Expat parenting 101
Chances are that if you’re a parent reading this in Dubai or elsewhere in the UAE, you’re raising your children in a cross-cultural environment. This is true for so many expats in today’s world, who are busy raising their children in a culture different to their own.
As it turns out, how you parent, is quite often an interesting combination of where you’re from, which culture (s) you and your partner grew up in, and of course where you currently live. Parental ethnotheories are cultural models that parents hold regarding children, families, and themselves as parents. Like other cultural models related to the self, parental ethnotheories are often implicit, taken-for-granted ideas about the “natural” or “right” way to parent, directly influenced by the cultural norms in which you grew up.
This would explain why as long term expats, who come from vastly different cultures, my husband and I don’t often see eye to eye especially when it comes to parenting our two kids. My husband comes from a cross-cultural family (German and Italian), whereas I come from a cross-cultural experience (Pakistani and American). As expats, we have raised our daughter in Singapore, and are now raising our daughter and son in Dubai.
So how do we parent our children, when on any given day we’re dealing with 4 or 5 different cultural influences and different ways of approaching parenting all together?
Simple parenting decisions suddenly become a whole lesson in culture, upbringing and identity.
In German culture, most kids have an early (and strict) bedtime of 7 pm, whereas in Pakistani culture (and even Italian and local UAE culture!) it is more socially acceptable for young children to stay up late and can often be seen having dinner outside with the family at 9 pm, even on a weekday.
The American, often more consumerist way means that while I wanted to buy a trampoline for my daughters 4th birthday present, my husband is less into buying “stuff” and more about giving her an enjoyable experience; like a trip to the Zoo or to a Water Park that she would enjoy.
At the playground, I turn into that typical South Asian “helicopter parent” hovering over my child and watching her every move. In contrast, my husband has a typically German approach to playground fun; he takes a seat on a bench and observes my 4 year old from a distance. He lets her play, fall, climb, and slide and interact with the other kids and only jumps in when absolutely necessary.
The importance of fresh air is paramount to my husband’s upbringing in Germany; where no matter what the weather is like, children are encouraged to get at least 2 hours of outdoor play every day. The Pakistani in me (who has not fared too well with either the humidity in Singapore or the 40 degree plus desert temperatures in Dubai), would prefer 2 hours of quiet play, preferably in an air-conditioned environment.
Add to this a plethora of other parenting decisions big and small (how much screen time is acceptable for a 3 year old, to sleep train or not to sleep train, family meal times etc.) and it’s a miracle we could even agree on what to name our children! (Hint: choose universal sounding names, that can work in different cultures and languages)
So how do you work through these cultural differences? How do you decide which parenting style to follow? How do you raise your children in a culture different than yours? How do you parent in a cross-cultural environment?
Allow me to share some of the do’s and don’ts of cross-cultural parenting and what I’ve learned in this journey so far:
1. Do remember that parenting styles can differ even if you’re both from the same culture and have never moved away from your home countries:
It’s important to start your parenting journey with the knowledge that even if both partners are from the same place, in the exact same country, different parenting styles will always exist. Otherwise it is easy to get hung up on the cultural differences being the source of the problems, which is not necessarily the case. And it’s also helpful to remember that all parents – expat or not – will face parenting dilemmas.
2. Communicate openly and effectively:
The best strategy is to talk about it, explain why you feel so strongly about a particular point and do so without getting defensive or judgemental – this will help you to find a middle ground with your partner. My husband and I have agreed for instance that early bedtimes work best for our children and ensure a happier household and 2 sane parents who have a chance to catch up on the day’s events after 7 pm. This does often mean skipping late night dinners or invitations for the family or making an exception if it’s for a special occasion.
3. Focus on the enrichment that happens for your child as a result of these different cultures:
Find a way to complement the differences to result in enrichment. Our kids are lucky to be able to experience different cultures at home. This means for example, they are equally at ease eating rice with their hands (in Pakistan it is common to make little rice balls and eat with your hands), using their fork to twirl the spaghetti in their big bowl of aglio e olio, or in the case of my daughter who was born and grew up in Singapore – eating with chopsticks! We have found that in many of our cultures especially our Italian and Pakistani culture, there is a lot of emphasis on food and eating together as a family and we observe this in our household and try to plan for family dinners during the week.
4. View a cross cultural background and training as an advantage for your child in today’s world:
The fact that our kids are able to relate to different cultures and ways of doing things is such a big advantage in today’s world. When we moved to the UAE, one of the questions my daughter kept asking was “mama, why are the men wearing white dresses?” She was of course referring to the “gandoora”; the long white robes that the local Arab men wear, which is their traditional dress. It is amazing to see how she is learning so much about the different cultures she is living in, and this experience is truly priceless.
5. Accept it as an opportunity to challenge your own parenting ideals:
When you live away from home, you often find out so much about yourself – what’s really important to you and things you only followed or did because everyone back home did them. No where does this become clearer, than in your parenting. While living away from our homes, we have challenged our own ideas regarding circumcision, vaccinations, and so much more in the process. It is healthy to view our own pre-conceived ideas through a fresh set of eyes and re-assess our own thoughts and feelings on a particular subject.
I thought I would always push my children for academic excellence, having grown up in a similar, competitive environment, but after viewing how so many young kids in Singapore were saddled with so many after school activities and rigorous studying responsibilities, I found myself changing my tune. As a result, when we moved to Dubai, I deliberately sought out a nursery which lets children be children and one that does not consider childhood a race. The focus on imagination and creativity and making learning fun is what makes my daughter love her school and keeps me happy as a parent.
1. Don’t assume your way is right and the other way is wrong.
One culture is not superior to another; and thus there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to parenting styles and decisions. When confronted with extremes, quite often the best way is somewhere in the middle. Try to agree on certain principles but allow some pragmatic flexibility during family visits to your home countries, time spent with grandparents or during family trips/vacation. For instance when we go to Germany to visit my husband’s family, I am much more aware of the fact that not every restaurant is a child-friendly one and that children are not welcome in every place you go out to eat. Coming from the UAE, where I find the local culture extremely partial and welcoming towards kids, where most restaurants and café’s will have high chairs for your baby and colouring options for your toddler, I do need to remind myself of different cultures and the accepted social norms.
2. Don’t debate the differences or conflicts in front of your child:
Children are extremely quick to pick up on any ambivalence regarding rules, so it’s best not to argue or discuss your differences in opinion in front of them. Definitely have your discussions, but away from the kids and agree beforehand what your parenting principles are going to be. My husband and I have agreed upon the age appropriate discipline methods for both our kids and try to stick to them and communicate clearly with our children in terms of what is expected from them. No sweets before dinner is one such rule!
3. Don’t forget to be a team:
Even though we come from vastly different cultures from the East and the West, we can’t lose sight of the fact that as parents, we are a team and we must act as a team in front of our children and put up a united front. I may not agree with every parenting decision my husband makes (boy do I not!), but I do support him in his endeavours because I know he’s parenting according to what feels natural or right to him. It’s important to support one another and try to remember that at the end of the day, you’re the two best people to parent and love your children.
4. Don’t gloss over your differences, acknowledge them and embrace them:
The best strategy that has worked for us has been to acknowledge and embrace our differences. We talk regularly about how we parent differently and just sometimes saying it out loud to each other helps to take the friction away and leaves us wanting to find a way to work together. So talk about your different parenting ideals, and then figure out a way forward that incorporates who you both are.
5. Don’t expect the culture in which you live in, not to affect your parenting:
This may seem like a no-brainer, but often we forget how much our environment and the culture in which we live in affect how we parent. I’m pretty certain that if we still lived in Denmark, I too would be putting my baby to sleep outside in freezing temperatures (snugly wrapped up of course!) in his pram for a daytime nap as the Danes do – in Danish culture it’s important to acclimatise a young baby to sleeping outside in the fresh air, and its believed to help build up their resistance and immunity to cold weather.
And here in the UAE, many parents struggle with the competition aspect with other parents and what they provide for their child. My 4 year old is already aware of which car her friend’s mommy drives! Dubai is such a city of excess that even simple events like kids birthday parties turn into these glamorous affairs, which can definitely challenge your parenting ideals. The hardest challenge I’ve faced as a parent in the UAE though, is to help prepare my children in dealing with change; Dubai is such a transient place and in the space of our almost 2 years here, my daughter has already said goodbye to countless of her close friends. Helping her say goodbye to her friends and the realisation that friends move away has become part of my parenting here, and we actively try to sit down and talk about her feelings in processing it all.
Are you raising children in a cross-cultural environment? What would your top tips be?