Would you let your toddler eat octopus or stay up till dawn? And how far could your child spit a melon pip?
There’s a lot to to be said for the way they bring up their children abroad. For instance, here are some scenes that you’d be unlikely to see in the UK, but they’re not at all uncommon in the little Spanish village where we’ve been to visit various members of my family over the years.
Scene one: a vast marquee booming with flamenco music, clapping hands, dancers pounding on wooden floors and, in a corner, one small baby fast asleep.
Scene two: outside the back door of a small house, a long-since-widowed grannie in obligatory beetle black and a girl aged around 7, talking like sisters and plucking feathers from a couple of dead chickens.
Scene three: the ‘old men’s bar’ where ten-or-so wizened old chaps sit scowling and spitting, alternating cups of bitter coffee with small shots of local brandy. At one table sit two 6-year-old English boys — ignored, totally tolerated — sipping some bright pink milk shakes.
Children are part of the same species
What I admire is the way that the Spanish have worked out that children are part of the same species, not alien intruders. They accept the requirements of children as normal: to eat, sleep, play, grow up within the adult world. You can’t force sleep on a child who isn’t tired. Yet the loudest Sevilliana won’t keep a weary baby awake.
As part of the same species, both young and old can be expected — each according to her ability — to contribute to its survival. Hence, black-beetle grannies and little girls together, remembering and teaching and learning and plucking feathers.
When I’m there I, too, let my children stay up till they drop. And if they fall asleep while you’re out, you can pop the Moses basket behind the bar or let them curl up under the table or let the waiter store them out of sight with the coats.
Children staying up till all hours that would shock a health visitor
The great advantage of children staying up till all hours that would shock a health visitor is that they remain asleep until the sun is warming up the lemons on the trees outside.
Spanish-style eating suits kids perfectly, too. Most things come in three sizes, like The Three Bears: a sort of Baby-sized taster as a bar snack, a middle or Mummy-Bear-sized portion and a full Daddy-Bear meal. So, children can taste a just-right-sized helping.
A kind of savoury beige washing-up water
In this way, my sausage-and-beans children have developed a taste for spiced meat on skewers, tiny clams stewed in a kind of savoury beige washing-up water, which they can suck expertly from the shell, and squid portions like so many pieces of bicycle tyre inner tube’, as a friend describes them. It’s a lovely way to learn not to be a faddy eater.
I once asked my son what he liked best about his visits. ‘Learning how to spit watermelon pips,’ he replied.
Many’s the time the children have been borne off to the kitchen and treated to some tasty and unnamable titbit. I remember my newly weaned daughter returning from behind a beaded curtain sucking an octopus tentacle, which evidently knocked spots off a dull old rusk.
All the adults take a joint and loving responsibility for all the children
I cannot imagine allowing my children to be led away to be fed by strangers in this country. Yet there in the village, I trust their love of children.
All the adults take a joint and loving responsibility for all the children — their own or anybody else’s, as though related to them and the whole human family. Curious, that, in a place where civil war and a lack of plenty are recent memories rather than ancient history. You might have thought that life would be cheaper there. Yet there, the life of a child is infinitely valued and precious.
People will stop and tell you your baby is beautiful or about to drop a shoe out of her buggy, or offer you their place in the shade to shield her. They’ll keep an eye on two boys chasing pigeons, or drinking scarlet milk shakes in the old men’s bar.
That’s another thoroughly foreign attitude. They allow children into places where liquor is served. They do not seem to share the British belief that it is morally depraving and corruptive for a child to observe adults purchasing alcoholic beverages. In fact, I have heard Spanish friends suggest it might be more depraving and corruptive for a child to be banished alone to the pub car park with a bag of crisps. Funny people, these foreigners.
A particularly cruel way of pinching the cheek of a plump baby
Not that I understand all the child-rearing methods I’ve witnessed in the village. There’s a particularly cruel way of pinching the cheek of a plump baby in admiration that will make it howl with pain. Babies are kept immaculately clean, and though lovingly cuddled and passed from Mum to Aunt to Gran, they don’t seem to get put down on the ground much to explore until they’re about 2. It’s a wonder they learn to walk.
But when they do, they’re off — toddling away independently, pottering up the steep village alleyways and cobbled lanes. Often I’ve seen a tiny thing aged about 31/2 and wondered if it ought to be out on its own. Usually it isn’t out on its own, it’s in charge of someone even tinier, a yet younger sibling.
Even the children take care of the children. Teenage boys unashamedly admire babies and play with their younger brothers and sisters.
If I hold any hope for the future peace of the world, it is in this memory: several boys of different nationalities, with no common language, sitting side by side on a doorstep in the sunshine, spitting watermelon pips across a dusty alley.