How do you raise your kids? (And other British-American conflicts)

Brits and Americans: How we really differ

4 minute read
Admit it: Wouldn't your life be drab without Kate and Will?
Admit it: Wouldn't your life be drab without Kate and Will?
Two nations separated by a common language, you've heard it said. But as I, a native-born Brit, approach my first quarter-century in the land of the free, I think the gulf is a bit wider than that. And goes way beyond lifts for elevators, lorries for trucks, and tomahtoes for tomaytoes.

Don't get me wrong: I'm an enthusiastic Americaphile. If I'd been here in the 18th Century I would without question have been a rebel, apoplectic at the thought of having braved the Atlantic Ocean in a leaky boat, only to be required to pay taxes on my newly acquired little piece of land to a crazed Teutonic monarch.

Even now, I balk at the idea of hereditary titles and the whole aristocratic stew of lords and earls, Black Rod, Gold Stick in Waiting, and Ladies of the Royal Bedchamber. And as a relatively recent American citizen, I take some naturalized pride in the brilliance and simplicity of the Declaration of Independence and the distinctive and separate nature of America's executive, judicial and legislative pillars of government.

But still. In certain areas, what separates Britain from the U.S. is a chasm.

Seen and not heard

Let's begin with attitudes toward children. American kids are doted upon, held up as exemplars of everything that's brilliant and good. All dinner party conversation grinds to a halt when little Ethan interrupts.

On one recent occasion, when a fellow diner and I were conducting a serious political duologue, a nine-year-old intruded a thought and all eyes turned to him. I grumpily admonished the child to hold his insight, preferably for a decade or so.

British parents tend to regard their children as a bit of a nuisance, preferably to be seen and not heard, and to be dispatched as soon as possible to a decent boarding school, where they'll be taught emotional self-reliance.

"'Where are you from?'

What explains this difference in family attitudes? The U.S. is much more religiously oriented than Britain and provides less of a social safety net, so dependence on family becomes paramount (which may explain why the supposed decline of conventional marriages and families alarms Americans so much more than Brits).

An immigrant culture also tends, however subconsciously, to perceive families as more enduring than any particular political entity (the Habsburg or Ottoman Empires? The Soviet Union? Czechoslovakia?) that they happen to be living under at the moment. When I recently took my 11-year-old stepdaughter to England, she asked my parents where their family came from. Nowhere, they answered, somewhat bemused: "We've always been here."

Then there's the fix or, in the case of Brits, the non-fix. British kids with elephantine ears, crooked teeth and misshapen noses are left that way, presumably from a parental belief that you don't meddle with what nature hath wrought.

Absence of wit

But the biggest gap might have to do with humor. To paraphrase my fellow transplant, the author Martin Amis, what I miss in America is wit. In the U.S., there's a time and a place for humor— usually on late-night TV or at roast dinners. It's a separate stratum of conversation. Brits, on the other hand, inject humor wherever they can, and believe passionately in the importance of not being earnest.

I take these differences to be lovable eccentricities, and my American wife has learned to put up with some of my transatlantic idiosyncrasies, too. For instance, if my family saw each other once every ten years or so, this was considered sufficient. Perhaps even excessive. On the other hand, my adoptive Jewish American family meets with great regularity and has taken this Catholic immigrant to its bosom. But if I were to do anything untoward to my dear spouse, parts of my anatomy would be in serious jeopardy.

Brits have tried winning back their lost colonies by offering the Yanks such epicurean delights as steak and kidney pie, Cornish pasties and Spotted Dick (don't ask). They've given you Piers Morgan, Harry Potter and James Bond. And even though Americans have divested themselves of the trappings of royalty, they still betray a huge vicarious interest in the doings of Liz and Phil, and Will and Kate.

So I say vive la difference. And long may the special relationship thrive. Cheers! Was that English ending sufficiently witty for you?

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