copyright: Becky in Burma. Daughter at Shwedagon, 2012
One of the things that has come up for us is the amount of attention our six year old gets while living here. I'm biased, but I think she's pretty darn cute. She has dark blonde hair, fair skin, steely blue eyes, and a cute little button nose holding 25 freckles. (I count them.)
It seems a lot of people in Thailand and Myanmar think she's pretty cute, too, because it's not uncommon for her to receive quite a bit of affection and attention from strangers. Well meaning, friendly, smiling men and women approach her earnestly, greeting her, asking her name and how she is. Commonly, someone will reach out and pinch her cheeks, rub her arm, or sneak a kiss on her cheek.
The first time we went to Thailand about a year ago, she received this attention often. I noticed it especially happened when she carried her American Girl Doll. (American Girl Dolls are very realistic looking.) Smiling brightly, random people quickly snapped photographs of her. My daughter didn't smile though. She'd hide behind me and scowl.
On our visit to the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda, F was inundated with attention. We noticed that if we stopped at all while making our circular rounds, within moments, crowds of people would gather around. Though people showed us their lovely smiles, it was incredibly uncomfortable and strange to have complete strangers – despite how friendly there were – crowd around. I didn't know what to do or how to respond; so I'd gently smile and move on, but it felt odd and a bit unnerving.
I happen to hate having attention drawn to me and I tried with all my might to act like having 20 people surrounding us, staring, was completely normal. (It felt kind of paparazzi-ish and I suddenly had a great deal of sympathy for celebrities.) I didn't want F to pick-up on my vibes and get perhaps more affected by the situation as a result, so I tried staying calm.
Later, I realized I had accidentally pressed "record" on my iPod while we were walking around the pagoda. The recording captured a conversation my daughter and I had at the Shwedagon; she asked me why people kept touching her and following us everywhere we went. My voice was pitched a bit higher than usual as I tried to explain, "Oooh! People are just being friendly! They think you're cute! I know you're not used to it...but it's OK."
Thing is: it wasn't OK. It wasn't OK with her. And it has continued to NOT be OK with her. At all.
I’ll admit: I've struggled knowing how to handle the attention. It has been a year since we left the United States, and my six year old is still struggling with handling it, too. I think we're getting much better at it now, but it’s been a steeeep - and slow - learning curve.
When we'd go to Coffee Circles and she'd immediately hide under the tables because staff wanted to love bomb her (all the touching/smiles/affection), I knew there was a problem. It would take a long time to coax her out from under the table where she’d scrunch her face up at the staff who just laughed nervously at her. I’d laugh nervously, too. I also wished she’d just get up off the floor and smile back at the kind staff. It wasn't gonna happen.
It got to the point where my daughter flat-out refused to go to Coffee Circles and would throw massive tantrums if I said we were going. I also noticed she started wearing not-so-cute clothes. I'd ask her to wear different clothes and she’d refuse. Finally, she explained, "I don't want to look cute! People will touch me!"
F also began ignoring people when they warmly greeted her. She’d sulk and scowl, lower her head, then hide. Each time, expected she'd start hissing at people. (Thankfully, that didn't happen.) Recently, she told me she was sure if she said hello back, strangers would try to touch her.
I knew I had to step-up and protect her need for personal space. After all, she's my kid. It's my job. And I could completely relate. I need my personal space, too. It wasn’t my best parenting moment when I realized I needed to grow a backbone and help my kid out a bit! I felt guilty I hadn’t already been doing that enough; I was too worried about offending people and being polite and adapting to a new culture.
My daughter certainly isn’t special in the attention she receives. It’s normal for foreign children get love bombed. In many ways, it’s lovely. I’m sure there are some kids that don’t mind, and probably quite like it. My kid just happens not to be one of them.
So, here are a few things that we’re now doing that seems to be working. Perhaps this will help some of you, too, if your kid(s) are getting love bombed:
- F is expected to acknowledge the person greeting her. If she feels she cannot speak and say hello, that's OK; but she must at least smile and wave. She can’t just ignore them.
- When someone approaches her, like they’re going to touch her, I say nicely, “Please don’t touch my daughter. She doesn’t like strangers touching her.” This seems to work just fine.
- If F is worried someone will pinch her cheeks or touch her, even if they haven’t made a move yet, she shows me a hand signal; the hand signal is my cue to intervene and tell that person my daughter doesn’t like strangers touching her. (Sometimes she feels too uncomfortable to say "no" to another person and I think she might feel embarrassed to say aloud how she's feeling. That's why we came up with the hand signal; she still gets some control, but she doesn't have to speak.) This is working for us, too.
- When a stranger asks if they can take her picture, we tell them to ask F. She always says no. The response is usually laughter. Sometimes I say, “Sorry! She said no.” But, my daughter has – rightly – asked me why I say “sorry.” I shouldn’t apologize that she doesn’t want her picture taken by a complete stranger, nor should I apologize when she doesn’t want a complete stranger her pinch her cheeks.
By the same token, foreigners should ask locals if they want their pictures taken, too. It’s just the respectful thing to do. It goes both ways.
Just to be clear, our family is completely aware that people are being friendly and the love bombs are just that: friendly love and curiosity. No harm is meant at all. That doesn’t change the fact that it makes my kid uncomfortable, though.
As her parent, it’s my job to make sure I help her feel some control over her personal space. And I think that especially since she's a girl, it's vitally important she (and those around her) respect her boundaries about touch so that as she grows older and finds herself in other situations that are not-so-innocent, she will have instilled within her a strong sense of self and an ability to stand-up for herself and say NO. It all starts this early on in her life.
If you live here, what have your experiences with the love bombs been? How do you handle them?