Cambodians raise their children in a way that Westerners might call ‘European,’ but I think it’s a parenting style all their own. It’s based on shared responsibility and high expectations.
Hilary Clinton may have famously written that, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ but Cambodians actually act that way. Anyone and everyone is liable to be caring for and keeping an eye out for a child. This is especially noticeable to us because so many men and children do it; however, to them, this is very common. Just in the past week, we’ve been served lunch by two different dads in two different cities, one who was carrying a baby on his other arm and one who was playing with a toddler. Children also routinely take responsibility for younger siblings or neighbors. You’ll see a group of them cycling or playing together, and the oldest always waits for the youngest. I recently saw a toddler standing on a bench at a restaurant, when some adults indicated that it was time to leave. A girl of four or five carefully picked up the toddler, to help carry him home. She was a small wisp of a girl, so immediately, a boy of about nine came over and put his hand on her back to help her. No adults were involved whatsoever: the kids just took responsibility.
Children are trusted to look out for themselves at a very young age. Children two and older ride on motos with adults, often standing on the front part, in front of the driver. Here’s the kicker: the adult doesn’t hold them: they are responsible for holding on. And they all do. I’ve never seen an adult help out or seem to remind the child. I even once saw a toddler sitting behind his mom on a small bicycle seat, arms holding her waist. They were on the local highway, so it wasn’t a short journey, and yet, she wasn’t ensuring that the kid stayed on the bike in any way. This isn’t bad parenting here. It’s more like the expectation that children will understand the importance and mechanics of holding on at a very young age.
This applies more broadly as well. Many schools are located on big roads or even local highways. When school lets out, no one instructs the kids to stay out of the road, because they already know. And no one expects that drivers will be responsible for going around the children: the kids just have to stay out of the road. Older kids often leave school together, biking in groups for safety (and socialization, of course).
In general, kids are very well behaved here. Even very young kids learn what’s acceptable. We’ve seen multiple toddlers walking around a restaurant or guesthouse, babbling to guests and playing with coasters or napkin holders. The parents don’t interfere because the children are friendly, but not bothersome – and because they understand that kids need to have some freedom to explore. As I write this at a café, I’m watching a girl of about three sit patiently and quietly in an adult chair while her mom eats next to her. After twenty minutes of quiet, she started quietly singing a kids song that seems to consist of exactly one line, repeated. And once children are older than five, they tend to be quiet and stay out of adults’ way – other than to help with the family business and to greet foreigners with a loud, ‘Hello!’
During the in-between stage of three to five years old, when children around the world test their limits, Cambodian parents lay the groundwork for that later obedience. I’ve heard many kids this age screaming their heads off in protest of some real or imagined slight – and the parents just let them. They don’t withhold affection: if the child asks for a hug, they provide it. But other than that, they pretty much ignore the tantrum, taking phone calls or customers or even watching TV. Lest you think that the kids are less rebellious here: I’ve heard and seen these tantrums last for quite a while, with true tears and pitiful looks and loud screaming and stamping feet and rolling on the ground. But they get it out of their systems, and the world moves on.
The other thing that seems to help the obedience is that kids have plenty of time on their own, without adults. On the bus, as we passed dozens of villages and houses on the side of the highway, I saw dozens of children playing. They were racing each other and trying to fly a makeshift kite and marking something in the dirt and biking and sitting around talking. Since the older kids take care of the younger ones, the adults don’t feel the need to watch. And the kids can be loud or silly or anything else, so that they’re polite in ‘public.’
If we ever decide to procreate (don’t get your hopes up, mom), I wouldn’t mind being a Cambodian parent.