How to Talk to Your Kids When You Speak a Different Language

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Snapchat, LOL, FML, ROFL, TTYL. Kids are speaking a different language in the digital world. I mean, it might as well be an entirely different language. Well, this is a challenge many men I work with face on a daily basis. But you are not off the hook if you and your son both speak English.

Imagine this; you are living in a country far away from America. You’ve lived here with your family for generations. You may have even lived in a time of peace and prosperity: the good old days. But now your life is extremely hard. You are living with the possibility of death or imprisonment or even starvation. The dangers around you and your neighbors have made you vulnerable enough that you are left with no choice but to seek refuge elsewhere. So you end up in a makeshift city with thousands of other of other people. Now only one thing is sure: your life will never be the same for you and your future family.

One day you and your family are offered a ticket to the greatest country on earth. You’ve seen it in the movies, you have listened to its music, and you have heard it’s a place of peace, freedom, and prosperity. You are going to live the American dream!

Now fast forward a few years. Your kids are in school and changing every day like kids do, but they don’t speak your language like they used to. You would love to learn English, but you have to work at the factory of a manufacturing company during the night shift, even though you used to be a teacher in your old life. You wonder why your kids spend so much time staring at small screens, talking to it, sleeping with it, and making funny faces at it. You wonder what the papers you get in the mail say, what the doctor is saying, why people stare and how to buy things at the store. 

Meanwhile, your kids are trying desperately to fit in, like any kid would do. But the odds are stacked against them because they have to learn English and Physics all at the same time. They don’t do their homework, and they skip school because they know when the school calls home, you won’t understand their English anyway. Soon one of your kids will drop out of high school anyway because he’s just going to end up working at the factory like you are during the night shift. 

Then some American guy starts hanging around your sons. He takes them places, but you have no idea where other than you know it’s because they are on a soccer team. Sometimes they get food, or go to the mall, or go to some place extremely foreign to you: the DMV. He sometimes stays for dinner, and you enjoy watching him try to eat with his hands. He asks about your old life, and you love sharing the few pictures you have from it.

Over time you realize this American guy is becoming part of your child’s life, and in a way, yours as well. He fills a gap, even if it’s in some small way. He’s connecting with your son in a way that you are struggling to.  The pace of your son’s assimilation is driving a wedge between both of you every day, and this American guy is helping to fill that divide.

If the American guy could speak your language, he would tell you that dad’s everywhere are struggling with the same thing you are, whether they realize it or not. Sons are assimilating quicker than dads can keep up with, to a language and a culture different than what they knew.  The American guy would let you know that you aren’t alone in this tension between raising kids in the culture you know, versus them growing up in a culture foreign to you.

Did any dad guess 20 years ago that the worst thing they could punish their children with is taking their phone away? Did anyone think their kids would be posting videos of themselves dancing in their bedroom for the world to see? Did any dad think kids would be able to swap their face with the face of a dog and send the picture to anyone in the world? In our growing social media universe, parents are behind the 8-ball. And it’s going to take moving into an unknown world to bridge the gap. You don’t need to learn the language fluently, but sometimes you have to sit at the dinner table and let your kids laugh at you trying to learn it.

Because at the end of the day, it’s about relationship. Your kids think they are building relationships in their online worlds, but one day they could realize how superficial their efforts are. When the only affirmation of their identities and character are through online “Likes,” they are living in a shadow world. It’s a world that can feel real but ultimately is empty.

So it’s the job of dads and parents and leaders of the youth in our world to create real relationships and real moments. Moments where we look into the eyes of each other and relationships that go beyond a social media surface. It will be in these moments that we learn that we all speak the universal language of humanity better than we thought. 

About the Author: Logan Thompson is Neighborhood Director for Project 658 based in Charlotte, NC. He was a standout soccer player at Messiah College. He is continually impacted by how easily people can connect from other cultures and religions right in our own backyards. He works in at-risk communities around Charlotte as a soccer coach and mentor to kids of families in need often from refugee backgrounds.


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