Children in Rio are just too sweet

Sarah O'Sullivan

Fw: The Sunday Times - 28 June 2009 - World

Brazilians love children. Where I live in Rio de Janeiro a child can't get down the street without strangers approaching to ruffle their hair, shake hands, or strike up a conversation. Surly-looking characters crack open smiles and start cooing as soon as an infant comes into view. Likewise, it is perfectly acceptable for a waiter to plant a kiss on a kid's head in a restaurant. Even the doctor gives a peck on the cheek after a consultation.

That public affection is reflected in parenting methods too. "Heavy on the sugar," is the motto of Brazilian mothers.

My toddler recently threw a strop when told she couldn't have sweets before bed-time. Suddenly my neighbour was banging at the door, demanding to know why the child was screaming. Brazilian children generally don't cry, and certainly never throw tantrums.

Feeling the "bad mother" vibes coming my way, I explained. The woman was aghast to learn that I would refuse sugar to my daughter, and promptly reached into her own apartment for a bag of bonbons. The old dear then proceeded to tell the child that she would set a dog on her if she didn't stop crying. Luckily, Junior doesn't understand the lingua.

The Terrible Twos don't seem to exist in Brazil at all, and so certain cross-cultural difficulties arise with tantrums. I was nearly arrested as a child abducter when Junior decided to exercise her lungs in a public park recently. Tempted as I was to lie on the ground beside her and start screaming myself, I went for the "planned ignoring" tactic. Pay as little attention as possible to the negative behaviour — isn't that what the parenting websites advise? It might make sense in some cultures, but not here.

I was reported to the police. After all, no mother would allow her child to scream like that. I struggled to convince the officers that the now-silent child was mine. Trying to explain the concept of a tantrum in a foreign language in a country where kids don't cry is no mean feat.

Last week I apologised to a woman in the supermarket after Junior embedded a shopping trolley in her shins. It was I who got the scolding. "She's only trying to help, you know," the shopper said, throwing me a dirty look and patting the head of the kamikaze trolley driver.

The creche staff asked a few weeks ago whether my child was allergic to Coca-Cola. Apparently, my little cherub had refused the caffeine-ridden beverage, causing raised eyebrows all around. Delighted to know my conditioning programme was paying off (we call Coke "yucky juice" at home), I explained my position to an ever-deepening brow. A mix of horror and pity furrowed the creche worker's face as she mentally debated whether to call social services. Gringas, she finally decided, a truly strange breed.

Mildly amused, I recounted the story to a Brazilian friend later, expecting to share a laugh. Not so. This mother also couldn't understand why I would refuse Coke to a child. I spluttered about the effects of caffeine on children. Maybe European kids are different, she surmised. "Coke doesn't bother Brazilian children," she continued, "because they start drinking it as babies."

That same woman's child, who lives with his grandparents, doesn't go to sleep until 11pm. They're not sure why.

I'm all for immersing myself in the local culture. When in Rio, and all that. But I draw the line at stuffing my child with sugar just for an easy life. I've been battling the saccharine onslaught for a while now, and I'm starting to feel like I'm losing. There's only so long I will get away with calling raisins "sweeties" in Rio.

Fellow parents in Ireland tell me they have long since given up the ghost. Sugar is unavoidable, they say. It certainly is when you live on the up-slope of a South American sugar-loaf mountain.

But then life in Rio is full of contradictions. The poorest have the best views in town from the shanty towns on the horizon, while the rich people jostle for scarce space on the streets below.

Family is central, but Granny is invariably left holding the baby while Mom rents a flat and gets on with her (social) life. Children are public property on the street, but Rio's natives are so petrified of one another that kids aren't allowed to go to other houses, even for birthday parties.

The term paedophilia is not used, even in media circles, because to do so might cast aspersions on teenage marriages in so much of Brazil. I met a happily married 14-year-old in the mountains recently. Her mother approved of the union; the husband is a "good boy", I was told. The legal age for marriage is 16 for girls and 18 for boys, but parental permission ensures a bypass.

Birthday parties are held in public places, such as schools, because of the culture of distrust. Parties cost a fortune as the middle classes flaunt their wealth through the size of the goody bags sent home. These include toys and boxes of explosive bangers — a strange gift for three-year-olds living in a gun-riddled city.

And of course there's one other essential ingredient in these goody bags: a week's supply of candy.

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