We were in Japan last week, and I was reminded of the exhilaration of immersing myself in a brand new culture.  We quite literally did not know how to do the most basic things: board the escalators, eat the amazing food, or flush the toilets.  Relying on cues from the local Japanese was the only window we had into cultural expectations.

·         The line of pedestrians standing along the left side of the escalator signaled that we were to keep a lane open on the right for those commuters rushing to catch their train.

·         The full shoe cubbies by the doorway to the restaurant clued us to take our own shoes off before entering.

·         I had to guess on the toilets.*

I am reminded that life between adults and children is a cross-cultural exercise of its own, with each party an outsider in the world of the other.


The world that adults inhabit is one full of implicit rules and systems: chairs are used for sitting, forks are used for eating, and beds are used for sleeping.  Children spend their days as outsiders in our world, constantly chided for not following “The Rules.”  They balk and rebel, not because they are malicious or mischievous, but because they are weary from the effort it takes to live in the world as an outsider.

·         What do you mean this chair is not for jumping off of?

·         Eating this curly pasta with my hands is SO much easier than my fork!

·         This bed makes a great trampoline.

Sometimes, we can adjust our strict rules to accommodate the needs of our children, but at some level, learning the rules of the adult world is end goal of childhood.  Successful adults have managed to assimilate these rules, finding ways to meet their needs while living within the expectations of a community.

The ways we bring our children into our culture while respecting and honoring their own ways of being is one of the most critical and delicate dances we do. 

Our life on the ship has brought a steep increase in “Rules.” Handrails intended for steadying oneself while walking on a rocking ship masquerade as monkey bars. Carpeted hallways and dining areas beg for bare feet.

When we first boarded the ship, I was overwhelmed by the demands of our new community.  I found myself yelling more and trying to force my children to “behave” according to the rules of our new shipboard culture.  But learning is impossible when you feel angry, frustrated, unappreciated, and disrespected.  I know this, and still, I was grasping.

As I stopped to reflect, I realized the kind of cultural miscommunication that was unfolding:

In my world, the rules make sense.  Without handrails, we could easily fall down when the ship unexpectedly lurches.  Without shoes, we risk contracting illnesses that are tracked from dusty streets onto the ship, or at the very least, getting our toes stepped on by all the bodies negotiating a relatively small space.

In my children’s world, the rules are illogical.  These handrails are the perfect height for swinging, and we don’t wear shoes in the house at home.

One way to ease the cultural breakdown between adults and children is to become an insider.  To truly talk to my children in a language they understand requires that I assume their roles and walk in their shoes.


In short, to help my children adjust to life in this new setting, we need to play more together. 

When I play with my children,

·         we find a common language.

·         we reverse the power roles.

·         we model tools of negotiating and communicating.

All the lectures in the world won’t substitute for the time we spend pretending to be whimsical fairies, powerful witches, the patients of very eager doctors, or the pupils of very enthusiastic teachers. 

The day after I realized what was going on, we spent our time during “Ship School” (more on that later) climbing together under the tables, and making hats out of pipe cleaners.

I assumed the roles that were given to me.  I was a farmer with Simone, and we built pens for our animals.  The witches, Desmond and Tekoa, kept sneaking in at night to blow over the pens with a forceful breath.  Simone and I acted, morning after imaginary morning, the utter surprise at finding our animals, once again, out of their pens.  The play was growing chaotic.  As I observed this script unfolding, I decided to introduce a twist – working as an insider to enrich their ideas of power and friendship.    

“Simone, the witches keep knocking down our animal’s houses.  Maybe they are lonely.  If we write letters for the witches, maybe they will know that they have friends, and they won’t knock over our pens anymore.”

As you might expect, there is power in building friendships, and the four of us acted out a creative and magical friendship toward one another.

I will confess to you that this is hard for me.  I am not, by nature, a very playful person.  But playing with children is profound, and so my imperative is to find ways to nurture my own playful spirit.  The scripts we write together become the ways we define our relationships.

Our third and fourth days in Japan were easier than our first and second, because the basic requirements of day-to-day life were becoming clear.  The more we practice crossing the cultural divide that exists between the world of adults and children, the more we nurture respect for the ways of understanding that we each possess.


* You should SEE the toilets in Japan.  Of course, there are the more traditional squat toilets, which fascinated my children to no end.  But there were the most sophisticated western style toilets you could imagine: heated seats, background music of a waterfall that played when the sensor was triggered, multiple bidet selections (multiple spray choices, directional adjustments, and a pressure gauge to change the flow of the water), and one button that looked like a call for help.

While I am sailing, I have no access to the internet.  I can email, and I have a wonderful friend who is posting all of my articles for me while I am gone. (Thank you, Noémia!)  This is my shameless plea for your help in publicizing my work.  If you enjoy what you read, would you consider sharing it with your Facebook and Twitter networks?  Thank you!