7 Steps for Raising Babies in the Jungle

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Last night our family of 4 went to a little “pizza cafe” with a fabulous view. As we finished dinner we looked outside and noticed it had gone dark and frigid out, so we paid, bundled up and hopped on the scooter.

It was 7:30pm as we scootied home up rocky city roads, then onto the steep, winding lanes that climb above the twinkling town. We pulled up to the house with teeth chattering, the husband and I each grabbed a kid and started up the walking path behind the building to our apartment.  Just as we began hiking up the dark tunnel-like pathway (bordered by a leaning stack of apartments and a rocky wall that rises up to meet the hanging pine tree forest) we heard noises above.  Screeching and thrashing around in the branches, and who knows how many monkeys were up there in the tussle.


Here we were stranded outside on a winter night, with no way to get inside our house than to walk through a pack of monkeys– blind.

I was ahead and quickly backed up with baby girl. Her daddy got out his phone light, picked up a big stick, and the four of us huddled together as we inched up the path.  My four-year-old was holding on to my leg and breathing heavy as he inched behind me.

As we shone lights at the branches we could see nothing, but the rabid screeching stopped and there was rustling as bodies climbed higher into the branches.

The previous night Baby Girl had nearly fallen into the sewage gutter (2 feet deep and 3 feet wide running along the stone wall), but her dad had lunged forward and shoved her over so she wouldn’t fall in. Now she looked leerily at the gutter.

We managed to get the door’s padlock undone and all collapsed inside.  We tried to act normal, while reminding the kids that monkeys should be avoided.

And all on a normal winter’s night at home in “the jungle”.

In america we would say we live in the woods.  Here, locals call it the jungle.  As in, “We lost our dog when a leopard came out of the jungle and ate it.”

OK, we may not live in a treehouse on the island of Yap.  We actually live in a beautiful tiny cabin. A quaint, glorified garage that looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting (in the right light and with enough fog).  We have cement walls, a tin roof, no insulation and no central heat, high in the sky, built right on a busy, traffic-filled windy road.

And we can’t just stay in and avoid life!

The only option is to GET OUT and go places. Non-child-friendly, child-safe places.   Quiet uppity restaurants with slow service.  Crowded train stations.  Rocky climbs home. Unpredictable wildlife.

And in a place I have considered to be the hardest to raise babies, my family has thrived!!

It’s even shocking to me, so I want to encourage every mom.  Live where you feel you are supposed to live, because with the right attitude and self- understanding, you can live anywhere.

If you are the mom who lives in a large house with a big backyard and your method of parenting is to stay home for several years (besides fast-food and Target), then this post is not for you. Fairly often I envy you, but your life is not mine so I must accept my wild ride and adapt.

Here are a few tips I’ve discovered for raising babies in the jungle (or far from family, fast food, playgrounds, seat belts and fire codes.)

The overarching principal is this: whatever the environment you face in raising your little loves, you can do it with creativity and a good attitude. 

1. PLAY.

No matter what we are going through, I’ve learned that play is therapy, and if we take time for hide and seek (even in tiny hotel rooms) or building castles, our kids can cope with anything.  I remind myself daily, my kids don’t know what they’re “missing” if no one tells them.  They don’t know “this is just terrible!” if they don’t hear me say it.  If I think their life is pretty great, so do they.   

2. PREPARE for transition (whether thats moving to Asia or turning off the iPad)

A friend taught me that when I talk through things ahead of time with my emotionally sensitive four-year-old, then he’s not caught off guard and can listen better and behave.

3. When in India… 

If the people around you are raising their kids in a certain way, try it out and see if it works for your family! Keep your kids out till 11 and let them sleep in late or take a 5 hour nap.  If it works for you, do it!

If it doesn’t work, DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT.  My kids go to bed at 7 and wake up at 7, because that’s what works for us right now.

There is something to maintaining habits and traditions you feel are important from your own culture. But when I find that my own understanding (and the advice of my American friends) isn’t cutting it, I look around here and I ask for advice.

I have learned such important things about surviving where I am (mold cleaning tactics, natural remedies remedies, etc) as well as learning such great lessons from parents and kids in this culture (i.e. owning “your own” toy is an American value). I am constantly teaching my kids (through words and daily actions) that they don’t get to keep ANY toys for themselves, that toys are a blessing for everyone who comes over. I feel its a life lesson they’ll carry with them.

Because of India both my kids are more generous, more easy-going, and more tolerant. India has made them better people.

4. Build Your Own Village

You don’t have the village of relatives like back home. You don’t have the same comforts and provisions. A monkey or street dog could attack you, you could need to race down the mountain at midnight with a kidney infection and leave your sleeping kids with a neighbor, and you don’t have the know-how when the water guy gives you the run-around for six months straight.  You need friends and neighbors who will take pity on you and step in.  You need to humble yourself and ask for help. You need to act like you don’t know anything. And then you need to bite your tongue when you hear the same wrong advice from ten people in a row. Every time I’m annoyed at something our housekeeper did (i.e. my favorite white cardigan turned pink) I remind myself how much she blesses and educates me, and how much I need her. The same is true for my bossy neighbor who gives my kids too much candy, our friends who show up at 5am to watch the elections and wake our babies up. Because those same people tolerate and help watch my babies when I bring them to ping pong tournaments. They warn me that there are monkeys up the path.  They yell at the honey man trying to rip me off.  I need these people.  I can’t do this alone.

5. Stay calm and carry on.

A mentor told me that when dealing with child jet lag, just “endure”. I laughed out loud because isn’t it the truth?! Somehow knowing that this will only last a week (and I’ll be as tired as I was after my children were born), and there’s not much I can do but to endure, allows me to get through.

“This too shall pass”. And it does. And then I’m thankful I went to the trouble of getting here in the first place.

6. Take time out.

Raising babies in the jungle can be stressful. Recognizing this, and giving ourselves permission to take time away has helped us to survive and thrive. Time away in hotels with running hot water or safe food or time out of country where we can hit the easy button. A little time away goes a long way, and helps us to enjoy where we are for what it is– an adventure in “the jungle”.

7. Teach them the Language.

The greatest gift we can give our kids while living overseas is a second (or third) language. This hard-learned tool will go with them into adulthood, create a stronger brain, and open up a world of new job opportunities.

Contrary to popular belief, children do not just “pick up” a foreign language (unless its very close to their native tongue) from being around it. I can give you one hundred examples on both sides. Kids have to be pushed to study it, try it, and be frequently exposed to it. And that takes more effort than handing them a book.

You can’t force your kid to use a language. But you can create constant value and priority for understanding/ communicating in the local language. It demonstrates your value for local culture. It shows people that you care.

Above all, I have found that when I love aspects of the place we live, my kids love those things too. We talk about how good chai is or how nice it is that strangers here always say hi to them and give them sweets. So I try to keep my attitude up so my kids can have a good one too.

  • Amy

    Cheering you on!! I hope every parent who moves overseas will read this. This is so right on and priceless advice!!!


  • Laurie Vervaecke

    Rebecca, great blog! I will pass it on. I got to see your parents in Singapore. I think we are on the same flight to the US Monday morning. Proud of you & your family!


  • Amy

    I love this, Rebecca! Though we won’t have kids with us (yet) when we come back to the jungle in June, you have answered so many questions and confirmed that there is grace in each season and in going where God wants you to be. 🙂


  • Rachel Swearingen

    Loved reading this!! So inspiring!


  • Tracey M Rowlan

    Great advice.. I’m always humbled to read your stories.. We grew up a block away, but our lives went in different directions… I’m proud to know you, to say that I still think of your parents as Aunt and Uncle and to pray for you often knowing you are living a legacy!! You are doing SO great, press on, be proud and know you are loved!


  • Faith Higgins

    Your words and thoughts are so wise, Rebecca. Wishing I would have had your insight when we arrived in India with our young daughters in 1974. The Lord understood my weaknesses and helped me through the rough places. But young mothers who are struggling now will surely benefit from your transparency and awareness of the complexities of living in a difficult and different place. You have a gift from God–so glad you’re willing to take the time and effort to use it for Him. Love and admiration, “Aunty”


  • Christian

    So much wisdom here, I wish I could send this perspective to so many short term aid workers abroad! And yet one only learns this through experience, thank you guys for sharing, all the adventures, wisdom, pain, and knowledge! Godspeed


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