Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Lucas' Argentine Soul

“Lucas,”, Estela addressed him, “do you want to ride with Analia and me? Your mommy and daddy will follow us in the other car”. We were at the airport, in Buenos Aires, having just met Ruben, Estela, and Analia (Estela’s daughter). Lucas said yes, he did, and I said it was fine with me. As soon as the car pulled away, however, I realized in horror what I had done: Lucas barely knew them. He had spent time with Estela a year earlier, but I don’t know if he remembered her much, and Analia was completely new to him. He’d always been extremely shy with strangers, and cried for a long time whenever we left him. He must be freaking out!

Thirty minutes later we were reunited, in the house of Luis and Rubens’ long time family friends. Lucas was smiling, drinking chocolate milk at the table, and chatting away. I couldn’t believe it. Was this my son?? We spent four days with this family, who treated Lucas and Maite as long lost grandchildren. In this new world, they were the center of attention. Everyone wanted to listen to Lucas sing, they gave him sweet things to eat, and kept him up late. Different people took him on little walks around the neighborhood to observe the goings on, and he got to ride on the train and the bus. What happiness!

Maite’s story was a bit different. At 18 months, what’s important to her is where Mom and Dad are. A house in Argentina versus one is the U.S. means nothing to her; its just another place to explore. What Maite did feel, undoubtedly, was the loss of her daily routine. When traveling, its hard to keep a schedule, and the result was a cranky, overtired baby who had trouble sleeping in a different crib, in a new room.

In Greeley, I had Maite on a schedule of regular naps and early bedtimes. Following the advice I found in books, I was successful in getting Maite to take naps and go to bed without a whimper of protest. It was a truly glorious thing, after the miserable outcomes we’d always had with getting Lucas to sleep. Lucas wasn’t aware that routines are supposed to be important to children. We established a regular bed time, preceded by a bath, tooth brushing, topped off by a few books. We have ALWAYS done this with Lucas, and still do. But no matter how much prepping we did, and do, he still hates going to bed. Only when Lucas is on the verge of absolute collapse does he get into bed without arguing. If we left it to him he’d be up till 11pm every night, or longer.

Now here comes the part that is so surprising to me, as a North American: an 11pm bedtime is actually early for many children in Argentina. Very few of the parents I’ve talked to believe that children need more than eight hours of sleep a day. My general perception is that parents don’t actively train their children to sleep at certain times; the kids just go with the flow of their parents' schedules. And adults keep a late schedule here: people usually get home from work after 8 pm, and dinner is at 10:00. Bedtime may be around midnight or 1 am. Argentines go to work as early as in the U.S., but, here in Neuquen at least, many people get several hours off in the early afternoon to eat and rest. The result of this schedule is that kids, and adults as well, sleep a lot less than the average American. I have heard quite a few parents complain about their children not being able to wake up in the morning, yet, unbelievably, they seem not to associate it with the child needing more sleep. They treat it as a behavior problem.

We eat quite a lot with family and friends, so this cultural feature has really been a hard one for me, with my firm ideas that children need lots of sleep. People are astonished when I tell them that we try to have Lucas in bed by 9pm, and Maite by 8:30 or so. Of course, whenever there's a social gathering, there's no way my little son will stay in bed. If it's a weekday, he's a bit of a zombie the next day at preschool. The nights he spends over at his grandparent’s house he’s up till past one. They have no concept of putting Lucas to bed; he just gets into bed when they do.
With Maite, we've taken to carrying her fold-up crib (pack-and-play) with us on evening outings. We have varying degrees of success in getting her to sleep in other peoples' houses.

Of course, Lucas loves it. It seems that he was born to stay up late and socialize. Children here are much more a part of their parents’ activities. Parties are for everyone. Adults talk to the children and play with them, and take them on their errands. When we go out, adults in shops talk and flirt freely with Lucas, and particularly Maite, who is at an adorable age, and unbelievably cute. It’s a refreshing and humanizing change from the anxiety that plagues American parents and our society in general. Unfortunately for us, candy gets doled out with the same warm indulgence.

All in all, it makes for warmer human relations, a more affectionate society. And what child doesn’t like affection? For Lucas especially, the attention and the affection on the part of his preschool teachers, his family, and the friends of his family, has brought something new and lovely to his world. I try to keep this in mind, when I complain about the candy, and late bedtimes. At this point in his young life, Lucas has found his place.