x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A culture of their own

Family Though living abroad can be a challenge, it also offers children distinct advantages.

Keeping a scrapbook of places they have lived can help children adjust to new locations.
Keeping a scrapbook of places they have lived can help children adjust to new locations.

For myself, my husband and our two children, ages five and 12, moving about the globe has become a way of life. In fact, our youngest child was born in Hong Kong and lived in Bali, Canada and Bahrain before we arrived in the UAE last year. Our kids are what are known as "third culture kids" - people who have spent significant time in a culture other than their own during their developmental years. The term was coined in 1973 by the late Prof Ruth Unseem of Michigan State University, and is based on the fact that children living abroad often do not feel complete ownership of any one culture. Instead, they are an amalgamation of two or more, creating their own "third culture".

According to the Ministry of Economy, the UAE's population at the end of 2007 stood at 4.48 million; 3.62 million of them were expatriates, many living here with their children. Taking children to live abroad is often a source of anxiety, but it can be one of the most worthwhile experiences your child will ever have. Amanda, a British expatriate in the UAE, says of her son, Nick: "He has become a seasoned traveller - he copes with new situations, new people, new cultures with ease".

Living abroad can change the lives of third culture kids forever. If and when they return home, things are never quite the same. I myself was a third culture kid, moving to Japan when I was 15 years old and staying for two years. I went on to study, live and work in more than nine countries. I married an Italian man (in Singapore) who has also travelled the globe several times over. Neither of us can imagine settling down in our home countries for many years to come, if at all.

For many parents, education is the major concern when they move abroad, but, according to a study published in 1993, individuals who spent over a year of their childhood abroad were four times more likely to receive a bachelor's degree. In addition, 81 per cent of third culture kids who finished their bachelor's degree went on to earn postgraduate degrees. Evidence also suggests that living abroad will actually help children in their future careers. Some of the benefits of being a third culture kid include increased adaptability, bilingualism, mediation skills, a global viewpoint, flexibility, cultural knowledge and problem solving skills. These are the same skills valued by recruiters at top international companies.

Of course, there are downsides to being a third culture kid. Children worry about things like making friends, missing home and whether they will like the new country. There are lots of things you can do to help your children adjust and feel settled. Maintain ties to your home country, especially the people who are important to you there. Celebrate the festivals and special occasions you would in your home country. If every Saturday was movie and popcorn night before, continue the tradition. If you hung framed photos of the kids in the doorway, put them up in a similar place in your adopted home.

To help children get the most out of their new home, develop cultural diaries together. Keep ticket stubs, programmes and photos along with notes of what you saw in each country in a scrapbook. Look back at the places you have lived, including your home culture, regularly. Ironically, the hardest part of living abroad is often the "reverse culture shock" children experience when they move back to their home countries. It is very important for children to be able to say goodbye to one place before arriving in another. If they don't, they may start off on the wrong foot in the new location. Allow children time to meet friends and say goodbye, and to gather items that represent your time in the country you are leaving to remember it by. Allow a time for sadness and sorrow as well as time for happy expectations of a new adventure to come.

Helen Maffini is an educational consultant based in Al Ain.