Thursday, October 19, 2006

Thinking: out loud

"I don't know if you've noticed it," a fellow expat said to me in an email yesterday (hi, Cami!), "but I swear they drug kids here to keep them so quiet." Don't know if I've noticed? Good God, how could I miss it?

I first became aware of some notable differences between British and American children on the playground soon after we arrived here. I had my suspicions that the chasm between our cultures' behavior expectations might be greater than I'd initially anticipated when the school secretary expressed astonishment at Evan's exuberance and noise levels at a moment when I'd just been proudly thinking how well behaved he was being. Since then, there have been near constant reminders and indications that British children have been conditioned to be far more obedient and silent than my own. Either they're drugging the kids here just as Cami suggested, or I'm incapable of raising anything more than a couple of heathens.

My American kids make a lot of noise. When they are being good, they express delight at the world around them and loudly proclaim their love of people, places and things. When they are being bad, they squabble and they yell and they pick fights with each other and beg me to choose sides, all at the top of their lungs. Either way, they are not quiet, and their activity level generally matches their noise level, what with all of the running and jumping they tend to enjoy. They are children, and in the States, I never thought twice about all of the energy behind their voices and actions. Quite frankly, I could rarely even hear them above the din of everyone else's kids. Compared with many of their American peers, Julia and Evan seemed really well behaved, almost too quiet and reserved at times. If anything, I worried (when I bothered to think about such things at all) about whether they were assertive enough.

I don't worry about that any more, that's for sure. The pointed looks I get every time one of my children makes a sound or moves an inch seem to indicate that both kids have some serious mastery of the assertiveness thing... not to mention the entitlement thing and the blatant disregard for social niceties thing and probably a couple of other things which are terribly important around here but of which I've yet to grasp the subtle nuances.

Paul and I vacillate wildly between thinking that the whole quiet, well-behaved thing is completely eerie and unnecessary one minute and scrambling to force our own two kids into submission the next. I'm forced to reexamine my views on all sorts of things as I struggle to figure out just how much I want to fit in around here, and my parenting values and techniques are no exception. On the one hand, it certainly would be lovely to have children who behaved perfectly in any social situation. On the other hand, they wouldn't be *my* kids, or at least not the ones I know and love. I do believe strongly in letting kids be kids. I do worry and wonder about what the long term effects of stifling children's natural exuberance and curiosity and expressiveness might be. That is, until said natural traits draw unwanted attention to my kids or disturb people around us, at which point I'm frankly not sure what I believe about anything any more and I don't really care as long as the kids shut up... and fast.

A year or two in another country... a chance to learn about new cultures and try new things. It was bound to change us all irrevocably, and I thought that I knew that before we left. But I am only now realizing just how completely this experience is going to challenge my assumptions and beliefs about what is right and appropriate and real and important. I don't know yet where the happy medium might be between appropriate juvenile behavior here in our host country and that which we valued back home. I don't know if I'll choose to follow that happy medium even if I can find it, or whether either set of cultural values will eventually win out in my mind. But I suspect that there are quite a few changes in my parenting style and my kids' behavior ahead as I try to sort it all out. It's too soon to have any idea how this experience abroad will eventually change my family. But I'm suddenly pretty damn sure that we will return to the States very different people than we were when we left.


Anonymous Jonathan said...

gee, I wonder if Kristen's thoughts about having British kids might make me want to have kids sooner.

On a different note, you might move to the midwest and see how different they all act out here. :)

4:46 PM  
Anonymous C said...

I shudder to think of the looks my kids would get.

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds a little eerie to me, but I empathize entirely with your desire not to stand out "too" much, not to annoy those around you "too" much. In the end, you're right, you will be changed by this adventure. But you'll be all the better for it, I believe.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Tenille said...

They must beat them.

That's usually what I think when other people's kids are doing something mine won't.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Is there a country (or, better yet for me, a tropical island) where it is socially acceptable for children to run around in circles in public as they whoop it up? How about a place where it is acceptable for a child to dump their lunch on the floor -- on purpose -- and then giggle wildly about it? That's where we'd fit in. *sigh*.

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Orangemanmike said...

I'm not sure if you've ever seen it, but perhaps you should now take the opportunity to watch Pink Floyd's The Wall. As I read your comments about the kids, the movie seems to make more sense.

1:23 PM  
Anonymous Emma said...

Being a "former brit" who has been in the States for 22 years and raised children here I can tell you about "the happy medium" -
"American" children who are enthusiastic and noisy, but who also have impeccable manners! Believe me - I cannot tell you the number of parents who have complimented me on the manner in which my children (2 teen boys) conduct themselves - whilst they are still typical rambucious "American" boys!

2:22 PM  
Blogger Rosemary said...

Kids in the Main Line private schools where I live are both exuberant when among their peers and have perfect manners and social skills from a very young age when among adults. I think there is a lot to be said for learning to subdue the exuberance when the occasion warrants. Still, what you describe on the playground or in the English schools would strike me as quite eerie.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Dana said...

Britain sounds like a nice place to visit. Just kidding. I've been following your thoughts on this issue with some interest and wondering how my family would react/integrate if we ever moved there. Not that we will, but it's always nice to imagine!

The thing is, hearing your tales, I do speculate on how the children of our London friends have assimilated. Their son is very spirited. I'll have to ask next time we talk to them. :-)

2:09 AM  
Blogger Jasper said...

Truthfully it all depends on the school not Britain as a whole. Yes of course there are places that still treat kids like its the Victorian ages (seen and not heard), which is a shame. On the whole British children are excitable, loud and have fun just as much as anyone else. The looks you get are from dissaproving parents thinking thank god my child isn't showing me up in public. It's more about them than the actual child. Put the children together and they will be crazy and fine as soon as you've turned your back.

9:41 AM  
Anonymous Nick said...

Stick your kids in a state school and I am sure the experience will be quite different. Having spent the first 7 years of my education in South london schools the experience you have described is not one I had. i reckon it is that dreaded class thing again....

8:20 PM  

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