Sticking To Our Roots – Or Doing Our Children A Disservice?

I was in an online ‘expat’ conversation the other day when someone suggested we do our children a disservice when we don’t assimilate to our host country. I agree with her, and go one further to ask if perhaps, even when we try to instill a “bit of the old country”, it might not help? It’s a fine line.

Expat Brit, author, blogger and artist, Emma Kaufmann has lived in the States for thirteen years; she is English and her husband is Irish. She says – “I think a lot of whether you assimilate or not depends on what state of mind you are in when you come to this country. A lot of spouses are brought here with their husbands (I have seen it the other way around but it is mostly thus) and they are homesick, so cling like a drowning (wo)man to the old country.Typically if you are here for a short while, like a few years maybe, many expats in the US think that this is just a stopgap and that they will go home soon. This makes it impossible to assimilate and it’s therefore really not a very positive experience for anyone.”

Emma makes a great point. While many expats experience difficulties in new locations, they probably don’t realize how much this can affect their children’s experience. A common reaction to culture shock or homesickness is to blame everything on the host country or to insist that things would be better if only you were in – insert name of “home” here. If your children weren’t even born in your “home” country, this can be particularly confusing or upsetting for them. They may feel disloyal by not hating the host country quite as much as you do, or by not having the same feelings about “home”.

In my case, there was no imminent move back to England, my three children were born here and plan to stay here, (I think – they have dual nationality so anything could happen.) Oh, and I don’t hate the USA. Obviously I want my kids to know about England and to feel comfortable when I take them there. I feed them “proper sausages”, Jaffa cakes and Yorkshire pud (not all at once) and they are au fait with words like “loo”, “telly” and “palaver”. But because I wasn’t brought up with it, they don’t eat true American food like Sloppy Joes, Buffalo wings and Cinnabon rolls. It’s not that I’m deliberating avoiding them – it just never crosses my mind to serve them up. (I couldn’t begin to assemble a Sloppy Joe if you paid me.) A quick lunch in our house is more likely to be the British staple, scrambled egg/beans on toast, than a corn dog or Mac N Cheese.

Similarly, because we go to England every summer, they rarely spend July 4th in the USA. I haven’t intentionally booked the flights to avoid the Independence Day shenanigans; if we go as soon as American schools let out, everyone’s still in school in the UK, and if we leave it till August not only is everyone off on their holidays, but the kids miss vital sports stuff back in the States. Consequently their July 4th memories will be of a few stars and striped paper napkins at Grandma’s in England rather than the full-blown event it is in the States. (We do go all out at Thanksgiving I’m happy to report. They’ll have a full memory bank on that one although our family is tiny on this side of the Pond.)

I know of a few British families who insist on doing things the British way even though the children are all American born and have never lived in the UK. Fair enough, if you know you’re going back “home” at some point, you might want them to be able operate there, but if, in this case, an American life is on their horizon, what’s the point of admonishing them for eating pizza without silverware or saying “Hi” instead of “Hello”?

As Emma Kaufmann says, “I think children of expats should be told that ‘this is how they do things in US and this is the way things are done in Europe, (or relevant countries) and they both have their negative and positive sides’.

As I said, it’s a fine line.

Toni Summers Hargis has a new book – “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”. (Summertime). She is also the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.