Try this little thought experiment…
You’re now dead and your grown children are sitting around the kitchen table, talking about you (in the minority language, let’s hope). Your spirit is hovering above them, listening. What do you hear? What are your children saying as they reminisce about the years you spent together on this earth?
Will they be recalling how serious you were about helping them become bilingual? How much hard work you put into nurturing their language development?
Maybe they will, to some degree.
But I’m guessing they’ll remember something else about you, something that will leave a deeper impression in their minds and their hearts than your serious, hardworking side. And the truth is, this other part of your nature has a crucial impact, right now, on your efforts to foster good bilingual ability in your children.
Memories of childhood
First, tell me this: What do you remember about your own parents as you think back to your childhood? It’s true, you may have some unpleasant memories, but beyond these memories—beneath these memories—what do you remember most?
Here are some of my memories, rising freely in my mind as I type…
- I remember my mother and I picking blueberries together. (I still love picking blueberries!)
- I remember the two of us laughing when the Christmas tree we were driving home, perched on top of the car, tumbled off onto a busy road.
- I remember my father playing endless card games with me. (And teaching me how to shuffle, something I’m now teaching my own kids.)
- I remember how my father would dress up in crazy costumes and perform in little films I made with an old movie camera.
Just from these first few memories of my parents, can you see a common theme?
Your spirit as a parent
When you’re hovering there in your kitchen, listening to your children reminisce, I think what you’ll hear, most of all, are memories like mine: memories of how you played with them.
They’ll remember how you read funny books to them; they’ll remember how you drew silly pictures with them; they’ll remember how you played together with toys and games; they’ll remember how you played catch with them, and hide-and-seek; they’ll remember how you explored nature with them; they’ll remember how you joked with them and laughed with them; they’ll remember how you danced with them…
They’ll remember how you played.
Of course, they won’t always recall these things precisely, as individual incidents, but you can be sure that these experiences will form an overall impression of your spirit as their mother or their father.
Seek the two extremes
How is this important to parents raising bilingual kids? I mean, beyond its impact on the parent-child bond itself.
Well, from my point of view, the ideal formula for nurturing good bilingual ability in a child involves being both extremely serious about the aim, and yet extremely playful about the approach.
I’m lousy at math, but I would even suggest an equation that goes something like this: The more serious you are about the aim, and the more playful you are about the approach, the more progress you’ll likely make on your bilingual journey.
This balance between the two is essential, because if you’re tipped too heavily toward the serious, the experience can become oppressive to the child and taxing for the parent, while an imbalance in the other direction—when the aim isn’t taken seriously enough—may lead to a lack of effective discipline in the daily routine. When the proper balance is present, the serious extreme on one end is softened, lightened, by the playful extreme on the other, and that playfulness helps sustain the efforts of both parent and child, day after day.
This is no perfect formula, of course. It’s simply an ideal to shoot for, to strive toward. But the more we seek the extremes—being extremely serious and yet extremely playful—the more success I think we’ll find as this journey proceeds. At the same time, our active pursuit of play will leave our children with glowing memories of us long after we’re gone from this world.