009: Q&A – When is a Good Time to Teach Kids About Being American?

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Episode Summary

In this Q&A episode, I answer Stephanie’s questions about when to focus on teaching kids about America and being American.  Stephanie asks:

When, besides holidays, do you find time to teach your kids about being American?

I have outlined 5 techniques that we use in our family.

Method 1:  Everyday’s a Holiday

A holiday is a time that we take to remember, commemorate or celebrate some aspect of our collective heritage, perhaps a historical event, a person or group or an an ideal.  What goes into the observation itself varies from holiday to holiday, but may involve such things as eating certain foods, re-telling stories, special prayers, playing games, watching seasonal TV shows or movies, dressing up, decorating, music, singing and dancing.  The list goes on and there are many variations from state to state, and family to family.

In the case of the bigger national holidays, the observation is so significant that a whole day is given to it!  As expats we do not always have the option to celebrate on the actual day of the holiday, but many of us will go to great lengths to recreate a traditional Thanksgiving or 4th of July event on the weekends around these holidays. 

Not everything has to be a big fuss though.  We can take that same spirit to create smaller observances.  And this technique it is not just for official holidays, but for any cultural reference we may choose to highlight.   I have outlined a little example to show how we do it.

April is the beginning of baseball season.  So choose a time a focus on this with your kids . . . say “Opening Day” of baseball season.

Now we have a theme for the day and we can integrate little things into our daily activities.  Using our kids’ ages as a guide, we pick a few activities or reference points to weave into the daily routine.  For example, we could have hot dogs for dinner, make homemade cracker jacks for snack. Teach the kids to sing “Take me out to the ball game” while your are cooking, or just have it playing in the background.  I am no athlete, but some might choose go out to play catch, or set up rocks to “run the bases.”  Amazon has a ton of baseball related kids books for Kindle so it easy to select one that the kids find interesting and appropriate to their reading level.  If it is screen time, we might watch the “Bad News Bears” or since mine are older, “A League of Their Own.” Jacob might prefer to play a baseball themed video game. 

Throughout the day, I try to sprinkle the conversation with themed vocabulary and idioms.  If Emma brings home a good grade or piece of work from school, instead of saying “great job” I say “You really hit it out of the park.” or if she is being snarky I might use a “strike” count for warnings, and explain where that comes from.

Theming a day, is really quick and easy, it just requires a little bit of attention and a few minutes of preparation to start weaving your theme into the activities that your family is already doing.

2.  Follow your child’s lead

A really easy way to find the time to inject a little Americana into your kid’s daily routine is by using their natural curiosity and interests.  So what do they enjoy?  Emma loves to reading and writing poems, so I introduced her to Shel Silverstein.  Jacob enjoys doing puzzles, so we got jigsaws with a map of Texas and a LEGO model of the white house.  Books, movies and TV shows that highlight American culture are like a spoonful of sugar when teaching kids about history and culture.  Sometimes we watch the oldies but goodies, like Little House on the Prairie. Jacob and I watched the whole John Adams miniseries together, Emma and I watched Akila and the Bee where she learned about the American phenomenon of the National Spelling Bee.  Sports fans may enjoy watching games, playing them or both, and even the non-sporty among us can enjoy rooting for the home team.

A little observation, a few minutes of research and you are done.  Basically it is like dieting – Planning ahead helps us to choose this not that. or think of it like hiding veggies in the foods that the kids like! Once you get in the habit, it’s easy to get a healthy diet of American culture. 

If our kids are school aged, then they are quite immersed in their daily lessons and homework.  Adding more tasks on top of that is not always possible or desirable.  Rather than having formal lessons try this third technique . . .

Method 3:  Finding Teachable Moments

You, as an American parent have a deep well of cultural references from which to draw – things that you know and your kids do not.  Look for opportunities to talk to them about America.  One of the easiest ways to do this is to look at what the kids are learning in school.  If they vote or have a student government in their class, talk to them about American democracy.  If they are learning about units of any sort, currency, length, weight, etc . . . talk to them about how we do in the U.S., and then laugh with them about how silly it is to not use the metric system!  At school, when they are learning parts of speech, teach them the English parts of speech. (I created a playlist out of all the grammar episodes of Schoolhouse Rock).  Follow up with impromptu car games like “Adjective Alphabet” Take turns where each player has to say an adjective starting with the letter A – angry, then B – beautiful, then C-cuddly and so on (Obviously, you can do this with other parts for speech. When the kids were younger this with animals or fruits or vegetables. Now we do it with U.S. cities)

Since my kids are older and becoming more aware, they often come home with questions about current events, and right now there is a lot of talk about the Presidential primaries and the colorful candidates.  This gives me the chance to talk to Emma and Jacob about how our government works, and what part of the system and process we are looking at. 

Outside of topics directly school related. daily life presents unlimited opportunity for English vocabulary development, and in our family we have tons of fun with idioms.  I just pop them into the conversation where appropriate and then say, what do you think that means.  Now I have 2 kids who run to get in the car screaming “shotgun!”

Remember to tap into your stream of consciousness … it is loaded with opportunities to teach.  Get in the habit of noticing what runs through your American brain, and then say it out loud. 

This leads me to my next technique . . .

Method 4:  Make Every Vacation Count 

When we travel back to the U.S. I make a point of ooh-ing and ah-ing over everything that we see and do, and I mean everything!  Things that I always took for granted, Things that the kids just don’t get to experience in Switzerland.  A yellow school bus, the young man who bags your groceries, cheese whiz.  We do all the museums, go birdwatching, take in an Astros game, and visit the state fair.  We go shopping at Target at 11PM, just for fun! Through it all, there is a running commentary from me, which over time has developed into an enthusiastic  dialog.

We also see the unfortunate sides of American life, and we talk about that too.  There are homeless people on street corners, there is a crumbling infrastructure and there is massive pollution. Houston provides ample opportunity to discuss these issues.  The key is to point out what you see and do, and talk about it.  Make it explicit.

A technique that we use a lot is participating in the activities and experiences that are part of American life.  Here are just a few ideas:  Visit the local library for a book reading.  Spend an afternoon volunteering at food bank. When staying in someone’s home, help the kids to cook a meal for your hosts and do the grocery shopping. If it is vacation time in the States, sign up for a workshop or day camp at one of the local museums. If possible, arrange for your child to go to school with a cousin or friend for a visiting day. Attend a religious service at a local house of worship.

My final tip is not so much a technique as a guideline . . .

Method 5: Be proud and Be Accepting

One of the wonderful things about living abroad is the exposure that kids get to other cultures.  What we are looking for though, is an expanded world view, not an abandoning of one culture in favor of another. I am committed to raising future citizens of the U.S., and I help my kids develop a connection to their homeland by modeling.  Let your children see your pride and your commitment as a citizen.  Being American is part of who they are, so help them to acknowledge, love and accept that part of themselves. 

There are many in the world who will be more than happy to tell our kids what is wrong and bad about America.  We do not need to do it.  Of course as they become older, more sophisticated conversations become possible.  The ability to question, criticize and drive change are part of our core American values, but this comes from a place of love and commitment, not apathy or distain. 

It goes without saying that we need to balance our American-ness with assimilation into our host country, and both are equally important for our children’s sense of belonging. This is not a competition.  We do not have to pick a favorite.  I think American parents who have a partner who is a native of the country of residence, might find it easier to strike a balance, but even as non-natives, showing respect and a willingness to participate in our communities is critical.  Again, this is a balancing act.  I often find myself swinging too far in one direction or the other.  My kids are American and Danish and have been raised in Switzerland.  All of these relationships need to be nurtured.  Keeping the goal in sight and frequent course correction keep our family heading in the right direction.

I hope that these techniques help you on your road to raising your Americans abroad.  To help you on this journey, I have created an outline to use when planning your themed activities.  

Many thanks to Stephanie  for sending in a great question.  To send in a question or comment of your own, visit parentingabroad.com/contact.