Raising Bilingual Teens & The 5 Stages of Grief

funny bilingual parenting comic by Latinaish.com

“Tenemos que hablar más …porque… tengo que pensar… por… cada… palabra,” my 15 year old son told me recently in halting Spanish as we walked around the international market. His Spanish is good but far from fluent.

Our 12 year old speaks even less than our 15 year old although he understands everything I say to him and voluntarily plays Club Penguin in Spanish, “just because.” He also switches to Spanish to get my attention. On a daily basis you can hear something like this in our house:

“Mommy, can I have a cookie?… Mommy… Hey, Mommy… Mamá, quiero una galleta.” — to which I finally answer him. Some parents do this on purpose so their children don’t speak English at home, but in my case, sometimes I’m just so focused on what I’m doing that I tune everyone out. Only the jolt of unexpected Spanish is what breaks my concentration.

Despite the fact that Spanish and Spanglish are still spoken on a daily basis in our household, we’ve begun to speak it less and less. I’ve said before that raising bilingual children “takes constant commitment and re-commitment” but it feels like we’ve been hitting pretty hard on the frequency and necessity of re-committing this past year.

You see, in my experience bilingual parenting, unlike most things you practice, does not get easier. In fact, I would argue that bilingual parenting only gets more and more difficult the older your children get.

Think about it – when your children are very young, one of the first questions they learn and repeat ad nauseam is, “What’s that?” … For parents raising bilingual children, even if the target language isn’t your native language, things start out pretty easy.

“What’s that?”
– Una manzana.
“What’s that?”
– El color verde.
“What’s that?”
– La luna.
“What’s that?”
– Un gato.

What a sense of accomplishment! You’re doing it! You’re really doing it! You’re raising a bilingual child!

Of course, the reality is that the older your child gets, the more complex his questions. Apple, green, moon, and cat are part of your vocabulary and now your child’s – no problem, but how do you answer:

“Where do babies come from?”
“What’s the difference between a Republican and a Democrat?”
“Why don’t birds get electrocuted when they sit on power lines?”
“How come it looks like the moon follows me when we drive in the car?”
“What’s endosymbiosis?”
“What exactly is a black hole?”
“What does ‘birth control’ mean?”
“Can you explain antidisestablishmentarianism?”
“If ‘X’ equals 32.4 and a train is traveling at 68 miles per hour…”

Nevermind answering those questions in Spanish – I may need Google’s help, (and a few aspirin) just to answer them in my native language! Apple, green, moon and cat will no longer be sufficient.

As a parent attempting to raise bilingual children, making mistakes along the way, and having setbacks, you often tell yourself, “It’s okay, there’s still time” – and yet, that time does run out, which is what you face as a parent of teenagers.

So, this is where we stand at the moment. We keep trying and will fight to the end to raise bilingual children, but I am at a point where I’m forced to accept that unless I drop them off in El Salvador for the next couple years, they most likely will not be native speaker fluent.

If your children are tweens or teens, you may be beginning to go through “the five stages of grief” if their Spanish isn’t as perfect as you had hoped. For me, it went something like this:

1. Denial – My kids are totally bilingual! They’re doing great!
2. Anger – Why aren’t they replying in Spanish! Whose fault is this?!
3. Bargaining – If they can just speak Spanish really well, not even perfectly, I’ll be happy.
4. Depression – This is my fault. I’m a failure as a parent.
5. Acceptance – I’ve done my best and will continue to try my hardest. All the effort has been worth it, and I’m okay with the result even if it falls short of perfection.

Just know that wherever you’re at on this bilingual parenting journey, you’re not alone, and like any other aspect of parenting, you’re not always going to get things exactly right.

Most importantly of all, don’t give up.

“There is no failure except in no longer trying.”
– Elbert Hubbard