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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

How do you raise children multiculturally?

You are keen for your child to learn another language and experience another culture from the inside, perhaps to make a better life for them and yourself in terms of education and financial prosperity, but what happens when your child starts questioning your home culture, your traditions, and ways of going about things, and you notice a strong pull towards your own cultural way?

And how do you justify and explain to family and friends back home that there might be other ways of doing things than the “home-way”?

Many expats find themselves stuck between strong cultural values and expectations of their home country, the values of their host country, as well as their children’s wishes to be raised in accordance with the latter. The tension to balance the different cultures and expectations can cause anxiety and loneliness. In the slip stream of this, it's not uncommon be be shaky in parenting which can manifest as uncertainty amongst everyone in the family.

When we first moved to England, I was pregnant with our third child. Back home, many found it unsettling that I was under UK-NHS antenatal care, and the thought of me giving birth in a London hospital was … well, just unthinkable: surely, I was going to have my baby in Denmark!

Little did they know, that at the time, I actually felt better cared for than I had with our first two children in Denmark. And only when I, admittedly, provocatively replied that I had decided to take a chance and give birth in England as occasionally they delivered healthy babies, did people see the absurdity in their fear.

I also recall some of our children's Danish kindergarten teachers believing we were neglecting our children; and there was even talk of filing a complaint to social services about us taking our children abroad.

Once in England, my children had to endure that I didn't understand the concept of party bags for birthdays and as such, neglected to provide these. I also insisted on inviting everyone in their class around for their birthday parties though it was common practice not to. At first, I didn't understand the significance of wearing a red poppy to school ... and the list goes on.

And these are the benign examples. What about such things like alcohol consumption, curfews, sleepovers, homework, maintaining and developing your mother tongue language not to mention sex and boy-and girlfriends? The pitfalls are plenty.

So, how do you deal with parenting at the intersection between two or more cultures?

Connecting with your own inner values becomes of key importance for you to have a strong base to parent from. This means taking a good and honest, sometimes uncomfortable, look at who you are and what you come from in combination with where you would like to go. Only from an authentic and well-considered place, can you raise your children to feel solidly grounded within themselves.

Be openminded about why you wanted to move abroad. Could it be because you wanted something different for your children than was provided for you or what you would be able to provide them with in your home country? If so, be aware of when habits and comfort zones might pull you back to what you wanted to move away.

Also, be aware that you might be looking at your home or host culture through either rose-tinted or grey glasses. Try to adapt an openminded, flexible view of your both cultures: they probably both have valuable aspects to enrich yourself and your children with.

Some of what you find might be appropriate for you parenting style, some might not be. And that's okay: what matters the most is your authentity in combination with being openminded to your children belonging to a younger and different generation - and in this case, an international upbringing. For them, life might not be as black and white as yours. Remember, you have already consolidated your base identity; they are still developing theirs.

Furthermore, keep your eye on the ball: you cannot expect your children to not accommodate to local life, but you also want to be mindful that they might not stay in your expat country forever and as such, need skills to navigate your home culture.

How do you speak to people in your home country about your parental choices?

As parents, we all want the best for our children – and it’s useful to remind yourself that your parents also want the best for you, and their grandchildren.

In my opinion, many hesitations around expat life from the elder generations originate in fear of not seeing you again. They know that they will miss you. They fear that you might remove yourself from them emotionally as well as culturally, and that their grandchildren will be foreign to them and perhaps not even able to speak their language which means the connection will suffer even more.

Also, there might be fear of the unknown – remember, the older they are, the more fearful they might have become. And if they haven't travelled much, their worldview might be limited.

For many, it’s too vulnerable to speak of these emotions, and it’s tempting to become critical rather than have a heartfelt conversation about the gist of the matter: that they love you, will miss you terribly, and might be worried about you taking on a lifestyle of which they know and understand little, if anything at all!

When you explain your chosen way of raising your children, rather than taking a harsh stand, consider involving your friends and parents in the complexity of being a parent in another culture. Focus on the benefits from this culture, and how being open-minded and combining the two cultures makes life richer and easier for your children to navigate - and turn them into citizens of the world.

Be mindful that you don't come across as better informed or neglecting all that your parents and their culture have given you. In my view, the older generations need to remind themselves that life goes on, that the world evolves - and what might seem strange to them will be their children and grandchildren's comfort zone as it's where they navigate. When they were young, they probably also wanted to do things differently from their parents.

On the other hand, younger generations need to be mindful that all they can do is, one way of the other, and for better and worse, based on the life that the elder generations have built. And that fear and concern come from love.

With friends, remember that they too are doing the best they know for their children. They don't want that questioned just because we expats have found the "holy grail" by moving abroad. What's right for you, might not be right for them.

How do you tackle discrepancies between you and your children's wishes?

In relation to your children, it’s useful to be aware of what you would have liked to have had from your parents when you chose to do things differently: most likely support, openminded curiosity, and acceptance!

This is exactly what your children need from you: that you open your heart to the experiences they come home with, that you embrace what they find exciting and useful from their new culture and see how you can incorporate this into your family.

Remember why you went abroad in the first place: most likely to experience another culture from the inside, and to create a better life for you all. Your child can be your gatekeeper to wonderful experiences and new understandings if you let them.

It will not only help you bond closer with your child; it will also enhance their integration as a TCK if you, in age-appropriate manners, involve them in your decision-making about matters which are important to you. Remember, kids aren’t looking to parents for friendship; they are looking for boundaries and guidance, but also to be treated respectfully, and for you to accept and try to accommodate their ways of doing things - it isn't much different from how you would like your parents to support you.

Remind yourself that you put your child in a foreign culture, so don’t blame them for embracing it and making the most of it. Try to understand the child and youth culture wherever you are; and as frightening as it may be, try to integrate aspects of it into your own beliefs.

And lastly, remember that long term, your children will do as they please anyway - just as well as you have in moving abroad: as long as they aren't doing anything dangerous or illegal, you may as well "be on their side", embrace the adventures they invite you in on, and enrich the depth of your emotional bond. This will also enhance their trust in you and make them confide in you if they are in trouble.

I know that my children have taught me a lot - and continue to: about themselves and the world. Admittedly, it hasn't always been easy, but I am grateful for their willingness to not give up on me understanding and supporting them.

Scrabble letters spelling "game changer"


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