “forbidden” activity as if nothing had ever happened. The next step was inevitable. It was time for one swift smack on his little butt. Now the serious wailing began! Let me be perfectly clear before I start getting emails about “child abuse.” This was not a spanking. This was not a beating. When it comes to protecting my child’s life and limb, getting his attention is more important than a few tears that will be dry in a few minutes anyway. I have never “hit” any of my children, and I don’t intend to start now. But when all other methods have been exhausted, a swat or two (and nothing more than that) is needed. I’ve made it perfectly clear to my wife that we need to share this responsibility. I do not want to be relegated to being “the bad guy”. She however simply cannot bring herself to do anything to make him cry. We have a perfectly good car seat for Sam. After five minutes on the road he will cry to get out of it, and if given the opportunity she will give in. That is when I will just pull off the road until he is once again securely fastened in. “What would you rather have” I ask my wife? “A fussy child who is alive or one who is quiet…forever”! Growing up in dirt poor farming family, my wife has absolutely no experience dealing with these kinds of issues. Her family only owned a second-hand motorcycle. Most families in Buriram, when they do ride in a car or truck, simply pile in as many bodies as will fit in and head out down the road. Whenever I see this I shudder. I know all too well what would happen if an accident happened…and we all know how likely an accident in Thailand can be! When we lived in America, I got my wife into the habit of always wearing a safety belt. Here I have to nag her buckle if she’s sitting in the back seat with Sam. Her mother, who lives with us, simply refuses to wear one.
Ah, my dear mother-in-law! She really is a good person who deep down knows that I have the well being of her daughter and grandson in mind, but doesn’t have an inkling of what you and I would think of as common sense when it comes to safety. It’s a no-brainer to leave sharp knives out of the reach of little hands, isn’t it? Likewise, poisonous substances, boiling water, hot pans, etc. Perhaps it’s because they’re Buddhists. Perhaps it’s because they’ve received a piss-poor education. Perhaps they are both stupid and reckless. Perhaps it’s because their parents and grandparents before them were clueless. In any case, many rural Thais seem to be unconcerned that their children are running barefoot through yards strewn with broken glass and rusty nails, or riding recklessly on motorcycles without helmets. One time in my wife’s village I cam across a group of her young nephews playing with a roaring fire. They ranged in age from about six years old down to a toddler of 18 months. What the fxxx I said to myself, then quickly rushed over to chase them all away, and then douse the fire before somebody hurt themselves. The kids immediately rushed over to their parents to complain about the Farang “spoiling all their fun”. Were the parents the least bit concerned that one of their children might have been injured? No, they looked at me with an expression that spoke volumes about Isaan values. “Why do get sooooo upset over such a small thing”? Gee, maybe so one of your children doesn’t maim himself for life…or worse! This is one of the reasons I would have to be forced against my will before I would ever live amongst these folks!
Okay, enough about safety and on to the topic of behavior. When I was raising my older children in America, I was fairly tolerant and easy going about many things, but not about rude behavior…especially in public. If nothing else my parents taught me to mind my manners. They never had to raise a hand to make me behave. One look from my father was enough to keep me in line! My kids learned the same lesson. Act out of line in public and face the consequences. Oh, I did have to resort to a smack or two on the butt, but this was rare, and eventually never needed. Only “the look” was needed.
Here in The Land of Smiles, mere “looks” don’t do me a bit of good in the classroom. Thai kids feel quite free to thumb their noses at teachers, especially Farang teachers. Some of course are simply being adolescents. Others quite frankly are horrid little brats. Their parents indulge their every whim and require very little in return. They could care less about how their children are behaving…and it shows.
Right now both I and my wife are working full time. This leaves “Yai” or grandma to watch our little boy. There is no doubt that she loves him, but I worry sometimes about her influence. Frankly Sam feels free to order her around like a servant, and most of the time she simply complies with his demands. I’ve told my wife that it’s up to every adult in our family to discipline him whenever necessary; otherwise this cute, clever little boy is going to become a cute, clever little monster. As it is now I am the only one who doesn’t tolerate bad behavior. Actually Sam doesn’t misbehave when he is alone with me. He knows that a) it simply won’t work and b) there is no one to run to and cry. That’s why I can take him out for hours at a time without the least unpleasant incident. As soon as he sees mom or Yai though he reverts back into “full whine mode”. Yes I know the kid is only two, but that’s precisely the time when you need to show him what acceptable behavior is and what is not.
Speaking of unacceptable behavior, let’s talk about where one is supposed to relieve oneself. Okay, I mean “potty training”. Many men are squeamish about dealing with the subject, but, if you have kids, sooner or later you have to deal with it. Certainly dirty diapers are no-one's idea of fun, but comes part and parcel with parenthood. Kids learn toilet training when they are ready. Trying to force them to use a toilet before they are ready is not only futile but can lead to behavioral problems. My oldest son learned very quickly. His younger brothers took a bit longer but in the end they got it down. In his own sweet time Sam will also. Until then however, except during bath time he needs to wear a diaper. You can say that my western prejudice is rearing its ugly head again, but I believe that 99.9 percent of the time, the proper place to pee and poop is into a toilet. Yes, I know that sometimes a toilet is simply not available, and the nearest bush is the only alternative to soiling oneself. Right now however my wife and her mother are content to have Sam running around without a diaper. It does not fill me with great happiness to see him peeing wherever he chooses to. The other day however when I stepped outside the other day and saw him running around naked and a toddler sized pile of excrement on our sidewalk, I went ballistic. I turned to my wife and asked her what the hell was going on. Are we living in India (or Buriram?) Until our son can use a toilet, the only place for poop is in his diaper…NOT on the fxxxing ground! My wife could simply not comprehend why I was perturbed. Thais are not shy about relieving themselves in public. Men are always peeing by the side of the road without even bothering to go behind a bush. What I patiently explained to my wife is that encouraging our son to just let loose is not conducive to him learning to use a toilet. Most toddlers after a while do not enjoy having a soiled diaper; find the toilet as a way of avoiding this unpleasantness. Her reaction was to go off in a huff.
What can I say? Once again Thai and Western sensibilities were at loggerheads. In the end I know everything will work itself out, but times like this try my patience. Time to sit for a while and meditate. I do not need to raise my blood pressure unnecessarily. I know that our son is a bright little guy, and thanks to his mother’s genetic heritage, a handsome little devil. Over the coming years I will be supplementing whatever passes for his Thai education with my own material. Despite my above bitching, I know that my wife loves and wants the best for him. Despite the occasional clashing of cultures, I believe that he will turn out to be a fine young man. In the meantime I will continue to do my best to instill him with whatever wisdom I can.
I have seen and can relate to everything point you make. The behaviour issue is the big one that gets me and general politeness. Most Thai kids are horribly impolite and have no notion of decent manners.
I also wonder about how Thai-style parenting affects the kids in later life. Don't they say that by about age 10 your personality has pretty much been formed?