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Monday, 10 June 2013

Aunties, Uncles, and Allo-parenting

When I first arrived in Singapore, I was surprised by how quickly I felt at home here. I had never visited Singapore before, and I knew so little about the city-state. Yet, feeling tropical sun on my back and seeing bright flashes of pink bougainvillea made me feel at home. In so many ways, Singapore reminded me of Chennai, my childhood-home.

While the tropical landscape comforted me, what made me feel most at home was the "auntie-uncle culture." Much like in Chennai, every adult here is an auntie or an uncle to every child. Now this may seem kind of ridiculous. If every single adult is an auntie or an uncle, then what do those words even mean? Does the overuse of those words render them meaningless? I think not.

I believe that the way a child addresses an elder is very important. To start with, the terms auntie and uncle imply a familial relationship, suggesting that  adults must treat all children as if they are part of the same family. In other words, all adults need to work together to raise children, and simultaneously, children need to respect and obey all the adults they encounter, as they would their own family members.

These terms originate from a community-orientation. Historically, most Asians were raised in strong communities; in Singapore, kids grew up in communal kampongs; in India and China, they grew up in large joint-families with three generations living together under one roof.  While Asia has industrialized rapidly over the last fifty years, it is still attached, at least in theory, to the ideals of community, extended family networks, and communal child-rearing.

In traditional societies, all the adults in a community or tribe are responsible for the well-being and socialization of the younger generation. In his book The World Until Yesterday: What the modern world can learn from traditional societies, Jared Diamond describes the benefits of "allo-parenting," or communal parenting. When a kid is jointly raised, disciplined, and loved by multiple adults, he/she grows up with a strong sense of belonging to a larger community. This practice not only diminishes the pressure placed on parents, but it also helps children feel secure. Each child has many adult role-models, many adults that he can turn to when he needs advice, support, or help. The popular saying "It takes a village to raise a child"  is another way of thinking about the benefits of "allo-parenting" and traditional wisdom.

As allo-parenting is becoming increasingly endangered in the modern, developed world with its impersonal apartment buildings and fast-paced lifestyles, I think that the "auntie-uncle" cultures of the East should try to preserve these practices as much as possible. In Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers,  the American psychiatrist Gordon Neufeld documents the price that families pay when they are no longer part of a cohesive community. When parents don't have a community to help them raise their kids, they become stressed and exhausted. Simultaneously, when kids don't have a strong network of supportive adults to draw on, kids often turn to peers to fill the vacuum and the results are dangerous and frightening.

On a related note, over the weekend, I watched a Bollywood movie with my husband, and I began to think about the ubiquitous presence of grandparents and extended family members in the movie.  In contrast, your average Hollywood movie doesn't even feature parents, let alone grandparents or aunts/uncles. The young twenty-something heroes and heroines of Hollywood are forced to rely entirely on themselves and their peers for guidance; they get nothing from the older generation. In contrast, the young protagonists of Bollywood have a whole cast of older family members to turn to for comfort, support, guidance, and help. While neither Hollywood nor Bollywood reflects reality, they do reveal something about what their respective societies seem to value or idealize. Clearly, allo-parenting and extended family networks are still idealized in the East, though with 21st century lifestyles, they may become endangered.

Suggestions for parents (adapted from Neufeld's book):

- Socialize as a family with other families; multi-generational socializing is healthy for kids and adults alike. Your kids should know your friends. They should have lots of aunties and uncles that they feel close to. This is important even when (particularly when) your children are teenagers.

- Make sure you know your kids' friends, and ideally, their friends' parents as well. Again, this is fairly easy when your kids are young, but it gets harder as they get older. Yet, Neufeld argues that it is particularly important with teens because they are most vulnerable to toxic "peer effects."

- Spend a lot of time with your kids and make sure that you and the other adults in their lives (grandparents, aunts etc.) are their go-to people for questions and crises. Their peers should never replace the older generation. Again, this is particularly important for adolescents, who could get very skewed advice from friends.

- Make time for family dinners, family outings, and family days.

- Involve grandparents, aunts, and uncles in your lives as much as possible, and talk about "family stories" with your kids. Make sure the kids know their extended family well. Weekend Skype sessions are important if the grandparents live far away. If you're not close to your family, then create a similar network with friends.

And here are some other Singapore-specific suggestions:

-  If you have a domestic helper, encourage your children to think of her as part of your family. She is a crucial part of your "allo-parenting network," and both she and the kids will benefit from a close familial relationship.

- Encourage your child to read Asian literature and mythology -- most Asian stories seem to glorify and idealize familial relationships and community structures. Watching Bollywood movies helps too. These stories will implicitly teach kids that family matters a lot, and they could provide some sort of balance to the other messages that kids get about the need to be independent, rebellious, and "peer-oriented".

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