Friday, September 30, 2011

Raising the Children ALL WRONG

or, parenting differently than your parents. I imagine most of us have at least some experience with this - after all, we all probably do some things like our parents did and some things differently. And then you throw a spouse into the mix, with their own parents and ideas.

And then you make the spouse from a different country from yours, and you get a treasure trove of potential parenting differences.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Slovak and I are actually on the same page when it comes to parenting - and most other things. It's part of our cross-cultural magic. :) But as I've mentioned before, we are both so far out of our own cultures that we could almost miss in the middle. Neither of us feels bound by tradition and we're both pretty comfortable finding our own path. Being a bit different.

OK, I admit it. We love it. It's why we make a point of speaking Czech in central Arkansas - just to see people try not to stare...

But - we are the multicultural black sheep of two very monocultural families, and THERE is where the "raising the children ALL WRONG" title comes from!

You might expect we would have met opposition to raising our children with more than one language, but in fact that is one of the few areas we HAVEN'T heard criticism about. Everyone in our families thinks it's just great that our kids speak / will speak two or more languages. How fun! How useful! I think both sides know how they'd feel if THEIR language was the one being left out, so they're grateful we're keeping both languages covered.

(In fact, my mother once complained something about raising her granddaughter too far away from her - a legitimate complaint which I acknowledge - and I responded, "Be glad I'm making sure she speaks English." That put things in perspective.)

That said, our respective families DO find the reality of our bilingual family a little disconcerting, but they aren't opposed. And comments along the lines of "It's so strange to hear K speaking a language I don't understand, wow" I can handle.

Oh no, bilingualism isn't the issue. It's everything ELSE we do...which sometimes feels like EVERYTHING else we do. It never fails to crack me up, though, that while our families both disagree with (the details of) how we're raising K, they disagree in diametrically opposed ways.

For example, the Slovak's mother walks into a room and closes the window because are we TRYING to kill the baby? My mother walks into a room, opens the window, and goes to the other room to open another window to get a nice cross-breeze for that baby.

We put a sweater on the baby, and the Slovak's mother wants us to put on another layer and two hats. We put a sweater on the baby, and my mother says, "Get that sweater off that baby! It's not that cold!"

The Slovak's mother was disturbed that we wouldn't give our baby tea in a bottle. My mother was disturbed we wouldn't give her juice or formula in a bottle. (We exclusively breastfed.) The baby foods we eventually did use were also completely inappropriate.

His mother probably thinks we're too laid-back. My mother probably thinks we're too strict.

And so on, down the list of just about every area of child-rearing you can think of. Whenever either side gets too worked up about something, I point out that the OTHER side wants us to do it the opposite way, so if they're equally dissatisfied we consider it a parenting win. And the truth is that we DO do some things the way our parents do, it's just that the things we do differently make a much bigger impression. Due to being, you know, different.

At this point, four years in and having developed a bit thicker skin, it's actually kind of funny. When we were first starting out, though, it was incredibly stressful - we were just finding our balance as parents, making decisions like how to feed the baby and how to dress her, and a stream of criticism from the elder generation was less than helpful in boosting our confidence. Over time, though, we did find that balance, learn to trust our instincts - that often told us to do things a third way that neither of us learned at home - and developed the ability to smile pleasantly and do just as we like...

Some of the differences between our parents' styles and ours are cultural - tea for babies is Slovak, juice and rice cereal are American. Staying home from school for three weeks with a cold is Slovak, toughing it out and getting everyone else at school sick is American. And some are generational - the Slovak's parents are two years younger than my grandparents on one side (they started late, mine started early). In some very real ways my mother-in-law is closer to my grandmother (and her generation) in opinions than to my mother (and her generation) - much less than to me. The Slovak's mother raised him much the same as she was raised herself, meaning to make her really happy I'd theoretically have to adopt the habits of Slovak families in the 1940's. My mother is more flexible in her ideas, but there are clear areas where she thinks we're doing things strangely.

I think a lot of the resistance to our ALL WRONG approach to parenting is emotional - but that's not the way I raised you! What's wrong with how I raised you?? Anything you do differently can be construed as implied criticism of your own parents, which is then hurtful to them, even though so often the reason is much more simple: we live in another culture now and we're doing it their way, or that doesn't seem to work for my child's (or my) personality, or my spouse doesn't want us to do that. Any number of neutral reasons you might choose to do things differently.

And then the implied criticism actually IS sometimes the case - there are several areas where the Slovak and I are deliberately departing from our own upbringing, and while we don't throw it in our parents' faces, if they pressed the issue we'd have to say we simply disagree with their approach and want to try something differently. Different rules, different priorities, different disciplinary tactics. A different understanding of how children tick.

As a frivolous example, the Slovak and I both have clear memories of complaining that our heads hurt as children and being told, "No it doesn't. Children don't get headaches." And then being confused and annoyed because IT'S MY HEAD AND IT HURTS. So now we make a point that in OUR family, ANY member is allowed to get a headache at any age.

I remember the comment, sometime in the last year or two, "You probably think you're going to raise that girl without making any mistakes because you're such better parents than us, don't you?" My instant response was that NO, we don't think we're so much better parents, and we don't think we're going to avoid all mistakes. We just expect them to be our OWN mistakes, not a repetition of past generations. We're trying to learn from the past.

For instance, I grew up on stories of newbie mistakes my mother made with me as her firstborn, like the bees buzzing around my head because she stuck a hairbow to my head with honey, or not knowing she should be washing in the baby fat creases until she noticed horrible gunk in the crease of my neck when I was a few months old. So when I had a baby, I never put honey on her head and I made sure we washed her neck. What I didn't think of, though, was scrubbing DILIGENTLY behind her ears, until we noticed gunk behind there (we'd been just wiping without looking). And nobody told me that when potty-training, if you put a small child on the time-out spot and say DON'T GET UP, she WON'T. Even if she SHOULD. And you have a damp spot where she obediently went pee-pee right where you put her...

See, my daughter will probably know that story and not make that mistake. She'll make her own mistakes while looking back and being horrified at mine. Just as it should be.

And yet - somehow - with all this potential for hostility and culturally-, linguistically- and generationally-based disagreements, we have actually come to a fairly peaceful place. A place in which, despite thinking we do things ALL WRONG, both sides of our family tell us that we are doing a good job raising their grandchild (soon to be -ren) and admire the results of our parenting: K. If we can raise a girl that (confident, bright, sweet, kind - grandparents are biased...), then maybe there is something to what we're doing. At the very least it hasn't ruined her.

I think I've got this on my mind since within the next couple of weeks we'll be starting over with a newborn, and I wonder how much of the same ground we'll revisit with our parents - and if we'll deal with it better this time around. I think we will. Last time we were still learning what kind of parents we are. Now we know and will be prepared to defend those choices or adapt them to fit our new baby's needs.

Because sometimes being all wrong is just right. :)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Multilingual Czech Preschool

When my daughter's preschool sent out an e-mail earlier this summer asking which parents were interested in forming an English class with a native English speaking teacher this fall, I wrote back saying not interested, thanks, we have one at home.

I guess they end up forming not a full time class but a twice a week lesson with an external American teacher coming in, and the first lesson was yesterday. K was apparently exercising with the kids who don't attend the English class - but when I went to pick her up, the head teacher asked me if I would mind terribly much if K attended the class for 45 minutes twice a week. To help the teacher.


Apparently the kids spent most of the class staring wide-eyed and not really participating, since English is so new for them. The head teacher asked the English teacher if he thought it would help to have an English-Czech speaking child in the class to smooth things over, and he apparently said yes. So she asked me if K could join in.

I have mildly mixed feelings about it, but I suspect that most of my concerns would apply more to elementary school and Czechs teaching English. They aren't learning grammar that K already knows, the American teacher won't be threatened by her superior grasp of the language, and I don't THINK that kids this age will give her social problems if she knows all the answers and they don't - three things that can easily happen with older children in a similar position.

So I said ok, as long as it's helpful and not distracting and not more than those two lessons a week. Frankly, I get the impression that K enjoyed the "English lessons" they had last year, which I believe were mainly the regular teachers singing a bunch of English songs. It was/is her chance to be a star since she knows all the songs, can count to 10 in English, and whatever else they practice. Which I guess is not detrimental at this point.

A stickier problem will be what to do with mandatory English lessons in elementary school, where K will either be conspicuously at the top of the class, ridiculously bored, forced to choose between biting her tongue at the teacher's wrong English ("This is my k-nee") and correcting an adult in front of the class, or even put in some special position over the other kids (this is where I think "teacher's helper" can really backfire). I think I'd like to send some worksheets or a book from home for her to work on instead, or if there are multiple English-speaking students in the class, it would be awesome to bring in an external teacher for an hour to do a native-English class - language arts, learning to read, whatever. It'll depend on how open her elementary school administration and teachers are, I imagine.

But for the moment, K will be singing along with English songs, counting in English and generally playing along with whatever the teacher is trying to do. Which will ideally inspire the other children to follow her lead, haha. I'd be interested to see how that plays out!


K's teacher also commented a few times recently on how her Czech is improving. It's more grammatical now and more flexible. I found it interesting that her teachers claimed she never mixed Czech and Slovak at school as I described her doing at home, but then one day I was witness to the following:

Teacher: "Kde máš obrázek?" (Where's your picture?)
K: "Já nelobila" (nerobila - SK - I didn't make one)
Teacher: [insert several guesses as to what K means, including "Ty jsi rozbila?" - you broke it??]
K: "Já nelobila!"
Teacher: still not getting it
Me: "Chce říct "já nerobila" - nedělala." (She's saying 'I didn't make one' in Slovak)
Teacher: "Jo tááááák, to je ta slovenština..." (OOOOHHHHH, it's Slovak, didn't expect that...)

I've also heard K use Slovak at school other times, I think, where I had the feeling the teachers didn't realize that's what she was doing. So I'm thinking she may be mixing more than they realize and they just don't hear it! Actually, now that I think of it, I remember a conversation between a teacher and a Slovak-Czech little boy last year, where the boy was talking about his "babka" and the teacher kept asking what/who he was talking about. I mentioned we have a babka in Slovakia as well.

To be fair, I guess you really don't hear or understand the mixing unless you are used to it or expecting it somehow. I may be more sensitive to children's language mixing (whether CZ-EN, SK-EN or CZ-SK) or language-related misunderstandings/disobedience (the two-year-old isn't trying to be naughty when continuing to kick the gravel after being told not to - he may well not know it's called "gravel"!) than your average grown-up. You know, being occasionally prone to them myself...


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