A French Fourth

The challenge of raising expatriated children

A long about this time every year, as Independence Day approaches, I pull an old American flag out of a bottom drawer where it is folded away—folded in a square, I admit, not the regulation triangle. I've had it a long time and have always flown it outside on July 4. Here in Paris it hangs from a fourth-floor balcony visible from the street. I've never seen anyone look up, but in my mind's eye an American tourist may notice it and smile, and a French passerby may be reminded of the date and the occasion that prompts its appearance. I hope so.

For my expatriated family, too, the flag is meaningful, in part because we don't do anything else to celebrate the Fourth. People don't have barbecues in Paris apartments, and most other Americans I know who have settled here suppress such outward signs of their heritage—or they go back home for the summer to refuel.

Our children think the flag-hanging is a cool thing, and I like it because it gives us a few moments of family Q&A about our citizenship. My wife and I have been away from the United States for nine years, and our children are eleven and nine, so American history is mostly something they have learned—or haven't learned—from their parents. July 4 is one of the times when the American in me feels a twinge of unease about the great lacunae in our children's understanding of who they are and is prompted to try to fill the gaps. It's also a time, one among many, when my thoughts turn more generally to the costs and benefits of raising children in a foreign culture.

Louise and Henry speak French fluently; they are taught in French at school, and most of their friends are French. They move from language to language, seldom mixing them up, without effort or even awareness. This is a wonderful thing, of course. And our physical separation from our native land is not much of an issue. My wife and I are grateful every day for all that our children are not exposed to. American school shootings are a good object lesson for our children in the follies of the society we hold at a distance.

Naturally, we also want to remind them of reasons to take pride in being American and to try to convey to them what that means. It is a difficult thing to do from afar, and the distance seems more than just a matter of miles. I sometimes think that the stories we tell them must seem like Aesop's (or La Fontaine's) fables, myths with no fixed place in space or time. Still, connections can be made, lessons learned.

During a period of early experimentation with truth and untruth Henry became fascinated by the tale of George Washington's chopping down the cherry tree. Several years ago a thoughtful godparent gave the kids a series of wonderful short biographies of various American figures: Amelia Earhart, Jackie Robinson, Abraham Lincoln. The books have allowed us to trace a little of American history and to preach the virtues of American-style courage.

From the archives:

"A Revolutionary Itinerary" (April 2001)
An Englishman tours historic battlefields in Massachusetts and New York. By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Last summer we spent a week with my brother and his family, who live in Concord, Massachusetts, and we took the children to the North Bridge to give them a glimpse of the American Revolution. We happened to run across a re-enactment of the skirmish that launched the war, with everyone dressed up in three-cornered hats and cotton bonnets. This probably only confirmed to our goggle-eyed kids the make-believe quality of American history.

Six months later, when we were recalling the experience at the family dinner table here, I asked Louise what the Revolution had been about. She thought that it had something to do with the man who rode his horse from town to town. Ah, I said, satisfaction welling in my breast, and what was that man's name? "Gulliver?" Louise replied. Henry, for his part, knew that the Revolution was between the British and the Americans, and thought that it was probably about slavery.

As we pursued this conversation, though, we learned what the children knew instead. Louise told us that the French Revolution came at the end of the Enlightenment, when people learned a lot of ideas, and one was that they didn't need kings to tell them what to think or do. On another occasion, when Henry asked what makes a person a "junior" or a "II" or a "III," Louise helped me answer by bringing up kings like Louis Quatorze and Quinze and Seize; Henry riposted with Henry VIII.

I can't say I worry much about our children's European frame of reference. There will be plenty of time for them to learn America's pitifully brief history and to find out who Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt were. Already they know a great deal more than I would have wished about Bill Clinton.

If all of this resonates with me, it may be because my family moved to Paris in 1954, when I was three, and I was enrolled in French schools for most of my grade-school years. I don't remember much instruction in American studies at school or at home. I do remember that my mother took me out of school one afternoon to see the movie Oklahoma! I can recall what a faraway place it seemed: all that sunshine and square dancing and surreys with fringe on top. The sinister Jud Fry personified evil for me for quite some time afterward. Cowboys and Indians were an American cliché that had already reached Paris through the movies, and I asked a grandparent to send me a Davy Crockett hat so that I could live out that fairy tale against the backdrop of gray postwar Montparnasse.

Although my children are living in the same place at roughly the same time in their lives, their experience as expatriates is very different from mine. The particular narratives of American history aside, American culture is not theirs alone but that of their French classmates, too (as is Japanese culture, as embodied in Pokémon). The music they listen to is either "American" or "European," but it is often hard to tell the difference. In my day little French kids looked like nothing other than little French kids (we wore blue smocks in school); but Louise and Henry and their classmates dress much as their peers in the United States do, though with perhaps less Lands' End fleeciness. When I returned to visit the United States in the 1950s, it was a five-day ocean crossing for a month's home leave every two years; now we fly over for a week or two, although not very often. Virtually every imaginable product available to my children's American cousins is now obtainable here.

If time and globalization have made France much more like the United States than it was in my youth, then I can conclude a couple of things. On one hand, our children are confronting a much less jarring cultural divide than I did, and they have far more access to their native culture. Re-entry, when it comes, is likely to be smoother. On the other hand, they are less than fully immersed in a truly foreign world. That experience no longer seems possible in Western countries—a sad development, in my view.

Last spring Louise was in a fourth-grade bilingual "spectacle" about American history that was intended to help the class prepare for a three-week trip to the United States, where students would live with American families and attend school in a typical American town—Clinton, New York, as it happened. The play, written by their teachers, gave Louise and her classmates a distinctively French gloss on the American story, beginning with the settling of North America by Indians crossing the Bering Strait and fast-forwarding to the continent's rediscovery when the French King François I dispatched Jacques Cartier to explore North America. Then came the Boston Tea Party. The Civil War was a solemn affair. The Indians were subjected to genocide. Two world wars occurred. The close of the saga portrayed the era of Grease; Louise was typecast as the blonde lead, Sandy, and lip-synched a song about summer nights in a place as remote to her as Oklahoma was to me.

As the trip approached, my family was in the final stages of deciding whether to stay in Paris or move back to the United States. Louise worried openly about her ignorance of things American and about the possibility of falling hopelessly behind, so she favored going "home" to the United States. I worried privately that her exposure to idyllic small-town America might make a decision to stay in Paris, my preferred course, a harder sell. But it worked the other way around. Louise had a wonderful, memorable time in upstate New York. She came back to the familiar world of Paris with her curiosity satisfied, content to stay here a while longer. And so it came to pass.