By now most Armenians have the famous William Saroyan quote from his 1936 essay “The Armenian and the Armenian” practically memorized. “Go ahead, destroy this race…See if they will not live again” is both a promise to the world and a call to action for every Armenian parent in the Diaspora to live up to it.
While instilling culture, values, language, and traditions has been top-of-mind for every generation of Armenian parents, perhaps this generation faces even greater obstacles, given all the competing forces that threaten to diminish and weaken the Armenian spirit in their own family.
How will today’s parents preserve the culture of “this small tribe of unimportant people” while adapting to present-day issues? How will they ensure their children will identify as Armenians, whether by learning the language, attending Armenian church, joining Armenian clubs and youth programs or volunteering for Armenian-related causes? What motivates today’s Armenian parents to retain this strong ethnic identity within themselves and pass it down to the next generation?
To answer these pressing questions, AGBU organized a focus group in early 2023 of Armenian-American parents of the Greater New York region to further explore the subject of transmitting ethnic heritage to their children. Many of the participants had parents that emigrated to America from a wide swath of countries: France, Turkey, Cyprus, Romania, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. Others were second or third-generation Armenian-Americans and married to non-Armenians. One parent hailed from Armenia, later spending his formative years in Artsakh.
Despite their diverse backgrounds, they started the discussion with one thing in common—each had sent their children to an Armenian summer camp, in this case AGBU Camp Nubar, and/or enrolled them in an Armenian folk dance group or sports group in their local Armenian community. They testified before the group the impact of these bond-building experiences on their own lives and what it meant to give their children the opportunity to enrich themselves through belonging to the Armenian community.
All parents agreed that being Armenian was an asset for their children. One parent with two boys attending Armenian schools opened up: “Being in such a country where there’s so much going on, it’s so easy for kids to get lost. I feel like we’re blessed with a beautiful language and rich culture—it makes being a parent so much easier because your kids have a sense of belonging.”
Whether parents spoke Armenian in the house or not, all saw eye-to-eye on the importance of traditions and its connection to their identity. “We try to focus on the food in our household,” shared one American-born father with parents from France and Jordan. “My wife is not Armenian but she’s become quite skilled at making a number of different Armenian treats that my kids like to get involved in,” he explained, adding that his wife grows herbs in their backyard for jingalov hats, a flatbread dish originated from Artsakh.“It’s really fascinating for me to see that and instill that in my kids at a very young age.” Another parent in a similar family dynamic shared this sentiment. “I think it really helps that my wife embraces Armenian food and traditions.”
I feel like we’re blessed with a beautiful language and rich culture—it makes being a parent so much easier because your kids have a sense of belonging.
Another Istanbul-born Armenian parent with two sons attending Armenian school reflected on their upbringing and expressed how they wanted the same for their child. “I’d like to pass on the traditions that I always found to be different and really cool. Like once they get engaged or get married, having a christening, those are the kind of things that I think if you don’t have somebody guiding you, will be lost as our kids get older.” She expanded: “Granted, I don’t know who my children will be with in the future and whether they would want to even do that, but I think that’s important.”
A parent added: “Even just the knowledge of those traditions is crucial. They need to be aware of their heritage and then it needs to be something that they’re motivated to learn more about as well. Because otherwise, they’re going to sort of be resentful.”
The current generation of Armenian parents has varying knowledge of the Armenian language. Some families are juggling several cultures and languages at home while others have never heard a lick of Armenian during their formative years. Some parents learned to speak the language fluently along with the traditions, but never how to read or write. And in some cases, parents have relied on their own parents to teach the Armenian language and culture to their kids while they focus on managing a hectic work-life balance. Ultimately, passing down the Armenian language looked different for every family in the focus group.
Those who resided far away from Armenian communities, schools, or resources grappled with how to make sure their kids would continue speaking in the Armenian tongue. One parent removed from Armenian communities shared: “My kids’ Armenianness and their introduction to the culture has been camp, a few weddings and family things here and there, but they have a more mixed culture now.”
Even parents who speak fluent Armenian themselves struggle with how to pass on the language.“We have to be better about it. My husband and I are fluent, and we don’t speak to them nearly as much as we should. And we don’t have a day school near us, unfortunately. Another parent with ancestry to Istanbul agreed: “It’s something that we regret that we don’t do better.”
One parent who sends her kids to weekly Armenian school found it to be especially difficult without a grandparent present. “I had the language because I had my grandmother and my parents,” she said. “It’s very difficult. We need more resources and once a week isn’t going to get the kids to learn it.” An eager parent sympathized, adding: “When we were growing up, we all had grandparents and great-grandparents that would be at home with us and sit and do Armenian homework. And now, it’s not accessible to many people.” An exasperated parent interjected, adding: “Even grandparents are speaking English with the kids too!”
Time—or the lack of it—prevented many parents from enrolling their children in more Armenian activities. Others were hyper-aware of the sacrifices they would have to make. The same parent who sends her kids to weekly “Hye tbrotz” (Armenian School) explained, “Saturday mornings are prime time for sports, whether you’re a girl or a boy. If our kids were on a team and if there was a Saturday morning practice or game, we didn’t do that sport because they were going to come to Armenian school.”
Another American-born parent found herself in the same position and has come to terms with having to adapt: “I definitely grew up with more Armenian-ness surrounding me than my kids are today. It’s kind of hard not to allow them to have their own different lifestyle than the way I grew up, that’s for certain.” She added that her children attended Armenian school but struggled to stay motivated: “They didn’t really like going. Saturday school was tough—my daughter actually did it all the way and then my son bailed a little bit earlier. He said, ‘I’m not going to finish Armenian school Mom, I can’t.’ With the age difference that they had, I was like, ‘Okay, fine, I’m kind of done too, truthfully.’”
A mom with parents from Istanbul shared her rigid approach: “Even though my husband and I gravitate towards speaking English with one another, we make an effort up to a certain age. We strictly spoke in Armenian.” For this family living in the United States, English was their children’s second language—which has brought up some concerns too.“At first, I was a little apprehensive. As a parent you wonder, ‘Are they too involved in the Armenian community? Is it going to be difficult for them?’” She initially worried that her kids would speak with accents when speaking English, which didn’t end up happening.
The stronger bonds our children have, the stronger their sense of community, friendships, and family values. All that does something to their self-esteem that no one else can bring to their child by themselves.
A parent with a nearly-identical approach to language agreed but found the kids eager to learn. “I have never woken my kids up to go to school in the morning. They wake up excited, they want to go. When I tell them it’s bedtime, they go because they know they’re going to the school, they’re going to see their Armenian friends.”
Another parent shared a similar experience: “We drove Mondays and Fridays to a different state for dance every week for six years. But my kids desired it. They’re now in college, when they come home, they are waiting for all the traditions.”
Friends Turned Family
One first-generation American with parents from Syria and Beirut expressed an opinion that many parents who have grown up immersed in Armenian communities agreed with: “The friendships that I’ve had with my Armenian friends, they’re like my family—they’re not my friends anymore. That kind of friendship is hard to find.This definitely comes from the community and the families that we’ve been raised by.”
Throughout the lively, thoughtful, and often revelatory discussions, these parents credit the community as one of the most invaluable advantages to their children’s growth. One second-generation parent with roots from Tigranakert shared, “Our culture, upbringing, and closeness as a community are so important. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
The friendships that I’ve had with my Armenian friends, they’re like my family—they’re not my friends anymore. That kind of friendship is hard to find.This definitely comes from the community and the families that we’ve been raised by.
Many worried about what the future would look like for their Armenian children in an ever-changing world. “It is scary—what if they don’t have a sense of belonging? What if they’re lost and they’re looking for where to fit in? Our kids are really lucky,” shared one parent. Another parent concurred. “I read that when children are raised in a very strong community, it actually does an amazing thing for their self-esteem as they get older. The stronger bonds our children have, the stronger their sense of community, friendships, and family values. All that does something to their self-esteem that no one else can bring to their child by themselves.” Almost all participants also concluded the Armenian sense of warmth and acceptance couldn’t be found anywhere else.
One wise parent got to the heart of the matter—studies have proven strong communities provide extra layers of support and a feeling of belonging to young families. And study after study shows that children who grow up in tight-knit, supportive communities and feel seen, valued, and appreciated grow up to look out for that community, modeling the behavior they learned at a crucially impressionable age, proving, once again Saroyan’s prophetic words.
Learn more about AGBU camps at agbu.org/camps.