Growing pains

Five minutes ago, life was all giggles and gurgles, but parenthood, as Ele Cooper discovers, is like watching a movie on fast-forward

Andrea Anstiss
Andrea Anstiss
Julia Church
Julia Church
Dolly Smayra
Dolly Smayra
Michelle Woolmer
Michelle Woolmer
Debate team

• Andrea Anstiss, a psychotherapist from Christchurch in New Zealand, has two children: Marcus, 16, and Perry, 14. The family lives in Umm Suqeim and has been in Dubai for six years (18 years in the Middle East).

• Toddler group leader Julia Church has three children: Ellie, 13, Michael, 11 and Christopher, four. Originally from Tunbridge Wells in the UK, they have lived in Dubai for five years and currently reside in Jebel Ali.

• Dolly Smayra has been in Dubai for 17 years and lives in Garhoud. Originally from Tripoli in Lebanon, the entrepreneurial mum owns Color Nail and has a 14-month-old daughter named Chloë.

• Originally from Belfast in Northern Ireland, horse riding instructor Michelle Woolmer lives in Mirdif and has been in Dubai for nine years. She is mother to Ella, aged two.

What got us talking…

To say kids grow up quicker nowadays has become a cliché – but let’s face it, it’s undeniably true. Particularly in an image-obsessed, consumer-driven society like Dubai, we are seeing younger and younger children racing each other to look, sound and behave like adults. But is this worrying, or an inevitable result of cultural evolution? Do girls dress too old? Do boys mature later than their female classmates? Is kids’ language inappropriate? Is age really just a number? We invited four Dubai-based mums, two with teens and two with tots, to the InterContinental Dubai Festival City’s Bistro Madeleine to discuss their experiences, hopes and fears in relation to this parenting hot potato.

At what age is it appropriate for kids to start going out alone?
Andrea: Even at 15 they need to be with a friend. I’m completely paranoid about all the abuse that goes on. You’ve got to be really cautious: I tell my boys not to go to the bathroom alone, and whatever you do if you’re invited to look at some amazing car, walk away, do not get in.

Julia: Trying to convince my 13-year-old daughter that it’s not safe to take a taxi is a real battle. I said to her the other day, if you get in a taxi, even with your friends, that taxi driver could ring up his friends and before you know it you’re in the middle of the desert with a group of men. She hasn’t got a clue.

Michelle: At home you almost get to the point of having your children a bit paranoid about things, whereas here, I don’t think they’re as aware of it.

Is it OK for girls to wear makeup?
Dolly: Of course at a certain age it’s acceptable. I would prefer my daughter to wear makeup than date or try drugs. If it pleases her and she feels she’s growing up by putting on makeup at the age of seven or so, why not? Enjoy it, under supervision – I’d give her lessons! A little is OK; nothing is black or white, there is only grey.

Julia: I think they’ve got to experiment with makeup and learn how to do it. Ellie tried when she was nine, in a very controlled way, at parties and stuff.

Michelle: I have a problem with the spa parties for kids. You can take your seven year old to get their nails done, and I think that’s a bit too grown up. If I was sitting at home doing my nails and Ella came up to me in a year or so and asked if she could try it too, that’s fine, that’s not a problem – but I’m not gonna say, ‘Come on dear, let’s go for a manicure.’

Dolly: I’m actually the organiser of kids’ spa parties. It’s part of Dubai – we do over 40 birthdays every month – usually they’re for girls aged seven to nine. But I make the parties very childish, using stars and hearts and glitter. I’m not in favour of taking four year olds to the nail bar, but if my daughter was older and she bit her nails, I’d tell her, ‘If you stop biting your nails I’ll take you for a manicure’. Also if she’d done well in an exam I’d use it as a reward.

How about when kids actually want to look like adults?
Michelle: It’s scary. It’s worrying.

Andrea: I think it’s awful. It’s the whole media influence – its consumerism, the makeup, the sexy clothes.

Michelle: They’re not allowed to be kids in the same way now. I grew up in the country and I would spend all day outside, being mucky and having a great time; I had a chance to be a child and run around and explore. That’s changing now with media, television, computers and mobile phones. It does lead to a different culture.

Dolly: Kids are growing up so much earlier than they did in our day: an 11 year old today is not like an 11 year old 20 years ago. We blame the advertising, the brands, but aren’t they simply innovating in line with the changing demands? I feel that kids are born smarter than they used to be and they’re just exposed to much more.

Andrea: I think this is more the case with daughters, really, I honestly think a lot of this doesn’t relate to having sons, they’re not so caught up with all that. I feel sorry for people with teenage daughters; they’re so challenging.

Michelle: I am cringing hearing all this – it sounds terrifying!

Julia: It’s not that bad. It’s hard work and it’s emotionally draining. I worry more than I’ve ever worried before, and this is much more the case with my daughter than my son. Even now when my daughter’s older and she should know better, she doesn’t, and actually my 11 year old is much more streetwise than my 13-year-old daughter. He’s got his wits about him and my daughter hasn’t. She wants to keep up with her friends – she doesn’t consider the consequences of what she’s doing.

Dolly: Very few of the young girls I do parties for are completely innocent. They’re all about which bra they’re going to wear and what makeup to put on.

Julia: There’s just a huge peer group pressure to keep up.

Andrea: There’s a bitchiness isn’t there. Whereas the boys seem to embrace each other and all get on, there’s much more bitchiness among girls.

Is Dubai particularly prone to teenage peer pressure?
Andrea: I think there’s more pressure on everyone here, not just for daughters. I always feel quite fat here but when I go back to New Zealand I feel slim. I read somewhere that Lebanon has the greatest number of breast implants and facelifts in the world.

Dolly: But the pressure doesn’t spread to the kids in Lebanon – they’re still allowed to be kids. In this country we’re pushed to be number one, to be better than others. We work hard, we earn a lot more than we would elsewhere, and we spend more, too.

Andrea: There’s a lot of competitive parenting. There’s no time to chill out.

Dolly: I think the climate plays a part. It’s too hot to go for a walk, so you try and give them different activities. In Lebanon when I was young, all the kids from my neighbourhood would hang around and play together and we were perfectly happy.

Is the age guidance on movies still relevant today?
Andrea: It doesn’t matter because kids can get into any movie they like. My 14 year old can easily walk into an R18 – and he only looks 12.

Dolly: They’re censored here anyway.

Andrea: But they take all the sex out and seem to double the violence and swearing! I think that is one of the big changes – I can’t imagine people from my age group enjoying all those scary movies. How can they cope – what is it in their psyches for them to be OK with that?

Julia: They have a desire to be shocked, but their thresholds are so high.

Michelle: I cringe if I hear a child swearing. Of course there are times when you’re in the car and somebody cuts you up and you swear, and next thing you know your kid’s saying it in the backseat, but you do hear children that think it’s the norm to curse and it shocks me. I went on the Facebook page of a 14-year-old relative of mine the other day and there was F-ing and blinding all down it. And I just thought, ‘Why? You don’t speak like that normally, and your parents don’t speak like that, so why are you? Is it because you think it’s cool?’

Is age just a number?
Andrea: No, it’s a developmental thing, children do certain things at certain ages.

Dolly: Saying age is just a number is too vague. But that changes as you get older. As I become 40 I still feel young inside.

Michelle: I agree. As you get older it’s just a number, but as a child it matters.

Andrea: Having lived in Saudi through the terrorist bombings of 2003, I think my children definitely had to grow up quicker, so I guess in that sense age could be seen to just be a number. Around 40 expats were killed in the first attack alone. Our compound was surrounded by tanks and we had to tape up the windows so if they shattered in a blast, shards of flying glass wouldn’t kill the children. Perry was 10 at the time and one of his friends was killed. Children do tend to just get on with it – in fact because they were boys, there was a certain amount of ‘Wow, cool, soldiers!’ – but I suspect it impacted them in ways that might come out later on. It was very unsettling. It must have been the same for you growing up in Lebanon, Dolly.

Dolly: But it didn’t make us grow up at a younger age. It was a different situation: in Lebanon you have 99.99 per cent Lebanese people, there was nothing new coming in, no variations in culture.

Have any of your kids started dating yet?
Julia: Oh yes. My daughter was 11 when she had her first boyfriend.

Andrea: My son was 11 as well, but I think it’s very different for girls and boys. I have a theory that although boys want that connection, that closeness, girls at that age maybe want it more, because they already have an element of it with their girlfriends. Girls are a few years ahead of boys. I don’t know if it was like that in our time, but nowadays girls are sharper, more aware, almost more sexually advanced.

Julia: You’re right – what they’re doing, how they’re dressing, it’s awful. I have so many battles about Ellie going to the mall in short skirts, revealing tops. It’s fine for an adult, but it’s not fine for a 13-year-old girl who’s got a little frilly bra sticking out of the top. She just doesn’t understand why it’s not a good idea.

Michelle: I think the age kids start dating has lowered. When I was 11 I was far too busy with ponies to be interested in boys. There was the odd teenage pregnancy in school but we were all fairly innocent until we were about 14, 15.

Andrea: But I would never want to oppress my children and prevent them from dating.

Julia: They’ve got to learn how to be streetwise or you’re not doing your job as a parent.

Andrea: Absolutely. I grew up in the country and when I went to a big city high school it was a shock. I have never wanted that for my kids; I wanted them to be kind, but also smart about what goes on – you’ve got no choice about that nowadays.

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