Dad-of-two Alex Carter recently visited the remote island of Tanah Masa, Indonesia, and found that his views on parenting were profoundly changed by what he experienced there.
The remote island of Tanah Masa, in Indonesia, is just about the furthest place away from New Zealand that I could have imagined. Unlike where I live in South Auckland with my wife Lisa and children, Olivia (four) and Levi (nine months), Tanah Masa’s remote location means that residents have very little access to healthcare and education, leading them to rely on unhelpful ancestral traditions and beliefs, such as the practice of feeding infants a mixture of water and rice instead of breast milk.
As a result, young children often suffer from malnourishment and preventable diseases. Tearfund’s child and maternal health project, which I was there to document in my role as Creative Services Manager, is set up to provide mothers and babies with nutritional and health information as well as basic medicines.
Shortly after I arrived in Tanah Masa, I interviewed a mother of three beautiful, cheeky children under the age of eight (two children are under the age of five). Her two oldest children had been malnourished as babies and, as a result, were now dealing with development issues.
I asked her what she thought was the hardest thing about being a mum, expecting her answer to reflect the struggles she’d been facing feeding her children and keeping them healthy in such difficult circumstances. Instead, her reply was completely unexpected: “Nothing! I love being a mum.”
Her answer took me by surprise, and as I worked with her and other parents in Tanah Masa, I found myself reflecting on my own role as a father – and now I’m back in New Zealand, I realise that my experience there has taught me some valuable lessons about my views on parenting.
1. Appreciate the good things in life.
It’s so easy for us to lose sight of the advantages of raising children in clean, green New Zealand. More often than not, we tend to focus on the difficulties of parenting, which makes sense, as our experiences are only relative to our context. However, being outside of that, even for a few weeks, and meeting a mother who has faced tremendous struggles yet was still happy, dramatically shifted my perspective. For example, now when I come home to a madhouse of mess where Olivia and Levi have reverted to their animal states (this doesn't happen often; my wife is amazing!), I focus on the fact that they are happy, healthy kids, exhausted after a great day of play
2. Access to knowledge really is power.
My trip to Tanah Masa also made me realise the wealth of knowledge we have access to in the Western world. We have a legacy of medical and nutritional knowledge that has been refined and built on over centuries. We can access the internet with a tap of a finger, and we’re surrounded by friends and family who have gathered their knowledge from medical professionals. The mother I met in Tanah Masa was able to breastfeed her youngest child thanks to the nutritional information she received. It was incredible to see how plump, happy, and active he was compared to her other children, who had been malnourished. Also, staying on an island with no phone and internet infrastructure and the nearest hospital two hours away by boat made me appreciate the power we have as Kiwi parents to support our children’s health.
3. Play is the best thing we can give our children.
While we were visiting the doctor’s clinic (there is only one doctor on the island of 6,579 people), a little boy who is about my daughter Olivia’s age started playing with me. We had a lot of fun running around, playing hide-and-seek, and when it was time to leave, he started following us. I decided to pick him up and throw him in the air — as I often do with Olivia. The look on his face was completely startled and overjoyed because he had never been played with like that before. Seeing the little boy experience this game for the first time made me feel proud to be able to invest in my kids with play. It reminded me that one of the most valuable things I can do is spend time playing with my children and open their minds to new adventure.
4. Don’t compare yourself or your kids to others.
Despite the fact that the little boy I met had never enjoyed the thrill of being hurled up in the air before, it doesn’t mean he had bad parents. He was a happy and healthy child and his parents were doing everything they could to look after him well. What I did realise from playing with him was my own uniqueness as a father. I find it’s so common to compare our kids, compare ourselves as parents, and to judge who is better at what. Yet meeting this little boy made me realise that I have a unique brand of "dad" only I can give to my kids.
5. Teach your kids about how other kids live.
Meeting some incredible parents and children in Tanah Masa made me want my kids to understand how other kids around the world live. Although she’s a sweetheart, Olivia can be very entitled, and she loves getting her own way. So I always try, when the moment is appropriate, to teach her about what life is like for other kids, to help her see that the world is much bigger than her backyard. I can see she struggles with those ideas, but because I’ve visited Tearfund’s project and seen the world from a different perspective, I feel that it’s part of my responsibility as a parent to pass that understanding onto my kids through stories and experiences.
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