People sometimes wonder what the difference between an expat and a migrant is. It’s fairly straightforward – if you call yourself an expat family rather than an immigrant family, you’re making a distinction based on privilege. People who choose to live abroad and who can afford a far higher standard of living than the locals do will always find themselves in a class above the rest, and it only follows that their kids will sense this as they grow and develop in their adopted country.
This can be a blessing and a curse. Some of the most balanced, eloquent, and engaging conversationalists I’ve met are children from expat families whose parents have somehow managed to get the balance right. I once met a 12-year-old Australian girl who had lived in seven countries, and who spoke with humility, humor, and authority on international topics. I’ve seen the opposite too – kids for whom a life of luxury has given them a false sense of entitlement. They’re badly-behaved, disrespectful, and occasionally even deeply offensive. This is most obvious when they speak to local people, often treating them with open disdain. They’ve absorbed a sense of the class divide as a social given, and their attitudes towards other people reflect that constant factor in their lives.
One of the biggest issues for expat parents in dealing with their own children’s behavior is that it’s very difficult to have an objective viewpoint. It’s no secret that there are plenty of spoiled expat kids right here in Ho Chi Minh City, but the vast majority of their parents wouldn’t see it for what it is. Some of that can be blamed on consumer culture – it’s very affordable now to bring a new book or toy home for your kids every day, which is a sure-fire recipe for brat- raising. Regardless of where you point the finger, however, it doesn’t help if a mom or dad simply can’t see that their kids are picking up some ugly social biases, and assigning blame doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.
Neither is there any value in a rant against wealth and privilege here. If you’re comfortable in this town, there’s no question that you should make every effort to give your children every benefit that comes with it. If you can afford an international schooling, pony club, designer kidswear, whatever – definitely do that. These opportunities and rich life experiences are not to be passed up on, because they’re rare and they’re precious, and these things are exactly what we all want to provide for our children.
So the real question then, for an expat parent, is what you need to do to help your kid stay on the right side of an international childhood. Having the opportunity to rear your child in an atmosphere of privilege is something to be grateful for, but if you want your kids to grow up to be the best that they can be, then this is the time to make sure they’re learning the right lessons.
The difference between kids for whom the expat experience is stimulating and those ruined by it is influenced by a number of factors, but in the home it’s usually a matter of how much power they experience at a very young age – before they become aware of the proper limitations we all have to deal with as adults. In families living abroad, a child’s sense of self-importance can be exaggerated by an over-coddling local nanny, the constant attention of strangers outside the home, and by noticing the urgency with which parents rush to overprotect them from perceived risks (such as hygiene concerns at local play centers).
Other factors are more universal, but they tend to be warped by the experience of growing up abroad. Lots of parents have issues with enforcing their authority when it comes to their own children – exhaustion and overwork making it all the more difficult – and this contributes to a child learning that persistent misbehaving (tantrums, whining, disobedience) will eventually result in getting their own way. Spoiled kids under these conditions are those who don’t get the opportunity to learn how to handle disappointment early on, and who are at risk of never understanding delayed gratification and how to behave within limits.
Most parents who have trouble judging whether or not their kids are being spoiled by their expat childhood will at least recognize some behavioral issues in their children – talking over adults, demanding their own way, behaving wildly in public to the extent you’d rather keep them at home. The good news is that if this is the case, it’s not too late to put things right – but the bad news is that it takes a little discipline on your side.
‘Unspoiling’ a child is entirely feasible, and it starts by setting those limits that you know you should be enforcing, and sticking to them this time. you can keep the rules simple so that they’re easy to follow, but the key is not to compromise on them. Some parents advocate waiting out the inevitable tantrums, but if letting your kid cry himself or herself to sleep seems like too much, you can also follow diversionary tactics – distracting your kids from what they’re misbehaving about can have the same effect.
The important thing is to recognize that your child’s behavior isn’t an indication that you’re a bad parent. There are multiple factors, many of which are innate, that can cause a child to overstep their boundaries and manifest spoiled tendencies. The opportunity you need to take here, however, is to stay firm while making it clear that just because you’re not actively placating your child, it doesn’t mean you’ve withdrawn your love. It’s only when a child can’t tell the difference between punishment and rejection that they run the risk of emotional damage.
An expat childhood is a rare opportunity for a kid to experience a unique life from their earliest of days. It can provide a platform upon which to develop a greater sense of maturity and self-confidence than they could otherwise hope to achieve. Parents need to understand, however, that the sense of privilege that inevitably arises in an expat family obscures the normal social boundaries that would otherwise discourage a child from becoming spoiled. In the absence of those clear social limitations, parents need to establish strong behavioral guidelines to compensate – lovingly, of course.