In a previous post I wrote an overview of the cross-cultural education experience, and said there would be more posts to come. In the meantime, I wrote a post for China Source about the impact of school culture, and the cross-cultural experience this can be. I’ve received a lot of feedback from teachers, parents and educational consultants. It’s nice to hear that so many others also feel this is a significant and important topic, although it also reminds me how few families are well resourced in how to cope with the impact of school culture on their family.
This post covers some key advice I give to parents about coping with the stresses associated with cross-cultural education. It’s turned into a long post, but I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface! At any rate, I hope you will find these suggestions thought-provoking, encouraging, and interesting.
1) Your child is learning two cultures and languages at once
Your child may seem a bit behind in some ways: lacking language skills or cultural awareness, on either side – or both! But keep in mind, this is because they are learning more than one language, more than one cultural system. They’re actually ahead! The places they lack something are reminders of all they’ve gained, in a different language or cultural system.
Related to this, as they grow, keep in mind that they are neither completely one nor completely the other. Remember that it’s both-and: they have two (or more) languages and cultures that they draw upon to develop their sense of self.
“I feel like a different person when speaking Finnish than when speaking English. Maybe because my Finnish is not sophisticated enough to allow me to express myself to the same level as I can in English. I feel frustrated when I’m away with friends, say for a week, and don’t get any chances to speak Finnish. Even though I am limited by my Finnish, I feel constricted when I don’t get to be my ‘Finnish self’.”
Elisa, age 19, as quoted in Misunderstood, page 265
2) Always assume the best about your child
When you and your child clash, and especially when you feel your child is disrespecting you, or your culture, try to assume the best about your child. Assume that their intentions toward you are good. Assume they are trying their best. Assume that there is a misunderstanding between you, and not ill-intent. From this assumption, try to ask questions – perhaps just to yourself about the situation, or sometimes you may actually want to ask your child.
Ask why the child is acting this way (after starting by assuming the child is not trying to be difficult), and in particular, if they are acting from a set of values they have learned at school. Would their behaviour make sense in the classroom or schoolyard setting? Are they working from connection to and affection for more than one country, culture, or language?
Ask what might be confusing or frustrating your child – is there language or cultural understanding they are missing, and need help with? Are your own expectations as a parent not clear? Might these be confusing for a child living with different expectations during the school day? Ask what extra information, support, love, attention, or skills you might be able to provide to your child, to help them relax and grow as they walk through two cultures and languages at once.
Also, keep in mind the impact of grief on TCKs, and whether this might be part of the equation.
3) You may need space to deal with your own grief
Speaking of grief, give yourself space as a parent to experience and express grief associated with what a cross-cultural education means your child does NOT have – and does not share with you.
You may need space to feel the weight of what you’re dealing with. That you as a family are navigating two cultures and languages. That this journey means your child is having a very different childhood than you did – and therefore, is becoming a very different person. Over time, you may see these differences leading your child down a different path, and you may feel upset about them being less like you. And sometimes, those gaps in your experiences may make you feel sad – as you see the things you don’t share with your child. It is okay – even healthy – to leave yourself space to feel those feelings.
Letting yourself feel that sadness, finding a safe space to express it, will help you not put this on your child. If you do not recognise and face any grief you experience, it will twist its way into your parenting unconsciously. You will be more likely to place heavy expectations on your child to conform to your own cultural norms. You will be more likely to require them to be like you in order to feel accepted by you.
4) Cross-cultural education was YOUR choice – not your child’s
This is a difficult lesson for some, but it is very important. Your child did not choose to be in this situation, and to have this cross-cultural educational experience. This happened due to your choices as a parent. Even when children are involved in decisions around family relocations and schooling choices, the buck stops with the parent.
Whether you are at the start of this journey, or years down the track, it’s important to keep in mind that this is the only experience your child has. They have nothing to compare it to. They may not know what makes them different. They may not know what they don’t know. When those differences and lacks become apparent to you, remember: you are the one who chose this.
This also means it’s unfair to place heavy expectations on your child to be like you, and to share your sense of home. You may not even realise you’re doing it – especially if you haven’t made space to explore your own grief – but your child will, and it can place huge barriers in your relationship.
“My family would take me to Syria every summer, but I never truly immersed myself in the Syrian culture. I never made real friends, I couldn’t speak the language…I feel a continuous frustration with my parents for their feeling of entitlement to their children’s sense of home. They just didn’t get that there would be a permanent gap between their perspective of Syria and mine. And that separation would never be closed.”
Dialla, 18, as quoted in Misunderstood, page 262-263
This is a really emotional topic for a lot of parents. When I talk about these things in seminars, I almost always look out to see tears. Often there is relief, that they aren’t the only one, or that they have an explanation for something, or that their child is “normal”. Sometimes it’s sadness, at finally understanding some of the dynamics in their relationship with their child, and wishing they could have done things differently earlier. Sometimes it’s gratitude, at finally knowing what to do, or feeling validated that they had made some good parenting choices already.
If you are feeling emotional after reading this, please give yourself a little time and space to sit with those feelings, whether now or later. You might like to comment on this post, ask a question or share a story. You might want to send it to a friend so you can discuss it together. Perhaps sitting down with a journal, or writing your own blog post in response, is more your speed. Reflection is an important tool, and one worth making time for, especially if this has struck a chord with you.