On taking time to smell the local roses as an Expat parent...

>> Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Taking blogging to new interactive levels - for me, anyway - I asked on my previous post which of 4 topics I should write about next.  Amazingly, some lovely people replied with their preferences (honest - you can see their comments here), so today's post is all about the guilt some people experience as expat parents, and how they handle it...

Wherever you live, being a parent nowadays can be hard work.  Not only in terms of dealing with children in a world where touch points and references are constantly changing, and when the authoritarian model of parenting many of us grew up with is now being pushed gently to one side in favour of a more authoritative (for which read, 'consulting') model of dealing with our children, but also in terms of being physically demanding as a result of the punishing schedules we create for ourselves and for our children.

Whilst many of us dream of a more 'free-range' approach to bringing up baby - opening the back door and letting kids take responsibility for their own entertainment in non-school based hours - quite often it's simply not practical in a world where traffic is horrific, double-incomes are a financial necessity for the majority of families, and time at home together is so limited.  And even leaving that aside, the pressures and expectations that we put on our ourselves - and our children - are amplified to a level that our parents, 30 or 40 years ago, would find ridiculous.  Not only is there homework to be finished - from a much younger age than I remember at school - but there are the after school activities to be fitted in.  There are the music lessons.  The sports clubs.  The swimming lessons.  The ballet classes.  The art play.  The 'improving' opportunities that we convince ourselves are essential to our child's eventual growth into a well-balanced adult.  And that's just in middle England.

Now, imagine yourselves as an expat living in a culture not your own.  Your family moves from one country to another every 2 - 4 years, putting down roots where you can, ripping them up when you have to move on, and doing all that you can to maintain a sense of equilibrium in a world where the scenery is constantly changing.

It's tough.  And not only because YOU are transient, but because - if you live in the international, expat environment (often the only possibility when you are not planning on making a country your 'forever home' but are merely a guest for a short period of time) - those around you are transient, too.

So, there you are, in Moscow/Beijing/Rio de Janeiro.  As you watch your children saying goodbye to a best friend for the second time in 3 years, you resolve that in spite of everything they will not suffer for your lifestyle choices.  Instead, they will see more, do more, experience more because of them.  They won't have TIME to miss 'home' goddammit - and you are going to make sure of it.  You fill their days with extra activities and their holidays with exotic destinations.  You find the tennis lessons, you get them enrolled on the fencing course, you drive them an hour each way to the football pitch every Saturday morning.  You leave no stone unturned in your quest to support your child's learning opportunities, because there has to be an upside for your kids to this somewhat unorthodox lifestyle you've chosen.

Your golden expat children have golden opportunities and they are ruddy well going to benefit from them, no matter how exhausting your schedule becomes.

Even with the best of intentions, it's easy to find yourself in this situation.  I know how easy; to a certain extent we're in that space right now.  But asides from the fact that filling children's lives with stimulus - to the extent that they can no longer to entertain  themselves with a box of lego, or a blank pad of paper and a set of pens - is not actually doing them any favours in the long term, where in this constant maelstrom of activity is the chance for them to connect with where they live right now?

Yesterday I bumped into an expat friend who was concerned about some of the things her children had been saying about Russia and Russians.  She felt that there was a lot of negativity being spouted at them from somewhere - she wasn't sure where - and was concerned because when she signed up for the expat lifestyle, that was the absolute last thing she had expected to happen.  She had hoped instead for her children to connect with their environment, to get something positive out of their experience of living in this interesting and engaging country.

But as we spoke about this it became clear to both of us that we were not giving our children the chance to do this.  Unless we - as expat parents - take a breath and pause in our constant efforts to give our kids the best opportunities, and instead simply enjoy where we are living, how can we hope that they will see the best in their current location?

Perhaps, instead of working so frenetically to minimise the number of opportunities that we imagine our kids are missing out on by not being 'home', we could put the breaks on the perpetual motion - just a little.

Then we could  take our kids off-reservation, away from the ever-so-comfortable golden expat cage, into the city centre or out to the countryside, into the museums, art galleries and playgrounds.  Because in years to come, when our children recount tales of their international lifestyle to others who've never visited the places that they temporarily called home, what do we hope they will say?  That in Moscow/Beijing/Rio they perfected their backhand and learned how to play the piano?

Or that the sunsets were amazing, the winters astounding, the people welcoming, and the blinis delicious?


nappy valley girl 12 March 2013 at 13:18  

Great post. I certainly appreciated growing up in Hong Kong, and would not have wanted a different childhood. I think you have to make sure your children see something of the country, enough to put in perspective that it is different from "home", as well as doing all the activities that seem to be expected these days (as you say, not just among expats). One thing I try to do with the boys is to explain to them that "In America, this happens, but in England it is different,", not necessarily in a perjorative way so that they think the English way is superior, but so that they are understand that different cultures are different.

MsCaroline 12 March 2013 at 21:55  

We do something or go somewhere almost every weekend, so I don't have much guilt about not exposing Son#2 to culture in Korea, but your point is well taken. When I went with the kids to the fish market last week (a huge tourist draw,) my son was the only (or nearly the only) one in his class who'd ever been there before. Of course, many of the kids were half Korean, so maybe their parents didn't think it was worth the visit. It's hard not to want to give your children the very best available, but I suppose the ideal outcome would be getting the best available while experiencing the culture. Lots of the little ones at my school take Tae Kwon Do (Korean martial art) which - while it's still a 'class' - at least exposes them to some language and culture. And I suspect that they're absorbing more and learning more than you realize. As you said in one of your earlier comments (on someone else's blog, I think) it will be interesting to see what they remember most about this experience when they're older. I suspect you'll be surprised!

Melissa 13 March 2013 at 06:39  

I think children absorb all the time - whether it's planned or not. And what seems strange and foreign to you becomes their normal fairly fast.

Jacolyn Stewart 13 March 2013 at 10:50  

Having attempted to bring up toddlers as an ex-pat I know my frustrations were grounded in 'keeping up' with imaginary British peers. I hoped that when we returned home, they would be able to fit straight in with similar cultural references.

Of course, pseudo-British culture came at the detriment of local culture. Now that we're all back in the UK, I regret that we have brought so little of their birth country culture back with us. The whole experience dissipated in under a year and, I'm afraid, is all but lost as a life experience for them.

jeanie 13 March 2013 at 11:49  

Never having been an expat, but having had my share of pulling up stumps and moving - I learned that when you compare, both from whence you came and where you are have their shortcomings highlighted - whereas if you just find what you love where you are, you focus on the good.

From the outside, it seems an amazing experience.

Iota 14 March 2013 at 09:02  

This is a fab post.

I think one of the difficulties of being an expat is that you imagine what your children would be doing, how life for them would be, in your home country. The longer you're away, the more that image becomes divorced from the reality. It's partly the rose-tinted specs effect, but it's partly that time marches on. For example, I didn't like the way sports were so competitive in the US, and hated taking my sons to endless practices and matches. Then I discovered, guess what? It's the same back in Britain. It's just that I was comparing the sports involvement of a 5 and 8 year old, as they had been when we left Scotland, with the sports involvement of an 11 and 15 year old. (Though actually, I think it was partly to do with where we happened to live when they were little, since I know that for many 5 and 8 year olds, the sporting schedule is already pretty intense.)

My expat guilt came from a feeling that the kids were somehow missing out on a different life that they could have had, but didn't. Sounds silly, when you say it like that, but that's what I felt. I loved it whenever anyone would say something positive like "what a great experience for them" or "how lucky they are". I think I've finally now come to agree. Not just in a way that looks at a cherry-picked bunch of positives, (they understand more about cultural differences, they appreciate time with wider family more, etc), but that it has been a very rich experience, and it will always be part of them (you tied in nicely with my latest post!).

Michelloui | The American Resident 14 March 2013 at 13:08  

Really thought provoking. I'm not the kind of expat you are--my daughter is a native of my host country, but I still understand where you're coming from. Even in our non-expat (to her) life, I still find that I need a fresh look at the way I expose my daughter to experiences and attitudes so yes, I can well imagine all that you describe.

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