Thursday, November 19, 2009

The "sandbox effect"

I was recently told by a lady scientist I barely knew, "Your child is always your lab." This, after I had announced, “No really, I object to using my child in any kind of research I am doing. I find it inappropriate parenting, subjective data-collecting and plain unethical”. But after further thought, as much as I hate to say it, she was right. Raising a child is a scientific process onto itself. It involves trial and error, hypotheses and experiments, unexpected findings and –hopefully- eureka moments. As much as you try to separate your professional investigations from your personal life, you end up projecting them as a parent. Reading research shapes your behavior and orients your discourse in certain ways. Every child is their parents’ lab to some extent.
When my daughter was born 4 ½ years ago, we made sure, her father and I, to find a name for her that would work in most countries and sounded pretty much the same in French and English. I guess this was already me planning to raise her as a bilingual, bi-cultural child. It was, de facto, experiment number one. As a linguist and foreign language teacher, I had encountered many children of “international” families. Their names help them “fit” or make them seem “foreign.” I have found that the group they identify with is the most important factor for language learning –especially in the really early years, and then again in the teenage years. Juliette now spontaneously introduces herself as Juliette in French, Juliet in English, Yulieta in Russian, and Julietta in Spanish (with the Spanish “jota”). She even changes the way she pronounces our last name: Pootmahn or Puttman depending on the setting.
When I taught preschool, I tried to explain this important factor to my students’ parents and I called it the “Sandbox effect.” This does not only apply to the way children are called, but to any linguistic interaction they engage in. As toddlers from multi-cultural and/or multi-lingual families get out of their homes to socialize for the first time, they realize that the important language to master in the world is the one that is spoken in the sandbox. In other words, as much as parents speak their native language while interacting directly with their child, children will acquire more rapidly and seem to value more the language that is spoken in the sandbox, when it is different from the one spoken at home. From an evolutionary perspective, it is not difficult to understand why that would be. Parents are supposed to love you unconditionally and will therefore feed you and care for you regardless of the language you speak to them, regardless of the level at which you are mastering their language, and –quite often- regardless of the fact that you act like a brat. Preschool-age peers on the other hand, may try to interact with you a couple of times but if you don’t speak their language, they will just dump you right there, in the middle of the sandbox, for someone who does, possibly taking your bucket and shovel in the process. In addition, during the preschool years, the children defining the story lines during pretend play are usually the ones who have the most verbal fluency in the language spoken in the sandbox. They are the “moms”, “dads”, “kings” and “queens” of the story. If a child is a late talker, a foreign-language speaker, or simply a little shy, chances are he/she will end up being the pretend family dog, cat or baby. None of which are roles to be envied, trust me.
It is with that observation in mind, that I, I am shamefully admitting here, came up with my home experiment number two in bilingual education. Right after she was born, during my maternity leave, I started to reach out to other French-speaking parents in my neighborhood. Soon after, I had started an online group called “Bébés francophones” to facilitate meet ups and exchange ideas. Playdates, picnics, friendships, nanny-shares, and hand-me-downs followed. Although I was never very involved because I had returned to work full-time, I saw this group blossom up to over 70 families -a success considering all of them where French-speaking residents of a small area in one single borough in NYC. The idea behind this was multi-fold: I wanted to make new friends for myself; I was hoping those meet-ups would be beneficial to all –especially to new moms in need of moral support- ; and I wanted Juliette to meet other children like her, who were being raise bilingually in NYC. I was hoping she would never feel like and “oddity”, as one friend –who grew up speaking French in the Midwest- once described herself. I had witnessed many young children refusing to speak their parents’ native language from the moment they realized it was not as widely used as English in NYC, and I also knew that you can’t force a toddler to do –well- anything. In other words, I thought, I can’t control the sandbox effect so let me control the sandbox. Juliette and I formed friendships, had fun moments, and are still in touch with many of those families. Some of them are even involved in a French daycare/preschool project I am working on. Some of them have moved away and we sometimes try to locate them on a world map. Juliette’s world is a global sandbox now.
I will not keep going down the list of parenting experiments ; they happen every day and are not all interesting. But I will say one more thing about parent involvement and professional experimentation. Two years ago came a moment where I was offered a teaching position I would not take: being my own daughter’s head teacher. No other offer was made to me when I explained my concern, and this is where I drew the line and quit… I will always be my daughter’s biggest fan and will be thrilled when she wants to hear my suggestions and advice. And I am sure that I will often tell her things she doesn’t really want to hear. But ultimately, I think that children, like all individuals, need their own space to experiment without being watched. Being her teacher full-time would have prevented her from growing into her own independent person and would have put our relationship in danger. In addition, using her to collect data on dual-language acquisition would have been inappropriate and unethical. It would be like entering her bedroom without knocking, reading her diary if she ever writes one. Would my daughter’s sandbox be a great lab? Of course! Should it? No! Because in the end there is a time when, emotionally, linguistically and otherwise, for the sake of their children, parents just need to step out of that sandbox.

(For more on parents using their children as tests subjects in their research, read this great NY times article

Monday, August 31, 2009

Why French men dare to carry a purse.

A few months back, one of my American acquaintances stated that “French men are more feminine than American men”. I didn’t really understand this comment and asked for more explanations. Did he mean that there were more gay men in France than in the US? If so, I would doubt it, assuming that the percentage of gays is most likely the same in countries that have similar genetic, environmental and cultural backgrounds. But he did not, he insisted, “they have more feminine traits” I dismissed it to some extent, as I thought of both the French men in my life (father, brother, cousins, friends) and the American men in my life (husband, father-in-law, colleagues, friends). They seemed similar in my mind. Some were butch some weren’t; some were straight, some were gay and they seemed evenly distributed amongst the two countries.
As of today, I have been in France for two months, which is the longest uninterrupted time I have spent here in 12 years. The perception I have of my home country is both one of a native and a foreigner. For instance, as I looked at my uncles gathered in my parents’ garden a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice than these 3 retired men carried a purse. All three purses were natural leather color, with a metal clasp or a zipper, a long strap or a handle. These 3 men had gone to work carrying a purse every day of their lives. Another male family member of mine wore a pink bathing suit that day, another one a light blue t-shirt with flowers. All of these were items I would have never seen a straight older men wear in the US, unless they lived in a large costal city such a New York or San Francisco. So I started to think of what other “feminine” aspect the French men around me had, at least from an American point of view. It turns out that the French men I grew up surrounded by read poetry, enjoy watering flowers, speak softly, do not swear, are not particularly fond of sporting events, and would rather drink wine than beer. They pick their own clothes, purses and shoes. They like ballet. Then I started thinking of the American men in my life and realized that they, too, liked ballet, flowers and clothes but that you would not be able to know that if you encountered them in a social event or at work. So, why would they rather appear as beer-drinking football fans (no offense to beer or to football) than well-dressed ballet lovers? Would the American men in my life have been as “feminine” as the French ones, had they not been worried that they were going to be perceived as wimps by their peers?
A Swedish friend of mine told me once that she wanted to dress her young daughter in gender neutral clothes until she could decide for herself what she wanted to dress like. Although it would not have occurred to me, I understood where she came from and decided to pay more attention to this while dressing my own toddler girl. In vain… as I was looking through rows and rows of children clothes in American stores, I could not find anything that wasn’t strongly gender specific. My choices were basically to dress her like a shiny pink princess or a butch boy. No girl outfit came without flowers, hearts or stars. No boy outfit came without trucks or dinosaurs. In addition, the children clothes section was split into two and situated in different parts of the store. From the pink/purple aisles I could barely spot the navy blue/camouflage area were the boys got dressed. In France on the other hand, children clothes are traditionally organized by age in stores, not by gender, and they come in greens, yellow, orange, stripes and flowers. Little boys can be seen wearing shirts with embroideries and little girls with brown sweaters. And, I guess, the little boys grow into big boys who are not afraid to be seen in pink, water flowers and enjoy ballet if they want to. I wish the same to American men.
In the meantime, I will keep raising eyebrows when I go back to the US as my favorite color is blue, I enjoy barbecuing, watching the Olympics on TV and mowing the lawn. Will they say French women are masculine?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

In Search of a Dora Free Vacation

My childhood memories of beach vacations are somehow detached from time. The rhythm of the tides –very powerful in the Southwest of France- paced the day. Watches became obsolete and even an annoyance. They were soon left and forgotten in the drawer of a bedside table. Regular routines softened, faded and then disappeared all together. Technology, styles and modernity seemed far away; an oddity. Book-shelves were hosts to the same old-fashioned volumes year after year. The quaint, although patriarchal Babar, the antique looking Minouche, generations of Belgian comic books and when I got older the exotic adventures of Loti, Monfreid and Kessel. The plains of Afghanistan, Persia and Siberia were calling. Tintin was ready to go to the moon -when the tides permitted it. The television set was quickly forgotten on the shelf, hidden behind a perfectly shaped piece of rounded plywood.
Early adulthood took me away from those vacations but as my daughter grew from a toddler to a preschooler, this yearly beach retreat was reinstated along with the near absence of television, the poor cell phone reception and … the rhythm of the tides. These times felt as if they were stolen from society, from commerce, and were a welcome relief from consumerism. No more 6 o’clock news, no more NY Times, no more Dora the Explorer. I am not saying it was easy to remove myself and my little family from the world. I do enjoy well-scripted TV shows, a good play, a tasty restaurant meal, thought-provoking indie movies, concerts of all types, and the occasional art opening. My usual day to day activities were turned upside down. My social network was in question. I was even thinking, “What are my Facebook friends going to think? This is all so sudden!” You see, I hadn’t changed my status in over a week. But after a few jittery days, I settled into a slower pace. It felt as if my heart too was beating slower, like the sea mammal I was becoming.
A couple of weeks ago, as I got out of the car and headed for the white and blue house, I was ready to retreat, already wiping out of my mind the Michael Jackson songs I had just heard. “Sure –I thought to myself- an important figure of 20th Century music has just died, but I never really cared for him and besides, I need to jump in the water before the tide goes down. “ The evening went as expected with its bathing, sightseeing, drinking aperitif, then dinner and a long jet-lagged night.
Fast forward to the next day, as my Brooklyn-born daughter, my French parents and I are heading to the closest supermarket, a couple of miles away. My little girl is in sitting in the cart, looking around, pointing, and questioning. I pass the gigantic pâté aisle; grab a couple of “Lou Gascoun au piment d’Espelette”, the quintessential baguette of course, and cross the store pushing the cart, aiming for the promising local seafood display. And that’s when it happens, at the top of her lungs, my daughter screams “Dora! Regarde Maman, Dora!” My mouth drops in disbelief, but there she is, Dora herself: bob cut, flat face, eyes round like marbles. On the kids’ chairs, umbrellas and bags, on the beach towels, on the buckets and shovels, everywhere.
I have to explain that in preparation for the trip and to avoid the culture chock she was about to face, I had prepared Juliette for her new life during this vacation. No cheerios in sight, but the croissants are to die for. And who needs sprinklers when the ocean is right there? Salads come after the main course. It is rude to leave your hands under the table during meals. Nearly everyone will speak French, and few will be those who will bother trying to speak English… and no Dora! Instead, T’choupi, Trotro the donkey, and Petit Ours brun, but no Dora. Once passed the chock of the absence of Cheerios (which I find incomprehensible myself), she was game for the rest. But then the unforeseeable happens. Maman was wrong, Dora is here.
Despite the obvious fact that I have no personal affinity with the show Dora the Explorer (I think its content is dumbed down, its graphics are terribly stiff and boring, as if Dora herself was on Botox) but that I am not avoiding it at all costs either. I know Juliette watched it occasionally, and I was ok with that. But encountering the character’s inexpressive face on almost every single piece of little girl clothing, on every notebook, pencil case, lunch box or even diaper in the last couple of years made me develop an aversion to the mass marketing world of Dora. This is, in fact, Dora’s world, we are just living in it. Leaving for this vacation, I was looking forward to taking a break from Dora, amongst other things. And I was secretly looking forward to my daughter taking a break from her as well. I wanted her to experience the timely tides, the old fashioned comic books, the brioche and the grenadine syrup all without the disruptive appearance of a face from her past, soon to be forgotten, Dora the Explorer. A face that in her mind must be tied to the daily weekday routines, school, American stores, and television. A face that may prevent her from experiencing the full feeling of a timeless retreat I experienced at her age.
Tomorrow, the low tide is at 11am. I will take her fishing for mussels, oysters, shrimp and crabs. I guess we will have to catch enough for lunch, because I don’t feel like stopping by the supermarket.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Anti-Semitism on Sesame Street

“Anti-Semite?” The derogative word sounds very different when you hear it coming out of your precious 4 year old girl’s mouth. “What is an anti-Semite?” she insists. I am one for telling the truth to children and helping them make sense of their surroundings. I don’t avoid hard topics, and always try to provide accurate answers in an understandable way. To this morning “Why is this crab dead?” I must have answered something to the liking of “It was the end of his life. Something must have happened and he died. Maybe he was very very old… Why do you think he died?” “Maybe he was sick, or maybe he got cooked”, she suggested. “Maybe so.” I replied. End of the questioning, the answer satisfied her and she went on to the next question… This can go on for hours when you spend time with a young child, and it is intellectually exhausting but I get a sense of accomplishment and pride as it happens. The world unlocks its secrets to my child. She is attentive to her surroundings, attuned to her desire to discover, and as mesmerized by nature as I am. “What is an anti-Semite”, though, caught me by surprise and I felt stuck in an uncomfortable place. Although I am not naïve enough to think that she will never encounter anti-Semitic remarks –for one thing, our last name sounds as if it could be Jewish-, I didn’t expect to hear this question so early.

Now, I have to back up and explain that the word came up as my husband Matthew was telling me at the dinner table that a business contact of his made an anti-Semitic comment in front of him. As Matthew pointed out to the gentleman in question (if he deserves being called a gentleman) that he was shocked by the remark, the other replied “I thought we were both mid-westerners; you have some growing up to do!” insinuating that Midwesterners are expected to be anti-Semitic in private amongst themselves, and that if they do not know that yet, it must be because they are too green. As I am praising Matthew for standing up against prejudices, I hear the dreaded word enunciated clearly by Juliette’s little voice and quiver. “Anti-Semite? What does it mean?” I take a deep breath and starts putting together an answer in my head “It is when a person dislikes another person just because they are Jewish…” but the words don’t come out of my mouth and it hits me: I don’t want her to know the truth. Surely one day, but not just yet. As of now, her only understanding of prejudice comes from many out-loud readings of “Red or Blue I like you.” In that story, as it happens, Elmo –who is red as we all know- befriends a blue monster named Angela in the doctor’s waiting room and their parents agree to have them over at each other’s house. In Angela’s neighborhood, strangely reminiscent of the Italian area of Besonhurst in Brooklyn, everyone is blue and eats spaghetti. But when Angela goes over to Sesame Street, strangely reminiscent of the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Prospect Heights Brooklyn, she is amazed to see monsters of all colors who eat fried chicken and fruit salads. Sesame street even houses grouches and snuffalufaguses, if you can imagine! Now, this would be “just a bedtime story” except for the fact that until a couple of weeks ago, we LIVED on Sesame Street. We encountered and befriended “monsters” of all colors and got to love fried chicken and fruit salads. No grouches and snuffalufagusses obviously, but pit-bulls, poodles and chiwawas. When I recently showed some out-of-town friends a snapshot of Juliette and her best friends taken on the sidewalk after school, she laughed and said “Are you going to submit it to a casting for United Colors of Benetton?” I didn’t occur to me until then, but I realized at that moment that I could have. Of course, as many of us do, I always wanted to raise a “colour-blind” child, but until I moved to New York City and especially to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, I didn’t realize it was actually possible and easy. A Yemenite-owned deli and an African-American Puerto Rican lesbian-owned restaurant were the closest businesses to us and we felt at home in both establishments. Steps away was the local playground where Juliette asked me one day, “It’s pretty, can my hair do that?” pointing at a little girl’s Afro-do. There she was, my little Goldilocks-looking child, and I had to dry her tears after breaking the news to her that, in fact, her hair “could not do that”.

But I digress, and here I am, far away from Prospect Heights-AKA Sesame Street, I hear her ask me what “Anti-Semite” means and I have to make a decision on whether I want to teach my child that prejudice exists or “soften the truth”. Well, I guess, it is called “lying” but in this case, I am building up my own denial and call it “softening the truth”. So for the first time –of many perhaps- I lie by omission. I say “It is when someone doesn’t like someone else just because of who they are…. Do you want a yogurt for desert?” “Yeah!!!” is the resounding answer.

Two hours later, she is now sound asleep, still color-blind and unaware that anyone else thinks any differently. And I am –albeit proudly- a big fat liar.