This morning at work, I had a conversation with one of the seniors in our program about my daughter. A group of the Ethiopian elders hang out at the local shopping mall drinking coffee and talking, and I had run into them yesterday while taking Beti to buy some new shoes. This particular elder wasn't at the mall yesterday but he'd heard I had come by to say 'hi', and I told him about how we're prepared to buy Beti many pairs of shoes in her childhood thanks to how fast she is and how hard she is on her shoes.
The next few minutes was a bragging session about our daughter.
"She is faster than all the kids in her class, even the boys."
"That's because she's Ethiopian" he said, going on to name all the famous Ethiopian runners through history, nodding with pride as I described how fast and strong she is.
"She does all her homework for the week in just one night, turning it in four days early. She wants to be a doctor and is determined and smart enough to do it."
He nodded proudly again and said, "That's good. It's because she's Ethiopian."
"Actually, last night she didn't finish her homework for the week but only because she wanted to help me clean. She swept and mopped the house for me, which I didn't even ask her to do."
Again he nodded and smiled. I told him that Abe isn't quite like this yet though. He got a concerned, worried look on his face and said, "He needs to learn."
I've thought a lot about the differences between our two kids, both Ethiopian, but one having spent his early childhood in Oregon and the other in a small city in the north of Ethiopia. These were two very different early childhoods, and I can't quite tell how much is nature and nurture and age difference. I really can't. What I know now is that our kids are very different from each other, especially when it comes to areas of helpfulness, responsibility, and diligence to finish a task.
A few months ago I was at the home of another of our Ethiopian elders whose teenage daughter was braiding Beti's hair. After she finished, Beti ran over to me and crawled in my lap, hanging on to me while squirreling around being a squirmy worm of a big girl with new braids. My friend looked at us disapprovingly and began to fuss at Beti in Amharic. Beti looked downwards and got very still, then moved away to play in the other room.
Our friend explained to me when I asked what she told her, "Do you like what she was doing?"
I thought about it a second or two and admitted that it wasn't pleasant to have a squirmy kid on my lap.
"She is a big girl and shouldn't be hanging on her mother like that. I told her that her job is to help her parents and that she shouldn't do what she was doing because it's not nice for you."
Hm. I wasn't sure what to think. This way of thinking sort of flew in the face of all I thought was true about bonding and attachment. Physical affection is so important, and shooing her away didn't feel quite right (though I was relieved to have my lap back).
A few weeks later, I had let Beti climb into the basket part of the grocery cart where babies sit, just for the fun of it. She was so happy to be facing me as I shopped, pushing her around the store. While doing our shopping, we ran into this same Ethiopian friend who was there with her elderly mother. We talked for a bit in the cheese and lunch meat aisle, and then my friend pointedly asked me why I was letting Beti sit there "like a baby." When I told her that it was just for fun, she again mildly scolded us both, telling us that kids are supposed to be a help to their parents, that she should be walking beside me putting things in the cart for me or even pushing the cart, not being carted around herself.
While we know a fair amount about our daughter's beginnings, one thing we don't know exactly is what was expected of her by her community of adults. I think it's pretty fair to believe that at even the early age of three and four, she had responsibilities. Yes children in Ethiopia are treasured and doted on; they also are given serious expectations to succeed in life and responsibilities at a very early age. The fact that on Beti's first morning with us in Oregon she went to the back deck and began grinding stray coffee beans with a toy boat and screwdriver handle makes me think that she was probably the principle mortar-and-pestle girl in her first home. This was expected of her. It was her responsibility to perform this task for her community.
Is this a bad thing? It's certainly different from the American way of raising young kids. Very different. I think some might say that kids just need to play and that by giving them too many 'chores' at a young age, you're robbing them of the one time in their lives that they can just be kids, period.
If that's true, that kids raised with these serious responsibilities are more serious and less joyful, then it doesn't explain the joy we saw among kids in Addis Ababa. We saw no Ethiopian kids having public meltdowns, talking sass to their parents, copping attitudes with adults, refusing to greet or say goodbye to friends. In general, the kids I saw there were respectful, kind, and happy.
I don't mean to idealize a place that I have only spent very limited time in. I know that the child-rearing culture there isn't rosy perfection. I have just thought a lot about what we expect of our kids and how we might be hindering their ability succeed in life by providing for them these "magical" childhoods of shiny kid-fest entertainment and little responsibility.
Why is most everything we ask our son to do usually a fight and the opposite with our daughter (most of the time)? Does it have to do with how they were raised? Possibly. I really don't know. Truly, I don't. Yes, I know that Beti's willingness to help may just be her desire to please us, based in fear and insecurity. I get that. But again, I just don't know.
A Liberian elder I drive to exercise class every Tuesday morning told me this morning how crazy she thinks it is that my father-in-law is resisting getting help in his old age from his nine children. She said in her thick, thick, thick accent, "If I coulda talk to him, I'da say, 'Oh my broda, dontcha see you blessed and lucky to have nine kids!? It their JOB to helpa you when you old man!'"
She's right, exactly right.
Most cultures have this expectation that adult children should take care of aging parents. The difference is in how early people are expected to start contributing to their families and communities. In the U.S. it's not really expected much at all, not much more than a cursory, "We're trying to teach our kid responsibility so they can be independent adults," not in the sense of "If my kid doesn't go fetch water today, we can't wash our dishes or do laundry or have anything to drink." The stakes are higher in some places than others.
One Ethiopian family I know here has a teenage son whose "idol" (his own words) is his father. The father won the green card lottery from the U.S. Embassy and came here seven years ago to work to bring his family over. He worked as an orderly in a nursing home but by the time he'd saved enough for visas and plane tickets for his wife and three children, he'd missed the window of time to bring them over. So he had to reapply and wait two more years. He didn't see any of his kids for five very long years. Can you imagine? His youngest was only a toddler and was reunited with his father as a school-aged kid. I can't imagine. The father is now in nursing school, and his oldest son wants to be an engineer. He works day and night to help his family and to earn high enough grades to get a college scholarship. He told me all about how his biggest desire in life is to make his father proud of him because "my dad sacrificed everything for me."
Beti wants to be a doctor too. With her drive and intelligence, I have no doubts that she can do it as long as she doesn't get "soft" by living in this child-centered culture. Sometimes I think that these hard-working, intelligent, and driven Ethiopian kids are going to get over here to this "land of opportunity" and take over the world. Their Ethiopian parents are going to expect it of them. As an adoptive parent, will I expect it of them too or just be surprised when it happens?
I don't know. I really don't.
Today was Fred Rogers' birthday. I love him. This speech is fitting.