In 2016, my partner and I plus our two young children (both under 5) left the US to live in a small village in Ecuador. It has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life, changing my perspective on how we raise our kids. After almost a year and a half as an expat mom, these are my thoughts on the realities of parenting in Ecuador:
Breast is best
Mothers breastfeed their babies without any hesitation. There is no stigma or sexuality associated with this most natural act of motherhood. If you are looking for cover-ups or mother’s rooms, most of the time you will come up empty-handed. Babies needs come first here and no one would ever dream of balking at a nursing baby and an exposed breast. In fact, motherhood and breastfeeding are emphatically celebrated in the country. Breastfeeding is not only expected of mothers in Ecuador, it’s a rite of passage. Women cherish the years of having a babe at the breast, and the community offers full, unbiased support.
In Ecuador, I have been astounded with the level of trust granted to children from a very young age. By the age of 4 or 5, many kids have free rein to roam about their community without supervision. I have even seen youngsters this small purchasing everything from toilet paper or milk to gasoline. The point is that parents are not afraid to instill confidence, independence, and a sense of responsibility from a young age. It pays off, too! Pre-school age kids are often educated about money long before they enter the classroom.
Children are never left behind
No place is a “kid free zone.” Kids go everywhere in Ecuador. Parents are never expected to pawn off their kids because they have something important to do. The culture is tolerant of children being present, even in the most inconvenient circumstances. In addition, there are usually perks for parents who do show up with their minis. Banks and government offices often allow people with kids to skip the line and be fast tracked for service. Even at medical and dental appointments, mothers are generally expected to show up with their tykes in tow. I went to get my wisdom tooth pulled, and my husband and I were totally stunned when my dentist opened a drawer and dumped out toys on the floor for our kids to play right under my chair!
No pasó nada
This popular phrase means “nothing happened”. When a kid falls, a fight breaks out, or any number of playground dramas occur, parents pay little mind to it. There is no such thing as a “helicopter parent,” hovering nearby a slide or swing, just in case a little one takes a tumble. In fact, often, the parent will turn their back or look away in the initial moment after an incident. The theory goes that if we pretend we didn’t see it happen, usually the child will as well (unless it is a true cause for concern of course.) The philosophy is tried and true, and as a result most kids don’t even flinch over minor injuries.
At least outside of the major metropolitan areas, daycare and after-school programs are unheard of. Cousins, grandmas, and aunts have a strong presence in every child’s life. When someone is sick, hurt, released from school, or in need of a meal or a dollar, it is not big deal if Mom and Dad are not home from work yet. Kids are accustomed to running to the nearest relative and being taken care of, no questions asked.
Part of the greater whole
Children are always included in the family business and often have their own distinct role in daily procedures. Especially in small towns and villages, most families run some sort of ‘Mom’n’Pop’ establishment as their primary source of income. The term Entrepreneur is not a coveted title from an elite group of businessmen and women, most families have at least one business creative in the family. Typical jobs like we are used to in America are not commonplace here, and making money is not as simple at answering an ad in the local newspaper.
To ensure the survival and even success of a family, people must be willing to invent any means of income possible. Children are not excluded from the duty and they often an integral part of the family business, regardless of their age. I have also seen them walking between the traffic in larger cities, selling anything and everything they manage. Ice water, fruit, newspapers, ink pens, phone chargers. Sometimes they even often service or entertainment, like window cleaning, shoe shining, or street juggling. The beauty of this, is that children rarely grow up co-dependent on Daddy’s money. Instead, they go into adulthood with every intention of supporting both their parents and their own families.
A place for everyone
One of my favorite aspects of society in Ecuador is the genuine acceptance of everyone. When I say this, I mean that no gets better or worse treatments based on their strengths and weaknesses. Everyone is treated equally, and no one is segregated for a special need. People of all genders, ages, orientation, education, physical and mental ability are integrated into all aspects of the community. There are no special places designated for those with special distinctions. Come one, come all, as similar or unique as you are. The ideology is that if you want to be here, we want you to be here. You will be appreciated as part of the whole and embraced with acceptance as the welcome mat. This is such an amazing concept to teach children: never discriminate. Celebrate the differences in us all.