Growing up as an expat is a unique experience. Ele Cooper asks four local parents how they think it affects their kids
Time Out Dubai Kids staff
• Alayne Gold, a full-time mum and property developer from London, has an eight-year-old son, James and a five-year-old daughter, Phoebe. They live on The Palm Jumeirah and have been in Dubai for one-and-a-half years.
• American mum Renee Hartshorn, from Connecticut, has two girls: Danielle, 12, and Elle, 10. She is a part-time artist and has been in Dubai for one year, currently residing in Umm Suqeim.
• Part-time wills consultant Lindsey Johnson has been in Dubai for two years and lives in Arabian Ranches. Originally from Plymouth in the UK, she has one daughter, three-year-old Anya.
• Born in London and raised in Hong Kong, full-time mum Jo Thursfield lives in The Springs and has been in Dubai for two years. She is mother to two-year-old Alex.
What got us talking
Love it or hate it, expat life has a massive impact on us all – and for children it can be particularly significant. This led us to wonder: if you move around a lot, is this unsettling for a child or does it help them to become an outgoing, well-rounded individual? Is it great that they’ve had more best friends than they can count on two hands, or sad that they have never lived in the same city as their pals for more than two years – or perhaps a bit of both? Also, where do they, and their parents for that matter, call home? We gathered four mums at Frankie’s in Jumeirah Beach Walk, and quizzed them on whether the positives of an expat upbringing outweigh the negatives.
What are the advantages of bringing up children as expats? Alayne: I think children can become more confident about meeting new people.
Jo: You learn to become quite sociable as well. Growing up in Hong Kong, there was a big turnaround of friends because they kept moving every two years. The constant evolvement means you have to be quite flexible and adaptable, but at the same time it’s sad in some ways. You don’t grow up with the same friends and I feel like I missed out on that.
Alayne: My kids have friends in their previous schools and I have decided that it’s my responsibility to keep that going: every time we go back to the UK, I make sure they see them. Also, my children make ‘best friends’, and when that friend leaves they’re on their own – so I have told them in this sort of environment it’s better to have lots of different friends. I make sure they invite a different child from the class for a play date each week.
Renee: There are so many different cultures here. Kids have friends from all over the world and it’s good that they can see how different families operate. It’s also great for food: before, my kids just ate chicken nuggets and fries, but now they’ve tried things that I haven’t because they ate it at their friend’s house.
Alayne: Our school celebrates all the different religions and the kids get on really well. I liked growing up in the multicultural environment of London and I want my kids to grow up in the same way – to not see people of other religions or colours as different. That’s a great thing about growing up as an expat.
Lindsey: Anya came here when she was 15 months old and, hopefully, she won’t even question it when someone looks a bit different, it’ll just be the norm. If you’ve never experienced that it becomes a barrier, but because she’s exposed to a multicultural environment at such a young age, she will hopefully always be positive about meeting new people.
Jo: Another good thing about expat living is that they have freedom, particularly in Dubai as it’s such a safe city. Now Alex is starting to walk, if I’m in Al Safa park I can sit with my friends and know that he’s perfectly safe running around, which you can’t do so much back home. He’s so used to freedom that we had to buy a wrist strap to keep him with us when we were in England!
Are there any disadvantages to an expat childhood? Renee: You might not build the long-term friendships because it’s so transient here.
Jo: We would see the grandparents more if we lived in London. You’ve got to send lots of photos and use video calling.
Renee: My older daughter’s got a friend back home who she calls all the time – in fact I’ll walk into her bedroom in the middle of the night and she’s chatting to her!
Lindsey: I think it’s important that they recognise people. Continuity through photos and video calls mean that Anya’s grandparents aren’t losing something by us bringing her over here. A computer is better than nothing.
Alayne: Plus they really appreciate the countryside when they go home. Although, when we were in the UK, we went walking in these cornfields and forests, and my children said, ‘Why are we doing this, it’s boring!’ I thought: Oh no, they’ve got into that mind set of getting up and doing something, rather than just walking and appreciating the environment!
How do you avoid your kids turning into expat brats? Alayne: We have staff and they don’t discipline the children, so the kids think they can walk all over them. If I hear something inappropriate being said, I will parrot the message that they can’t do that. You want them to be a free spirit but they need to know their boundaries.
Lindsey: You’re their moral policeman. If they’re going to be brats they will be brats no matter where they are. We have to give them a sense of how fortunate we are to be here.
Renee: We don’t have any help in the house and my kids are expected to do chores. I grew up on a farm, and you have to work every day on a farm. My kids have to earn things.
Alayne: My boy said to me the other day, ‘Why do I have to earn everything that I want?’ And I said, ‘You can’t just have anything whenever you want it. The only time that will happen is on your birthday and Christmas. It’s only out of the kindness of my heart that I sometimes give you a treat.’
Jo: It’s about keeping them grounded. You have to teach them early on that everyone lives differently and you’ve just got to do as your mum and dad would like you to do.
Lindsey: Children really pick up on how we talk to live-in staff. I say to [my helper] Roda, ‘Would you let your daughter speak to you like that? I wouldn’t, so don’t let Anya get away with it.’ You have to treat everybody as you would expect to be treated.
You’ve said confidence is a plus point of an expat childhood – but is there such a thing as too much confidence? Alayne: There’s nothing wrong with being confident.
Renee: But there’s a difference between being confident and being cocky.
Jo: In London I’m sometimes afraid of walking past a school because of the language, the aggression, whereas here I’ve been absolutely amazed. A lady I talk to has two sons aged 11 and 13 and they are the nicest boys I’ve ever met. When I see them walking their dog they’re polite, they speak to you, and they don’t mumble – they can actually hold a conversation. I don’t think you’d have that with many children in the UK.
Renee: My kids are very assertive. We’ll be out and looking for the restroom and I’m like, ‘Let’s go find it’; whereas they roll their eyes and say, ‘Let’s go ask! Why waste time looking?’
Alayne: Jamie’s quite shy. He’ll ask me where the toilet is and I’ll say, ‘Why not go and ask that person where it is?’ In London I might not necessarily have done that because I’d feel uncomfortable not being able to see him. It’s easier for a child to build confidence here. And it’s the same for adults – I’ve had to be more confident and think: Right, the worst that can happen is for them to say no, so I’ll pick up the phone and ask another mum if she wants to do something. I can either sit at home and do nothing or I can have a social life.
Lindsey: And, again, your children will learn from you. Your friends are your family here and you build up close friendships in a short period of time because they’re your support network.
Alayne: Yes… but I’ve found people are a lot more likely to let you down as well. They’re more flippant about cancelling at the last minute; it’s almost like they’re waiting for a better offer to come along. I don’t cancel unless I’m bedridden.
How do you teach your children to think of home – is it where you’re living or where you come from? Renee: I thought about that this summer because we went to Connecticut, where we have a house and lots of friends. I would say I’m going ‘home’ when I go to Ohio to visit my parents – and my kids accept that as they know it’s where I grew up – but you have different identities in these places and so now they’re starting to question where home is. My youngest daughter is very reflective – she’ll say things like, ‘I’m not sure I can feel Dubai in my heart.’ We have only been here for a year, though.
Jo: I’ve never actually asked myself where Alex’s home is, because we moved here when he was quite young. My parents are from the north of England but we moved to Hong Kong when I was quite young. I was at boarding school in the UK from the age of 10 until university, and my parents don’t live in Hong Kong anymore – so when people ask where I’m from, I really don’t know the answer. I suppose, for me, home is wherever my life is at that time.
Alayne: I kept referring to the UK as home and my husband said, ‘But it’s not our home anymore, this is our home.’ So I now find myself referring to it as the UK instead, and the children do, too. I very much feel that home is where your family is and it doesn’t matter where that is.
Lindsey: If you don’t treat it like that you’ll always be yearning to be somewhere else.
You have to accept your life here lock, stock and barrel. Alayne: The other thing is that if you’ve come over here for an indefinite period then you do think this is your home, but if you’re only here for, say, a two-year stint, you will refer to your home country as home because this is a transient thing.
Jo: I think it’s dependent on the child. If they are quite sensitive and they want to go back because they feel safe there, you need to be positive. Everywhere in the world has its limitations and its advantages. If you’re prepared to try new things and give everything a go, I think there’s an awful lot to do in Dubai. I don’t think we’ll be here when Alex gets older but I get quite excited about what he could do here – motocross, windsurfing, sailing. I think it’s what you make of a place, I really do.