Do expats parent responsible adults?

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Here we are, living in Moscow with our teenage or young adult children. How grown up are they? How ready are they to take on the challenges and responsibilities of the big wide world? Marie Giral, author of a book on the subject: Les Adulescents, published at Le Pré aux Clercs, 2002, and now living in Moscow, sheds some insight into this issue, and places this discourse in the Moscow locale (Editor).

By Marie Giral

Growing up has always been a problem. Before Christ, Plato already expressed in one of his Dialogues, how disappointing young people of his time were. More recently, Anton Chekhov in one of his short stories*, wrote that ‘children and young people take a long time growing up nowadays, and go on playing they are taxi drivers and generals till they are forty!’ Circumstances and fashion change but there is still no consensus as to what age children are supposed to become adults.

Nowadays, children seem to enter adolescence earlier, whereas young adults continue behaving as adolescents until a much later age. Parents can relax in the knowledge that recent neuroscientific research suggests that people are better equipped to make major life decisions in their late 20s rather than earlier in the decade.

The word teenager only appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, just before baby-boomers emerged and became young adults wanting and doing things that the previous generations had never thought of. It seems that today some of their offspring find it difficult to enter adulthood. Some young adults also struggle coming to terms with autonomy and personal responsibility, not to mention responsibility towards others.

Is it any easier for people with an expat childhood to become adults? They have had to adapt and adjust to different countries, cultures, languages, friends, schools, extra-curricular activities. They also have experienced a rather exclusive lifestyle that goes with at least one parent working as an expat. To understand how all this impacts expat children, I interviewed mothers as well as young adults, and the results were quite different than I expected.

With their long experience of being expats, the mothers I interviewed agreed on one basic fact: each person is different and will react differently to the situations they are confronted with. However one thing comes out clearly: the strongest influence, which stays with you, rests around what values are considered to be core values in family life. “All children have the same challenges, irrespective of background,” says Mirjam, a parent who originally came from Holland. “School teachers and parents set the fundamentals, the rest is secondary,” says Caroline, originally from France. Liz, from the UK, makes an important point. “My daughters probably reacted differently depending on their sibling position.” Being the eldest seems to help a child find strength in times of turmoil, perhaps because the child feels that is what is expected of him or her.

Changes can also have a different impact depending on the age when they occur. The early teen years seem much more difficult, and Carole, a parent from Belgium has this to say: “Having spent only two years in Japan, when it should have been five, my son Maxim reacted strongly when we had to move to Geneva.” He just could not envision this new change. “I had just made new friends here,” he said. However from not wanting to be the new one again, it turned out to be easy for him to adapt to his new situation, and make new friends… until they had to move again, after three years only. Once again Maxim could not bring himself to accept it. His mother took time to talk with him. “I told him to remember our last move, from Tokyo to Geneva. He did. And looked at me with a big smile!”

It seems that family ties are reinforced when you live abroad and have to move a lot. Josefa, a parent from Mexico says: “One thing expatriation did for us was to solidify family unity. We only had each other every time we moved, so it meant we stuck together, got over petty differences and since the children have grown up, we make the time really count when we do get together!” Seeing your parents struggling with many things not only helps to create strong bonds but it shows you how you can deal with difficult decisions. Happy expats families seem to have indeed developed a talent at communicating. “When parents go through difficult times, children will feel it, so you’d better explain!” says Mirjam, a parent from Holland. The risk is in keeping silent and letting anxiety grow.

Having often benefited from an upper-grade education and lived very comfortably, how do these young grown-ups fare when they have to leave the expat bubble? Do they still expect their parents to support them? Carole, a parent from Belgium told me: “We make it very clear to our children how privileged they are. Furthermore, as parents, we are rather strict and demanding.” But so is the International School, with all the community service and sports competitions it offers. Does it help them to become human beings with a better understanding of others? “My children have a greater understanding of different cultures,” says Mirjam, and all mothers concurred on that point. There seems to be a sense of extra confidence having been expats’ kids. Mirjam goes on to say: “It creates a much smaller world. For them, having a job in South Africa is no problem. Having to go from Johannesburg to Moscow is no problem.” Michelle from the UK shares the same opinion: “My two sons have become excellent worldwide travellers and can navigate any airport just like catching a bus!”

Marina, just 19 years old, chose to go to university in Maastricht, far from her parents, but close to her sister. “Finding myself alone felt scary and exciting” she says. “I was more excited than frightened though. I looked at my brother and sister, and told myself that if they could do it, so could I!” Like many with an expat experience, Marina says she does not really know where home is but after three months she understood that she had to make the place where she studies her home. She explains that since she has been in Maastricht, she has had the chance to meet people “with different views of the world, society, and systems.” She felt very secure in the international schools with their reduced sample of the population but she has met people in her university who had to work hard to be there. “It opened my mind and made me realize that I had it very easy. It has changed me a lot.” Marina indicates that she sees now more of the fraud in the world and it made her change the way she was living. She has become vegetarian, buys second-hand clothes, and most of all connects with different kinds of people, whereas before she would only be with her group of friends. “This has been the most difficult.”

“The parents who say their children are doing so well and are so brilliant, successful and happy are undoubtedly telling the truth,” says Elizabeth originally from the United States. “As an expat you have access to better education, better opportunities and of course it opens a human being up to the world in a way that no home-grown education could quite do.” However there is another side to it, she says: “Expat schools are geared for the overachiever, they are very stimulating, but perhaps don’t take into account those who don’t conform to standard educational goals.” Such children sometimes struggled to become adults. It takes them longer, they often turn to alcohol and (are) not strangers to eating-disorders, as well as depression. Establishing a cause-and-effect relationship, however, seems a bit farfetched, as there does not – surprisingly perhaps – seem to be a direct correlation between that and being an expat child. Little has been written on this topic as yet.

* The Party

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