One of the peculiar things about being a parent is watching your carefully-nurtured sense of self shouldered aside, as your world is increasingly structured by your child/ren, and your role in life becomes not ‘novelist’ or ‘really rather decent chap’, but ‘Nate’s Dad’. I’d started to become accustomed to this in England, but it really jumped to the fore when we moved to California. My day-to-day life didn’t actually change much. Yes, there was a beach and sunshine and excellent salad dressings, but I still spent most of my time alone in a room, staring balefully at a computer. My son was out at the sharp end of change, every day, starting a new school and meeting new people and dealing with the myriad cultural differences that aren’t obvious until you start trying to actually live in a foreign country. Gradually these have come to affect our lives, too, including the role of being a parent – especially as we’re still new here and I really am now just ‘That vague English dude, you know – Nate’s father.’
Parenting is different here. In London, for example, parents are pretty comfortable with admitting their child is being an arse. They may be the first to posit the idea, in fact. If two children get into a scrap in a middle-class park, then the on-duty parent of both sides usually defaults to bollocking their own kid first (to the utter confusion of the children involved).
In California parents do not describe their child as an arse, at least not in public (they may throw them in a dungeon when no-one's looking, for all I know). The parents here seem better at being on their children’s side — even if this sometimes involves infantilising them, just a tad. They have carefully constructed and adhered-to systems of privileges, and I can understand why: as a child gets older you may find yourself inventing rewards simply so they can be withheld. It’s a depressing tactic, but sometimes the only language they seem to understand. I remember once hearing a hostage negotiator on BBC Radio 4 wearily noting a similarity in the difficulties of dealing with young children and terrorists, in that neither group understands or fears the sanctions of authority.
Here the kids do seem to understand, and that might be because their parents are more consistent. I'm probably just revealing my own inadequacies in the field, but it seems to me that parenting in England is conducted on a pretty ad hoc basis, something to be bumbled through with as much good grace as possible, like a game of football or the Second World War. Parents in California seem far more ready to believe they can make a difference through continual action and affirmation and old-fashioned respect, which may be an adjunct to the dated but still popular notion that anyone may, through hard work and a good heart, become President. Actually, I think both approaches have their merits. It may do a child good to inform him or her that unless they stop being so smug, egocentric and generally tiresome they won't get to be Prime Minister. Though evidently that didn't work for Mr and Mrs Cameron.
It’s more subtle than this, of course, and I haven’t been here anywhere near long enough to get to the bottom of the differences, or even to be able to articulate them. After we came here my son rapidly developed something akin to an America accent, by necessity. During his first weeks it became clear the other kids simply couldn’t understand what the hell he was saying. People in England — including children — are used to American accents from film and television. Here the only English voices you hear are those of baddies on film, or effete ineffectuals like me. Without setting his utterances to a style of music the other kids could recognize — and also altering his word choice — he couldn’t be understood.
Usages differ in unexpected ways. In days of yore — by which I mean the 1970s and 80s — the word ‘bummer’ had only one connotation in England (at least in my juvenile circle), and it didn’t relate to a circumstance that might ‘bum you out’. It was a pejorative term meaning ‘male homosexual’. The more American meaning of the word is now well understood, but it’s still a term that rings oddly in the UK because of its echoes with ‘bum’ (which is not used In American in the sense of ‘bottom/behind/posterior’).
In our first month here my son started using ‘bummer’ at home, a lot, and I gave him concerted grief about this until I happened to be at his school one afternoon, and heard his charming but firm and proper first grade teacher using the term openly in front of children in the playground.
Nate witnessed this too, and turned to me. ‘See?’ he crowed. ‘I was right, and you were wrong.’
‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘But you’re still an arse.’