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Raised by Wolves

October 26, 2012

I was ten and my sister was eight when my dad decided to take us on a posh European vacation as part of his larger efforts to mould us into refined young ladies.  You see, my father was in the tragic position of many first-generation immigrants to America when it came to his offspring.  Born and raised a South African Jew, he immigrated to the US when he was in his 30’s and then eventually married my mother, a corn-fed, all-American girl from Indiana.  And like most immigrants to the US whose children are born and raised here, he realized that, though he spoke the same language that we did, we were as culturally different from him as it was possible for us to be.  We were American in every way.  And American children, as he eventually had to learn, are not like other children.

I have to acknowledge my poor father and his efforts to slip some of that Old World sophistication into our New World brains.  No one can say that he didn’t try.  He read to us every single night, often from books that were way beyond our vocabulary level.  In fact, my sister did her Kindergarten book report on Romeo and Juliet.

My dad also made sincere efforts to smooth out our barbaric table manners.  When I would scarf down the Kraft macaroni and cheese and sliced weiners that my mother had served us for dinner, he would warn me to slow down and to use my fork because, in his words, “When you have tea with the Queen of England, do you want her to think that you were raised by wolves?”

The European vacation, like most of my father’s efforts to turn us into cultured beings, proved unsuccessful.  During the course of the trip, my sister and I represented American children to the rest of the world by fulfilling every stereotype that had ever been recorded, and then some.  For example, on the boat ride across the English Channel, my sister spilled a large glass of orange juice all over herself and a Swedish family sitting next to her.  In the process of laughing at her until my nose and eyes streamed, I also managed to overturn my own glass of orange juice.

Later, on the large, red double-decker bus in London (which was, blessedly, almost empty of passengers), my sister and I sprinted up the stairs to the top level of the bus and began dashing back and forth, back and forth, up and down the aisle.  My father sat quietly at the back of the bus watching us, until the moment when the bus screeched to a halt.

We froze as the large, angry head of the bus driver bobbed up the stairs.  His mustache twitching in fury, he told us that our behavior was inexcusable.  He told my father to get off of the bus and to take us with him.  Silent for once, our jaws hanging low, my sister and I followed our dad down the stairs and out into the street.

To our surprise, he was not angry.  “You’re American children,” he said.  “These Europeans don’t know from American children.”

Later that evening, he told one of his old friends from London what had happened.  She replied that she had lived in London almost her entire life and that she had never before heard of someone getting kicked off of a bus.  What we had done must have been terrible.  My sister and I hung our heads in shame, but in private, my father kept saying, “You can’t help it.  You’re American children.  That’s how American children are.”

It’s not just Europeans who find American children to be different from their own.  A friend of mine from China is studying to be a teacher, and she has had the opportunity to go into American schools and observe the way that American children are taught.  Polite and positive about everything, she told me her impression of American classrooms: “They have so much fun!  They play games.  It is so different!”

She is right.  American kids do have fun.  And when things aren’t fun enough for American kids, American kids figure out ways to alleviate their quick and easy boredom.  When I was a child, I was unable to sit through a service at temple without making noise, and so my parents permitted me to wander the halls of the temple instead.  When my sister and I got on the boat to cross the English Channel, we were more concerned with entertaining each other than we were with being polite to our fellow passengers.  When we spilled our orange juice, it was a source of hilarity rather than of embarrassment and apology.  The double decker bus, we decided, was designed for family fun.  Kids should be playing, we reasoned, and this bus had two stories rather than one.  It was almost better than the playground at McDonald’s!

American children are different, and my sister and I were no exceptions.  I think that the average London child would have known to sit quietly in the bus seat.  I think that the average Chinese child would be able to learn the characters in the Chinese alphabet without songs and games.  Would the average American child be capable of such behavior?  There’s no way to know.

Our children are taught that they deserve to have fun, that their happiness is paramount.  And don’t misunderstand me: there is nothing inherently wrong with this child-rearing philosophy, except when we adults would like for our happiness to be paramount from time to time.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to take your children to a fancy restaurant and know that they are well-trained and selfless enough to be quiet and polite?  Or, that they have enough of a “life of the mind” to be content even in the absence of obvious stimulation.

As it is, we are forced to segregate society into “family-friendly” areas and adult-friendly areas with no kids allowed.  “Family-friendly” means that your child will have the space to run around and scream without getting into trouble.  The assumption (often correct) is that kids are noisy and that anywhere that allows kids should be tolerant of unpleasant noise.  And if you want peace and quiet, you should forbid or discourage the presence of children at your establishment.  Parents who want peace and quiet should get a babysitter.

As my dad discovered, it is hard to raise a “refined,” well-mannered child in America.  American society has pretty low expectations for children in terms of how we view their ability to be quiet, polite, and selfless.  We want to protect them.  We want to shelter them from unpleasantness and boredom.  We want them to have fun and be happy.  We want to put them first, even above our own needs.  But we haven’t turned them into very good dinner companions.

If I were the manager of a fancy restaurant and a family wanted to bring their children to eat at my establishment, I would tell them that they and their children were welcome, as long as they met my expectations: that they be quiet and polite to the other customers.  If they were, I would be thrilled to have them.  If they weren’t, I would do exactly as the London bus driver did and send them packing.

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4 Comments
  1. Good thing you didn’t try it on a French bus. The driver would’ve breaked hard as you were running forward, to get you a broken nose.

    Children should have fun. And play games. Just not at the expense of everyone else. And its up to their parents to set the boundaries.

  2. Matt Walker permalink

    The story was great. It stirred emotion for your dad and his unconditional love for his children. Well written! Thx

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