Are Expat Kids Overindulged?

Reading an article on overindulgence in the Dainfern College newsletter some time back inspired me to reflect on this topic from an expat perspective: Are expat children at any particular risk of being overindulged?

To figure this out, let’s take a look at overindulgence. The article I mentioned above quoted Jean Isley Clarke, author of How Much Is Enough? and a number of other books on this topic: “Overindulging children is giving them too much of what looks good, too soon, too long. It is giving them things or experiences that are not appropriate for their age or their interests and talents.”

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This reminded me that I myself had interviewed Ms. Clarke some time back for an article I wrote for Kansas City Parent Magazine on Little Ways to Let Go, a look at overindulgence from a slightly different angle. It was wonderful to work with her, as she has so many interesting – some people might say old-fashioned – views on parenting. I resolved then and there that I had to do a better job kicking my kids in their collective behinds, against all push-back, to do things for themselves if I wanted to call myself a good parent.At first glance, it does look like expat children grow up with a particular sense of entitlement:

they have traveled more of the world at a young age than many adults
they think that flying business class is perfectly normal
they often get to live in big, beautiful houses
they get to eat exotic foods on a regular basis (not that most kids want to eat exotic foods)
they often grow up with round-the-clock domestic help
they get to stay at luxury hotels more often than the average person, given their frequent travels
they often attend the finest private schools, hobnobbing with that country’s elite

But of course not all expat kids are equal. We might have that image in our minds of the expat family moved around the world by a large corporation with a benefits package covering everything from a personal handyman to a global tax lawyer, but then we forget the family deciding it’s time to leave Zimbabwe before things get even worse and arriving in South Africa with not even a job offer lined up (I am cringing right now  thinking back at all the complaining I’ve done about the hassles of settling in when I put it in this perspective).

Still, no matter what category of expat we are, our kids all have to deal with the same issues.

Coming into a brand-new school mid-year and often standing out like a sore thumb.
Speaking with a funny accent or not understanding the language at all.
Showing up in school uniform on civvies day because your mom didn’t get the memo.
Showing up in civvies on the first day because you just flew in and didn’t have time to buy a uniform yet, and your mom brushing you off with “Oh, it can’t be that important, they’ll understand…”
Having to start from scratch entirely new subjects where everyone else seems like a pro, especially on the sports field.

No matter how you arrived, this can’t be easy. You have to somehow cope with it, while your parents are no help because they have their own issues to cope with, like how many more forms, for the love of god, might be needed to apply for a mobile phone, or who does one call when the power is turned off yet again.

Overindulgence, in my mind, means making things easy for your kids, doing the hard work for them, and shielding them from inconvenience. By that standard, putting our kids through this ritual every few years, throwing them into the lion’s den regularly and expecting them to somehow make it out of there unscathed, in some cases even relying on them to help us when we realize they speak the language better than we do, cannot be considered overindulgence by any means. Rather, it teaches them courage and independence. “You don’t become independent and self-reliable if you’re happy all the time,” is another one of Ms. Clarke’s pieces of wisdom. Rather, mastering unhappy situations along the way is what’s needed to guide your kids to an independent and hopefully happy life later on.

If you ask my kids, having to move definitely qualifies as a very unhappy situation.

Arriving in a new country with different customs also often means that, by default, you learn to be respectful. You could grow up as a spoiled brat in your familiar environment, but when you’re thrown into a new place where things are done differently, your best mode of survival is to respect local customs and alter your own ways rather than the other way around. Kids, especially, have a sixth sense about how to best blend in, and learning local customs quickly is often the most expedient route. On the flipside, having been an outsider helps them become more tolerant of others who might be perceived as outsiders, hopefully teaching them to reach out to those who are different from us.

Courage, independence, respect, tolerance – not a bad list. And another thing. Yes, you can find yourself in a bubble of luxury when you’re an expat, perhaps living in a house and neighborhood you couldn’t afford back home, in a beautiful tropical country no less, turning your old friends green with envy. Many an expat wife has been known to have a panic attack when confronted with the prospect of moving back home and scrubbing toilets again for the first time in ten years. The same goes for our kids, and you worry whether expat life turns them into lazy slobs who will forever expect to drop their clothes in a trail from the front door all the way to the pool and not have any idea how they re-emerge magically, and quite regularly, neat and ironed back in their closets?

But then you realize that your kids have seen so much more than other kids.

They see the long lines of people lining up for overfilled and unsafe taxis in the scorching sun.
They see the women balancing buckets of water on their heads while carrying babies on their backs.
They’ve seen the underequipped and cramped creche in the squatter camp that they visit regularly through their school outreach.
They see, most eye opening of all, how people manage to be happy, even if their circumstances don’t seem to be happy at all.

Expat kids, for what it’s worth, are often more exposed to the disparity in the quality of life than their counterparts at home who might never have looked much beyond their middle class neighborhood.

Yes, expat kids might grow up with a certain sense of entitlement, but if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, you will know that entitlement is precisely what will serve them well later in life. The trick, as a parent, is to balance it all somehow to keep our kids firmly grounded, to help them become nice and respectful people, to let them discover the joys of intrinsic motivation and hard work while offering them all the opportunities available to them as global citizens.

In other words, it comes down to good parenting.

It always does.

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