Family First: American Style

I have just completed the first weekend of my visit back to the USA. It has been a very busy weekend. On Saturday, my son had his Little League baseball game. We left the house around eleven and did not get back until almost four that afternoon. Then on Sunday we were back to the park for team pictures. It has been fun, but it has also made me feel somewhat guilty about the lack of those opportunities for Emily in the UK.

At various times, I have tried different activities with her including ballet dance, tumbling and swimming. But all have been a horrible failure. The stark truth is that British society is so class conscious that such activities are meant exclusively for the upper classes. When we did attend it was virtually impossible for us to make friends. So in the end we simply gave up.

But the Little League was a refreshing reminder of how open American society is. My former partner and son live in a predominantly Latino area of Los Angeles. It is not just baseball either there is scouts and karate as well for my son to enjoy. As I said it is not that there are not things to be done with my children in London, it is comrade among the children and parents. I am sure that there are close friendships but those do not prevent them from welcoming newcomers. Our experience in the UK has been of cliques that make you feel so unwelcome that eventually you stop going. Even though it was my first time to attend one of my son’s games, the coaches recognised me, which made me feel welcome and made my son proud to show off his mum.

Enjoying sunny Cali in a park
Enjoying sunny Cali in a park

Even the play ground where we played before the game was very different from similar ones in London. In London, you have much larger parks; but the play areas are still the same size of smaller. You will likely have parks that do not have any play equipment for children. In the USA, parks are for children. But it was more than just the central role that the play equipment held in the park, it was the way that the parents and children interacted in the playground.  In the UK, it is fairly common to see children playing while parents sit on benches chatting. In Grant Rae Park, I was struck by how interactive the American parents were with the children. They were rarely more than five feet from their child and often right behind him or her.

What’s more, verbally there was a steady stream of conversation; even with very young children who could not yet respond. Parents would say things such as ‘Wow, look how high you can climb.’ I felt normal for the first time in a very long time; because my usual banter with Emily often draws odd stares at home, especially on the bus or Tube. Of course, this is not to say that every parent in the US is bantering constantly with their children or that no parent in the UK does, but it is more the norm here.

Our primary motivation for returning to the US is the educational system. Our daughter is bright (my children to be, it is all that constant bantering they here). The opportunities for gift and talented children are significantly higher in the US than in the UK. My son’s cousin is a perfect example. She has been identified as GT as they call it here and has been enrolled in a special after-school and holiday project affiliated with a major university (Ivy League). She has been part of that programme for a couple of years now. Recently the children took standardised tests; she scored the highest. As a result she has been awarded $25,000 scholarship for use during her high school years on tutoring and extra-curricular activities that will prepare her to excel in university. Being a minority (Latina), she is almost certain to receive a full-scholarship to the university of her choice. In the UK, Cambridge and Oxford are constantly complaining about the lack of qualified candidates from working class and minority backgrounds. They would do well to learn from such programmes, but until they do we feel we have no other choice than to do what is best for our child, which is taking her somewhere that does offer such opportunities.

I hope this does not sound like I am UK bashing. The USA rates lower in other areas…so read Wednesday and Thursday posts to hear about the things I will really miss about the UK. But this particular issue has been the single biggest adjustment culturally. I have tried very hard, but the British style seems to be stricter, more scheduled and less understanding of the child development in terms of meeting emotional needs. I feel like an outsider in this area, even in the parenting groups such as La Leche League, the Breastfeeding Network and NCT. Yet I am both too old and too determined that this style of parenting produces the type of adults I value: opinionated, confident and intelligent leaders. So in this area I will very much be glad to return to my home country in a few years.

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