Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Marge’s car breaks down in an unfamiliar neighbourhood? Staring out the windows, the Simpson kids see people eating in an Ethiopian restaurant. Lisa exclaims: “They’re using pancakes as spoons!” To which Bart responds: “Let’s see what else they do wrong!”
Raising a family in a crowded multicultural city can be a bit like that – fantastic takeout, endless parades, delightful shops and, of course, opportunities for cultural judgment.
Bart Simpson was very much on my mind the other day after my neighbour, a friendly Sudanese Muslim mother of three who immigrated to our street three years ago, rang my doorbell and asked if she could have a word.
Her six-year-old, let’s call him Mohammed, has become besties with my five-year-old stepson, Freddie. The two boys spend every free minute they can playing together, moving freely between the two houses, knocking morse code through our shared wall. They’ve even had a sleepover that was a moderate success (Freddie forgot his teddy but enjoyed dawn prayers). Some things are different at Mohammed’s house – they have bunk beds, a later bedtime, unlimited Halal biscuits and a television in every room, as Freddie often reminds me enviously – but otherwise it’s much the same.
Or so I thought.
“We need to talk,” said Mohammed’s mother. “Freddie was showing the other children his bottom.”
“Oh dear,” I winced. “Sorry about that.”
“He seemed to think it was funny.”
“Yes, well he’s going through a bit of bum fixation, you know how kids are at that age. Poo, farts, bums, ha ha ha.”
She looked at me like I had just grown an extra head.
“He can’t play at our house any more if it continues,” she said. I could see she was serious. I made a stern face and vowed to talk to him.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I already talked to him. I told him that he must never show his body from here to here.” She motioned from the waist to the knees. “I told him it’s dirty, and to show that part to anyone is very wrong.”
Now it was my turn to be offended. I squirmed until she asked what was wrong.
“Well,” I said, “it’s just that, uh, we take a slightly different view of the human anatomy in our house.”
What I didn’t tell her is that we are as immodest as late-sixties flower children and that fart jokes are de rigeur. The problem we had here was a classic cross-cultural paradox: Mohammed’s mother thought Freddie pulling a mooner was fundamentally immoral, whereas I felt it was immoral for her to tell my kid to be ashamed of his body. I agreed that what Freddie did was naughty, but I disagreed with the idea that it was aberrant. Or even particularly bad. Body shame is, for me, more troubling than the naked body. Whereas for Mohammed’s mother, body shame exists for good reason.
Parenting in a multicultural environment tests our moral relativism. It reveals the wildly different ways most of us struggle to make sure our children end up as good people. The question is, good according to whose rules? Despite the rise of Tiger Mother-type parenting books, which presume the goal of most parents is to ensure our kids get ahead, most parents I know are far more concerned with ensuring their kids are simply decent.
A 2007 study conducted at the University of Texas, which interviewed 343 American parents from European, Asian, Hispanic and African ethnic groups, found that most respondents thought caring was a more important personality trait than achievement – defined as academic or financial success in childhood or later in life. Interestingly, the other values highly rated across all cultures were independence (the ability to take care of oneself) and interdependence (the ability to relate well in a group). A 2001 study conducted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem asked families in more than 50 countries to place value on character, and found the same thing: The respondents said decency and kindness were more important than success.
So how best to achieve this? According to Adam Grant, a Wharton School management professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, we must praise good behaviour in children while instilling guilt when they knowingly misbehave or do harm. Guilt, he writes, “is a judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behaviour,” whereas shame “is a negative judgment of the core self,” which can be devastating for children.
Great advice, but what happens when two neighbours strongly disagree on what is morally right?
This is the tricky part. Because while I know I must respect my neighbour’s right to view the human body any way she wants, I also believe she is fundamentally wrong. And while I can usually balance these two conflicting notions in my head, it’s when she attempts to impress her values on my child that I find my tolerance reaching its limit. The same is true for her and bare bums.
Our boys remain best of friends – and that can only be a good thing, both for their own developing characters and for society as a whole. Post-bottomgate, Mohammed’s mother and I have arrived at an uneasy truce over tea and biscuits. Our unspoken agreement is like the unwritten contract that binds any multicultural society. Privately, we will each adhere to our own rules. And in public we will try our best to get along. Even if, like Bart Simpson, we are pretty darn sure the other person is wrong.