I read Achtung Baby, by Sara Zaske, when my kids were about six months old. The book is part travelog, part parenting advice, by a woman who moved her family from the US to Germany. She raised kids for five years there, came back to the states, and wrote a book on the difference in parenting cultures.
One of the biggest things that stuck with me about this book was the discussion about Einschulung, and life milestones parties more generally. An Einschulung is a party thrown for a kid when they first go off to school, and it is a big deal. Everyone is invited, family, extended family, friends, neighbors. Everyone comes out to celebrate and acknowledge this major milestone for the kid.
The Einschulung is compared with two other major parties that Germans have in their lifetimes: their Jugendweihe celebrating entrance into young adulthood and their wedding. These are the three parties that define the arc of many a German's life, and they help tie the person into their community.
What struck me most about the Einschulung, Jugendweihe, and wedding is how they were seen in Germany. Or perhaps how Sara Zaske saw them. These were parties that were in honor of a given person, but not always for them. Often the parties were for the community that person belonged to as much as they were for the person themselves.
This really appealed to me when I was reading it as a new parent. I still had fresh memories of my own wedding two years before, and how my wedding had changed my views on weddings overall. Prior to my own wedding, I'd often viewed wedding invites with distaste. When some friends got married, I'd feel obligated to go in order to show my support, but I often felt pretty isolated at weddings. I didn't know how to interact with the event, or the people at the event.
When planning our wedding, my wife and I wanted to really emphasize the family and community aspects. We ended up doing a lot of non-standard wedding things, but the closer we got to the wedding, the more those seemed to matter less to me than having people there to witness our love. I think several of our plans for our wedding were amazing, and a couple fell kind of flat, but the thing that was most meaningful to me was just having so much family and so many friends there with us as we said we loved each other.
I really understood then that our wedding wasn't just for us, it was for our community as well.
This was a pretty new experience for me. I was a lonely kid, and had a lot of trouble making friends. It wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties that I understood that it was possible to have a social interaction with someone new that wasn't emotionally painful. My wedding was the final push I needed to see community in a different way.
Reading about Einschulung in Achtung Baby got me wondering if I could have had a much more socially comfortable adolescence if I were raised in a culture that emphasized community in a more formal way. It's really too bad the US is the way that it is, but maybe I could do something like that for my kids anyway.
I was pretty surprised to discover that, at least in one US state, there are parties like Einschulung. Several Michiganders that I know recently told me about the tradition of high school graduation parties there.
In Michigan, everyone apparently throws a high school graduation party. You invite your family, your friends, your friends' families, your neighbors, your parents coworkers. It's a regular community ritual. It's such a big deal that high schoolers carefully schedule their graduation parties to not overlap with their classmates, so that everyone can go to everyone else's parties.
I was immediately excited about this and wondering if Michiganders felt less isolated and more tied in to their community than I had as a high schooler.
Not Always Good
It turns out that one of the people who was telling me about this tradition had hated their graduation party. They felt that it was a party for their parents, not for them, and that they were being forced to go. In fact, the way they described it reminded me a lot of how I felt about other people's weddings before I'd had my own.
This raises some interesting questions. Why hadn't I felt like I was a part of a community when I was going to other people's weddings before I had my own? Why did my friend wish they hadn't had a high school graduation party, instead of feeling like it was their community supporting them?
It's hard to speculate on my own about what someone else was feeling at some party, but I think my own lack of community feeling was related to a sense of support going one way only. I went to weddings of friends and families because I wanted to be there for them, which is actually a large part of what I consider to be a good community. But I didn't feel communal about it, I felt like it was an obligation. I was doing it to avoid being cast out of my community, not because I wanted to build a stronger community. I don't think I even had a sense that community could benefit me in any way.
This is not to say that community never benefited me before I got married (though the amount of community support I received after my wedding was mind boggling). Looking back, I see many times when my community was supporting me throughout childhood and young adulthood. My experience of that support at the time was confused though. People would do something nice for me, and I wouldn't understand why. I'd feel like I had to pay them back immediately, or that they were condescending to me. It also wasn't clear to me if someone was "in my community" or not (a question not at all helped by the introduction of Facebook).
This makes me wonder if my wedding was a turning point because it really shoved my face in the idea that other people were helping me because they wanted me to be happy. Planning and throwing a wedding is not an easy thing, and there's often a ton of family stress on top of that. We never would have been able to throw the wedding that we did without the help of a huge number of people.
I think this is why the other two parties described in Achtung Baby sounded so good to me. If I'd had the idea that other people might genuinely want to help me when I was a kid, or that they might actively want me to be a part of their community, then I would have had a much happier childhood. The Einschulung seems like a very stark demonstration of that fact to a kid when they could most use it: right before joining a huge group of people they've never met before to do something totally new.
Celebrating With My Kids
This idea of the reason behind community parties offers up some ideas for how to do similar things for my kids as they age:
- throw parties at milestones that are a Schelling Point for the community that you're in
- let people help with party set up in a way that's visible to others
- invite everyone that's in your community, but not everyone you know
- make sure the party will actually be enjoyable for the kids
I think point 4 is pretty important. I really enjoyed my wedding, and I suspect I'd be feeling differently about community if I hadn't (even if my community had been exactly as helpful). I also suspect that this was what went wrong for my friend who hated their own graduation party. If the party had been structured more to their liking, then they could have recognized the community aspects of it more easily.
I also think point 1, about choose milestones that make sense for your community, is important. This makes me think that birthdays are more important than I had been thinking before this, and going forward I plan to place more importance on my kids birthdays and on my own birthday.