By Carrie Jones, LCSW
Parenting in Shanghai can be a real paradox, at the same time both infinitely easier and infinitely harder than it would be back home. On the one hand, many moms (or dads in some cases) who had to work in their home country are able to stay home with the kids here and many have helpers such as ayis and drivers. So, parenting here ought to be a breeze, right? On the surface, it sure seems like it until you stop and remember facts like how most parents here are removed from their extended families and natural support networks and living in an environment where so much is unfamiliar and often times a little bit overwhelming and intimidating. Suddenly, parenting can seem more like a hurricane than a breeze.
If you’ve experienced this feeling, don’t despair. First of all, you’re not alone. I meet numerous parents who confide in me that they feel like they are the only ones who are struggling. Everyone seems to have it all under control. “Seems” is a key word though. If you talk to those parents who “seem” to have it all under control, you might be surprised to find out that they feel exactly the same way – they are struggling while everyone else has the model children and model life. It’s human nature to try to put forth our best image, but if you look below the surface, almost all parents will admit to at least some degree of insecurity and doubt about how good of a job they are doing.
What is it about Shanghai that can make parenting such a challenge? Parents I talk to encounter a wide variety of issues, but some of the more common difficulties center around basic adjustment and transition issues (homesickness, helping kids build a new life here and make new friends), school (how to choose one especially when siblings have different needs, how to help kids be successful and happy both in their academics and social lives, homework battles), and relationship issues with parents, siblings, and, of course, the ayi! Then, for those with teenagers, there’s the whole clubbing scene and other adolescent issues to think about.
Faced with all these challenges, what’s a parent to do? One of the most important things is for parents to listen to and respond to kids’ feelings with empathy. This doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with or approve of everything your kids say or do, but at least try to genuinely understand where they are coming from and what is driving their words and behaviors. When possible, try to give kids a role in making decisions that affect their lives such as which school to attend and what kind of rules and boundaries are needed in the home. Obviously, as the parent, you have the final say, but kids that are at least consulted and included in the decision making process tend to feel more invested in the outcome and less likely to rebel. Sometimes circumstances make it hard to give kids a lot of choice in the decisions. For instance, maybe your child wasn’t enthusiastic about the move to China, but it was non-negotiable. In these cases, try to find some smaller areas where kids can still exercise control, perhaps choosing which room will be theirs in the new house.
Another important thing is for parents to take good care of themselves so that they can take good care of their kids. If you are too busy, tired, stressed out, sad/depressed, anxious, or worried, this will take a toll on you parenting style and the way you respond to your kids. Kids are extremely perceptive – even if you think you are shielding them from your feelings, you might be surprised at what they pick up on. Thus, it’s vital for you to find healthy ways to cope with your feelings – plus, it’s a great example for kids to follow.
Sometimes it is necessary to be flexible both with your expectation of yourself and of your children. No one is perfect and no one should be expected to be. Most people who are sent on expat assignments tend to be by nature high achievers, which by nature they tend to ask a great deal of their kids as well as themselves. Certainly, it is important to strive to do your best and to encourage your kids to do the same, but it is also vital to take time to relax and enjoy life and experience China outside of just work and school and the daily routine. Your time, energy, focus, and unconditional love are the greatest gifts you can give your children and will produce amazing results.
Finally, be sure to take advantages of the resources for families that do exist here in Shanghai. This is especially important since most of us are removed from family and close friends who would usually help out with raising kids. There are a variety of parenting groups and support networks around town including but not limited to Bumps and Babes, Peas and Pods, Shanghai Chosen Families, and Shanghai Mamas. These can be excellent places to connect with other parents who are facing challenges similar to your own. Also, the Community Center offers parenting workshops for those who feel they could use some new strategies and parenting tools. For more intense or personal issues, there are several counselors who specialize in working with parents and children. Utilizing resources such as these is not a sign of weakness, but rather strength.
Whether you find parenting here more of a breeze or a hurricane, there are certainly going to be some bumps along the way. Just remember though, the world perspective you are giving your kids by spending just a year or two here is invaluable and far outweighs many of the disadvantages you will encounter. The experience of being a third culture kid (TCK) has a wide range of benefits and will arm your children with many strengths and abilities that will serve them throughout life. I highly encourage all parents to learn more about TCK’s, so you can better understand your children’s experience and best know how to support them. Enjoy the great adventure.