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We traveled to Bagan and Inle Lake this past week. In Bagan, at a traditional bean paste factory (paste made from soy beans), I watched a four year old boy roam nimbly between gigantic vats of boiling soy beans and open fires. The ground was slick with the paste – I nearly slipped and fell – but this kid in his flip-flops didn’t even flinch. No one flinched. It was totally OK for him to be there. He apparently knew his limits.
Inle Lake is dotted with small, floating villages. Water is life. Everything, everything is about the water. Kids row to school. Families row to the pagoda, to the market, to the clinic. They wash in the lake. Fish. Fly kites in canoes. By the age of five, kids are taught how to row very small boats. I saw eight year olds (or so it looked; perhaps the kids were slightly older) row their group of neighborhood kids to school.
By the age of 12, boys know how to row with just one leg while standing on their narrow canoe. Babies snuggle in the arms of parents sitting at the upper edge of the shaky boat, completely balanced. It’s normal. It’s OK. And no, there aren’t lifejackets. This is life. Life on the water.
Are you gasping yet? It might be hard to wrap your head around these differences. You might be thinking “I would never let my seven year old go out on a lake, rowing an unsteady canoe all by himself,” but kids here are never alone.
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Extended families share the same house. One moment, a mom breastfeeds her child, the next she’s gone and a sister or auntie or friend is watching the baby. No hand-off. No “do you mind please watching” or “I’m going to run upstairs real quick…will you please look after…” It’s natural. Everyone helps. Multiple eyes are watching the kids, teaching them how far they can go before being hurt.
The perceived safety gap is stark between western and non-western countries, but things aren’t so different at home.
Growing up in the country, we sat in the back of our pick-up truck on top of wobbly bales of hay. We rode horses bareback. My brothers had guns at a very early age. Real guns that shot real bullets. Entire summers were spent at my BFF’s house, unsupervised, swimming in her pool and riding four-wheelers in the fields. I took walks alone into the forest telling no one what I was doing or where I was going. Many of my friends were driving combines by the age of 13. This was our life. No one thought it was crazy or weird or strange or unsafe.
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My city cousins thought this life was foreign and dangerous. Perhaps they thought our parents put us in unnecessary jeopardy. On the flip side, we country bumpkins wouldn’t let our kid ride a subway alone or walk to school by themselves in a big city. The city is perilous, after all, right? Unknowns lurking around every corner…
You get my point. Safety is relative. And no one wants their children hurt.
At Inle Lake, my daughter fell into the water. Well. The truth is my big bum knocked her over the edge of a very slim and rickety “dock.” Within seconds, complete strangers had jumped in the water after her, pulled her up, and women came running out with clean clothes offering them as “presents” to us. Their senses worked more quickly than mine did. They ALL knew what to do immediately and several of them worked together solving a problem before I ever could’ve…unless I lived on the water, of course.
Is it better to try preventing the inevitable in vain, or is it better to teach limits and how to deal with those hurts?