• Benedicte Dambly lives near the Burj Dubai and is mum to 11-month-old twins, Tiphaine and Heloise, and Albane, aged four. Originally from France, she came to the UAE 18 months ago and works as a freelance translator.
• A business and marketing consultant, Caroline El-Etibi is currently enjoying a sabbatical and taking care of her two daughters, Janna, three, and Lea, six. Living in Umm Sequim, she came to Dubai from Germany two years ago.
• Traditional Greek girl at heart, Maria Kathreptakis is a stay-at-home mum who moved to Al Safa from Australia 18 months ago with her husband and three children, Emmanuella, six, Alexander, four and Angelo, two.
• Voiceover artist and full-time mum, Vanessa Woodthorpe-Wright has lived in Dubai for 15 years. She and her husband Nick, and their children, Louis, 15, Oscar, 11 and Che, two, live in Umm Suqeim.
What got us talking
Every parent wants their child to be brilliant. Being academically gifted is one thing, but if little Ben’s mastered the flute and plays polo like a pro, nothing can touch him, right? Well, not unless you count exhaustion and burnout by the time he’s 11. Are Dubai’s parents under pressure to ensure their kids have more plates spinning than a circus performer? And how do you prune their packed calendars to fit in some down time? We chewed the fat, and some excellent pastries, at The Address, Dubai Marina.
What is the average day like for your children? Do you think they do too much?
Vanessa: Oscar does prep after school, which means all his homework is supervised during school hours and over and done with. After prep, he does after-school activities, which are compulsory. He wants to be a professional footballer, so most days he plays football. He is usually home by 5.15pm.
Benedicte: Wow. That’s quite a lot.
Vanessa: Yes. I think it is. But at the moment he’s asking to be included in even more football activities after school and at weekends. But it’s very expensive and I really do feel that he’s already doing enough.
Caroline: My eldest does piano, horse riding and swimming and the little one does music and swimming. To be honest, it’s too much.
Benedicte: My eldest goes to swimming and ballet lessons – so she has two activities a week. Initially we had a bit of a shaky start, because she decided she didn’t want to do her swimming class – and nothing I said could make her even get into the pool. But now we have a good routine going, it’s working much more smoothly and she’s happy.
Maria: My six-year-old does ballet, and she and my four-year-old son do Greek lessons on a Saturday. But Emmanuella also wants to start piano lessons in January – so that will be three activities a week. As far as I’m concerned, that’s quite enough. When you factor in all the play dates etc, their social lives are outrageous. I love it – and they’re doing great with it – but they don’t need to pack in anything else.
How do you make sure your children don’t get too worn out?
Maria: I’m very strict about routines. I make sure they sleep before an activity. I make a big effort to get them to bed. They sleep, and then they’re okay to do what they’re going to do.
Caroline: So your six-year-old is able to sleep in the day?
Maria: Sometimes. She’s not a big sleeper now. But she knows if she wants to do something, she has to have that rest time before she gets to do it. Rest is a big must.
Caroline: I’ve tried to do that with my six-year-old because if she’s too tired the activity becomes a chore and there’s no point in making her do it. But, mostly, we only manage a 15-minute nap before its time to wake her up and go. And often that’s counterproductive because I then have to wake her from a deep sleep. Unless you have this very strict routine, doing so many activities just doesn’t work.
Vanessa: The running round all these places is a headache too. You get tired too – and that affects your kids’ enthusiasm as well.
Maria: And then on top of all the taxi-ing, you’ve got to be this great mother, this great wife, this great cook and this great organiser.
Vanessa: Yes, but we all want to be that, don’t we? That’s why we enrol our kids into extra activities.
So you feel under pressure in Dubai to get your kids involved in more classes?
Vanessa: Definitely. The whole environment here is about perfection. And, in an ideal world, I’d like to be this sexy, slim, manicured thing that’s in the kitchen producing beautiful homemade lunches, then ferrying the kids to rugby training, violin lessons and the odd fencing class. There’s a lot going on in this town, we’ve all got a little bit of extra money – and we’ve usually got more time too, because we have maids – so we want to do it all. And we want them to do it all as well.
But that’s not the reality. My husband comes home in the evening and asks me what’s for dinner, and I give him a baffled look and point to the fridge – because I actually haven’t had time to cook for him.
Caroline: I do that too. My husband often ends up with fried eggs!
Vanessa: We’re just trying to force more into the day – and as a result, we force more into our children’s day as well.
Caroline: A friend of mine always has lots of stuff going on and lots of people staying with them all the time. I picked up her little boy from school and he said to me, ‘Hooray! I’m so excited!’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because we don’t have any activities and nobody’s staying, so we can do what we want today.’ I thought that was quite sad.
Maria: Yes – that’s not the way it should be. They should enjoy their activities, not feel pressured into doing them.
Do you pick their activities for them or do they have the choice?
Maria: The choice has to be theirs – and they must enjoy it. Otherwise there’s absolutely no point in them doing it. If you make them do something for the sake of it, they’ll end up hating it.
Caroline: That’s true, but I also think kids need to appreciate the fact that activities are expensive. They are a treat. The equipment you need to buy for them – be it sports stuff, or a musical instrument – is costly – and if they ask to do it, but then change their minds after one week, that’s not acceptable.
Benedicte: I agree. Often children want to join a class because a friend is doing it – and they want to be the same as their friend. But that doesn’t mean they’re really interested in the activity.
Vanessa: I’m with you on that one. When it gets to the stage where they just expect to be taken here, there and everywhere, you need to pull them up short and make sure they know how to say thank you. Because giving them the opportunity to do all these things can be a way of spoiling them – especially if they don’t appreciate it.
Do you find parents here are pushy with their children’s activities?
Benedicte: Not really, but then my children are a bit too young for all that. Having said that, I’m quite an easy-going parent and don’t believe in forcing children to do things they don’t enjoy.
Vanessa: That’s counterproductive. I ran a kids’ theatre company, and in my experience, it’s much better to let kids have a break from an activity if they’re too tired to do it, rather than dragging them along just because you’ve paid for the session. If they’re not under tremendous pressure, then they’ll do it much more willingly. And, they’re more likely to give it more of a chance – which is important if you’ve paid for the whole term in advance!
Caroline: I think that’s very true. I try not to let people influence me and I try not to be a pushy parent. But there are mothers who somehow put across this ‘I’m perfect’ façade.
Maria: Yeah – that’s silly. I take pride in keeping everything nice, running a tight ship, and in my children behaving well – but not to that extent. It’s fine to be casual and relaxed about certain things – in fact, it’s necessary. Otherwise you become a control freak.
Do your kids do more than you did when you were young?
Maria: Definitely. But that’s because when I was a kid growing up, we lived in a lovely, quiet cul de sac and every evening we got together with the neighbours’ kids and rode around on our bikes, usually playing outside until it got dark. We didn’t need to do so many activities. But I wouldn’t let my kids do that now because I think it’s too dangerous.
Vanessa: Do you think it really is more dangerous? Or do we just know more these days?
Maria: No, I think there are more dangers around – even though Dubai is a safe place. And that’s why you enrol your kids into more classes. You don’t want them sitting about in front of the television but, at the same time, you can’t give them freedom we had as children because the world has changed now.
Caroline: I do agree that Dubai is not as safe as some people think it is. We don’t hear that many reports in the media, so we don’t know the full story. However, every year we go home to Germany and we spend the summer in this little village. Our neighbours have children, and the community is very friendly, and I do let my children have much more freedom because of that.
Vanessa: That sounds idyllic – and I do agree with those points. Fifteen years ago I would have let my children have more freedom in Dubai – but now? Not a chance. It’s probably safer than the UK – but I’d still rather know where they are – and know that they’re supervised, which is why I’m quite happy for them to take extra classes.
Do you think some parents use extra activities as a babysitting service?
Vanessa: Hmmm. Yes and no. If those activities are right after school, and you’re not having to drive your children everywhere, then yes, they can be used in that way – especially if you’re a working parent. But a lot of after-school activities take place elsewhere and mums become a taxi service, which can be really stressful.
Caroline: But there are parents who would rather put their child into yet another class than sit down and spend quality time with them. Some parents can be quite lazy.
Benedicte: But lack of confidence can also play a part. Some mothers actually worry about their parenting skills, and think their children are better off in the company of a professional than they would be with their mum or dad. They probably think it’s better for the child to take an extra dance class than to go shopping with mummy to the supermarket, when the opposite is true. Children need to spend time doing things with their parents, even if it’s not super exciting.
Maria: That’s sad, but I can see how it could happen. Balance is the key factor because, at the end of the day, your children will not form enduring memories of their dance class teacher. The precious memories they’ll retain are those childhood episodes where they had a laugh with mum in the kitchen while baking a cake, or painting a picture, or being pushed on the swing. Their teachers won’t come into it – unless they are truly exceptional.
Caroline: Absolutely, this is why I’m going to cut down on my children’s activities. Right now, we’re not balanced, we’re exhausted. And when I missed classes with them last week, they were just so happy to spend time at home playing quietly.
Maria: Yep. That’s what we tend to forget. If we’re always making sure they’re entertained, how will they ever learn to entertain themselves? Just being able to sit down and read a book quietly is essential for them. Concentration is a life skill – and you’ll only help them achieve it if their life is balanced.
Would you like to take part in a future debate? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.