My son finished drinking his milk and yelled out to his nanny, “Finished!” I have tirelessly taught him to take his cup to the kitchen when he has finished his drink, so as soon as I heard this I walked into the toy room to address the issue. I asked him why he expected his nanny to get his cup. “It’s the nanny’s job!” he replied. This kind of attitude is not healthy and I felt guilty as a parent.
What is a healthy expat child? For me, it’s a child that is well-rounded, grounded, independent, emotionally secure and physically healthy. This is not easy to achieve in Indonesia. My children are living in constant contradiction to what I think is healthy. The “expat bubble” cushions them, and they are never truly a part of the real world in which I grew up. I feel like everything and everyone is working against me on this issue. Each time I try to push my children toward a certain lifestyle, their surroundings pull them back.
So how do I raise well-rounded children when they are constantly smothered with attention by our household staff and their teachers? Culturally these people shy away from saying “no” to children and prefer to avoid confrontation. I personally think it’s healthy to set boundaries for children, so I give my nanny authority. If she says that it is time to turn off the television and my son then switches it back on, I back her up. He also has to apologise. I tell my children they must respect their nanny and they must always say “please” and “thank you”.
As a parent, I naturally want to give my children so much more than I had when I was growing up. However, when I think about my childhood and the things that made me happy, it wasn’t toys or material things, it was the freedom I had to run around with my friends, twirl around in my dress and play with worms in the garden. I come from a humble background but my childhood was still magical. I hold on to this thought when I am tempted to buy more toys for my children, and instead I push them to go outside, roam free and get their hands dirty.
I try to teach my children responsibility and I give them ownership of tasks within our family. My children help with household chores such as setting the table for dinner, watering plants and tidying up their toys. Even my two year old gets involved! They take pride in making their own beds and I let them do little things like buttering their toast themselves, even though they often end up causing more mess (and stress) in the process! I also limit my children’s exposure to nannies as a whole and organise nanny-free play dates. I encourage independent play where their nanny is not shadowing them or jumping in with every scream. Birthday parties are family affairs for us, so we don’t usually bring our nanny along.
How do I raise emotionally secure expat children when their environment is so transient? Friendships, schools and even the country of residence are only temporary. We keep our family unit strong by integrating into the community and making the current country our home. I don’t talk about our next posting in front of my children and I don’t like to compare our current country to our home country. I focus on now. We embrace the culture by asking our household staff to speak Indonesian with our children, and we encourage them to listen out for the call to prayer at bedtime because it is a beautiful melody sung to God.
How do I raise a physically healthy expat child when we are living in a country with a mall culture, where the air outside is feared, where the wind causes illness and the sun is evil because it darkens the skin? We go outside and have fun anyway! I try to give my children at least half an hour of direct sunlight and fresh air each day. Vitamin D helps to strengthen children’s bones and builds immunity. The air outside is not as dangerously polluted as we fear, and I think it’s much healthier than stagnant, indoor, air-conditioned air. I also like to enroll my children into recreational activities involving music and arts. Their daily commute to school and their inactivity in the classroom need to be balanced with physical and creative pursuits.
Overall, I think I lead the way and my children definitely follow my example. I try to stay calm and positive, and I always act towards others with respect, empathy and, above all, kindness. I hope that my enthusiasm for expat life will rub off on my children, and that they will embrace this adventure while growing up to be physically and mentally fit for the challenges of life.