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"I Don't Want American Kids"
The Real Reason Parents Are Suddenly Choosing Language Immersion Schools
As kids headed back to school this week, I noticed a peculiar trend: friends and acquaintances have started sending their kids to Japanese, French, and Spanish immersion schools—parents, that is, who do not speak those languages. I know a lovely family of American-born parents who is sending its children to mainland China to be educated, and another who selected a school offering a “Classical education,” where, in the mom’s words, “the kids are learning Latin and Greek by third grade.” (Mom never studied either language.)
Over the last two decades, matriculation at dual-language curricula in both public and private schools has skyrocketed. In 2000, there were roughly 260 dual-language programs in the U.S. By 2011, Harvard Graduate School of education estimated the number at 2,000.
The American Councils Research Center estimates that in 2010, there were about 1,000 dual-language programs in public-schools in the U.S. A decade later, there were more than three times that many. American parents are signing up their kids for instruction in languages they can’t speak and immersion in cultures to which they have no native connection.
“We just thought it was good for our kids to have another language,” one Jewish woman who signed her kids up for a Japanese-immersion program, told me.
So what’s with all the sudden interest in making American kids bilingual? It’s better for their brains, parents tell me. We live in an increasingly international world, they say. Or maybe it just seems a way for educated parents to signal higher status. The American-born parents who are educating their kids in China are hoping—wait for it—the children might actually learn something; their elementary school kids just didn’t seem to be reaching their potential here in America.
American parents are signing up their kids for instruction in languages they can’t speak and immersion in cultures to which they have no native connection.
And here is the peculiar part: it isn’t exactly love for, or attachment to, a specific foreign culture that often seems to motivate parents’ desire to seal their kids inside it for 8 hours a day. They may send their kids to a full-day of Japanese, but the parents I’ve talked to aren’t learning Japanese themselves. They’ve never been to Japan. They aren’t serving Tonkatsu at home.
They don’t actually seem to want to raise Japanese kids. They may claim deep admiration for “Japanese aesthetics” or “Chinese discipline.” But most of the parents I’ve met could no more raise a culturally Japanese child than they could order conger eel stew off a menu in Kyoto. What they actually seem to be hoping for is to raise kids who are—dare I say—less American?
While the U.S. government does not officially track emigration out of America, it’s clear that more Americans these days are leaving the country. A 2016 estimate put the number at nine million—double the number it was in the previous decade. The most popular destination countries were in South America, but the trends for emigration out are up all over.
What they actually seem to be hoping for is to raise kids who are—dare I say—less American?
“For at least the past decade, North American Aliyah”—moving to Israel—"has remained at a rate of roughly 3,200 per year,” according to Israel’s Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. “But after barely dipping in 2020,” when Israel issued severe COVID-based restrictions on immigration, “numbers spiked to more than 4,200 last year, an increase of nearly 33% over pre-pandemic numbers.”
At first, I assumed these trends were unrelated: More people were interested in foreign-language immersion programs, perhaps, because of the educational benefits of dual-curricula. As American education plummets in rigor, as educators talk incessantly about “social emotional learning,” but rarely what they are teaching in math or science, parents are searching for ways to inject gravitas into their children’s education. Adding Mandarin to a child’s list of courses gets that job done and quick.
But then, I was at a back-to-school function where I ran into a friend just returned from Israel where she and her husband had taken their three kids for much of the summer. “Everything there is opening up, it’s exciting,” she said of her recent trip. “I hate to say it, because I love America, but everything here feels like it’s getting worse.”
Parents are often afraid to tell other parents why they’re making specific choices for their children—particularly if they’re afraid it will make you feel worse about yours. And some of those who are signing their kids up for foreign language and cultural immersion may simply be after the educational benefits of a second language or simply long-time admirers of French or Japanese culture based on novels, movies, or the trace seminar in college. But I suspect they don’t want their kids to be Japanese; they just want them to be a whole lot less American.
I dislike parenting books as a rule and distrust most who hold themselves out as “parenting experts.” But I’m a sucker for excellence. And when a string of parents insisted to me that the smartest things they’d ever read about parenting were from MIT-educated physician and best-selling parenting book author, Leonard Sax—I got in touch.
Dr. Sax lectures internationally about raising kids, which he frankly thinks America, as a society, is doing poorly. American parents are not authorities in their own households and they don’t enforce even basic behavioral standards with their children, he says. “Fifty years ago, boys wanted to be men. But today, many American men want to be boys. And that there are many American men who want nothing more than to sit with their twelve-year-old son and play Call of Duty and games like that—they have no clue of the role of the father. They just want to give their kids a good time.”
Sure, American parents are lax. So what? It’s far deeper than a little lassitude, he explained. The culture we’re surrounding our children in—by so many metrics (mental health, physical fitness, drive)—it’s making them worse. “We now have very good research comparing American kids who speak English at home to immigrant kids who don't speak English at home,” he said. “American kids who speak English at home are much more likely to be anxious, depressed, disengaged, and experienced non-suicidal self-injury compared to kids who don't speak English at home, using speaking English at home as a proxy for engagement with American culture.” When he advises immigrant families in the United States, he tells them not to speak English at home.
When Dr. Sax advises immigrant families in the United States, he tells them not to speak English at home.
For decades, kids of American-born parents generally outperformed those of recent immigrants in school and had lower crime and better mental health related outcomes. But in recent decades, evidence began to emerge that length of time spent in the United States was associated with declining outcomes. This is the “immigrant paradox,” so named because it shocked the researchers at the time: the more time immigrants spent in this country, the worse their kids fared by all sorts of metrics.
“Being American-born and raised to American parents is now a major risk factor for bad outcomes,” Dr. Sax said. “Being American-born and raised to American parents is a major risk factor for anxiety, depression, disengagement from school non-suicidal self-injury and many other bad outcomes, being children of immigrants and not speaking English at home now predicts good outcomes.”
“Being American-born and raised to American parents is now a major risk factor for bad outcomes,” Dr. Sax said. “Being children of immigrants and not speaking English at home now predicts good outcomes.”
Surely there are reasons other than language that allow immigrant families in this country to thrive over American-born. Why would not speaking English in the home curtail any of the serious problems we’re seeing among kids today—anxiety, depression, obesity and the like? Foreign languages would seem incidental to whatever else the wiser immigrant parents are doing.
Wrong, Dr. Sax told me. America has become a “culture of disrespect” and English, a primary vector. Every cultural medium—your kid’s favorite webisodes on YouTube or Disney Plus—promotes to children the notion that parents are foolish and inept and that it’s admirable, cool, or smart for kids to dismiss, deride or countermand them.
This, he believes, lies at the heart of the mental health crisis among the rising generation. Parents can’t guide you or make you feel safe if you doubt their authority. Yes, there are any number of things that may threaten an adolescent’s wellbeing, and this is true in every culture; the difference is, an American kid in a culture that disparages parental authority, doubts her parents can do anything to stop or contain the harm. (And if her parents can’t, how can she?)
Whether or not you agree, it’s a fascinating hypothesis—one you don’t often hear. And Dr. Sax came to this idea not from talking to Americans, but from talking to those whose children were flourishing: immigrant parents.
At the end of a talk Dr. Sax gave at an Islamic center in Detroit years ago, a Syrian-born father approached him. The man and his wife had come to the United States twenty years earlier and had four children. “They normally speak Arabic at home, but they told me that when their teenage son wants to be defiant and disrespectful, he switches to English,” Dr. Sax said. “And Dad told me that his son’s whole body language changes. His eyes narrow, he gets a smirk on his face.”
Some parents who sign their children up for foreign language instruction in a language they do not speak may simply hope to produce kids more orderly and respectful than the typical American adolescents. But they may also have a humbler ambition: raising kids who are less lethargic and sad, less screen-obsessed, less anti-social—less adrift than American kids seem to be.
Parenting experts disagree wildly on what’s ailing kids these days. Since I believe most of these authorities are far from “expert,” and so few of them seem open to making their own results (ie. their kids) available for inspection—I rarely take their advice seriously. But I liked what Dr. Sax had to say, in part because he seems to wrestle with his own conclusions. He clearly dislikes telling Americans our culture is “toxic” for families; the very idea seems to pain him. The problem is, he believes it is true.
Leonard Sax clearly dislikes telling Americans our culture is “toxic” for families; the very idea seems to pain him. The problem is, he believes it’s true.
From my years of research into the stunning spike in transgender identification among teen girls, this may be the most important take-away: social media, schools, doctors, therapists, even teachers now actively work to undermine parents’ authority and pry kids away from the values and protection of their families. Puzzling over why activists of every profession would do such a thing seems to ensnare many good people, who expend far too much energy wrestling a spider’s web of malign motives, bad faith, and empty piety.
I doubt very much that there is a single, coordinated motive among the activists of every profession who threaten American kids. Why do vandals deface a beautiful new storefront? Can you discern a compelling motive? Because they feel uncontrollable envy and rage? Because they have a status incentive to do so? Sometimes. Maybe.
Whatever their motive, what is clear is that they are bent on damaging something precious that doesn’t belong to them. The activists attempt the same with our children: to damage their innocence, wreck their connection to family, attenuate their connection to the sources of familial love and strength that would otherwise fortify them against an increasingly chaotic world.
Which, in the end, might be why so many American parents are now doing whatever they can to insulate their kids from American influence. If they are religious, they place their kids in the first parochial school they can find. If they are not, they hunt for any other culture to stuff like fiberglass batt insulation between their kids and American influence. The point isn’t what’s in the fluffy pink stuff. The point is to keep their kids safe, dry, and a few inches further from the gathering storm.
I know I’ve been away for a while. I’m at work on a book under contract about the rising generation’s mental health crisis—what caused it, and how to fix it. The answers to both will surprise you. (They have certainly surprised me.)
I’m so grateful for your support, which has allowed me to take time for some very hot investigative reporting. I look forward to sharing it with you.