Three months after moving to Europe, I sat around a table for dinner with a number of Europeans. The conversation flowed like the wine as multiple languages filled the air. The atmosphere so thick, you could cut it with a knife. As the savory taste of Indian spices smacked my tastebuds, so did a revelation to my cerebrum.
There were 12 people representing 5 or so countries, and I was the only one not using a knife to eat my food. This may seem insignificant, but as others used their knives to scoop rice onto their forks or neatly pack their salad, I felt perfectly content just moving my food around the plate with a fork until it was almost gone. As others cut chicken with a dull knife, I was the only one who seemed to know that the side of the fork was good enough. When my rice was reduced to its final 10 grains, I used a finger -not a knife- to finish it off.
It gets worse.
My elbows and forearms carefully and comfortable rested on the table, and both my hands grasped a single glass of wine. Why were my elbows and forearms on the table? Why was I hunched over my plate? Did those around me think I was being rude? Well, they didn’t show it if they did.
I grew up with lazy (bad) table manners, as most Americans do. Deborah and her family grew up paying close attention to etiquette and posture, even among family members. I never really gave my table manners a second thought growing up, and neither did Deborah. There was just a certain way “things were done.” For both of us, they were always done that way, and they always would be. Neither of us expected to marry someone “different” in that respect.
The truth is, American and European cultures are very similar. They’re so similar, it’s easy to miss the differences. Deborah and I have had both the obligation and privilege to discuss those differences in how we want to raise our own kids. The obligation because we want to be conscious of what we’re teaching our children, and the privilege, because for most people, there’s just a certain way things are done. For many, another way never even comes to mind.
If you walk through London around 8:30 in the morning, hundreds of school children flood the sidewalks on their way to classes. You’d probably see the same thing in the US with one remarkable difference: school uniforms. While about 1/5 of high schools in the US require some sort of school uniform, that number in the UK is a whopping 98% (considerably lower in other parts of Europe).
The importance of uniforms is one area where Deborah and I disagree and fall back on our own respective backgrounds.
Deborah sees school uniforms as a device that allows children to get below the surface of people faster. Kids can be very judgemental, and even refuse to talk to each other based on style and clothing choice. School uniforms also allow kids to focus more on what really matters: school. I see school uniforms as sort “fitting kids into a box.” Traditional education does this in many ways, and school uniforms seem to just be one more facet. Not that I ever really expressed myself through clothing, but I also think uniforms suppress individuality. Study results are mixed, but they generally show kids wearing uniforms are better behaved, but don’t necessarily get better grades or score higher on tests. Is that a good or a bad thing? I don’t know, but we want our kids to have both experiences and decide for themselves. Let us know what you think in the comments at the bottom.
This is possibly the most notable difference between childhood in the US vs that in Europe. Most of us know that the driving age in the US is usually 16, and in Europe, it’s usually 18. But, what many people don’t know is that in the US, getting your license is a rite of passage. Most of us get one as soon as we can, more often than not before finishing high school. Our European counterparts don’t just wait until they’re 18, they wait until they’re much older, or just never do it at all (Deborah doesn’t have a driver’s license). There are a lot of reasons for this, but the most important ones are that a European is more likely to live in a city with good public transportation, and that in America, owning and maintaining a vehicle is much, much cheaper. Just about everything except actually buying the car is cheaper.
So, will Deborah and I ‘raise our kids American?’ Or will we ‘raise them European?’ For some Europeans, it just seems wrong to allow a 16 year old to drive, but Deborah doesn’t have any objection to it. If we’re living in the US, owning and driving a car will probably be more important. What do you think about a 16 year driving age?
If driving age is the most notable difference, drinking age is the most contentious. In the United States the drinking age is 21 years old. In Europe, the age is usually 16 or 18 (or no age). Many Americans, my parents included, have a hard time letting their 16 – 20 year old kids drink even in countries where it’s legal. The number 21 has been somehow ingrained into our moral understanding. Many people cite some rubbish about how Americans don’t respect alcohol (have you come into contact with a bunch of British lads on a night out?). The real reason the age is higher is because of our relationship with the road, rather than booze. As previously relayed, Americans drive a lot more than Europeans, and have fewer options in terms of getting home after knocking back a few. The higher age has decreased the rate at which Americans (especially inexperienced drivers) get into drunk driving accidents.
Does that mean Americans aged 16-20 never drink? No, of course not.
You’ve all seen the movie where there’s a highschool party going on (or even a college party with younger students). Everyone is having a great time until the cops show up and start ID’ing everyone who doesn’t freak out and dash. This is every high schooler’s worst nightmare, but happens very rarely. They may catch a few people sometimes, but the cops are more concerned with the noise you’re making. Especially, if you look old enough, they’ll probably tell you to turn down the music and be on their way. Of course, that depends on the state, the police officer, and whether or not things are currently out of hand. I went to Uni in Montana, and the police came and told us specifically that they don’t care if 17 and 18 to 20 year olds are drinking. They would only ever prosecute someone who’s belligerent.
So at what age will Deborah and I allow our children to drink? Easier said than done, of course, but at any age, we want to instill a sense of responsibility in our kids. We don’t totally agree with 21 year old drinking age in the US, even if it does save lives on the road, but we also don’t want our kids risking their futures. Legal punishment even for an 18-20 year old can be serious in the US. That said, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with responsible underage drinking, and I would much rather my kids call me for a ride than be too afraid of my punishment and risk driving home themselevs. This is obviously not much of an issue in Europe. I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer. No matter what, the stance Deborah and I hold with our kids will revolve around being responsible. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!
Diet and Health
There’s a stereotype that Americans are less healthy than Europeans and live shorter lives (have you have seen Supersize Me).
Anyway, this stereotype isn’t totally true. The US as a whole is comparable to Europe as a whole. That said, there are a lot of good things and a lot of bad things from different countries and states that Deborah want to teach our kids.
Eating in Europe is healthier.
Not only are restaurants generally more expensive in Europe, but supermarkets are also generally cheaper. This means the aggregate cost of eating out in the US is almost exponentially cheaper. Where do we usually go? Not where we should. Healthier eating habits have just become part of the culture in Europe (or rather, unhealthy eating habits have become the norm in the US). We want our kids to employ more stereotypically European eating habits.
Bus 11 is more prevalent in Europe.
Do you get the joke? I didn’t the first time my mother-in-law said it. Bus 11 is two legs. Get it now? Americans drive a lot. It’s cheaper and easier to do it there. Walking, of course, isn’t the only form of exercise, but it contributes a lot to a person’s overall well-being. Deborah and I spend a lot of our time walking and we want our kids to do the same. Not only is it a healthier mode of transportation, but it’s a better way to get to know your surroundings, discover new things, and clear your head.
Organized sports are better in the US.
Where does the US make up for its lack of walking and healthy eating? In terms of childhood, we’ve normalized organized sports, and paid for it out of high school budgets. The stereotype of the dumb jock has been around as long as any modern sport, but studies show student-athletes get better grades, graduate at higher rates, and go on to be more successful in general. For me personally, joining the track team was a turning point in my life. The day I joined the team, I was a (fat) pessimistic loner and track gave me the confidence to begin a new journey. From there, wrestling taught me everything I needed to know about personal health. American football taught me about responsibility, structure, and goals. While rugby taught me to never take life too seriously. Without the lessons high school athletics taught me, I may have never traveled. I may have never learned a new language. I may have never met my wife. And, I may have never become the man I am today.
I couldn’t possibly underestimate the positive effect organized sports (and the men and women who coached me) have had on my own life. For that reason, in the most American of traditions, the importance of sports will be emphasized to mine and Deborah’s kids. What do you guys think? Comment below!
This isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, an exhaustive list or universal on either continent. There’s a lot that some European countries do better than the US and vice versa. If you want to add anything to the list, please comment below!