Building a family culture

Yesterday I wrote about how Jay is beginning to recognize the meaning behind events that take place at home: He hears the sound of water falling into a metal pot and he knows that signifies Mom standing at the kitchen sink preparing to make tea.

After the post I emailed a friend who reminded me that what I was really writing about was culture—and in this case, family culture.  Within our small domestic space we have our rituals and routines and if you spend enough time amidst them you begin to understand what they mean, just as it is with all families, in their own unique ways.

My friend is a graduate student in philosophy and he sent me an essay that provides an academic context for thinking about culture. (I’ve posted the essay here if you want to take a look.)  Specifically, the essay defines culture as the “webs of significance” in which we live, and it defines the study of culture as an effort to untangle those webs so that we arrive at the root significance of an event—so that we understand what it really means to the people participating in it.

In a moment I’m going to get back to Jay and our family’s culture, but first I wanted to share an example from the essay which I thought was pretty illuminating, and which I thought about several times last night as I was pacing Wally back to sleep.

The essay talks about what it takes to tell the difference between someone whose eye is twitching and someone who is deliberately winking.  On the surface the two events look identical, but of course, “The difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows.”

So how to tell the difference between a twitch and a wink?  You have to understand the context—the culture—in which the event is taking place. (And I should add that the author doesn’t stop at two possible meanings for the event.  He talks about the challenge of distinguishing between a twitch, a wink, a parody of a wink, and someone at home in front of a mirror practicing a parody of a wink.)

One of the most exciting things about having kids, for me, is the chance it provides to build a family culture.  Growing up, I remember the dining table jokes, and the sounds of my mom making herself lunch in the kitchen, and how I could tell my dad’s mood just by the way the plates clattered as he put clean dishes back in the cupboard.  By the time I was 18 I was exhilarated to get out and see more of the world, but eventually I started to miss the intimacy, the familiarity, of living as a family. And regaining that has been one of the most fulfilling things for me about the small orbit Jay, Wally, Caroline, and I make together each day.

Anyway, when I sat down to write this morning what I actually meant to do was give a quick list of the ways, in addition to the ones I talked about yesterday, that Jay has become attuned to our family culture:

  • He came into our bedroom one morning a few weeks ago and saw a towel spread out on the bed.  “Wally threw up?” he asked.  Indeed, he had.
  • During the morning hours, Jay knows that when I come downstairs around noon it means I’m going to have lunch. “Make the sandwich,” he yells up to me from the family room.  When I walk downstairs a couple hours later, he knows what that means, too.  “I don’t wanna take a nap,” he whines before I’ve made it even three steps.
  • The other day Caroline and Jay were in the supermarket, looking at all the different kinds of oatmeal. Caroline couldn’t remember which kind we buy so she asked Jay if he did.  He surveyed for a second and then pointed (correctly): Country Choice Steel Cut Irish Oats
  • And lastly, yesterday morning Jay was playing in his room when he heard me open a dresser drawer. “Are you getting dressed Daddy?” he asked.  I told him I was, and he replied, “Wear the blue shirt with the sailboats,” which both impressed me and made me worry that I’d been wearing my Cape Cod t-shirt a little too often recently.

Wally last night, feeling *really* excited he gets to play with a placemat.


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