Tuesday, March 20, 2012

To Take Over The World

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.


Sue said...

This is so timely for me. We will be bringing our older (5-7) girl home this summer from ET. Thank you.

The Journey said...

I've had so many similar thoughts lately, and much like yourself I'm really just unsure what to do with them. The example being set seems so crystal clear, yet following that example...not so sure just how to. Thanks for sharing this.

natalie said...

don't tell anyone, but your blog is definitely the only one I read entire posts in.

I don't have much else to say besides: your posts are lovely... keep writing!

findingmagnolia said...

We have been mulling these things over, too, and I'm so glad you posted about this. Our daughter came to us at three years old, and she was so fragile that it's been hard to switch over from being super protective to some of the Ethiopian cultural practices that are recommended to us. One night at the Ethiopian restaurant we frequent, our daughter started crying about something, and the mama of the restaurant came up and said, "This is no Ethiopia way. In Ethiopia, we say, "Be strong! No more crying!" She was kind, but very firm about this. I have no idea what to do with that information, knowing more about our daughter's struggles from her orphanage days than our Ethiopian mama friend, but also wanting to respect the culture. The balance is hard. For now, though, I let her cry. It's better than when she was silent.

greg's wife said...

Your posts are like a great novel. They are always thoughtful and well-written and I feel bummed when I have reached the end. Thank you for putting stuff out there so eloquently that we may all ponder these things with our own children.

Age, experience, gender, so many factors go into how our children act. And so does temperament. We have 4 biological children who are each of the 4 temperaments and we have 3 adopted children who also fall into the different temperaments. Two of those three are sibling brothers from Ethiopia who came to our family at ages 4 and 6. They are very different from each other in so many ways except for their joy and excitement. I'm a big believer in the temperaments.


Two Little Birds said...

Hi there. Just a lurker... and fellow Portlander, and hopefully adopter of a child you daughter's age. I just have to comment on this post, as I find it so interesting. We host an 18 year old ET girl every other weekend. She goes to a boarding school because her adoption was disrupted (their issues - she is fabulous). Anyhow, she has been "lecturing" me on how I must approach our adoptive child, in many ways that you described in your post. At first, I was slightly offended with how she interacted with our 6 year old bio son, but now I appreciates it. She is so tender, yet her expectations are high when it comes to manners, respect, consideration, etc. Surprisingly, he steps up to her challenges, making me step back and look at how I might enable him. I am now slightly humbled to say that I "learn" from her on how to be a better mother. Anyhow, such a great post. You daughter sounds like a wonderful person! Jen

kn said...


Please, please, please move to New York. Or visit for a loooong time.

In some ways I was really lucky to work much of Quinn's young childhood. It's made him different than some of his friends. We had no choice but to make sure he could get his clothes on at an early age, keep a tidy room and accept the food that was put before him. He's a peach that kid. Belaye and he are similar. They both do their chores pretty well and are goofy, happy, joyful kids who help a great deal around the house. Our house is a mess. Don't get me wrong, they make messes faster than they can clean up. But they are diligent (on their own age levels) and they don't complain (much;-)

Love Fred Rogers! I never saw this speech before. Thanks for sharing.


Semi-feral Mama said...

My children are so over indulged. They are ridiculous - but only because I am ridiculous.
The obligation to parents - it is interesting culturally. Then when you add the adoption layer on top... boy howdy, it is complicated.
I have no idea how to strike the appropriate balance. I have no idea if one cultures ideas are actually any more correct than another's.
I just want to keep peeling back the layers of this post.

CP said...

Really fascinating entry, Lori.