Parenting in Dubai

Does our ‘have it all’ environment produce little demanding princes and princesses? Time Out investigates

The Debate Team
The Debate Team
The Debate Team
The Debate Team
Therese Sequeira
Therese Sequeira
Mary Hallett-Shakespeare
Mary Hallett-Shakespeare
Nada Abou Saad
Nada Abou Saad
Reshma Tahiliani
Reshma Tahiliani

What got us talking…
These days, kids seem to be growing up faster than ever. Tots as young as three can be seen whining in stores for designer togs, while parents complain their teens are under huge pressure from their peers to look the part. When it comes to helping with the washing up, making their own beds, or settling back into their own culture after a childhood in the UAE, they often don’t have a clue. We debate Dubai family life with four mums over some amazing Thai entrees at the Mango Tree Bistro in Mirdif City Centre.

How do your children react to Dubai’s ‘have it all’ environment?
Mary: My children aren’t that aware of it because we don’t live that lifestyle. A big influence is schools, and we specifically chose a school that didn’t have all that glitz and glamour and gloss. And other parents who have their kids there were looking for the same things too, so generally, it’s not a problem. I’m not into shopping at all either, so, very often, our recreation time is spent doing other things. When they were little and we were in shops, of course they asked for things. But I’d tell them, ‘No, that’s not for us. That’s for the “other” kids’. So, they stopped asking. Therese: I do that. They’ve never met the ‘others’. They’re these mysterious kids who get it all.

Mary: We also have a family policy of, ‘do you need it? Or do you want it?’ And if you need it, we’ll provide it for you. But if you just want it, you’ll have to ask Santa for it. Because it’s always been that way from day one, they don’t really question it.

Reshma: I belong to the category where we live a simple life. The exposure to the razzamatazz has been fairly limited. Our oldest son is 15 and he’s not demanding, he doesn’t ask for things all the time and because his demands are very small, when he does ask for things, we meet those requests. Recently he asked for a mobile phone with Wi-fi and we gave it to him for his birthday.

Nada: It’s not only about age, though. Dimitri is quite demanding and I think school has been a big influence on that. The fact that I’m a working mum also has an effect. For example, on the weekends I spend all my time with the children, and often we’ll do the shopping together. However, we’re taking a lot of care with Dimitri to instill in him a sense of value. He has to wait for treats. And the philosophy of wanting rather than needing also works well.

As parents, how do you make sure your children aren’t influenced by Dubai’s affluence?
Mary: I think children are influenced by whatever their parents are interested in, and since we’re both into landscape architecture, when we’re at a park, we’re showing them the drainage details!

Nada: For sure. I’m certain that’s part of the problem because I work in retail, so of course, I go to malls quite often. And although in Lebanon we don’t have as many malls as Dubai, culturally we are still very into shopping. We are always visiting souks and shops etc, but it’s all about managing the exposure. Just because you see these things around you, doesn’t mean you are supposed to have it all.

Therese: They need to learn what ‘no’ feels like, and that they can’t have everything. I think it comes down to parents and how they feel about it. Some kids can really turn on the emotion when you refuse them. But if you’re the kind of parent who can say ‘Okay, I’m saying no and you’re crying and tantruming and I’m managing that and dealing with it,’ it’s positive. If you can’t manage that and you give in, then that teaches children that if they cry, they get what they want.

Is Dubai’s retail sector particularly guilty when it comes to targeting kids?
Therese: Not at all. In Australia, Christmas starts in October and you are bombarded. Everything is in the shops and every commercial on TV is designed to get kids harassing their parents into spending money. That doesn’t happen here. They might see the odd ad in 7Days, or get excited when they get an Early Learning Centre catalogue to look at. Despite the large numbers of malls here, the sheer pressure to spend just doesn’t happen in the same way.

Mary: In fact, because it’s all satellite TV – it’s very different. My kids watch Jim Jam, and Jim Jam doesn’t advertise toys, they advertise other shows, so you don’t get the blatant exposure. In Dubai you are more protected from it than you would be at home.

But what about when they get older?
Reshma: What worked for me was explaining to my son that I had a limited amount of money in my wallet that had to pay for the bills and the food and the petrol for the car. So there really wasn’t much left over for toys. He grasped that concept and to this day is very economically minded. Even when I buy things for myself, he’ll say ‘Mum, you have so many blouses already. Why do you need another one?’

Nada: If you don’t spoil them in the beginning, they are less likely to be demanding when they’re older. My son sees that I work hard and I’ve explained that I work for him and his little brother. That sets him an example. When I say ‘no’ to him, I do explain that money is a limited commodity and he understands that. He even said to me the other day, ‘Thank you for working so hard for me Mummy. I’m really proud of you.’

Therese: I do take my kids to toy shops, but I explain to them that it’s a looking trip. And I will have reinforced that in the car on the way there at least five times. ‘We’re looking. We’re not buying anything. It’s a looking day.’ And I use that when we’re out looking for presents for their friends. Setting the tone before they go really seems to help. Of course, they do see things and ask for them occasionally, but that’s when they get told they have to ask Santa.

How does peer pressure affect parenting in Dubai?
Therese: All this materialism stuff comes down to family values. You have to ask your kids, ‘What makes people like you? Is it the stuff you have? What are you looking for in a friend? Do you like them because they have all the latest gear and they have a car to drive? Or is it because you enjoy spending time with that person and they make you feel good about yourself?’ That’s what I teach my kids.

Reshma: I agree with you on the family values, and we’ve brought up our son to understand the importance of not frittering away money. So when he sees his friends wearing designer clothes he’s actually very sensible about it. He sees that it’s not just about him looking good, it’s about us all having enough as a family. And he’s quite happy to take himself off to Karama to buy his ‘designer’ T-shirts at a vastly reduced cost.

Therese: He’s obviously a boy with a good deal of self esteem. He feels good about himself. You must be really proud of him.

Reshma: We are. We’ve also brought him up to see fashion as a superficial trapping and have emphasised the importance of wisdom and kindness over appearance. And it has hit home.

Compared to your home countries, is Dubai’s environment better or worse for maintaining children’s innocence?
Therese: I think it’s the same everywhere. Dubai is no different from home.

Reshma: It’s basically an urban environment – a metropolitan culture – so kids living in Dubai are going to be growing up as fast as they would do at home.

Mary: The one difference is that in Dubai, there’s a lot more spendable income. We’re here because we like the lifestyle and we can make more money. And a few years ago – before the recession hit – I think it probably was harder for parents to keep things in check. But now there has been equalisation. Households are earning less. There is less cash around and people have tightened their belts. And that’s been a great leveller for Dubai.

Therese: I also think we’re really blessed in this country because we can do things relatively cheaply. There are loads of beautiful parks, the beaches now have cycle tracks, there are great museums to go to. Sharjah has some brilliant places, and anything that is government-run is extremely reasonable. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy good-quality family-oriented recreation.

Mary: Yep. A perfect example would be the recent spring holidays. We just all spent two weeks together as a family enjoying the activities. Every day we did something together. And yes, we went to KidZania once. It was a big treat they had been looking forward to and I’d promised they could go there in the holidays. But that was the only expensive outing we had.

One complaint is that kids have it too easy here – so easy that they can’t cope with everyday tasks when they go home.
Therese: You have to ensure that they have a sense of responsibility. I do that with my kids. They already have to make their own beds and clear up their own toys. If there’s a big mess that’s overwhelming for them, we do get down and help. But mainly, it’s their stuff, so it’s their responsibility to keep it tidy. When kids can do things for themselves, they feel better about themselves. That’s building self esteem.

Nada: I agree. And they have to start learning that at an early age. At the age of two-and-a-half or three, my son started to make his own bed. And he cooks with me. It’s quality time for us to spend together and I love it. He really enjoys cooking too now because he got used to it, and he eats well as a result.

Mary: That’s true. My kids will eat anything they make, simply because they made it – even ingredients they don’t like!

Therese: (Laughs) Cooking with kids! It’s such a con act isn’t it?

Mary: And I do get the kids to help with the chores. The little one is still struggling with making his bed, but he tries. We go home to Canada for at least two months every year to this little cottage that we stay in and really, it’s just me and the three kids. We’re down two adults at this stage, so they are used to towing the line and pulling their weight. Though when we get back, they do start to slip a little.

Reshma: It all goes back to the old adage ‘cook a child a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ It is very important to teach them those values, but it’s not always so easy to do that in Dubai. I must say my 15-year-old is a bit lazy. He’s very engaged with all his activities, but I feel life will teach him eventually. He’ll know how to do things soon enough. However, I will say that, while children often don’t listen to us, they will never fail to imitate us, and we have to be the correct role models and set them a good example. If you don’t put away your towels or wash the dishes yourself, your children won’t do it either

Debate team

• Originally from Australia, Therese Sequeira is mum to Simeon, six, Dominic, five and Anton, three. She has lived in Jumeirah for more than nine years and is a leading parent educator.

• Landscape architect and mum-of-three, Mary Hallett-Shakespeare has been in Dubai for 12 years. A Canadian, she lives with her husband and kids – Olivia, seven, Isabel, six and James, five – in Al Badaa, Jumeirah.

• Nada Abou Saad has two sons, Dimitri, four and Anthony, nine months. She came to Dubai two years ago from Lebanon and currently lives in Al Barsha. She is a marketing manager for City Centre.

• Mum-of-two, Reshma Tahiliani, came to Dubai from India 18 years ago. A PR director, she lives with her husband and sons Gaurav, aged 15 and Yash, seven, in the Za’abeel Park area.

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