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Raising kids on Argentina time

Monday, December 28, 2009

The monster had his end-of-the-year show at preschool a few weeks ago. It started at 8pm.*

Most of his classmates' birthday parties have been from 6-9:30pm, without dinner. (The kids go home for dinner afterwards, if they haven't already inhaled too many cheesies).

This is not bad planning, it does not reflect decisions made by people that don't have young kids and aren't used to thinking around their schedules and needs. These are the parents and teachers of three-year-olds.

This is Argentina.

It has different rhythms than the ones I grew up with. And these rhythms mark our days and our seasons, our activities and our energy levels, our invisible expectations of life, in ways that I had never realized.

*He was very, very cute, by the way. So proud of his performance, he announced that he wants to be a dancer when he grows up. Fun! We dance all the time now, with no lack of music, as our little town is filling up with obnoxious music-blaring vacationers for the season. I'm going to try to sign him up for some dance lessons, which will probably start at, like, 8pm or something. Really.


I remember the year I spent on exchange in Australia, marveling over and over again at the idea of spending New Year's Eve at the beach. Outside. For me, the very essence of New Year's Eve had been tied up in having a good plan about where to be at midnight - which house party or bar or cottage to go to - because once there, that was it. Venture outside at your own risk, only if -15°C and frostbite is your idea of a good time.

This went beyond strategic planning. It was bundled up in the meaning of New Year's Eve itself. It was part of how we celebrated. Being free to meet up in a park or a beach or someone's backyard (all free!), and then maybe play things by ear and see how the night developed, was simply not compatible with New Year's Eve. It wasn't compatible with the meaning, the identity, of New Year's Eve. Not in Toronto.

(Southern hemispherists are used to this disconnect between their steamy climatic reality and the dominant media images of the North: a white Christmas, holiday cooking with the oven, cozy sweaters and fireplaces... For not-very-well-traveled little me, it blew my mind.)

Similarly, September for me is a month of beginnings. First days of school, and kids crowding the subways once again. The end of August, like Sundays, carries a sad weight of a looming return to the daily grind, to the coming of winter and snow and slush and darkness at 4pm.

I can't describe how weird it is to me that my Argentinian partner gets this same Sunday feeling in late February, and that he associates a nice, fresh fruit salad with eating dinner in his backyard on Christmas Eve.


These yearly rhythms give smells and flavours and temperatures to our activities, and how could our daily rhythms be any different?
Can you imagine your kids at the park at midnight, running around with all the other neighbourhood kids?
Is 11pm too late to call to wish your 6-year-old nephew a happy birthday?
Did that vague "call me in the afternoon" mean 3pm or 6pm?
It's 6pm - Are you hungry for a few crackers and cheese, or a heaping plate of pasta and a salad? 
In Canada, the school day is roughly from 9am to 4pm. Then there is an after-school snack and free time until dinner, at about 6pm. After a 7:30 or 8 or 9pm bedtime, there is Grown-Up Time.

Don't ask me what grown-ups do with this time, I don't want to know. I know what I would do with it: any one of the kazillion things I feel like I have no time for.

Anyways, here in Argentina, the daily rhythm is entirely different.

The school day is roughly from 8am to 1pm or from 1 to 6pm. Kids either go in the morning or in the afternoon, all the way through high school. That's a lot of daytime hours that kids are NOT in school. Which I really like the idea of. But I would like to know how it is compatible with the parents having jobs, or just, say, things to do. The answer seems to be: either grandmas or nannies.

Let's move on. (There are gender implications to this that deserve more than these parentheses, and that may shape my work life for years to come. But that's for later).

Here in Macondo (but not in Buenos Aires), most everything is closed from 1 to 5pm for lunch and siesta. That means many families have lunch all together, and also play and sleep. Then it's back to work for many folks until 8 or 9 or 9:30 or so.

Snack-time is about 6pm. Dinner is at 9 or 9:30 or 10pm on weeknights (weekends could be later).

Kids generally go to sleep when the parents do, or earlier, but certainly not before 11pm, often not until 1 am or even later. Even the ones who don't have naps.

Every time I talk about these two very different systems, I get reactions like:

From the Canadians:
- but how do the kids get enough sleep?
- when do you have any down time or grown-up time?
- it can't be healthy to have dinner so late.
- don't the kids get cranky?
- what do they do for the half day they're not in school?

From the Argentinians:
- if you have dinner at 6, don't you get hungry later?
- when do you get to spend time with the kids?
- poor kids in school all day! when do they play?
- why do they have to go to bed so early? what if they're not tired? why so rigid?
- don't you end up always fighting over bedtime?
- don't they wake up way too early in the morning?
- how do you get dinner ready so early? (good question!)

There are and there aren't answers to these questions. I ask myself many of them, frequently. But I often come back to this: the whole country does it this way - it must work.

I find that reactions on both sides, stemming from genuine disbelief, often turn judgmental.
It's important for kids to get enough sleep. 
I don't prioritize grown-up time over spending time with my kids. It's tiring, but these years are so special and don't last long.

I tend to get a bit defensive, first of one way of doing things, and then of the other. Because in their own cultural contexts, these systems work, and they make sense. And they are frequently implemented even by loving and conscientious parents. And they both have advantages and disadvantages.

My struggle comes from living in the middle. It isn't easy to hand-pick the things you like from two different worlds (especially when you are physically living in only one of those worlds). They clash, and you end up making sense to no one at all.

Dinner at 9 does not make it easy to have the kids in bed by 10. But bedtime at 11 for a 3-year-old, or no bedtime at all, stretches my Canadian sensibilities too far.


So I admit I am conflicted.

I like that school is only a part of their day, and that the rest of their day is only as structured as we choose it to be, with dance classes, naptime or play dates. But I also like the thought of working without having to make complicated child-care arrangements.

I like the idea of early bedtimes and well-slept kids and grown-up time on a regular basis. (Really really!) But I also love the inclusion of kids in life here, that they are part of society and are welcome to exist and play and interact even at dinner parties, weddings, and night-time walks to the park. They are not put to bed and left with baby-stitters - not always, not often.

I like family time for more than a hurried two hours or so every day.

And then, there's the push, the societal insistence, that you respect the daily rhythms of the place where you live.

If we were to try to follow a more North American schedule, how could we have playdates, if they start here at 6pm? How could we ever go out for dinner, if the restaurants are just opening at 8:30? Should the monster miss all of his classmates' late birthday parties? Wouldn't he be too cranky (or meltdown-y) to enjoy his end-of-the-year show, if it were just an exception that he was out at 8pm? Wouldn't it be a shame if he never got to kick the ball around with the other kids at the park on a hot summer night, under the stars?

As it is, we have implemented a strange blend of both systems. We try to eat no later than 9pm. If we can do it earlier, even better. We try to have the kids in bed no later than 10pm, though the monster takes FOREVER to fall asleep (AND IT IS DRIVING US CRAZY). We are as flexible as we can be, we try to tweak nap-times and meal-times to match the day's plans. And we have partially converted our good friends over to a semi-similar regime, so at least we can have dinner together from time to time.


I realize, as New Year's Eve approaches, that the monster and the monkey will never understand the great delight my brothers and I experienced the very few times we were allowed to stay up late, past midnight, until it was "already Tomorrow." They won't get it because for them it's no big deal. When the grown-ups are having lots of fun and the kids still want to play too, they do.

My occasional angst and indecision about all this, all my hand-wringing and back-and-forth with Macondo Papa about these seeming trivialities of parenthood, show me how deeply some of our cultural differences run.

Pre-parenting, all this was no big deal. I just had to remember not to totally pig out on the 6pm pastries, because dinner was still to come.

Now, with my monster doing his ugly duckling dance in his little, yellow bird costume at 8:30pm, followed by a dinner outside with friends in December, I can see that his rhythms are being formed, his "normal"s are being created and lived, right now. The meanings he and his brother will attribute to their days and seasons are being shaped by these moments, right here, in this place that they live.

This is as it should be, right?

1 comment:

Heather said...

It actually sounds rather wonderful living in a society like this. In the summer months here (we have 24 hour daylight in the summer) it is lovely to spend the evening outside having the kids running around and staying up late and enjoying themselves, and yet in the winter when we are more or less confined to the indoors, their bedtime can't come round soon enough for me.

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