Experts tell us about the challenges of bringing up a child in the UAE
One of the biggest challenges of adult life in the UAE — and particularly for expats residing here — is parenting young children in the multicultural and hectic environment in the UAE. Exposed to a multitude of influences, nationalities and cultures, parenting styles and behaviours seem to undergo a change here, in keeping with the external factors that influence both child and parent here.
We take a closer look at the issues and situations that pose unique challenges and question marks for those among us who are parents in the UAE, when it comes to the upbringing and wellbeing of our children.
Carmen Benton is the Parenting Educator at LifeWorks Counselling Dubai, with a 20-year career as an educator. She has counselled parents in the UAE on issues ranging from discipline to learning and specific expatriate parenting problems.
The biggest specific challenge of the UAE parent, Carmen says, is the multicultural environment we live in. But to start with, “Whether parents are aware of it or not, we are influenced by a number of things, the largest being how we were parented ourselves. Given the gap between the time we were parented and becoming parents ourselves, parenting styles have changed considerably. What’s different about parenting in the UAE, and typical of the expatriate enc-laves we live in, is the peer group influence, and particular issues that crop when children come together from diff-erent family and societal backgrounds and expectations.”
According to Carmen, some cultures value education highly, placing a large emphasis on academics. But given the mixing of nationalities here, we’re creating our own Third Culture in the UAE, and that in itself is a challenge for parents — to bring up their kids in this new environment away from their home countries.
Lifestyles differ, for one. “For example, I pick my son up from his play group for dinner at 6 and then bedtime at 7.30, but some of his friends are just heading out to the swimming pool then — for them, bedtime could be at 9 pm or even later. Whether you’re an expat or an Emirati, you are raising your child in a multicultural way, and we need to adapt our way around that.”
A major challenge for parents, says Carmen, is early years’ education, and the importance we accord it. “In the UAE, it’s common for children under 3 to go to nursery or preschool. While we believe it’s good and acceptable for children, this is not necessarily backed by research. We believe in it as an educational model, and as a quality childcare environment, and call this an early start learning, whereas it could be provided at home. We believe early years’ education depicts good parenting, only because that’s what everyone does now,” says Carmen.
“Our children are also heavily affected by the environment we live in — an urba-nised desertscape. Kids don’t have the regular outdoors experiences of natural playgrounds and engaging with nature that we might have had back in our home countries.
“As far as parenting behaviours go, what I perceive is that people here have a tendency towards over-parenting than under-parenting. Free time for kids has been practically done away with, after long schooldays followed by heavily structured after-school activities. I would place unstructured, open-ended playtime as high as possible on the priority list,” states Carmen. After all, what can be more liberating than children learning to entertain themselves and designing their own activities? “The quality of a child’s early years involves heuristic play, and through it, learning conflict resolution, social skills, concentration and fulfilling tasks.”
That’s not to say children don’t need structure, predictability and routine. In fact, children thrive on it. “But ensure that you give your children special, ‘free time’ everyday, where you are just with them, but not in a teaching or disciplinarian way, but in a genuine encounter of playfulness.”
Among older children in the UAE, there are a lot of issues around homework and behaviour. “My theory is that there is too much pressure on being older than they are. It’s unrealistic for a child to be a in a highly structured academic environment every day, and then come home to more structured activities. Parents tell me about how their kids are more angry these days, but the truth is, just look at your child’s day. Haven’t they got the right to be just children?”
When it comes to inculcating discipline and values in children, it again boils down to parenting styles. But mainly, one has to be consistent. “Be clear, firm and consistent in your approach. Children here face different parenting styles and authority figures in the father, mother and often a nanny, so it’s important to set a consistent pattern for them.”
“In general, expatriates have come here to make more money, or for the lifestyle it affords them,” says Carmen, and this rubs off on the little ones too. “In general, yes, children would grow up here with less caution about their means and finances… For example, your child gets invited to birthday parties which are held in hired venues, with live entertainment and expensive giveaways. When it’s his own birthday, you might say ‘call your three best friends and let’s have them over for dinner’. They might not take it very well, but it’s important to teach them that they can’t have everything they want; you wouldn’t be setting them up for a realistic future then. If you overindulge them materialistically, you’re not setting the right foundation for their lives as adults,” points out Carmen.
Thus, permissive parenting is not any better than authoritarian. In the long run, make it a little uncomfortable for your children: don’t make everything easy for them, she says. “Typically, in the UAE, we see examples where people had authoritarian parents, and are now permissive parents themselves. This, coupled with guilt trips about not spending enough time with their children (mostly when both parents work), and an indulgent co-parent (like the nanny), means a lot of leeway for the child.”
Being there for the kids
Samia Kazi is COO, early childhood research, products and services, of Arabian Child, an organisation that researches and aids in the improvement of early childhood in the UAE by offering knowledge, training and resources to parents. According to her, the less controlling you are as a parent, the happier you and your child are likely to be.
“Parents struggle to manage the hectic lifestyle in the UAE, and to foster an emotional closeness with their children. Sadly, many of us go through the motion of coordinating play dates, managing afterschool activities, checking handwriting in homework submissions, and we forget to just be with our children. I know we all feel guilty about not spending enough time with our kids, but parents will be so much happier if they remember to always be present in the moment,” says Samia.
“Many parents here worry about raising their children in a multicultural environment. Children go to school, spend time in the community, and may come back with values and ideals different than their parents. However, learning effective parenting strategies can help parents maintain their culture and heritage.” For example, maintain a closeness to your children, despite difficulties or disagreements; do not be rigid or controlling; accept that everyone isn’t perfect, allow your children to be different; praise your children, listen instead of arguing; commit to your family celebrations and rituals. Finally, maintain solid morals and ethical values.
“Maintaining a strong connection to your culture is actually a protective factor in the prevention of mental health issues and crime. Children who understand and are proud of why the family does what they do are less susceptible to these problems,” states Samia.
Be savvy about your children’s schooling, advises Samia. “Challenges in providing high quality early education to young children in the UAE are similar to other countries. We are seeing major changes in policies and government regulations for early education; parents need to be aware of these changes in order to make the right choices.
“When we take our children to a nursery, we tour the premises, talk to the director and are reassured that the teachers are qualified. Yet, few parents understand what ‘quality’ or ‘qualified’ means. The choices that we make for our infants/toddlers/ preschoolers will largely affect the rest of their lives. Don’t be fooled by fancy toys or glossy brochures; do your research, investigate, and spend time in the classrooms before enrolling your children,” she points out.
Quality Time and Unconditional Love
Parents here have everything to be happy about, says Sukaiyna Gokal, founder of Garden of Ayden, which off-ers certified etiquette and character building classes for children and young adults in Dubai.
“The UAE is a fantastic, multicultural and safe haven to bring up children… we are blessed to live in a beautiful country that accommodates and welcomes us all. We are provided with all possible alternatives in early years/nursery education and schooling from various countries. Beyond the material trappings, there are beautiful beaches and parks for children to enjoy authentic play nine months a year. We are also safe here, thanks to the law and order,” says Sukaiyna.
“One obvious danger is that our lives are facilitated by helping hands. We easily hand over our parenting duties and get busy with work, social lives, and lose touch with our responsibility of spending quality time with our offspring. What is questionable is our outlook on this topic. Shouldn’t it be that we consider ourselves lucky that we can have quality time with our children here while someone else takes care of the household chores?”
Sukaiyna believes there are no generalisations possible on parenting styles in the UAE. The only way to nurture our children is to give them the necessary attention, discipline and unconditional love that they seek, which will make them wholesome individuals.