Part 3: Ten Ways that Parenting in Colombia is Different than in the U.S.

It’s a rule of lawyers and interior designers that you must have three elements in your argument or decorative arrangement, not two. If both lawyers and home stylists do it, there must be something to it! Okay, that makes no sense, but at least now I feel justified in having divided my top ten list of parental surprises into three parts.

Who's ready to party?!

Who’s ready to party?!

In this third and final installment, we’ll tackle that mother of all stress-inducing events — the event from which all other stress-inducing events are born — children’s birthday parties. Plus, we’ll take a look at language and transportation.

For those of you who missed the first posts (or who need a refresher because it’s been so long!), in Part 1, we explored sticky (ha!) food-related issues. In Part 2, I took you on some child care adventures and exposed my own cluelessness. As it turns out, my cluelessness is a good place to start for this current post.

8. Birthday parties are big… REALLY BIG.

Let’s get one thing straight. Hosting events where the object is to have fun — as opposed to say, ones geared toward cleaning up the community or defeating vote suppression measures in Florida — stresses me out.

It’s not that I can’t do it. I’ve hosted some mean parties in my day — perhaps most notably the “pARTy” where my friends literally painted my living room wall with their favorite quotes, lyrics, and poetry – but not without becoming a total stressball. So when Marcello started coming home from daycare with birthday party invitations from his pals – and then, on the day of the parties, with party favors that included actual gifts, such as a fancy paint set and Mickey Mouse backpack and even parental presents, like a very cool and funky wall clock for us – I started realizing that this birthday party thing was going to have a learning curve.

I should have realized this earlier. Gio’s parents are both Colombian, and we had more than once attended large and loud (and fun!) children’s birthday parties in Miami for Gio’s nieces and nephews. I chalked the extent of these parties up to individual preference rather than cultural heritage, but now I think at least some of it was the latter. In any case, once I started grasping the nature of the parties in Colombia, I realized that my mom’s seemingly sage advice to invite the same number of guests as the birthday kid is old was not really going to apply.

One of the most disconcerting things about not knowing another country’s birthday party customs is that it will never occur to the native inhabitants of said country that you don’t know. After all, if you grow up in that country, you are inculcated in the birthday tradition from year one! As Marcello’s second birthday approached, Gio and I realized that we needed help. Since most parents opt to have the party at the daycare center during school hours, we consulted the very patient staff of Candyland.

Marcello is ready to throw down at the hoe down.

Marcello is ready to throw down at the hoe down.

The staff told us how far in advance the room could be decorated, and when the cake should be delivered. What they did not tell us is that, in addition to cake, the toddlers should be provided with a party version of the hot and substantial snack that they usually either bring from home or purchase from the school. They also did not tell us that we should hire entertainment. Yes, you read that right – entertainment, as in a clown or puppeteer, for one and two year-olds. While I don’t blame the staff for this – again, it’s hard for them to know just how much we don’t know – the lack of entertainment turned out to be rather critical. Without it, the toddlers – high on sugar from ample cake and juice and sans adequate savory snacks, amped up by music cranked so loud that adult conversation was impossible, and without any distraction other than the towers and arches of balloons (yep, you heard that right too) – ran around like a pack of slightly rabid puppies.

Happy parental units pose with the beautiful and remarkably delicious cake.

Happy parental units pose with the beautiful and remarkably delicious cake.

We did get a few things right at Marcello’s 2 year-old birthday party. We sent invitations. We ordered a stunning cake in the shape of a barn complete with farm animals. We selected matching decorations (including an air-brushed farm scene for the wall… say what?!) and bought bandanas and farm animal paper eyeglasses for all the kids. We also selected the contents for both a take-home candy bag and a gift package for each student. The latter included a giraffe water bottle, farm animal plastic toys, a paint-it-yourself piggy bank, and more. This was not an unusually generous assortment of stuff for the party favor. Marcello, in turn, received truly lovely presents of clothes and toys that took his whole wardrobe and leisure time up a notch.

Another thing we learned is that most parents hire someone to package everything and decorate the party room. Suddenly I understood the proliferation of stores called “Happy Surprise!” and “Happy Birthday!” If you’re going to have ginormous parties for tiny tots, these stores are your best friends.

My mom would argue – and I would tend to agree – that these parties are over the top and not necessarily a good idea. That being said, I realize that as a mom I’m going to have to pick my battles, and I chose not to make this one of the occasions on which I’d have to explain why we are not behaving like other families. I have a feeling we may have that conversation quite a bit as it is, not just because we are transplants to this new culture but because my husband and I both have that sort of annoying free spirit/independent streak that Marcello will either love us or hate us for later.

9. Your kid will be bilingual, and this will cause you a certain amount of stress.

I think (I hope?) most people these days would see it as a good thing for children to learn a second language at an early age. After all, the benefits of being bi- or multilingual are pretty astounding. As this July 2013 TIME magazine article by Jeffrey Kluger reports, “New studies are showing that a multilingual brain is nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer.” Plus, being multilingual means access to more job opportunities. Who wouldn’t want all that for their child?

Giving Marcello the chance to learn Spanish when it wouldn’t be so difficult was one of the leading incentives (topped by getting to know his family and culture) for our move to Colombia. But when we arrived, Marcello was a mere 14 months old. He had only said maybe two words, and definitely hadn’t reached that “language explosion” period predicted to occur around 18 months. I wasn’t worried because he still had time. But then he started daycare and JUST.WENT.SILENT. It freaked me out. He was not adding words. He wasn’t using the words he had. He wasn’t really saying much of anything at all. Month 18 came and went.

Our child care center is bilingual, and so I consulted the language specialist there. She told me that they don’t start teaching English until age 3 because they feel that starting earlier is detrimental to acquiring a grasp of the mother tongue. She advised that we speak to Marcello in Spanish only at home. Having previously done some reading on my own, I explained to her that what I read did not indicate a need to wait and that, regardless, we really didn’t have that option. I could not imagine taking Marcello to see my mom and dad for three weeks at Christmastime and them not being able to communicate. I wanted him to be able to have a close relationship to my family, and I knew we would be spending enough time in the U.S. that “going Spanish-only” in Colombia was just not a good idea. Besides, we got advice from other bilingual parents in Barranquilla that we should focus on English at home, since Marcello would soon be speaking Spanish with all his toddler buddies. Other friends in the U.S. told me that they’d heard that there might be a language delay, but that Marcello would catch up. And so I decided to wait out my baby’s silence.

We waited.  And waited. During this time, we got mildly chastised by his teacher for causing his language delay. And then one day, BOOM! He talked. He talked in both languages. A lot. Now, many times I can hold up an object and say, “Qué es esto?” and he will tell me the object’s name in Spanish. And then I can say, “In English?” and he knows that too. And I am overwhelmed with relief and joy.

10. You will try… you really will try (as you absolutely should!) to use that car seat even though you don’t own a car, the seat belts work differently, and no one else – and I do mean NO ONE ELSE uses one. You will try, and then you will often fail.

I first addressed this issue in “Driving Mr. Baby – In Colombia,” a post I wrote just weeks after our arrival here. Gio and I were determined to always use the car seat when transporting the baby. It took us awhile to figure out how to use it with Colombia’s seat belts, but once we did, we generally stuck with our resolution. But as time went on and our lives became more active, we found it more and more difficult to use the car seat all the time. The truth is that if we have multiple taxi rides in a row or a very quick trip to take, moving, installing, and hauling the car seat is just not realistic. This may be in part because we bought the most highly rated car seat on the market in the U.S. and it is heavy – really heavy. Since we purchased the seat to put in a car we owned at the time, the seat’s weight and mobility were not considerations. It’s a great car seat as long as you don’t have to move it.

No matter it’s weight, using the car seat also becomes an issue when we are traveling with the baby and more than two adults. For example, when my dad and his wife came to visit, we decided to take a trip to Santa Marta, which is about two hours away. The four of us plus Marcello could not fit in a taxi here (large cars are virtually non-existent) and so we paid for seats on a mini-bus that held about 14 people. These buses, which are among the nicest available in terms of mass transportation in Colombia, do not usually have individual seat belts, which means you can’t use a car seat even if you want to. As a result, Marcello rode in my lap on what turned out to be an extremely frightening ride. Our bus driver was crazy, and I do not use that word lightly. He careened down two-lane roads at extremely high speed, used the oncoming lane to pass other vehicles while on curves with zero visibility, ran other drivers off the road, and more. This was not just a case of foreigners being unaccustomed to the driving habits of Colombia. Even the Colombians were terrified, particularly when the bus driver, in the dark and without explanation passed our stop and kept on going. (We later found out it was a road closure – a closure that made the terrifying trip about four hours instead of two.) I have never in my life so much wanted to put my baby in a car seat. I felt — and was — scared and responsible.

Since then, we have taken trips with Marcello on the same type of bus, but have not suffered the same terror. I suppose that in such situations we could spend a lot of money to rent a van for everyone involved instead of taking bus rides — that is in fact what we did on the return from the above described trip to Santa Marta — but at some point, you resign yourself to the fact that you can’t do that all the time. And then, if you are like me, you feel terribly guilty.

For those of you who live in the U.S. (where child safety seats are required by law) and don’t own a car, does this happen to you sometimes? How do you handle it? Do you use one of these safety vests? All suggestions are welcome.

The car safety issue is illustrative of the painful dilemmas that parents who relocate to another country with small children sometimes face. (For another great example, read this New York Times dispatch from a U.S. expat in Beijing.) These issues are real and they’re hard to resolve. But on the upside, moving to Colombia also surprised us with this bonus difference:

11. You will be able to spend more time with your child.

We get a lot of family time here. Due to the weird day care hours, Marcello is home during the afternoons, and so it’s easy to take a break from our work-from-home jobs to have a little baby time. Thanks to extra household help, the three of us are also able to eat dinner together virtually every night – rather than engaging in the daily relay race of you-feed-the-baby-while-I-clean-up-then-I-bathe-the-baby-while-you-clean-up-then-baby-to-bed-then-dinner-for-us-at-like-midnight-ugh. It’s a huge thing, this more time together bonus, and we have Colombia to thank for that.

What are some of the pros and cons of the place where your family lives? How do you measure their effect on your child’s development and future?


2 responses to “Part 3: Ten Ways that Parenting in Colombia is Different than in the U.S.

  1. Gosh Courtenay, we have enough on our hand with two Portuguese kittens! Laughing my ass off over here.


  2. Katena Carvajales

    I actually traveled to your hometown, Miami and had the car seat issue. We didn’t rent a car and took taxis. My son outgrew the car seat that snaps into the stroller. When you get to your location you are lugging around a heavy car seat!


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