Mother and baby classes were once an excuse for harried new parents to change out of their puke-stained PJs and converse with other sleep-deprived adults for half an hour of tea-drinking and nursery rhymes until sanity was restored. However, the UAE parenting landscape has become increasingly child-focused and competitive. Relaxed chat swapping parenting war stories is being replaced by a self-conscious race towards developmental milestones.
Classes on offer in Dubai now run the gamut from foreign language classes for the under-twos to baby sign language and music lessons that allow them to shake their rattle along to Mozart. These days, it seems one should ask not what your parenting class can do for you, but what it can do for your child’s brain development, and potentially their future university place, CV and job prospects.
We all want the best for our children, and there is nothing wrong with that, but a new book claims our increasingly anxious parenting culture could actually be doing more harm than good. In Raising Children: Surprising Insights from Other Cultures, anthropologist David F Lancy argues that modern parenting produces kidults who are ill-equipped to deal with the complex adult world, resulting in anxiety, stress and depression.
The author lays the blame at the door of helicopter parents who micro-manage every aspect of their children’s lives, and argues that modern high-maintenance parenting regimes are actually preventing our children from growing up into relaxed and confident individuals. “New ways of child-rearing can leave many as kidults, ill-prepared to enter a complicated, adult world,” he says.
But we shouldn’t be pointing the finger solely at parents; the issue is a wider societal problem, claims Lancy. We’re living in a neontocracy: a term coined to describe a world that revolves around the needs of children far beyond the basics of food and material comfort. It’s a world that puts increasing pressure on parents to maintain children’s happiness, status, self-esteem and protection, and to sustain a schedule of life-enhancing, stimulating activities for their kids (hello, baby Mozart). The trend for attachment-style parenting practices - such as co-sleeping, on-demand feeding and constant parent-child play – that prioritise giving children constant attention, sometimes to the detriment of other family members, may be creating a generation of children who lack resilience and independence, say Lancy.
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Not doing them any favours
This is particularly true in Dubai, which can already act as a micro-bubble protecting our children against the harsher realities of life. This is something Barbara Daly*, a 45-year-old British expat living in the UAE, can relate to. Barbara was thrilled when her son Simon*, 18, earned a place at an elite English University to study medicine.
Like many parents, Barbara felt she was finally reaping the rewards of years of hard work, dedication and money she’d ploughed into her eldest son’s education. Years of ferrying her son to private tutoring sessions, music recitals and soccer matches were paying off now that he was leaving Dubai to take the first tentative steps towards a future career as a doctor.
However, when Simon started his first term at university, Barbara soon discovered he was far from prepared for independent living. “The phone calls started within an hour of us dropping Simon at halls and returning to our hotel,” says Barbara. “He’d been given a Direct Debit form to fill in to pay for his university accommodation for the following term and he needed my help. A few days later, he wanted my help again selecting his module options for the first year.”
As the term progressed, Barbara received almost daily calls from her son, asking for help with everything from opening a bank account to opening a tin of beans. “It dawned on me that I’d spent so much time focused on Simon’s academic achievements that I’d completely failed to prepare him for the realities of life as an adult. He had no idea how to function independently.”
And Simon is not alone. In a recent survey in the Journal of Family Psychology, only 16 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds said they felt they had reached adulthood.
It’s a phenomenon Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How To Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success, terms ‘checklisted parenting.’ And it’s something that is particularly commonplace in affluent communities, like Dubai, where parents like Barbara have the disposable time and income to do everything for their kids. Where parents will do whatever it takes to get their child into the right school or university.
“In a checklisted childhood, everything is safe, selected, chosen, recommended, planned, decided, approved, improved, done, accomplished, handled, coached, figured out, fixed, arranged, solved, resolved, absolved, shaped, designed, orchestrated, enabled, and dreamed up for them,” Lythcott-Haims explained in an op-ed piece for Time magazine.
This type of upbringing, she adds, sends a dangerous message to our kids: I don’t think you can do this without me. “Trying to boost them up, we are paradoxically tearing them down. We overhelp so as not to disadvantage them, yet they’re disadvantaged because we do so much. You’re not good enough for this life as you are, is the message. You never will be. You need me. You will always need me,” she explains.
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Dr Lavina Ahuja, a Personal Development Consultant at Lifeworks Dubai says the lifestyle in Dubai is partly to blame for the new generation of kidults. “The expat lifestyle in Dubai contributes to this phenomena, for example, with the prevalence of domestic help. Children grow up having all the 'adult' boring stuff done for them- like cooking and cleaning and all the chores.” She adds, “It is so important to learn to be a 'responsible adult', not only because it teaches you practical things like not getting in debt and learning to do your own chores, but because it is important be responsible and self-sufficient. In being responsible for yourself you get a sense of accomplishment and ability- a sense of control and a sense of being! You learn to take responsibility for your actions and choices.”
Furthermore, studies show that when adults micro-manage their children’s lives, the children are more likely to be treated for anxiety and depression. “One of the key life skills our children must develop is the ability to live without us,” says Lythcott-Haims. “Despite what you think, your kid is not your passion. If you are treating them as if they are, you’re placing them in the very untenable and healthy role of trying to bring fulfilment to your life.”
Is it time for parents to back-off? In an interview with the Times Educational Supplement (TES), Lancy argued that we should start by crushing the trend of “raising each child as special and unique and patting them on the back for every achievement, to protect their self-esteem”. He added, “I think one of the drivers (of this) is this underlying notion that children should never be unhappy and that if they are, that’s a problem that the parent is maybe responsible for and certainly has an obligation to remediate.”
After studying parenting in cultures across the world, he says children should “earn their specialness”. In other cultures, children “have an enormous amount of autonomy to search out and pursue their interests. But they’re not given a credit for achievements until they actually have a big achievement and have actually killed the antelope and brought it home.”
While it’s not advised you dispatch your child for a session of antelope-hunting in Dubai, perhaps the take-away is a return to old-fashioned freedom of play. Perhaps it’s time to open the back door and let our children outside to entertain themselves; let them be bored and stop obsessing over their happiness. Lancy adds, “You have no idea of what a rich and exciting palette (that is), TV or video games can’t touch it. Go ahead; try it. They’ll thank you later on.”
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Three ways to counteract the ‘bubble effect’ in under fives
- Involve them in household chores
Encourage your child to get involved in household chores as much as possible so they don’t grow up expecting everything to be done for them. This is particularly important in Dubai households where maids are commonplace. Tidying up toys, helping sort the laundry and setting the table are all tasks children as young as two or three can get involved in.
- Teach them to dress and feed themselves.
Introduce finger food from an early age and allow your child to feed themselves as much as possible. Similarly, teaching your child to put their arms into their own t-shirt and fasten their own shoes fosters an early sense of independence.
- Involve them in conversation
Allow your child to take part in family conversations and voice their opinion by explaining things to them and answering when they ask why. Sitting together as a family at dinner and discussing their day can help your child find their voice. Ask your child for their opinion and wait for their answer.
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