If you’re reading this in the Indian subcontinent you are probably saying, “with us of course.” And if you’re reading this in the United States or Europe, you are, with equal bewilderment, thinking: “In her room, where else?”
Well, this is probably one of the least talked about cultural differences between the East and the West but slowly, yet surely, its planting seeds of doubt in the minds of both sides. What is better? The warmth, the physicality, the touch, the reassurance, the bonding of sharing a bed with the parents..? Or the independence, the strength, the respect for privacy and individualism that is inherent in having a separate room?
If you travel the world and have friends across continents, you may have seen both extremes. I know of a couple that ousted their infant to another room in the first week after birth. Of course there were baby monitors and safety railings and all other trappings, but to be honest, I found that a bit cruel and utterly unnecessary.
On the other hand, I know of ten year olds who still sleep in the same bed as their parents – and yes… I do find that equally bizarre.
What is clear though is that if you tell an average American that a young child of five or eight could be sharing a bed with his or her parents, she would most probably find that creepy and weird.
On the other hand, if you tell an Indian that an infant of six months is routinely and quite commonly put in a separate room to sleep, she would find it inhuman and monstrous.
I will explore the Indian side of it a bit more now, because that is what I am more familiar with. Aside from co-bedding being absolutely normal this side, there is also a funny cultural quirk when it comes to these sleep arrangements. And that is a differing attitude towards adult physical intimacy. In the West, it’s perfectly normal for a couple to expect and create privacy for their bedroom life. But let’s face it: in India, once you have become parents, to want that kind of privacy is considered utterly selfish and immature.
Yes, it IS true… is it not? Somewhere, an Indian mother is embarrassed to accept that she wants to be alone with her husband. It is simply considered ‘unmotherly’ here. Wanting to take off for a weekend alone, to holiday as just a couple – that is out of the question. If you don’t want to be with your child 24×7 on all occasions, at every given moment, you are not a real person.
That is what we have done to the “mother” image in this country. And that is why; many parents are simply bashful about shifting a child out: they don’t want to come across as too hedonistic in the eyes of family and friends.
Secondly – many households in India are joint families. The man’s parents stay in the same house, unmarried siblings stay in the same house, there may be a dependant aunt or uncle or grandparent tucked away somewhere, there actually are not enough rooms available to shift a child out. If you are a unit of mom – dad – kid, then you get one room. We are a nation of 1.3 billion people. We simply don’t have enough room!
Those who advocate one or the other of the two arrangements, commonly say stuff like this: “We know the startling number of children who are touched inappropriately in India, who are molested. We know its one of the most under reported crimes in this country.” The counter argument will be: “We also have heard stories of children crying alone in the park in a city in Europe but nobody is willing to help her for fear of being arrested.”
The two sides will war, trading unsubstantiated data such as: Children in India get over dependent, emotionally vulnerable and fragile. Children in the West get emotionally inaccessible, defensive, depressed. Children in India are hyper-sensitive, children in the West have their defences up too high. Children in India over share, children in the West don’t! These are some of the clichés and generalisations that people throw at the other.
But at the end of the day if we are caring and responsible parents, then naturally, we want what both sides are ultimately trying to achieve. All parents want their kids to be warm, emotionally open and trusting on the one hand, and yet, capable, independent and self reliant on the other. So, who is to decide which culture has got it right?
Okay, Now- Imagine yourself belonging to the other culture for a second. Imagine that there is no shame or horror associated with cuddling a child in bed with you. Or, imagine that there is no neglect and heartlessness in shifting a toddler to another room. Truly feel that empathy for a second and what you might get is the ability to build a bridge between both options: something that may be hugely beneficial to the child. Because let’s face it, there is no wrong or right here, as long as the child is loved, nurtured, cared for and kept safe.
Perhaps, you can have a fluid, flexible set up? If you do have the benefit of a spare kids’ room in your house – in most Indian homes that is a luxury – then probably, you can let the child decide each night which room she wants to be in, and help him/ her make the transition slowly? If you’re from a separate-room-from-age-2 type of culture, you may want to pause for a second and consider allowing your baby to tuck in with you for a few months longer, even though that is not really the norm around you. If you’re from this region, where pre-teens routinely just hang on and on and on in their parents’ room, then maybe, you can consider giving yourself some space? Not feel guilty about wanting privacy? Most importantly, this might end up doing that kid some good so that she does not grow up to be a frightened, over-dependant adult; scared to be by him/herself even when the need arises.
There is no great achievement in raising an adult to be a grown up baby. But there is also no achievement in letting a little frightened baby cry his/her heart out in terror and loneliness before she is genuinely ready to cope.
Let’s leave aside culture for a second, and follow our hearts. Our babies will always lead us to the right balance. They always do, as long as we know how to listen.
How about we sleep on it!