I recently took my 9-year-old son to Costa Rica. It was a return trip for me, but his first opportunity to visit one of the exclamation marks of Latin America.
Costa Rica seems to be the country no one can speak ill of. In a world with so many troubled nations, Costa Rica purrs along contentedly, its citizens greeting visitors – and one other – with the stock phrase, "!!iexcl!!Pura vida!" (literally, "pure life"). It is spectacularly beautiful and seems to have it all: Atlantic and Pacific coasts, mountains, active volcanoes, broad expanses of rain forest, thundering waterfalls, and exotic plants and animals. I wanted Anton to experience all of this – the tourist aspect of our trip – but I had an ulterior motive as well.
I am a single parent with two adopted sons. Such a small family means that our home, for the most part, is fairly quiet and orderly. Having grown up in a large, boisterous New Jersey family, I've always felt that my sons were missing something.
During my first visit to Costa Rica, 11 years ago, I became friends with a three- generational family that had 17 members living in four modest, conjoined homes around a common courtyard.
The matriarch of the family, Doña Socorro, was a vigorous 63-year-old who rose at 4 a.m., did her exercises, and then began to cook, cook, cook. By 8 a.m., her 10 grandchildren – in cleaned and pressed blue-and-white school uniforms and carefully groomed hair – came filing into her home. Each of them bestowed a kiss on their abuela's cheek before heading off to school. During the day, her adult children would wander in to chat or help out.
The dynamics of this large family absolutely captivated me. Picture a place where a child in distress could come to the door, cry out, "Anybody!" and in an instant there would be several adults and siblings on the scene to render assistance.
Think of a home where there is always food on the stove – beans and rice, fried plantains, chicken – for family and visitors alike. A place where there are innumerable nooks for a child to curl up for a nap, always within eye- and earshot of a caring adult.
I was most interested in the small dramas that took place during the evenings. That's when Doña Socorro's adult children came to her, individually, to relate their woes and concerns.
Normally I would diplomatically excuse myself, but on one occasion I gave in to temptation and perched in an adjoining room, listening. Of her 10 offspring, only one, a man of 42, was still single. He was a respected surgeon, but in his mother's presence he became her niño again, her little boy.
For 20 minutes he went on, emotionally, about his finances, unrequited love, professional conundrums, while his mother sat quietly in her armchair, listening. At the end, there were a few moments of silence, after which Doña Socorro leaned forward and quietly told him, "Before I die, you must marry." End of session. Then she fed him a hearty meal.
When I returned with Anton, nothing had changed. Some of the older kids had moved on to college, but there were new little ones to take their places. Doña Socorro greeted us with joy and tears.
Anton was received with jubilation and immediately fell in with the other children. He was soon zooming from house to house, picking up useful fragments of Spanish as he went. Whenever one of the women passed him, she would automatically reach out and stroke his hair. The men joked with him and encouraged him with such phrases as "This is your home." Your home.
As I looked on, I recognized the one central advantage offered by such large families: There's more than one adult opinion available to the child. By comparison, in my home, if I admonish Anton about something I think is wrongheaded, he might pout or defy me. The problem is that I lack corroboration from another adult, so from Anton's point of view, it comes down to a question of one against one.
But in that Costa Rican family, if a kid strays, seven adults close ranks and he gets the message, because he realizes, deep down, that seven people who love him are unlikely to be wrong, especially when the correction is followed by large helpings of arroz con pollo.
This, then, was the most important gift I gave Anton. More so than the visit to the Irazú volcano and the butterfly garden, or the two days in the cabin in the rain forest. Those things were only spices. The main course – the healthiest serving – was his experience living with a Costa Rican family, where the house was never empty, the stove was never cold, and when a child fell asleep in a quiet corner, someone always slipped a pillow under his head.