Walking to grab some coffee in Brooklyn with a good friend of mine, I overheard a mother trying to negotiate with her young child whether it might be better for him to play somewhere else as his current location had him perched precariously close to traffic.
I laughed thinking about how when I was 3 or 4 years old I would have simply been told to move my playing area rather than been engaged in a debate. Parenting norms and family dynamics are very different all around the world and I find that there is something to be learnt from all different traditions. I often find myself making sly comments about “new age” parenting, but I definitely think there is something to be said for engaging children and having conversations with them instead of simply enforcing non-negotiable rules.
I am very blessed to have had parents who tried to balance setting rules while allowing for discussions to happen, especially as I got older. I believe that this particular perspective towards parenting fostered a very positive environment growing up as it taught me discipline and allowed me to understand why I was asked to behave in a certain way. It gave me a strong sense of independence and helped me value and prioritise my family ties above everything else.
Family is one of the cornerstones of Emirati society. It is expected that familial relationships take precedence over other ones. There is a certain set of rules and a code of behaviour that you are expected to know and live by.
I really like most of these unwritten rules and the high value placed on showing respect to your family members. This is not only demonstrated by obeying your elders but also in small actions like getting up when they walk into the room to greet them, the order in which people are served at meals and the habit of setting aside time on Fridays to spend with your family.
Traditionally, families in the Emirates have placed a heavy emphasis on adab and akhlaq (manners and etiquette). It can be thought of as the capacity to have the appropriate action, attitude and response in any given situation.
To this day, when someone behaves in a certain way society judges their upbringing. Good behaviour, even good grades, are traced back to your family. While this can be a positive thing, it can also be negative because it can lead to parents focusing too much on the actions of children and being unforgiving with any mistakes or shortcomings.
While the respect and deference to elders is something I admire about the culture, it sometimes creates a “because I said so” and “no discussion” environment. The problem with this type of environment is that it’s not always conducive for children to express themselves and doesn’t allow for children to make mistakes and still grow. I believe that families are safety nets and that children need to know that no matter what happens, even if they mess up, they will be looked after and given another chance.
Upon graduating from college, many of my friends were worried about securing jobs and housing quickly. Their families made it clear that they needed to be independent and not come back home.
This idea is so foreign to this country, where it is not looked down upon to stay home, even after marriage if you wish to. While I really appreciate the fact that our families are always welcoming and open to us, there is something to be said for gaining some independence and navigating the world on your own. My own family jokingly offered me “personal assistant” positions to come back and live with them, but I was always supported when I decided to pursue my master’s degree and travel the world in the interim.
An old Arabic proverb says: “When your child grows up, befriend him.” While it may not work for everyone, I see the benefits and wisdom of the proverb as I grow up and see some friends of mine unable to maintain honest relationships with their families for fear of causing tensions.
I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to do something, but I definitely believe that allowing parent-child relationships to develop as children grow up does not have to mean the end to Emirati family traditions.
Fatima Al Shamsi is a globetrotting Emirati foodie, film buff and football fanatic