Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Are Parents Too Overprotective in the West and Too Lax in the East?

Are Parents Too Overprotective in the West and Too Lax in the East? via Shutterstock

One of the things that I really love about having babies in China is how attentive complete strangers are to my children. The fruit seller at our apartment complex entrance is always asking about my kids, for example, even if I am there without them—she even knows their names! It warms my heart.


I’ve likewise been amazed by how warm and interested wait staff are in Chinese restaurants. Now that we have two children, it’s not unusual for a waitress to ask first about our children’s ages and genders before even taking our orders. (Of course, in the very quintessential Chinese way of expressing care, many will also worry that they’re not dressed warmly enough, even during the warmest day of summer!)


And further to restaurant experiences, it’s not unusual for a restaurant waitress to scoop up my toddler daughter and take her to meet the kitchen staff. The first time this happened—when my daughter was about eight months old—I was alarmed. The waitress took my daughter and disappeared around a corner! I thought, “Where is she taking her?” as I rushed after them in pursuit. They hadn’t even asked me if they could pick her up!


Yet, I should pause the panic a moment to identify the silver lining: in a restaurant setting, these doting strangers give me a chance to care for one child while the other is being distracted. How nice to have someone holding my infant son while I have a chance to get my two-year old daughter’s bib off and folded away, hands and face wiped, and her jacket on, for example. I’ll take the help wherever I can get it, especially when I’m on my own.


But, in my Westerns friends’ eyes, whether or not it’s helpful doesn’t change the fact that this is a dangerous habit to condone. Stories of child abductions and unkind strangers were rampant in the West when we were growing up. The result is an unspoken rule that picking up (or even touching) another person’s child is invasive; it oversteps an invisible boundary—is threatening, even. In Canada, at least.


And what about China? Recent stories of Chinese children being stolen and then re-sold into adoptions have reached my ears and put me on higher alert here. The fact that my children are mixed-race kids is a form of protection against such a trafficking threat—in other words, mixed kids aren’t usually targets—but it’s hardly a consolation.


So, while the idea of losing one’s child is the most terrifying thought a mother can have (it makes me shudder to even type these words), I recognize that there are probably extremes happening on both sides: too over-protective in the West, too lax in the East.


That’s why I’m doubly wary when I hear these sentences being spoken to my children by strangers: “跟我走吧!我带你走吧!你来我们家住好不好!” “Come with me! I’ll take you away. You come to my house to live, okay?” They’re such commonly heard phrases that Chinese people probably say them to kids more out of habit than with any conscious examination of their meaning. When the baby doesn’t respond negatively—i.e. doesn’t “make strange” and gladly lets the stranger “take them away,” there is usually laughter all around. There seems to be a sense of gratification on the part of the stranger, as though successfully charming a child away from his or her mother is an accomplishment.


Even after six years in this country, my Western ears can’t hear these words without cringing. While I don’t detect evil intentions, I think this habit is one that should be checked. Isn’t this the type of behaviour that actually facilitates child abductions? If kids have been hearing these words ever since their infancies, they have also been internalizing their meaning: that it’s okay for someone they don’t recognize to pick them up and take them away from their parents!


The danger inherent in this subtle education is obvious. Won’t it result in their inability to identify a dangerous stranger? How do we teach them how to stay safe and close to us (their parents) if they have learned since infancy that strangers can “take them away”? What’s more, how do we teach them that making people laugh by being complacent about strangers isn’t actually funny?


My Chinese mother-in-law thinks I take this too seriously, too literally. She may be right about that. As a transplant to this culture, I haven’t heard these words since infancy, so they stick in my foreign ears too sharply. I can acknowledge that. Certain cultural gaps will forever be too wide for me to cross.


Nevertheless, I had to think of a way to counteract the fears that bubbled up in me each time such fun-loving interactions occurred. This is how I did it:


Every time someone says such words to my children, I first relax my shoulders, then turn to my child and say in just as sweet a voice as I can: “Say ‘No,’ honey, say you don’t want to go away from your mommy! Say, ‘You can’t take me away!’ No, no!” {说‘不行!’ 宝贝,告诉她你不想离开你妈妈,说‘你不能带我走啊’ 不行不行!}


Whoever is holding my child usually laughs at my response, which leaves the joyous atmosphere unaffected while I have seemlessly injected a bit of my own precautionary education into my childrens’ ears. It’s gentle, but effective.


And I certainly still follow in pursuit of my child whenever a server tries to take them to “meet the kitchen staff.” Only these days, I do it with less panic in my throat. Because, in the end, I have learned that it’s possible to both trust that everyone means well while also never letting my children out of my sight.


Acquiring that little nugget of wisdom has made this foreign mommy a lot less nervous.


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Ember Swift is a Canadian living in Beijing who gave birth to her first child in January 2012. She is also a professional musician and writer who has released 11 albums independently, toured internationally and writes for several international publications in addition to keeping three distinct blog series active. Her official website is located at

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentsmorri   |  Friday, 12 September 2014 at 12:35 am

    america aint the whole west. When i am at the local small shops the shopkeepers always interact with my toddler daughter.and i have heard youre so cute i am going to take you with me and similar things here too.(alternatively, you are my future pension fund xD) In general continental europe is more relaxed and free range than the US , canada and UK.

  2. CommentsHeidi Tunberg   |  Sunday, 29 March 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Take heart…as a grown up expat kid who spent my entire childhood & adolescence in Asia, I HAVE heard these words (or their equivalent) since infancy. In fact, I have early memories of being spirited away to meet the kitchen staff as a toddler. I recall thinking this rather fun. However, I can’t recall I ever worrying about where I’d be sleeping that night when someone said, “I want to take you home with me!” Going to meet the cook was one thing. Actually going home with a stranger would have been another thing entirely!

    Children ARE much more literal than adults, but we grown ups cue kids with our responses to statements. When someone says to your daughter, “Come – I’ll take you home with me!” and then all the grown ups laugh, the child learns that it was not a serious invitation (or threat) but just good fun. So when you relax your shoulders and respond in a sweet voice, whether you make any counter statement or not, you are telling your child that this was a nice compliment, but she’s definitely going home with Mom!

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