Words on the street

The UAE is well-known as a safe place to bring up children, but how can we prepare them for life in other countries?

The UAE boasts one of the safest environments for raising children, but there comes a time when your family will have to fly the nest.
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With its low crime and low-cost childcare, Abu Dhabi is often referred to as an ideal place for young families. A shorter commute and an earlier start to the working day allows parents to spend more time with their children. Combined with the smaller communities that form within the UAE and the easy friendships of expatriate life, the gritty streets of the towns and cities that many have come from can seem a world away. But for those planning a trip home over summer, how can parents ensure their children are prepared for the transition? How can we teach our pampered children to be streetwise?

Younger children are generally happy wherever they are as long as they are with their parents and can go to the park or pool occasionally. But what happens when they reach their early teens and the yearning for independence sets in? How can they learn to stand on their own two feet and start to look after themselves when they are constantly reliant on Mum and Dad to ferry them around by car? Sandra West came to Abu Dhabi in 1991 for two years and ended up staying. She is British and has four children who were all born in the UAE. Although happily settled in Abu Dhabi, West and her husband are considering sending their children to boarding school in the UK for their final two years of study. The first to go would be Holly, now aged 15. West thinks that boarding school could offer a bridge in experience between the protective environment of Abu Dhabi and the often harsh world of young adulthood in the UK. "I'm apprehensive about sending Holly straight from this environment to a country she does not identify with at all," admits West. But she hopes that her daughter will have the opportunity to be more self-reliant within the school and be able to venture into the local town on her own at weekends.

There are certain life skills that children may not pick up as confidently while living in the UAE, such as taking trains on their own. West doesn't let Holly take taxis on her own in Abu Dhabi, just as she would never let her take minicabs in the UK. The trouble is that in Abu Dhabi, until the public transport system has a wider reach, there is no way for Holly to learn to travel alone. When the family goes to Scotland for the summer, West encourages the older children to take public transport but had to first teach them what to do.

"Two years ago, we were at Waverley station in Edinburgh and I said, 'Let's buy a ticket.' The children looked at me blankly. They had no idea what to do so I taught them about the different ticket types, singles, day returns, and to say where they were going from and to," says West. "Holly could leave school next year barely knowing how to get a bus or stand on her own two feet." Of course, the corollary of gaining independence and going out by themselves is that children have to deal with potentially threatening or dangerous situations on their own. Living in a low-crime society has obvious benefits, but children have less opportunity to develop what West calls a "sixth sense" to look out for danger and know how to deal with tricky situations. "Children are more trusting here because they feel safe, they think there is no crime, no danger. They just haven't learnt how to deal with it. They need to be more streetwise, to stand back and look around, be more guarded, suss it out. That awareness comes from the environment they are raised in."

West, whose children are all talented musicians, has found that another challenge facing teenagers in the UAE is a true sense of their own ability outside of school. "Here they are used to being a big fish in a small pond, whether it's their ability in swimming, rugby or music." The lack of numbers participating in activities, compared for example to the UK, can mean there isn't the same level of competition for children to assess their abilities realistically. As West points out, this smaller environment can be ideal to build confidence when they are young, but teens considering participating on a national level in their home country may need their expectations checked. "They do have to keep benchmarking themselves to the outside world," says West.

Growing up in the UAE can give teenagers definite advantages. As "third culture kids", they are likely to be more open-minded and knowledgeable about other cultures and countries, and will have friends from a broad range of nationalities. Whether due to the focus on family life or the socio-economic mix of their peers, they tend to have a self-confidence and an ability to communicate easily. "It never occurred to Hannah that the UK would be a different culture, because it was 'home'," explains Lynne Evans, whose 19-year-old daughter is just coming to the end of her first year at university in the UK. Hannah has spent all her life, bar one year, living abroad, in Hong Kong and then in Abu Dhabi. Evans was concerned how she would adjust. "She's been shocked by the culture generally, not so much the academic side of university - the schools here prepared her well. Living in the UK has been the biggest education of them all."

Evans found that one of the toughest challenges was making Hannah aware of the potential risks without scaring her. "Hong Kong and the UAE have similarities. They are both very safe environments. My big concern was that Hannah would trust people too easily, that she would put her bag down somewhere and expect it still to be there a little while later, or that she would walk out on her own at night. I wanted to make sure she would be safe and take care but I didn't want England to be a scary place for her."

Evans went with Hannah to settle her into her first weeks of living back in the UK and going to university. "I walked around with her at night, and told her things like, don't walk around as the nightspots are shutting and don't walk alone at night." Several months on and Hannah is loving her time at university. Evans still occasionally has to check that her life lessons have not been forgotten. "She rings and tells me what she's been up to and sometimes I have to say, 'You put yourself in a bit of a dangerous situation there. Did you think about this?' She has sometimes been a bit quick to do things, but she now sees it and is more careful."

Most expatriate parents would agree that living abroad has given their children access to new experiences and a greater understanding of other cultures. Before we send them out into the big wide world, we would hope to have given them the skills they need to look after themselves. As West says: "My children have been born and grown up here, they think that this is their home. But this is only short term. At some point in time this will not be their home. I think it is my duty to show them the differences between the two environments from an early age."