September 29, 2009

Guest Post: Author Ru Freeman Shares About Raising Children in Sri Lanka and America

I am elated to have author Ru Freeman as my guest author today as part of TLC Book Tours. Her book, A Disobedient Girl, which I reviewed here, takes place in Sri Lanka, which is just southeast of India. I was fascinated with the culture (I know surprise, surprise) and asked Ru if she'd talk more about it. She said she loves the opportunity to share her culture with everyone. I hope you enjoy, and thank you so much Ru! (Photos come from author's website. See bottom of post.)

"The first time I ever considered what childhood in Sri Lanka was actually like, was when I held a baby of my own in my arms. With my true-blue American husband beside me, we mused aloud about all the ways in which this baby of ours could be nudged toward adulthood by her imperfect but perfectly well-informed parents. But the same things that made it possible for her to enjoy a wide-angle view of the world with her own feet planted in two very different worlds, made it difficult for her mother to figure out exactly how to raise a "half-and-half" in only one country.

Sri Lankan children are unreservedly indulged from birth to the age of five. Mothers chase after them at lunch, with little balls of rice on spoons or, more usually, in their fingertips, cajoling the beloved to take one more bite of food. Water is warmed for their baths, they are coddled and cuddled and forgiven for all manner of travesties. They throw tantrums which are observed by smiling, sweet-tongue extended family. They are given the best of every luxury that a family is fortunate enough to come by, no matter their social status. At five, though, everything changes. That is when all children go to school; usually to montessori schools. At this point, they are expected to buckle down to the serious business of being not babies but children. Almost overnight, children realize - and appear to do so without too much trauma - that the honeymoon is over. They turn away from parents toward their peers, united by their common predicament. Parents, in turn, bond with those to whom their children are entrusted: teachers.

Sri Lankan children move, therefore, between what are considered two sets of parents, the ones who gave them life and those who teach them how to live. The first songs that children are taught in Sri Lanka are those that describe the respect due to both parents and teachers. And, in true Sri Lankan style, the lyrics are gut-wrenching! It is relatively easy for children to undergo this transformation because there is a universally accepted set of cultural beliefs to buttress the frame within which it takes place: respect for their elders no matter where they are found, the value of education, the importance of religious and cultural observances (Sri Lanka celebrates all four major religions of the world), the worth of hospitality toward guests and loyalty to ones friends. Children wear uniforms to school and no adult would feel the least sense of guilt at reprimanding a child - any child, known or unknown - whom they find wandering out of school during the hours when they ought to be sitting in classrooms. Uniforms, particularly for girls, have monograms that identify the school to which they belong, and Sri Lankan children have a particularly actue aversion to bringing dishonor upon their alma mater. All things that ensure that children grow up in a world whose truths, as they pertain to relationships both personal and public, are relatively immutable, leaving them free to explore the realms of knowledge and learning where there is greater opportunity for experimentation.

But how does a Sri Lankan born mother raise a daughter in America where none of these rules apply? I'd have to say with some creative license. Our traditions are modified, but they exist. My three daughters thank their teachers at the end of each year, their coaches at the end of every practice. They eat everything that someone else cooks for them without complaint; well, most of the time. They are not allowed to ask for things that have not been offered (juice, when milk has been mentioned, for instance!), when they visit other peoples homes. They do not open presents in front of the giver. They have to share everything they own except for a few, very few, very special things. Sometimes they buck at these odd rules that they tell me, sometimes pitching their voices a little higher than I'd like, none of their friends have to observe. I smile and take heart that their friends appear at ease with my admonishments which are directed to them as they are to my own daughters, as I would have done had I been living in Sri Lanka. And I use those words used in every home, be it Sri Lankan or American, to maintain serenity: "This is my house and these are our rules." And I take heart that someday they will invent rules of their own that enable them to raise their own children by the seat of their pants just as I do now."

Ru Freeman's creative and political writing has appeared internationally. Her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl will be published in the US and Canada by Atria/Simon & Schuster in July, 2009, by Viking in the UK and in translation in Italy, Israel, Taiwan, Brazil and the Netherlands. You can visit her website here. All of the photos of Sri Lanka come from Ru Freeman's website.


  1. I've never been to Sri Lanka, but I think I love it already.

  2. What a fun post! I laughed @ "creative license". I imagine it is a fly by the seat of your pants thing in some ways.

  3. This was really interesting. I never really thought about the difficulty of balancing cultures when raising kids.

  4. I loved getting an insider look into the lives of children in Sri Lanka...very interesting!!

  5. What a lovely post. I think all parents are winging it to a certain extent but it must be that much more difficult when you're straddling two very different cultures.

  6. I loved this post! It is interesting to compare and contrast child-rearing in these two cultures -- Sri Lanka and the U.S.

  7. This is a fascinating post! Thank you, Ru, for writing here.


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