The space between

I have wanted to write this post for a while. A comment on a previous post made me think about how we – foreigners, expats, global nomads – raise our children; the choices we make with respect to their education; our aspirations, explicit and implicit, for their present and future lives. While we each have our own ideas, methods and child-rearing philosophies, there seems to be a common pattern: many of us want to turn our children into expanded versions of our – international – selves.

We go to great lengths to broaden their horizons; to open their minds to different cultures, people and perspectives; to make them multilingual, multidimensional, multicultural, citizens of the world. We speak to them in our mother tongues and teach them about our native cultures. We travel with them; send them to international schools; hire native speakers as caregivers to teach them their languages; sign them up for immersion camps and exchange years abroad. And this does not only happen in bicultural or multicultural families; I know several couples who come from the same culture, speak the same language and decide to raise their children bilingually.
We make all these efforts to equip our children with their world citizen identity, knowing that at the same time, we are pulling them further and further away from any
specific cultural identity. They will learn to embrace our home cultures, but will never be native in any of them, since they will not have lived in them. They will travel and live in many different places and the world will be their oyster but where exactly will be their place in that world? Like us, our children will be neither here nor there. They will inhabit an intermediate space: the transitional, the “almost home,” but not really. They will be foreigners like us, only an enhanced version.
The paradox is that we raise them to be perpetual foreigners even though we struggle with our own foreignness. Why do we set them up for that kind of life? Do we recognise benefits for them that outweigh the challenges and adversity that
they will confront?
Absolutely. We actually want them to have that life – our life. We want them to experience the richness, the stimulation, the
excitement. They may often feel like foreigners, but what they will have seen and learned and experienced will make up for that – in our book. They may feel homeless and rootless sometimes, but only in conventional terms. Essentially, they can always be at home, because their concept of home will become deeper and much more portable. And yes, they will get lonely and miss their friends, who will be spread out all over the world, but their life will be richer because of those friends.
That said, they didn’t choose this life. What if, at some point in the future, they turn around and tell us that they would rather have lived in one place, put down roots in one
community and made lifelong friends? What will we tell them then? Most of us just
keep hoping that moment will never come.

6 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    I think there is a huge difference between how we were raised (having roots in "one" culture and later changing it to "the world" culture). So, our kids upbringing from the start is quite different from what we had. Hence, they might perceive the world differently from the start. They might not even look at being the "world" citizen like something that can make them lonely or uprooted from "home". Their home is the world from the start and maybe they will feel much more uncomfortable living in only one culture because it's not a norm for them. They didn't grow up like that. The world of our kids is very different from the the world we grew up in and their outlook to this world drastically differs from ours. They might not be able to communicate it yet, but when they are adults that would be a quite interesting discussion to have.

    1. That's a very good point and it has implications for us as parents. Exactly because our children's upbringing, experiences and expectations are different from ours and because they are not always able to communicate them, we need to be even more alert and sensitive to their needs and feelings.

  2. Anonymous

    That's a fantastic point about being more alert and sensitive to our children's needs and feelings. Sometimes a thought crosses my mind: what if (I will speak for myself only) I put my kids into bilingual schools, hire native speaker babysitters, do other creative language activities, travel (in my case it's a bit too early for international exchange programs, but it will come soon :)), to make sure that my kids do not have this feeling of loneliness (as I do sometimes) when they move to a new place and leave their friends behind. Sometimes I feel that I project my own feelings into my kids feelings. Though, theoretically, I do understand that my kids will never have exactly the same feelings (just because I was never exposed as much as my kids are to different languages, cultures, travel), my heart still aches once in a while realizing that everyone has these moments and my kids will do too (but they will experience it differently, not the same way as I did – because they are different). And it's ok. The best and the most I can do is to love them (through my actions and words) and the rest will be up to them. That brings it back to your point that it is important to be able to recognize our children's needs and feelings.

    1. Loving them and being there is the best thing we can do for them, I agree. And yes, we sometimes tend to project, but recognizing that is a good first step, right?
      Just because they are more open to the world does not mean they won't get lonely. It's part of the package. But at least we can hope that they will struggle less with transitions and adjustment, compared to us.

  3. Well, don't we all project our own feelings into our kids' feelings?
    Don't we all teach them the way of living we think it's best? If we have travelled as kids, as in my case, well…I bring my kids to their homecountry every summer, they speak the language and they start feeling more and more Italian. My oldest son started to feel Italian when his adolescence started a year or two ago.
    And, furthermore, won't we all have to face the moment when our kids will tell us we made mistakes?
    My uncle always says: "There is one sure thing about upbringig: either way, you're gonna mek mistakes and your kids will one day tell you that."
    So we do our best, we transmit them the values we believe in…more we cannot do.
    And we shouldn't.

    1. I'm with you. We do our best and we teach them the only way of life we know well – ours. And that's what we will tell them when they point out our mistakes (your uncle is a wise man).

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