April 23rd is Children’s Day in Turkey. The occasion, now celebrated by countries around the world, was the brainchild of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, in 1920. The Turkish think that a day to honor children is so important that it is a national holiday.
We’re not surprised. While every country we have visited on our journey has been friendly to our family, none has welcomed us with the enthusiasm of Turkey. The Turkish have very strong community and family ties, along with a keen awareness that the role of the present generation is to nurture and prepare the future ones.
Young kids are treated like celebrities wherever they go in Turkey. People here, young and old, male and female, go out of their way to get kids’ attention. They smile, they make funny faces, sometimes they even dance, all to elicit a smile. While people in other countries have been welcoming, the Turkish attention towards children was a little too much for Kayan at first. Every minute, someone comes over with a fond, “Mehraba!” and rubs his hair, putting him on the fast track to Sandeep’s smooth head. Kayan went through a phase where he used to exclaim, “No more Mehraba!” but has since given up. Even he realizes that the attention is genuine and there are benefits if he plays along. At every Turkish delight store the kids are invited behind the counter and offered a selection of whatever they want. At this pastry shop, the chef handed them beautiful chocolate ribbons and ice cream. He only half joked about taking the kids home.
All of this attention also pays dividends to parents. We have a helping hand no matter where we travel. When we ride the subway, people don’t get up to offer us a seat. Rather, they take the kids on their own laps or carry them for us. At restaurants, waiters entertain the children with balloons so that we can enjoy our food. A security guard at the Aya Sofia spotted us in line and directed us to a secret entrance. Even he couldn’t bear the idea of the children having to wait in line with everyone else. This behavior seems as natural as if these people are a part of our family.
We’ve mentioned before that traveling with kids can be a more enjoyable experience that traveling without them. While Ava’s constant singing and Kayan’s accompanying dance moves may invite reactions, we’ve seen other kids in Turkey benefit from the same positive treatment. Our visiting cousins said their daughter’s ample cheeks were constantly admired and our friends from New York told us a story about their three year old being whisked away by a group of jovial men at the Sultanhamet. Traveling with kids, at least in Turkey, opens the door to interacting with locals. Childless visitors to Turkey shouldn’t be disheartened. You can start a conversation by borrowing someone else’s baby or toddler for a tram ride or meal. If the parents are Turkish they won’t think twice about handing over their child. Just don’t try the same thing in New York City.