Children and native identity

Children and their Native identity is often one of the hot potatoes that concern parents who are raising international children. What is cultural identity and what might be the new ground that our international youngsters might be capable breaking if we let them?

aliensI sometimes joke that world peace won’t happen until the Martians land. There is nothing like a common enemy to make us work together despite our differences. But until then, we have our international children to help us understand the notion of thinking beyond cultural and racial stereotypes. Yet over the years, more than one concerned parent has asked me, “but what if they forget that they’re Dutch, or American, or Brazilian, or Indian?”

Living without a cultural identity

I believe that it is in our interest that most probably they will. In favour of a narrow national identity they will identify with a far broader more inclusive identity that looks beyond borders to what unites us. And as parents of international, intercultural, adoptive, and cross border children we can help or hinder that process.

In 1984, sociologist Ted Ward stated that international children are “the prototype citizens of the future.” He believed that one day it would be the norm to grow up in multicultural communities. There are many different versions of ‘internationality’ in children. Perhaps their parents, both from the same culture, have chosen to live in one or more countries outside of their country of birth, or they are the children of parents who come from two different cultures. Adopted children may also experience this fading of borders, as do children who grow up in the borderlands between countries. Finally, although they are technically mono cultural children, many youngsters now have an active life on the internet playing in guilds and leagues that include others from all over the world. In earlier articles for YLC I have written about the most common challenges and rewards for so called Third Culture Kids and so here I want to focus on the aspect of cultural loyalty. Something that I believe is a parental hang up rather than a child’s obligation.

Their culture not ours

When I was eight we moved to England for three years and I joined the girl guides. As part of the very cute swearing in ceremony I was to make the oath; “I promise to do my duty to God, to serve the Queen and do a good turn every day.” My father, having no problem with the God bit, nevertheless reminded me light-heartedly that perhaps I should say ‘my’ queen rather than ‘the’ queen as a true Dutch girl could only swear allegiance to her own queen. I shrugged this off and did exactly as I pleased, which was probably murmuring something about serving lots of queens and left it at that. However, the anecdote serves to illustrate that however sweetly intentioned, parents can easily make children feel they have to ‘take sides’ when it comes to the host culture or their own native culture. Parents who travel to many different countries with their children genuinely feel that the only stability they can give their children is a firm sense of ‘where they belong’. However, as so often, the theory doesn’t fit the practise.

Case study example

Angela* had moved eight times by the time she was sixteen and if she felt anything, it certainly wasn’t Spanish, the cultural identity that her parents shared. She came to see me because she felt guilty and confused about not feeling ‘more Spanish’. This had culminated into a real issue when her parents suggested she went to Barcelona to complete her studies and reconnect with her roots. “What roots”, Angela asked, sharing that the notion was as alien as sending her to the moon to find her roots. “But surely I should feel Spanish?” she asked me repeatedly.

While we think we might be doing our international children a favour by reminding them of their roots, what happens in practise is that they end up struggling with the fact that in truth, from the inside out, they have nothing much in common with their parents’ culture beyond it being, just that, their parents’ culture. In allowing Angela to ‘break’ with her Spanish culture her parents felt they were failing her. However, years later she could thank them for sharing the ‘best and the most wonderful’ of a culture that meant more to her than any other, but that she did not have to identify with as being her own.

For Angela the world was her oyster.

That’s not to say that you, as an individual, can’t let your children share in the experience of your own enjoyment and love of your native culture. It’s okay to share with them your love of the festivals that are part of your culture and ask for their understanding that it is meaningful to YOU to celebrate them as a family. However, they also need to be given permission not to have to feel the same way as you do about that culture, nor ‘choose’ one culture over another. Giving them the freedom to be more than one culture, to be ‘beyond culture’ will help them to see this world as a place where they can belong freely, and where others can belong too.

My culture or yours

Keen to be a good parent I was careful not to ‘push’ the Dutch culture on our son. This wasn’t hard because I had become more English in my behaviour anyway. However, unconsciously I did use him as my ‘nagging ally’ whenever I felt the need to express my frustrations about his father’s culture. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he admonished me and said ‘you are not helping me feel a connection to dad’s country by always being so negative about it.’ In other words, there was almost a reverse process of loyalty going on; to be loyal to me, he didn’t have to love Holland, but he had to be super critical of his father’s culture… Not good parenting at all!

When Danny* was little he used to say; “my mummy is from Germany, my daddy is Swedish and I am an Englishman”. Yes, Danny was a little precocious, but he was also aware, from a very young age, that he was neither this, nor that. Or that he could be both this and that. The fact that he chose to identify with the English culture was an accident of birth.

He was six when his family moved from the UK and today, as young international adult, he expresses his inter cultural status as something that is both a benefit and a burden. “On the one hand I know the world is bigger than the culture I live in now, and so I will always look to how things are done in other countries and in other cultures. Travelling and living abroad seems the most natural thing in the world. But at the same time, I miss having a ‘real’ culture that I can call ‘home’ and having a sense of rootlessness sometimes makes me restless.” I’ve quoted him in full because he manages to put into words very succinctly what many international young adults feel. If his parents had added to that the pressure to feel properly Swedish or properly German, even making it a competition between the two cultures, they would not have created someone who so freely sees both sides of the inter cultural coin. Danny doesn’t need the Martians to tell him he is part of a human race that may walk and talk differently, but is, in essence, the same, if only we could see the unity in our diversity.

* Names and cases are made up from a mix of case studies.

Stockholm 2014 – © Lysanne Sizoo

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