I am a US national, currently living in India on a three-year assignment. Our children, aged 6 and 10, go to a good school here; we are happy with its academic standards as well as the values taught and inculcated. The children have made many friends and have settled well, and are made to feel welcome in many Indian homes. However, what we are finding difficult is the area of how to talk to and relate to the daily help, the chauffeur, the garbage man, the milk delivery boy, etc. Whereas we tend to acknowledge the presence of “staff”, wish them when they come in, give them instructions and not orders, it is different here. I see my children picking up from their friends the imperious or dismissive/offhand tone while talking to our staff. How do I (and do I at all) communicate to my children that this is wrong, and yet not get into criticizing the local way of doing things? We have always taught our children to accept and appreciate the differences in attitudes and views in different parts of the world. But on this count, I just don’t know.
Copycats: Correct your children if they pick up habits you don’t like.
Some things may be the local custom or habit or a deeply entrenched system, but that doesn’t make them right. I can see that you’re trying hard not to be judgemental, so let me say it for you: The behaviour of many Indian adults as well as children towards their daily help and other workers around them ranges from indifferent to outright rude, sorry to say. Many Western visitors are struck by how we don’t even acknowledge the entry or presence of “servants” in our homes.
Some Indian families and homes do bring up their children to talk politely, even affectionately, with the daily help, the driver and other people who work around the household, also wishing them when they come in and bidding them goodbye for the day, etc. Since being that way comes naturally to you and in your culture, you don’t need to be apologetic about it. If your children are picking up the local tone and attitude, I think you should unhesitatingly correct them. You can explain to them that they do not need to “copy” the local way in this matter and, in fact, should not.
If this leads to a conversation where your children then ask you if this friend or that aunty-uncle are bad people for talking that way to their staff, and you want to sidestep labelling anything good or bad, you can say that it’s not for you to judge. But by your insistence that things are done differently in your home and when your children visit other homes, it will become clear to your children that this is the preferred behaviour. You may find children visiting your home picking up on this and modifying their own way of speaking to your staff.
Other people and youngsters in your situation have even faced resistance or ridicule from local people for “chit-chatting with the servants” in the homes that they visit. You can smilingly bat off such criticism if it comes your way if you don’t want to debate it with anyone!
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
Send in your queries to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org