Of Baseball, Sesame Street, and the Surprisingly Complex Business of Non-Americans Raising American Kids

Of baseball, Sesame Street, and The Surprisingly Tricky Business of Non-Americans Raising American Kids

My daughter took her first international trip when she was six weeks old: a fact that required us to get her to get a passport within days of her birth. When her shiny, blue American passport arrived, I laughed at the squashy newness of her face in the photo, and marveled at this, too: she was an American Citizen, and at less than a month old, could already travel so many more places than I could with my visa-restricted foreign passport.

Oh baby, the places you’ll go.

As a parent, I hoped that having an American-born child would mean she would have first class rights in the Land of Opportunity. She had the birth certificate and the passport to prove it, and while she carried vestiges of her parents’ distinctly accented English as a toddler, by the time she entered public school, her accent had adapted, too. She even donned sparkly red, white and blue clothing to wear on July 4th, and as the saying goes: if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then surely it must be…

But being a mother to American children has proved to be more complex a matter than procuring them passports and Old Glory T-shirts. As it turns out, there are myriad ways for a Non-American mom to mess it up for her American kids: a realization that made itself rudely apparent one chilly Tuesday morning.

It was Valentines Day, and my daughter was in tears. She wanted to take candies and cards for all her classmates, and I had failed to do the necessary “mom prep” with my credit card at Target. Coming from a culture where Valentines Day was for the hormonal and horny, I did not understand what first graders were doing passing out valentines day cards: and not just to their “crushes”, but to everyone: “the teacher said so!” I had ignored the email blast about cubby protocol. I had neglected to purchase chocolate hearts or pink swirly pencils.

My daughter was undone: “I’ll be the only one who doesn’t have Valentines” she wailed. I assured her this would not be the case, but a quick survey on arriving at school proved me wrong. My American kid needed me to mommy-up and pay a little more attention: Valentines Day was different here, and my rolled eyes at the silliness of it all were not helping her.

In my first months in the US, a co-worker quizzed me about cultural traditions in South Africa. “Do you celebrate American holidays,” he asked, “like St Patrick’s Day and Thanksgiving?” I remember scoffing at the hubris of calling an Irish holiday “American”.

In hindsight, I wish I’d been less snarky, because while St Patrick’s Day may be an historically Irish holiday, it has taken on a distinctly American flavor stateside. I’d wager that on March 17th, there’s more green worn as pinch-prevention in the USA than there is on the Emerald Isle itself.

Did we celebrate American holidays like St Patrick’s Day? Or Valentines Day? No, in truth, we didn’t.

And so it is that I am slowly learning that American children are not just children who were born and raised in America; they are children who have had an American childhood, complete with its cultural cues and textured traditions. American children know about trick-or-treating, and candy apples, and that camping means s’mores. They have magical memories of Disneyland. They know the words to “take me to the ballgame”, because an adult actually took them to a ballgame.

 American children grow up to be adults who talk about their “holiday traditions”, because whether it be ugly Christmas sweaters, or Aunt Myrna’s secret glaze for the sweet potato pie at thanksgiving, American families know they are supposed to collect and articulate traditions. American children know that on Valentines Day in 1st grade, you are supposed to make a card for everyone. “Everyone knows this, mom,” says my kid.

But this non-American mom doesn’t know. She’s learning. This non-American mom went trick-or-treating for the first time in her thirties, and only recently discovered Sesame Street. She is trying to learn the rules of baseball, because she’s vaguely aware that at some point in the future, someone is going to try and have a sex talk and explain “the bases”, and she should probably at least have a basic grasp of the vocabulary. This non-American mom doesn’t really understand the draw of Disneyland, but since we live in California, realizes we will probably need to make that happen for our kids at some point.

Raising kids is usually a matter of remembering the best parts of our own childhood, avoiding the bad parts, and mixing it all with a sprinkling of what-we’ve-seen-work-elsewhere. For most American kids, this means getting the best of their parents’ memories recreated for them: July 4th fireworks, Christmas pajamas, playing football after Thanksgiving dinner, and watching It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’m raising American children, but the best of my childhood memories don’t involve any of the quintessential American markers. I have other things to share with them: a tradition of eating hot cross buns for Easter, and giving alms on the day after Christmas. I share these with joy, but with intentional fluidity: for while my children are of foreign descent, they are first generation Americans.

And so together we will learn about pop tarts, baseball, and American traditions like St Patrick’s Day. And next year, come February 14th, we will be ready with the candied hearts.

19 thoughts on “Of Baseball, Sesame Street, and the Surprisingly Complex Business of Non-Americans Raising American Kids

  1. Excellent! Thank you for this. And if it helps you to feel better, I always have the perforated valentine cards ready to go, but have never made it so far as to have purchased candy/stickers/pencils to go with them… 😉

  2. I had the reverse of this! My parents are American, but I was born in South Africa. My Mom did not understand the importance of marmite sandwiches or zoo biscuits or that a school uniform does not mean you can wear your own jersey and socks, or cricket, or even that exams were a big deal and that matric ball is basically your wedding. 🙂 But I was the second daughter, so my older sister had trained her quite well in all these things by the time I came along. And then, of course, when I moved to America, I had the weirdness of quoting “Its a Wonderful Life” and expecting everyone to know what I was saying, and being met with blank stares. Or the time I bought a pumpkin, very excited to make all the pumpkin spice things, only to be told by my roommates that no one actually cooks pumpkin, you buy it in a can. So even the “American” things my Mom knew about and passed on to me didn’t always work out.
    But she was a GREAT Mom and I love her to bits.
    So carry on, you’re doing well. Your children will survive, scars and all. 🙂 I’m still here.

    • Zoo biscuits!! And school uniforms! And exactly how to wear your tie in the winter?!?! And don’t get me started on canned pumpkin 🙂 Thanks for resonating, Steph!

  3. American parents don’t get all the American stuff right all the time either, Bron. It’s a complicated and variegated culture we live in!

    • Yes, I didn’t mean to paint a monochrome picture of here. But even if you weren’t a regular watcher, you’d at least have KNOWN who Big Bird was the first time he was referenced, right?

  4. This British mum joins you in the eye rolling over Valentines and still don’t have much of a clue about baseball but I have the advantage of the Amercian mother-in-law providing the cutesy Valentines and other ‘holiday’ stuff .

    • I am very grateful to a great community of very tolerant and generous American moms who help me with the eye-rolling and tips-for-the-seasons 🙂

  5. I crushed both my kids in the car one day when I told them it was their teacher who messed up the classroom and there is no such thing as leprechauns. Sobbing, heartbroken children in the back seat of my minivan this English born and bred mum couldn’t fathom the appeal. My sister-in-law was beyond amazed when my children informed her there was no such thing as the Easter Bunny (not in England) and that I told them Mummy and Daddy hid the eggs. The only thing I got right was Santa Claus (Father Christmas) and I’m glad I didn’t mess that up. Oh and I too thought it was an expensive waste of money to buy cards and candy for Valentine’s Day – but I did reluctantly participate.
    Yes it’s given me quite an education, but now at 18 and 16 I realize they are the quintessential American kids with just a smidgen of English thrown in (Boxing Day, Yorkshire Puddings, Trifle, Christmas cake and the use of the word “Bin” for trash can).
    It’s definitely been an interesting journey.

  6. Great post, friend! And it’s “take me OUT to the ballgame” 🙂 …but that omission kind of fits right into the piece, now doesn’t it?

    • *sigh*. Yup. I had NO IDEA that it was “take me OUT to the ballgame”. I’m going to have to actually go to a ballgame one day. Maybe the Giants on the day we finally (hopefully) get green cards? That seems like it would be a very fitting celebration.

  7. What a great read!

    Then there are some of us very American children whose parents were rather strict about certain things: no Santa Claus and no Easter bunny for my family. Never! So not every American child had those and I didn’t learn Take me out the the Ballgame until I was an adult so no worries on that one! We did give Valentine cards way back when I was a child … but at that point we actually chose who to give them to so some children received a lot and some not so many.

    Mostly I just wanted to thank you … I always enjoy your thoughtful posts.

    ~Patty (who has been in California her entire life and the Bay Area for 56 of those 58 years!)

    • Hi Patricia! How wonderful to hear from you. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment, and for the encouragement that it’s not too late for me to learn Baseball lore, after all 🙂

  8. Thank you, Bronwyn, for your faithful honesty. You create a solid base for further conversation among your readers even as you wrestle with choices in raising your lovely children.

    I agree with Tim Fall about the variegated aspect of American culture. Your discussion opens our eyes to the minutiae on which the web of differentiated cultural understanding depends. So many of these granular details are so small, but I believe our children & their friends see them in outsized proportion. For example, I noticed that the baseball in your banner photo for this post has a molded rubber cover instead of horsehide and thread stitching. No a moral difference, but this distinction nagged at the back of my juvenile mind, calling up the sort of schoolyard bickering that concerns itself with authenticity. Money was tight in my childhood, and I was the kid without the bona fide credentials that could be purchased for a bit more.

    Parents do well to listen to their children–not to buy them every extravagance–but to hear behind the artifacts in question to grasp what is really at stake in the navigations of childhood.

    Bless you and the little Leas.

  9. A couple of years ago, I was in a coffee shop. Next to me was a family with a girl about nine years old. I asked her what grade she was in. She said that she was going into Grade Three. I asked her, what part of Canada she was from. She looked at me in amazement and asked how I knew she that she was from Canada. I told her, “Canadian children say Grade 3. American children say 3rd Grade.” I could tell that I had slightly started her mother, too.

    As far as baseball goes, it is time for the playoffs and World Series. Listen to some of it on he radio while you’re are driviNg with the kids. You don’t have to spend all of that money to attend a Big League game. There are lower divisions called the minor leagues, your community college probably has a team. They are much cheaper. Your city has a myriad of amateur leagues that you can go and watch for nothing. I bet someone in your church plays on an amateur league. Ask around and go watch them your friend’s family will be there in the stands, so you and your husband won’t be alone and you can ask questions.

  10. This totally reminds me of growing up in a Persian household while being an American child. Sounds like this! Haha, although, it was probably a tad more intense of a difference in my case. Ever seen the beginning of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’? I related so much to her childhood, that I figured they may as well have used my story.

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