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Kids You Don't Love

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When you come to Indonesia, you get extra children. That is, if you hire any household staff. I was still new and feeling my way when a seasoned expat told me, “It's like having children that you don't love”. It was a good telling of the situation and it stuck with me. You are responsible for them and they are responsible for your comfort and ease. Just like children, they can bring benefits. They take away some of the manual tasks around the house that free up your time to do other things. When they cause a problem, it's more irritating than those caused by your own children. You are more willing to cope with your children's problems due to your emotional investment in them.

Part of the joy of having this extra help is that parents can get a break from their real children by having the staff look after them. I have seen varying degrees of this practice and there are some serious pitfalls. The worst problem is when parents allow the interaction with the staff to substitute for parenting. Allowing the household staff to look after your children need not be a problem. Keep in mind the cultural differences. Your staff thinks of the children as a higher status than they are. They will allow children to run riot over them to ensure that they are happy.

Less than a month in our house, I went to check on my three-year-old daughter, who was happily playing alone. Playing alone was a habit I had carefully cultivated with her. I was enjoying the short spans of time when she entertained herself. This drove the staff crazy. It was not understandable to them why anyone would want to be alone and certainly not a small child. The maid had stopped sweeping, the broom and a pile of dust in the middle of the floor. “Get back to work,” I told her. “But Mrs., Audrey want play,” she responded. “Yes, but I pay your salary, not Audrey. And I said get back to work”. “But Audrey by self,” she came back. “Audrey is happy by herself. Get back to work.” With a knitted brows and much confusion, she returned to her sweeping. The same maid, on our first evening out, came knocking on my door as I got dressed. She was floored by the fact that my daughter refused to be spoon-fed and wanted to use the fork on her own!

I could tell you about the mom that came home to find her son playing with a sharp knife in the kitchen and the maid's response was, “He wanted it.” I could tell you about the maid who gave the chopped apple to the baby whose boss insisted it be smashed up. When asked what would happen if the baby choked to death, the maid said matter-of-factly, “It would be Allah's will.” Remember most of your help is very sincere in caring for your children. But do not take for granted that they will adopt your common sense, values or awareness of safety hazards.

If you are willing to having your child spoon-fed, pandered to and otherwise ruling the roost, turn them completely over to the staff. And be prepared to offend your friends. This is where the differences in culture will come boiling to the surface. After moving away from Jakarta, we had friends come to visit. Their four-year-old ruined about half the visit. The parents are fine people. The mother is Indonesian and the father is American. He is too laid-back to do anything but go along with the mother's parenting choices. She was brought up in the Indonesian culture and has little other frame of reference. The entire four days were filled with screaming, shrieking, whining, howling and thousands (and thousands and thousands) of “Nggak mau!” or “Nggak suka!” (Don't want or Don't like). I had to bite my tongue on several occasions when I wanted to blurt out, “You're four damn years old. who asked what you wanted or liked?” Ironically, the child has a very sweet disposition at his baseline. But it's hard to appreciate when he acts out, fully expecting to get his way after one little whine, as he would at home with the pembantu (household staff).

It is entirely possible to let the staff help you with your children, without sacrificing true parenting. Notice I said this above-mentioned couple 'substituted' time with the staff for parenting. I speak from experience. The majority of my youth was spent with a caregiver because my mother worked full-time. It was quite rare in those days. The time with my mother was limited, yet there was a very clear distinction in my mind who my mother was and what she allowed and didn't. I will allow it was much easier for a white American woman to get a black American woman to act as an extension of her parenting values. It is much harder to achieve this with Indonesian staff. If you take into account that it will be very rare for them to correct your child and teach them right from wrong as you would, you are halfway there.

My daughter's favorite play was to go out and swing. I allowed the maid to monitor her, because she could notify me of an injury. This involved little interaction. In the afternoon before dinner, I had the maid bathe my daughter just to give me a short break. However, I did go 'spy' on the baths from time to time. My daughter didn't like having her ears cleaned, so the maid wouldn't push it. I had to insist on several occasions. Finally after being 'caught' in my raids a few times, the maid decided it was better to clean the ears than deal with my spot checks and lectures. I used my cook and maid as sitters, but our daughter was ready for bed before we left and usually went to bed within a half-hour of our departure. We always left the phone number where we would be and sternly said, “If there is any problem--any problem at all, you must call.” Despite our caution, we once arrived home and were told all was fine. The next day, our daughter woke with a raging fever. The maid said, “Oh yes, she was a little warm, I forgot to tell you.” If a longer span of time was involved, I got an expat teen to act as a baby-sitter as she could offer a little better supervision, such as the ability to read books to my daughter. The extra cost was well worth it.

I sent my cook, the smartest of the bunch, to a first aid and CPR course. Although their time with my daughter was very limited, the staff knew where to find me, my husband, or one of our friends by phone from a list permanently posted in the kitchen by the phone. I kept taxi money and a photocopy of our daughter's medical clinic card in an envelope in the kitchen. If she was hurt in any way, they had enough money to get her to the medical clinic by taxi. Prevention and anticipating problems will go a long way in being prepared for emergencies. You have to do it on your own, because your staff will probably not consider it.

You can learn much about your children and their interaction with Indonesian household staff by attending some of the excellent orientation classes available. Take time to discuss the issue with veteran expats. Get their horror stories and get the humorous ones, too. Remember you. ll be leaving Indonesia at some point in the future and there will likely be a vacuum of help in your home country or next posting. Go into it with your eyes open about the benefits and pitfalls and it is possible to achieve a happy balance.

Oh yes, I must admit there is absolutely no perfection. Despite my imitations to staff assistance with my daughter, we still have habits to overcome. Our eight-year-old still gets up and flits away from the table after meals, just as she did for four years in Jakarta. We have exhaustively told her that she must clear her own dishes and help us clear the table now. In our new home, we find the luxury of staff in Indonesia has created some of these little domestic skirmishes. At least we're not fighting a war.

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