In July, I made the long trip from Japan to the U.S., solo, to see my parents, siblings, and friends. Among these friends was a family I had never met before but had been in touch with for several years as a result of this blog. In fact, this was the first bilingual family that I met in person outside the Hiroshima area. (If you’re curious, you can read about—and see photos of—my previous meetings with Jonathan’s family, Mei’s family, and Nikoya’s family.)
After visiting my mother in Memphis, Tennessee, I went on to my hometown of Quincy, Illinois, where my father lives. And it just so happens that Nellie and her family live in the countryside less than 30 minutes away!
Nellie is originally from Hungary and has had to be extremely resourceful to provide her two adorable children with exposure to Hungarian amid the dominating English environment of the American Midwest. One very creative example of this is the project she undertook with her kids that we shared in the post How a Globe-Trotting Alligator Helped One Family Find Greater Fun and Success on Their Bilingual Journey.
But along with the continuing progress Nellie has made with her bilingual aim, I was also impressed with the intentional efforts that she and her husband are pursuing to strengthen their children’s mindfulness, from a young age, when it comes to making choices and decisions. In the full day I spent with them, I heard a number of reminders addressed to the eight-year-old girl and five-year-old boy, at times when the kids were on the verge of an unhelpful or potentially perilous action. Often posed as questions—“Is that a good decision?”—these reminders wisely sought to elevate the children’s awareness of their own choices.
After bidding farewell to this lovely family, I spent the rest of my trip mulling the idea of personal choices and decisions in connection to my own life. And when I returned to Hiroshima, I quickly had an encounter with my 10-year-old son that made it clear to me how profoundly important this subject is, both for the bilingual journey and for our lives as a whole.
“Could you take out the trash?”
It was a hot Thursday morning and I was rushing about the house, getting ready to drive my daughter to her track team practice at junior high. My wife had already left for work and there were several small bags of trash by the door that had to be dropped into our neighborhood garbage bin, located two short blocks away.
“Roy, could you please take out the trash?” I asked.
He wrinkled his nose in reply and made no move toward the door.
“Come on,” I said. “Be helpful.” Assuming he would do as I asked, if reluctantly, I went on with my own business. But a moment later, when I saw that he had gone elsewhere, apparently sidestepping my request, I snapped at him: “Fine! You do what you want! I’ll take out the trash myself!”
Now, I don’t often snap at my kids, and I instantly feel bad about it when I do, but I also make a point of speaking to them afterward, after my anger subsides, and I explain why I had gotten upset.
So, after dropping off Lulu, I came home and asked Roy to sit down with me.
“It’s a really important thing…”
“I want to explain why I was upset,” I said as he studied the floor. “I know taking out the trash isn’t a big deal, but I was busy and I was asking for your help. How would you feel if you asked someone for help, even if it was something small, and they wouldn’t help you?”
“Sad,” he replied in a small voice, still looking at the floor.
“It’s like baseball,” I said, reaching for a metaphor that I thought his sports-mad mind could easily grasp. “If you ask someone to help you, and they gladly do it, it’s like your team got a hit. You feel happy, right? But if they don’t help you, it’s like a strike-out. You feel disappointed. Especially when it’s a small thing that wouldn’t even take much time or effort to do, the other person feels disappointed if you choose not to help them. And that’s how I felt when you chose not to help me.”
He looked up and I could read in his face that he understood.
“Roy,” I went on, “the choices you make, the decisions you make, they’re not only important for creating good relationships with other people. Your choices and decisions are also important for your whole life because it’s all those choices and decisions, both the small ones and the big ones, that create the life you end up living.” (I know it’s also true that there are some aspects of our life, like certain incidents or illnesses, where we can’t talk about “choice” in the same way, but this wasn’t the time to extend our discussion in that direction.)
“So I wanted to talk to you,” I concluded, “not just to explain why I was upset, but also to stress this point about choices and decisions. It’s a really important thing, something I didn’t learn myself until I was older, and I wish someone had told me this when I was a boy.”
Make the best decisions you can
Now I admit, I’m hardly a model of making good choices and decisions. Particularly in my much wilder youth, my choices and decisions were made with such a frightening lack of forethought that it’s honestly kind of miraculous that I survived that period of my life. And while I’ve grown somewhat wiser since then, it’s still true that, even as an adult, I make certain choices and decisions that are far less than ideal. (See When You Screw Up Badly as a Parent for an example involving Lulu.)
But I recognize that I’ll never be perfect—that none of us can be—and I accept the fact that I’ll continue to come up short in some of the choices and decisions I make. But at least I’m now more mindful of this fundamental challenge and I try to consciously consider how my actions affect my life, the lives of others, and indeed, the world at large.
Friends, this is my message today for your bilingual journey and, moreover, for your whole lifetime, in all its forms:
Stay mindful of the potential rewards and repercussions of your choices and consciously make the most effective decisions you can to nurture the outcomes you desire.
Toward that end—at least in terms of raising bilingual or multilingual kids—I’ve tried to help with this process through my blog, my forum, and my book. By taking advantage of these resources, my hope is that you’ll be better able to make effective decisions and pursue productive efforts that lead to the happy success you seek as you live out your bilingual quest.