There’s a lot about San Miguel that makes it a good place for small children:  the frequent fiestas, the great playground at Parque Juarez, the annual puppet festival, religious celebrations that involve confetti or blowing things up, sheer architectural detail (Munchkin’s fond of the cobbles in the streets), the atmosphere at the Jardin (town square) that’s an equal mix of family gathering and birthday party.  Beyond and through all that is something even more important:  children are a part of things here, welcomed as if they’re actually members of the human tribe.

Ours has responded accordingly.  Our first Sunday here (the only time we’ve tried to sit with her in church), one of the guest musicians held out her arms to her, and to our astonishment, Munchkin not only responded by letting her scoop her up, but also hugged the woman tight and sat happily on her lap for half an hour.  A few days after that, Munchkin, still not used to the big steps up into the bus, hesitated there and the teenage boy who was the busdriver’s assistant picked her up and put her on his own seat, and she let him. She does not usually tolerate strange adults picking her up, yet here I think she senses their essential kid-friendliness.

I particularly notice the smaller gender gap, with boys and men of all ages seeming comfortable with children.  In the US, there’s an odd little psychological dance between men, women and babies that’s so pronounced that I now notice the few occasions when it doesn’t happen.  It goes like this:  I will be walking down the street with my little one.  A heterosexual couple of childbearing age will be coming towards me.  The woman, almost every time, will smile at the munchkin.  The man will look anywhere else–his companion, me, his feet–but not at the baby, much less with a smile or a child-entertaining gesture.  Is it because I’m still carrying some baggage on this topic that I think, “Hoo boy, there goes one more couple who’s arguing about whether to have a child”?*  (Probably.)  But it may not be due to a couple tussle, or it may be that the cause of so many US men’s studiously ignoring children is the same root cause of their being less interested in having children of their own:  their lack of experience with them.  Here, little boys, just like little girls, carry and comfort their baby siblings.  Men carry their infant children (this is on the rise in the US, but even in the sensitive-male-capital Bay Area, it’s no more common than in San Miguel).  School-age and teenage boys are at ease with toddlers, seeming to know how to entertain them.  Old men bend down to the munchkin to say “Que hermosa!” (how beautiful!) as they walk by.  She comes in for more attention than most toddlers this way because of her unusual-for-here blond hair and light skin, and it’s men as well as women who find it irresistible to pat her cheek or stroke her hair.**

When the munchkin has been fussy in public, people’s responses have been to try to distract her or smile at us sympathetically.  Not a single tut or icy look that tells us we should take that disruptive little noise source somewhere else.  I loved the art school registrar who–after I’d tried unsuccessfully to do some business with her in Spanish while Munchkin fussed, finally apologetically saying “I’ll come back later”–said with wise sympathy, “When they’re sleepy, you can’t do anything else.”  It made a sharp contrast to the idiot we’d encountered a couple of weeks earlier.  Making his way out of the plane past our crying Munchkin on our changeover at Houston, he actually told her “Shhh!” She had been fussing for all of three minutes. It really makes you wonder which is the toddler, and I wished the munchkin were wearing her “I’m two. What’s your excuse?” t-shirt.

We don’t often have experiences like that in the US, but there is definitely a sense there that children don’t quite belong in the public sphere.  We have been to some very nice restaurants in San Miguel, and not one gave a vibe that it was an adults-only space.  You take your kid outside if she’s screaming, sure, but you don’t have to be embarrassed by every noise she makes.  She’s being a child; people seem to expect it.

And it’s not that Mexicans indulge kids in climbing all over the furniture, throwing tantrums in restaurants, or any of that. The kids are impressively well-behaved; in fact, I’ve seen so few tantrums that I’d like to know their secret. This place seems to strike just the balance that I want as a parent of a young child: a community that expects the full participation of children, expects them to rise to the occasion, and also allows them to be children. Surely their children have meltdowns, but maybe the fact that we’ve seen so few has to do with the affection they receive from everyone around them.  Also, although family size is shrinking (Mexicans paying as little attention as US Catholics to the Roman Catholic church’s views on contraception), most children here seem to have aunts, uncles, and grandparents in close proximity.  I suspect that children’s anxious demands for parental attention diminish when they have daily interaction with their Tio or Abuela.

Or maybe it’s their extra layers of clothing. I’m joking, but one Mexican practice that I won’t try to duplicate is the way they bundle the kids up. You don’t see too many infant faces because parents carry them wrapped in fleece (I’ve noticed this among Mexican-Americans around SF, too).  Then again, the grownups here also dress more warmly than I can tolerate, and the bundled babies don’t seem to mind.

*I know sometimes it’s the man who wants a kid and the woman who’s resisting.  But rarely, and the “she wants a kid/another kid, he doesn’t” phenomenon is so common among people I know that I ought to write a book.

**This is a boon, in my book.  Lots of subcultures in the US, of course, are uncomfortable with touch, but I’m not from one of them; I’m Eastern European Jewish, and I’ve observed that, like most cats, most children love to be petted if it’s done with real affection.  Reasonable concerns about hygiene and abuse have somehow morphed into an unwritten “do not touch anyone else’s children” rule that I’d like to see revoked.