Raising children in Dubai

Expats discuss the pros and cons of raising kids outside of their “home country”


Carolyne Allmark: The term Third Culture Kid (TCK) was coined by sociologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem in the early ’50s to describe anyone who spends their formative years outside of their parents’ first culture. So, we ask firstly, is it easier to understand TCKs if you’ve been one?

Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore: I think it’s easier and also more difficult. I can relate a lot to my children – I was always that child growing up outside my passport country. I get the experience. I relate to the diversity they’re exposed to. But then it’s challenging. I was a Pakistani kid growing up in the States – it was very different in the ’80s, growing up in New York City. We spoke Urdu at home and English outside the home. My kids have lived in Singapore and Dubai. Here it’s normal to be a TCK. What does it mean to be foreign? They don’t know. These are multi-lingual, multicultural societies, so their TCK experience is very different to mine.

Tani di Gregorio: I’m not a TCK, but a TCA [Third Culture Adult]. I left Germany when I was 18, so have lived nearly as long outside Germany as inside. I feel different when I go home now, and when we move to a different place. You’re very open-minded. You’re not German anymore, not Swiss anymore. I already have this open-mindedness, this view of the world that I can transmit to my children. It’s different to what my children are living, but I can understand it. My husband is half Portuguese, half Italian and grew up in the French speaking part of Switzerland. I moved there when I was 18, so we speak French together, but we try to keep up our languages.

Darren Gale: I don’t have children – I have hundreds of children [everyone laughs] – but I have an issue with the term TCK, because, from my point of view, I see it as derogatory. The drive is to encourage kids to be as internationally minded and globally aware as possible. What does TCK mean? I’m not sure. What do we mean by culture? Most cultures have the same traditions but different ways of doing it. Children are a blank canvas. They don’t understand creed, colour or gender. It’s only when adults come in with an opinion and put a stamp on them. It comes from the adults wanting to protect their own culture and traditions, holding on to an antiquated belief. Today people are doing jobs that weren’t even invented 15 years ago. We can’t stop this movement forward and stop children having their own unique culture.

Emer O’Doherty: I’m an Irish mum. We wanted to give our children the chance to grow up globally, but we don’t want them to feel like they can’t go back if they want to. There are certain things they need to be able to do. Irish traditions are very important in our country.

Tani: It’s interesting – I never think about whether my children want to move back.

Carmen Benton: From a counselling standpoint, people are searching to belong. If you don’t belong, you can feel a bit restless, searching for some form of identity. I work a lot with kids, and I work on a whiteboard, pulling out some of those labels when you’re trying to find yourself and you’re a teenager in a very multicultural environment. I make a road map with them – go with something like countries; so, “I’ve lived here, Mum’s from here, Grandfather’s from here”. Class, cultures – we take those headings that relate to identity. You end up with a unique roadmap. There’s probably nobody else who has that profile, not even your brother or sister.

Darren: I think we’re reaching a point where there’s a huge drive for children to be diverse and individualistic, and I think schools play a huge part. Generations are moving from that strong sense of belonging. We want children to be independent individuals. Schools here have lost, slightly, the real purpose of school. The real purpose is to allow children to be whatever they want to be. Otherwise we’re going to cram all this knowledge into kids that might not be useful when they go off to college. We need to foster community, we need them to be able to reflect, be mindful, just as they need to pass an exam in Maths.

Lucy Chudzynski: As a human species we like to find similarities. That’s innate in us.

Emer: Do you think it all leads to a crisis of identity at a later stage, though?

Sofia Vyas: I don’t think I ever really did have an identity crisis. I didn’t really give it much thought to be honest. Saying that, I think my sister is going through that – she’s 19, turning 20. It was so normal for me that everyone was from different places and we had all those different cultures around. When I came here, it wasn’t that much of a culture shock. I was used to people being different.

Baharak Bashmani: I didn’t know a word of Finnish and when I showed up at school in small-town Finland, it was the weirdest experience, at least for a year. My experiences growing up somewhere is totally different to my kids growing up here. Here everyone is half something, quarter something. I was in Finland in the early ’90s and I was the only kid in that school who looked different. It was hard. I didn’t have friends, nobody wanted to sit with me or play with me, I was isolated because I didn’t look the same or speak the language.

Mariam: I want to respond to Darren’s question of “what is culture?” My parents were very focused on keeping me in my Pakistani culture. “If you don’t know this, you won’t be one of us or them – you’ll stand out,” they’d say. We’re trying to encourage our kids to find who they are. I can speak fluent Urdu, I can wear a sari, I play the games, but I always felt that burden, that pressure. I’m trying to strike that balance of keeping them in tune with where they’re from, but their experience is so different from mine. We had this issue on International Day! My five-year-old had no idea what to go as.

Darren: Pick a flag, any flag! [Everyone laughs.]

Mariam: She said: “Mum, I want a T-shirt with a globe on it and I’ll just pinpoint all these places I’m from”. She’s only five.

Baharak: Schools need an international table, where you don’t have to choose.

Darren: We’ve changed International Day in our school. We’ve said it isn’t to come in and be proud of where you’re from. Students can wear whatever they choose. We had children from China coming in wearing a sari because they love it. It’s about helping children be tolerant. I can’t tell you how much there is synergy and alignment with all these cultures.

Baharak: There’s not a question I hate more than, “Where are you from?” Unless I give you a two paragraph answer, I can’t say.

Carmen: That’s where, I find, you need a label. “I’m a global nomad”, “I’m from everywhere but nowhere”. We don’t want to label people, but it’s a throw-out net to say: “I’m a little bit of everything”. Some people say “mixed race”. If your mother and father are from different places to their mothers and fathers, you are technically from nowhere.

Sofia: I don’t think you always have a need for a home country.

Darren: We talk about kids being global citizens. Businesses say: “I want people who are emotionally intelligent and digitally intelligent”. But we’re still reverting back to those mundane questions, like, “Where are you from?”

Mariam: I ask: “Where is home for you?”

Darren: If we’re not careful, we'll have a population that has the growth mindset, or a population that’s holding on to something else. We want children who are resilient, reflective and flexible. This is the 21st century.

Sofia: I think it’s just about giving children the confidence to not care what people see them as. It comes back to not worrying about where your home is. I feel at home in England, I feel at home here. You can decide wherever you want to live, and you don’t have to go back to a “home country”.

Carmen: For me, we’re talking a lot about cultural identity, but in order to allow somebody to be who they want to be, one of the key resounding issues for a TCK is unresolved grief. We need to allow people to release some of the grief – not being who Grandma needed you to be, for example. Not being Emirati even though you’re here. Being a TCK, it’s a cycle; we’re constantly losing things. When you’re moving again, your kids are grieving for the orange rug on the kitchen floor as much as anything.

Carolyne: How do you prepare for a move?

Carmen: Building a RAFT [reads an extract from a book]. The easiest way to think of this is: Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells, Think destination. Many of us have unresolved issues when we go somewhere. Let go of what wasn’t, mend a bridge, don’t leave resentment and unresolved issues. Next is affirmation – what did you have where you were and what did you love? I was an international schoolteacher and I had to see kids through this. Then you say, “Thank you for being part of my journey”. Some of the kids I’ve worked with, I get them to farewell places as well as people. Get a bit of a memento from where you lived. Then, “Think destination” is to prep people for where you’re going. Before you’ve arrived, have knowledge of that place. I like that concept of lashing those logs together on a raft. The families letting go of a place to arrive in a new place, and coping with change. Now, my son is in grief mode, because all his friends keep leaving. He’s in constant change. I say: “Sit and do this grief with me.” When you arrive somewhere, unpack your bags and plant your trees, both figuratively and literally. Many expats don’t actually plant their trees, they don’t put pictures up on the walls. We turn up and expect to leave again.

Emer: A lot of the time in the Middle East, families come for three years or five years. I think that could be one of the reasons why they hold on harder to the culture they have left – but three years is a long time for a child.

Darren: I would like to put parents on a coaching course. Many parents come to me and say: “What do I do?” There isn’t a manual, there is some right or wrong, but children know the answer. What they have a challenge with is that processing to get to the answer. Parents rush to give children the solution. They don’t need that; they need coaching through. When children are searching for belonging, they will put down their roots immediately – two weeks is a long time, they can’t conceptualise three years. My greatest advice I can give to parents is to plan the language you use and what you say. Use questions when you talk to them.

Carolyne: So what is the most positive thing about raising a TCK?

Baharak: They are in an environment that gives them the outlook to be open-minded.

Darren: “Children can only aspire to what they know exists.” From a personal and professional point of view, that’s it, that quote. I think the role of schools is to remove those glass ceilings and those constraints.

Mariam: There are a lot of positives. It’s encouraging kids to be comfortable in their own skin. I love the fact that my kids are very adaptable, they’re learning perspective taking, putting themselves in the shoes of another kid. They’re learning not to judge.

Tani: The open-mindedness is really important. My kids directly embrace everything; they’re open to everything. I think that’s really positive.

Baharak: They don’t find the differences in a situation; they find the similarities.

Sofia: What you are saying is what I feel like I’ve gotten out of the experience. I’m really grateful for the experiences I have. My life is 100 percent richer and more fun. For every small difficulty, there are 100 other positives for living a multi-cultural life.

Carolyne: I love the curiosity my kids have. They want to know, they have a thirst for information that I know children in our hometown don’t.

Carmen: It’s always about relationships, first with self and then others. I believe my 11-year-old boy is much more self aware than I was at that age. People are people – it doesn’t matter what they are, it’s who they are.

Lucy: How can I add to any of that? We need to make sure we are aware of all these things, take on things like the “RAFT” concept, and help our children thrive and support them when they need it, but keep giving them these awesome opportunities and experiences.

Who's who

1. Tani di Gregorio
Swiss-born mum of two, Tani, is the author of the blog Our Big Dubai Adventure, documenting the experience of life and motherhood here in the sandpit.

2. Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore
Mum and blogger, has spent the past 15 years as an expat, living in seven countries and three different continents.

3. Darren Gale, Principal, Kings Nad Al Sheba
Darren is leading the development of schools so they can become the best they can be for their most precious asset, the children.

4. Baharack Bashmani
Born in Iran, raised in Finland and now raising two of her own international children.

5. Emer O’Doherty
Raising two children with Irish roots, and global wings, Emer is a writer with Time Out Kids.

6. Lucy Chudzynski
Part-British and part-Trinidadian, Lucy is now a grown-up third culture kid and married to a part Polish/Irish/British man. She and her multicultural family have lived all over the world.

7. Carmen Benton
A mother of one and family counsellor specialising in children and teenagers, Carmen spent 25 years working as an educator in international schools and is passionate about mindfulness and supporting third culture kids.

8. Katy Gillett
Time Out Kids group editor, Katy was brought up in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, then lived in Qatar, and has now settled in the UAE.

9. Carolyne Allmark
Carolyne is a writer with Time Out Kids and is raising two global nomads who are experiencing a different childhood to her own.

10. Sofia Vyas
Sofia, who is a Time Out staffer, has family from England, India and South America, but she was brought up in Dubai.

The event

Time Out Kids Coffee Club with The Ritz-Carlton Dubai, Jumeirah Beach Residence

Time Out Kids Coffee Club takes place at this beautiful property at Jumeirah Beach Residence, in Blue Jade Restaurant. Our next discussion, which will appear in the June 2017 issue of the magazine, looks into how accessible Dubai is for kids with special needs. If you would like to be part of this discussion, or have a burning topic of your own, which you’d love to discuss with people in similar circumstances, then please email us at timeoutkids@itp.com. We’re all ears!

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