I seem to have raised two thoroughly American sons. One likes marmite and the other is a Dr. Who fan; they both have British passports; and they may be the only kids in the area who understand the word “loo.” But, they are American through and through. Which means they assume they have a right to be both seen and heard; and they join teams — lots of them.
Children Should Be Seen and Heard
Americans love children. Well, most human cultures do but in the States it takes on a whole new dimension. Even quite fancy restaurants will have a “kids’ menu” and booster seats, even high chairs, for the little ones. “Family fun days” are everywhere and even venues in Las Vegas, the epitome of risqué adult behavior, claim to have “family events.”
About the only place I’ve found that wasn’t kid-friendly was public transport. Local buses, trains, and (in the big cities) subways are a nightmare to maneuver through with a stroller (push chair) or a walking toddler. Then again, most suburban families drive everywhere.
In addition to being seen, kids also expect to be heard. In general, they are actively encouraged to ask questions and to be outgoing. This must be a particular shock for anyone who’s emigrated with their children from a more deferent culture. It was certainly a shock from the other side of the desk, when I was a graduate teaching assistant at a university.
I’d expected a room full of superficially-deferent 18-year olds who expressed their disagreement or displeasure with eye rolls and maybe the odd snort. Instead, I was faced with students who assumed they were supposed to speak out in class and have a debate with the teacher. To say it was a surprise would be an understatement. It was terrifying. Eventually I grew to love the challenge of real give-and-take in the classroom, but I had to do some fast adjusting.
And although America celebrates and encourages individualism, where its children are concerned this is a nation of joiners. I don’t know where the stereotypical “overweight couch potatoes” live but I’ve yet to find any among the youth of the suburban east coast. Kids here are encouraged to join in and to be active. The answer to “and what does YOUR child do?” is not supposed to be “homework and lounging about with their mates.” The sheer range of after-school activities at all age levels is downright overwhelming — from various sports and chess clubs, to high school debate teams and model UN.
In sum, you don’t often get the slightly-reserved public diffidence of the average Brit. Which must be a bit rough if you’re an introvert.
American Children Play Sports
Yes, sportS. Here in the States the word is a plural — not a grudging single-case noun to denote an activity that may occasionally involve some sweat and is an add-on to the day. Nope, a definite plural, the word “sports” invokes a panoply of activities that are essential to producing a well-rounded American child. It’s like the “playing fields of Eton” ethos democratized and writ large. For Americans kids, sports are everywhere, both in school and outside.
Most of the kids in our neighborhood seem to be involved in some kind of school and/or private club sport, whether it’s football (i.e., American football), swimming, track (running), basketball, soccer (i.e., football), dance, karate or tennis. My oldest loved almost anything involving a ball (except cricket, which he tried once on a visit to England and pronounced “boring”). So his childhood and adolescence revolved around football, soccer, basketball and baseball, for both school and private teams. My youngest found his niche in the world of dance — hiphop, lyrical, modern, jazz, ballet, tap — and is at the studio 15-20 hours a week.
I’m sure there are also plenty of English kids who spend hours a week pursuing a favorite sport — but it’s the ubiquity of it in America that takes some getting used to. Sport is not seen as a hobby or an add-on — it’s assumed to be an essential part of growing up and living the great American dream. And they start young. Every Saturday in the autumn, suburban school fields are full of 5-year olds trying to kick soccer balls on quarter-size pitches; in the spring they’re swinging at baseballs placed on top of T-ball poles. I’ve seen kids as young as four competing in dance competitions or practicing at the local karate studio.
And that ubiquity extends all the way to university level. Every one of those suburban parents cheering from the sidelines/auditorium benches is quietly hoping that their kid will one day win some form of sports scholarship to help defray the staggering cost of attending an American university.
Seeing athletic skill as a means to an education is quintessentially American — it feeds into the “if you try hard enough you can do anything” ethos. The fact that for many kids it’s also the only way they’ll ever be able to afford that education is also quintessentially American.