New / different / cultural … wrong

It is really important to people in SE Asia to know which of our 5 children is the eldest.  As our three eldest are quadruplets, that makes for a fairly lengthy chat to a seemingly basic question. And lots of totally intrusive personal interrogation. And lots of ‘thumbs up’ for Chris for being such a ‘strong man’. Hello?

People also want to know how many are girls and how many are boys. Since we shaved our heads, it is not always clear to the onlooker which is which.  So we learnt ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ in Malay, Thai, Khmer  and now….. Vietnamese. In Vietnam, it seems, if you can’t answer the question, they find out by grabbing at your child’s crotch.   I didn’t see it happen the first time, but I heard all about it. My kids were cross and offended. It has happened a number of times.

Blimy. What am I to think? Firstly, I am pleased that our children know that is NOT OK, and that they told us about it. Cross and offended is exactly how they should be.

Secondly, I really am going to learn the words girl and boy.

Thirdly, what on earth are these people thinking? Surely its not considered culturally ok to grab at a child’s bottom to ascertain their sex?  And that’s the thought that catches me. So what if its ‘considered ok’?  I don’t believe ‘cultural’ is a label you can stick on any behaviour and make it ok.  Let me go one step further say I believe in a black and white, right and wrong kind of world. (I know there a whole lot of grey, but my point is, there IS black and white)

For example;  female genital mutilation is wrong. Infanticide is wrong. Child slavery is wrong.  Sweat shop conditions are wrong. Napalming people is wrong. Uncurtailed consumerism is wrong. Suttee (widow suicide) is wrong. Locking up people with disabilities in dark rooms and throwing scraps of food at them is wrong.

Putting the label ‘cultural’ on any of these doesn’t make them right. It just means that a generalisation can be made about where or when these things occur, that refers to one or more cultural group. When we travel, so much is new, so much is different. So much newness and difference is cultural, but some stuff is just plain wrong.

So yes, I think it is wrong to reach out and grab the crotch of a child, for any reason.  I wonder if the people who did it think it is acceptable, or wrong but the kind of wrong you can sort-of do anyway (like buying pirated dvds or not stopping at red lights…there’s that grey area again). I honestly don’t know what they thought. If we could communicate, I suppose it wouldn’t have happened in the first place.

By the way, I am appoaching this on two levels. One is theoretical. Its about right vs wrong, new and different vs ‘normal’ and the whole idea of something being ok because its ‘cultural’.

The other level is practical, I don’t give a hoot what’s cultural. NO ONE is touching my kids inappropriately, and we instantly gave them permission to slap any hand that tries to.  Child Protection principles apply here. No child should be forced into any contact they are uncomfortable with. Safety trumps manners, hands down, I don’t care if its rude, I too, will slap any hand that touches inappropriately (and have done so since).


Snowy, our  cute 5 year old, gets pinched on the cheeks a lot. His white blonde hair attracts attention.  People ask him his name. He basically doesn’t like it, he refuses to answer and clings to me. Initially I was busting him big time for rudeness. After some thought and discussion, we’ve told him that’s fine.  He doesn’t have to interact, but it would be nice if he tried not to be rude about it.   Once the rest of us have got to know someone, like a guesthouse manager we see daily, he will warm to them and start to chat. So I’m happy with that.  The inappropriate touching is a safety issue, but this is a parenting issue.

I was so ingrained with the mantra that we should always be polite that I was putting it ahead of my own children’s wellbeing.  If I insist that Snowy greets, smiles at and gives his name to everyone who approaches him that could easily be 50 times a day I get it wrong. My instinct was to make him say hello, and to bust him if he is rude.  But really, I’m never going to see those 50 people again, and I’m not soley responsible for how they view Australian/white people/westerners or whoever else I am representing.  Sure, its nice to have pleasant interactions with people, and my own interactions are pleasant whenever possible. In fact, the rest of us are so friendly it takes forever to get anywhere for all the chatting. But it’s more important that Snowy can tell me if he’s ok or not, can know that I value his wellbeing above pleasing strangers, and that he trusts his intuition about who to trust. We’ll try to model polite conversations and how to end them, how to avoid eye contact when necessary, how to ‘check out’ if people are scamming us or being friendly.  But we are always happy to hold hands tightly, let little faces bury themselves in our tummies, and pretend we are in a hurry and quickly move on out.

Vietnam has proven quite a challenge….

So, how would you handle all this?

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14 Responses to New / different / cultural … wrong

  1. Bron June 24, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Oh Gill, at first laughed then realised how that really is inappropriate. When i was in Sri
    Lanka when I was 14 we were in Tamil tiger territory and a man came up to me and asked if
    I would kiss him!……anyway i was so scared so i did….( i think it was Dad telling me aout war within
    Tamil culture etc at the time….anyway yes the number one thing is for all kids to feel safe and able to have their personal space protected xxxx

  2. Gina @ Inky Ed! June 24, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    Ugh… so inappropriate. Slapping is a good response 😉 Re Snowy I think you are right in allowing him to only interact when he feels comfortable to do so and not putting it down to any failure on his part. He’s just a little kid and will absolutely benefit knowing his feelings are valid & valued – there will also be times when he will be your ‘way out’ of a situation you don’t want to be in – so don’t train it out of him too quickly LOL.
    Gina @ Inky Ed! recently posted..the talented miss AMy Profile

  3. Elisa June 24, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    Living in Cambodia with a blond and bright blue eyed three year old we deal with a lot of annoying and inappropriate touching. I am still trying to process it (yes – even after 3 years here) – as though I definitely am not happy with my son being grabbed below, the times I have observed it, it almost seems the equivalent of a cultural pat on the head. Not saying it is right of course – just saying it doesn’t seem to be done in a lewd fashion. Teaching kids to respond is really important but hard – as our son will generalise slapping to any touching and given the norm of cheek pinching (something he now understandable hates) we have what appears to be a very rude and violent boy. I definitely agree with you though that as parents that it is more important to validate and accept his dislike of being touched by others rather than tell him off – esp. given how young it is.

  4. Jennifer Pearce June 27, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    It really resonated with me when you said that you value his wellbeing above pleasing strangers. I know we have had many people pay a lot of attention to our girls during our travels as well, and they get mighty tired of it at times. I want to have polite children too, but I know that many adults aren’t respectful enough of them either, unfortunately. I know they mostly mean well, but it really can become overbearing at times. Now my girls seem to be hypersensitive to any attention from strangers, so I feel bad sometimes when they appear to be unfriendly to those who are simply polite admirers. I think it comes down to treating children with the same level of courtesy as adults though. For example, admiring from a respectful distance would be a bit more appropriate, and not making unwelcome requests for information and/or interaction.

  5. Amanda June 28, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    We deal with a lot of this in India as well. Luckily both our boys are pretty friendly and don’t mind it and look like boys. I highly support the ability to slap unruly hands. When we lived in Sri Lanka I was known in our section of town for wielding a mean umbrella when guys tried groping me.

    Here in India I’ve found that I can use my manner of dress to change the way people treat me. The only times I’ve been groped is when wearing Western dress. It doesn’t happen while wearing a shalwar kameez. Since I’ve added jewelry and started tying back my hair the catcalls have stopped too.

    How do girls dress there? Could buying denim or khaki skirts for the girls make the distinction clear and stop the harassment? Or would hair ornaments or bracelets do the trick?

    • Amanda June 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

      I hit send when the power cut without proof reading. Let me clarify that my boys don’t mind the constant cheek pinching, arm squeezing and incessant questioning. I hope they would mind being groped and make a good fuss about it. The oldest had his crotch patted once but that was airport security and we still don’t know how to handle that. We wanted to encourage him to put up a fuss and at the same time we didn’t want to be denied entry to the flight. That’s a whole different kettle of fish though.

  6. Lisa Wood June 28, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    um I am not really sure how I would handle any of it – we have told all of our boys never ever to let anyone touch them – only their own hands are allowed :)

    Of course that is while they are growing up – as adults its a different story.

    I still cant believe that htey do that – grabbing a child to see if they are a boy or girl…its like something from the dark ages.

    I would be hard up not hitting the person for it. Regards saying hi to someone – we have a 16 year old son who is really shy (he is getting better at it!) and he will only talk to those that know him. Sometimes we get asked if he is deaf and cant speak….we just smile and say that he is a chatter box once he knows you :)

    We are good with our boys not speaking to everyone and anyone – its a personal thing with our boys each having their own personality.
    Lisa Wood recently posted..Birthday Celebrations While On The RoadMy Profile

  7. Barbara July 2, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    I saw this crotch-grabbing phenomenon when I was cycling through Vietnam with my dad in 2006. I couldn’t quite get my head around it then and I still can’t now.
    I told Darling Man about what happened to your kids and he was a bit surprised. He said the crotch-grabbing is usually a jokey kind of thing done amongst family members. And he said people in the city don’t usually do this, it’s something that happens in the countryside. (This is a standard insult in Vietnam, saying something is from the countryside.)
    So his conclusion was that people WERE being a bit creepy grabbing at the crotches of kids they didn’t know.
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  8. A King's Life - Digital Nomad Family August 7, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    We haven’t experienced the crotch grabbing of our kids yet, but we get showered with attention for our blonde hair, blue eyed little kids. Miss I is getting tired of it. She likes playing with the adults, but only on her terms. Otherwise, she’ll just plainly ignore them. At first, I did think she should be polite (for a 2 yr old), but it really is quite an intrusion when we get stopped 30 times trying to get through an airport.
    I politely say “Thank you” and prod my children along. I’m still having trouble saying no when they ask for pictures though. Why is that?
    Miss I really doesn’t want to be held all the time by strangers anymore and I just don’t feel right making her do it.
    I’m still processing all of this, so I apologize for the ramble.
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  9. gabiklaf March 11, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    What a life saver to read this post and the comments by friends. I wrote about the crotch-grabbing on my site and got responses that basically said, “you are an irresponsible parent inviting people to sexually assault your son.” I seriously began wondering if we were really putting out there some negligent invitation for my son being raped. So grateful that a kind reader shared that she read this here. Thank you
    gabiklaf recently posted..My Big, Fat, Drunk,Vietnamese Wedding- The Nomadic Family Budget World Travel BlogMy Profile

    • Jill March 11, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

      Hi Gabi, yes, its a tough one!

  10. Jo August 15, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

    Hi, I read your blog and the comments that followed with great interest. I live in inner-city London and my 5 year old son had his crotch grabbed, held and jiggled for a few seconds by a shopkeeper of Turkish origin, whose shop we have been visiting for all of my son’s life, so we were all on friendly terms up to that point. When I challenged the man, he said with consternation “for fun”. We don’t go to that shop any longer (to our inconvenience) and I was persuaded by my conscience and many supportive friends to report the man to the police, and he has since been charged with sexual touching. I googled ‘crotch grabbing and cultural difference’ because I worry that I have made too much of what might have been intended as an annoying joke. However, like many of the commenters above, I cannot get my head around why the man thought it was OK to do that to my son, and I told the police about it in case there was more to it than the man himself suggested and that he was indeed a danger to other children going into his shop. It’s a funny one.

  11. Jennay October 25, 2013 at 2:51 am #

    Hi, I can absolutely understand that you are annoyed about this kind of behaviour. We get a lot of attention with our blond, blue eyed girl (2 years) especially in China. Regarding the cultural differences in treating the intimate zone of children, we experienced a lot of strange situations in the countries we travelled through. In a yurt in Kyrgystan for example, a woman played with the genitals of her boy and tried to encourage our girl to play with his penis. This was very strange for us but we have to keep in mind that in these countries small children wear pants which expose their genitals and buttoms. I therefore think they might have a different relation to childrens genitals. Nevertheless I don’t think that is right just because it is accepted in their culture, to touch or play with childrens genitals. As we get a lot of unwanted attention all day long wherever we go and started to see differences in our childs behaviour, we don’t tell her to be nice to everyone anymore. As you said the lack of distance is an intrusion into our childs wellbeing and it is important that they know their parents are ready available to protect them from unwanted touches and constant photographing. I think it is ok for children to be rude in this kind of situations as long as we as parents smile and give the people the feeling that we appreciate their well meant actions.

    • Jill October 25, 2013 at 9:49 am #

      Hi Jenny. Wow, so many of us have had to think through this! I agree, just because its ‘cultural’ , doesn’t mean its right!

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