My son was about two. That says enough if you know about two year olds. It says my life was spinning out of control, my blood pressure was probably high most of the time and my son’s life was not always safe in my hands. This comes with the territory. What also comes with the territory is a long string of apologies: “Sorry, he didn’t have his nap. Sorry, he only bites when he feels threatened. Sorry, I should have known he’d throw up in the car after all the party snacks he ate this morning…”

I probably need to explain something first: We live in South Africa. Here we have a roughness to the way we grow up and perhaps to the way we raise our kids. We believe in the value of scraped knees and bruises. We don’t do everything within our power to prevent mosquito bites. We get them, we scratch them, and we get on with life.

Needless to say, our family’s first visit to Canada was a culture shock. We never understood the joke about Canadians and a swimming pool. The joke starts by listing culturally unique ways to get a 100 Chinese and a 100 South Africans and a 100 Spaniards out of a public pool and the clincher is that to get a 100 Canadians out of a pool, all you need to say is “Please.” We didn’t get it. (In South Africa, you’d need a lot more words, and possibly lightly armed backup!) Until we got to Toronto and encountered the very politically correct and careful approach to pretty much everything, including parenting. I once walked too close to a busy street with my son, and was asked ever so kindly, “I would prefer that you didn’t walk this close to the street with you baby.” My honest first impulse was to respond by saying, “And I would prefer to raise my son myself.” But something in the way the lady warned me, made me realize that there was a genuine and sincere concern for our welfare. I retracted my nails.

After travelling clear across Canada with a tour van and U-Haul we finally had the privilege to take a ferry to Vancouver Island. There was even a play place for toddlers on the ferry. It was in the shape of an igloo with several tunnels to crawl through. A three year old was perched on one of the tunnels and took great delight in popping all the heads back into the tunnel that dared to pop out of it. In South Africa his mom would likely have flown out of her chair, grabbed him by the arm and removed him from the play place, unless another mom got to him first. In contrast, the presumably Canadian mom said in the sweetest tone I’d ever heard used in a reprimanding: “Sweetie, remember, we don’t touch people, OK? We don’t … touch … people.”

Mystified, I kept watching the game. Unfortunately, the next head the boy decided to pop back happened to be my son’s. The boy’s hand was right over my son’s face, with four of the five fingers over my son’s mouth. It was very simple: Open mouth, let strange fingers curl in, bite down African style! The tunnel cowboy went off like a siren. The previously calm mom flew to the rescue and we nearly collided with one another on the igloo as I pulled my biter out of the tunnel while she lifted her head popper to her hip. As she whisked him away, I caught a glimpse of his bitten fingers. Four blue bite marks underlined the four words he should have heeded: “We … don’t … touch … people.”

It was time for one of those many “sorry’s” that mark the toddler years. I felt my son had to say this one himself. The shocked mom had taken her son out of site, so we took the opportunity to practice. English being my son’s second language, it took a while to rehearse our apology, which came out something like, “Sowwy I bit yaw fingews.” We hunted for our victim to deliver the message, but he was properly rescued.

Determined to learn from this mom who raises her kids halfway across the globe from where I raise mine, I constructed a rule of my own: “We don’t … bite … Canadians. Not even when they say please so eloquently.”