I forgot Groundhog’s Day. Granted, not the most major of holidays to forget. Quite a silly one actually, but the point is, I forgot all about it.
For anyone not familiar with this American tradition, Groundhog’s Day is the day when Punxsutawney Phil is jolted out of his winter’s nap for a prediction about the arrival of spring. If he emerges from his den and sees his shadow, six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, we’re in for an early spring.
So how accurate is this groundhog meteorologist? According to the website LiveScience, his accuracy is somewhere between 36% and 39%.
An accurate forecast is not the real reason we tune into Phil. It’s not the reason crowds gather in rural Pennsylvania in the predawn hours, to await the arrival of a rodent we would otherwise chase from our lawns for ransacking our gardens. No, it is just one small part of our shared tradition. Part of the culture that makes us Americans. Part of the culture I’d forgotten.
Why worry about the less than reliable predictions of a sleepy woodchuck? I’m not really. I know that spring will arrive on March 20, with or without him. But what I realized this morning was that because I forget about something like Phil, my children are losing their link to American cultural traditions.
When we moved outside the US, I wasn’t thinking about the challenges of maintaining what makes us American. I was thinking about the opportunities, for us and the children. Opportunities to meet new people, see new things, learn new languages, and to expand the horizons of our world and our worldview.
Once we reached our fourth year in Germany I realized that the children had spent more time outside of their passport country than in it. They spoke fluent German and spent nearly as much time at German school as they did at home. They were inundated with German cultural experiences, but only rarely with American ones. My children had become Third Culture Kids – TCK’s.
The term third culture kids was first used in the 1950’s by John and Ruth Unseem, to describe a distinct culture that develops somewhere between the host culture and the parent’s culture. If you’d like more information on TCK’s, the book Third Culture Kids, Growing up Among Worlds, is a great reference.
Being a TCK can create any number of problems when children return to their passport countries, having developed a cultural narrative that fits somewhere in between worlds.
Right now, this isn’t a problem for my children. A majority of their peers are also TCK’s. Right now, they don’t realize that they lack the foundations of a shared culture with their fellow Americans, because right now it’s the Italians that they don’t have a shared common culture with. We expected that, we’ve prepared them for that. They will say things to me like, “I know that they do things differently here, but I don’t understand why…..” or “well, it’s a different culture, they just do things differently here.” They are, for the most part, very open to that idea. Although, occasionally the differences do bother them.
What I’ve realized however, is that they are not comparing Italian culture to US culture, but to German Culture. The differences between German Culture and Italian Culture are pretty noticeable to anyone who’s traveled to the two countries, but for my nearly German children, the lack of order is a constant source of irritation.
It is a challenge for me to remember that my children have a different cultural context than I do. They don’t remember living in the US, their formative memories are German. My son used to come home from Kindergarten in tears if someone told him he wasn’t German. No matter what his passport said, in his mind, he was German.
How do I introduce a third culture into this mix? How ensure that they have at least some knowledge of the common elements of the shared US culture? In order to do that, I needed to think about what constituted culture, for me anyway. Once I decided what I wanted to share with the children, I needed to decide how to do it. There are many ways to introduce culture to your children, but my favorite is through the world of books.
We are a household of readers. Fortunately, both children love books as well. I keep the house stocked with folk tales, stories about holidays, biographies, historical novels, popular and classic children’s books. When we lived near an American base, and we had an early release day from school, we headed for the base library. My children loved spending hours in the library and gathering armfuls of English language books to bring home with them.
It isn’t as easy to find English language children’s books when we don’t have access to an English language library, so we order a lot of books.
Here are a few of my favorites:
1. The Magic Treehouse Series by Mary Pope Osborne – I love this children’s series, and my children do as well. We’ve purchased the audio versions of most of these books and listen to them whenever we do any long distance travel by car. It keeps the children entertained and they are introduced to new historical events and characters in each book.
2. The Who Was Series – For older children, this is a fantastic series introducing any number of historical figures and events. We’ve only begun delving into this series, but already my children are sharing interesting facts from the lives of the historical figures they’ve read about.
3. The I Survived Series by Lauren Tarshis – Another series for older children, introducing historical events to young readers. My 8-year-old really enjoyed these, and asked for more.
4. Books about holidays – Every year I try to find the children at least one book that introduces a new aspect of a holiday. My favorite series for holiday books is the Berenstain Bears, but I try to introduce them to other figures from children’s literature as well.
5. Folk tales – When I mentioned Paul Bunyan in passing and the children looked at me like I was crazy, I knew we needed to add some American folk tales to our reading list. We have two that the children enjoy: Classic American Folk Tales retold by Steven Zorn, and The Children’s Book of Heroes edited by William J. Bennett.
6. The common core series by E.D Hirsch, Jr – These books begin with What your Kindergartener Needs to Know, and continue through the different grade levels. What I like about these books are the age appropriate stories and histories provided in the text. This series also gives me an idea of what their peers are learning in the US schools.
7. Classic children’s literature – I have only just started on exploring classic American children’s literature with the children. American children’s literature tends to fall more into the category of true-life and moralistic, which is a harder sell than the fantasy world of the Hobbit or the Chronicles of Narnia. We read Caddie Woodlawn together, which is a fantastic book for boys and girls alike. Caddie is similar to Laura Ingalls, but a bit more adventurous. We’ve started reading the Little House series, and they find the descriptions of life before electronics fascinating.
Of course, I can’t order every book on every subject. I also tell my children a lot of stories. I tell them stories from when I was young. I tell them stories from when their grandparents were alive. I tell them the stories that I remember hearing. What is culture, but a shared tradition of stories? I try to make sure that my children are exposed to as many stories as possible. It seems to be working, they love the both the Brothers Grimm and Laura Ingalls.
Traditions are another aspect that work to create a common culture. While we try to acknowledge as many of the traditions as we can, there’s always one or two that we overlook. Occasionally friends will talk about their plans for the long weekend, and I will have no idea what holiday they are talking about – President’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day – I’ve forgotten all of them.
We try to celebrate things like Halloween, and St Valentine’s Day, but these are either overlooked or celebrated just a bit differently, if they are celebrated at all. This year the children celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the first time in their school. They loved learning about him and celebrating this new special day.
Of course, the children have never attended a Fourth of July Barbecue, or seen the fireworks light up the summer sky. They’ve never been to a Memorial Day Parade. They don’t watch the Superbowl. I believe that there is still plenty of time for them to experience these quintessential elements of America.
They may not know Baseball, but they’ve seen witches jumping over bonfires on dark winter’s nights, they’ve received Dutch chocolates in their boots on a winter’s morning in Germany, they’ve watched the cows come home from their Alpine pastures, and they already realize that there is so much more to the world than one culture. That is the true magic of a childhood spent abroad. I can teach them American culture, but they already appreciate the cultures of the world.
How do you share your home culture with your children? In what ways do you introduce them to new cultures, or help them understand cultural differences? I’d love to hear your thoughts!