Whenever I speak with parents of children who grow up internationally, this topic comes up: how can we help our children to feel that they belong?
I know about this struggle myself. I grew up abroad with features that were not “local” and, although I spoke the local language like a native speaker, I felt like I didn’t fully belong when people would point out the fact that I looked different. Usually there was no judgment – a part from people who didn’t know better – but rather curiosity, and I remember that this didn’t bother me when I was pre-teen.
I would play with the comments and sometimes not answer questions or answer that “one of my parents is Italian” (which wasn’t true… but would avoid more questions!), that, “of course, I prefer Italian food and language” (not entirely true, but well…) – just to make them stop asking and trying to put me in “that box” that I felt I would never fit in.
The same, of course, happened also in Germany. When visiting during holidays, I would stand out because I didn’t wear the same clothes, I wouldn’t understand the jokes or the celebrities they would talk about, I wouldn’t speak the slang…
Parents can’t really do much about this. They only can help us become more confident in all our languages and cultures. But they don’t get to decide which one we prefer…
In my teens I became much more conscious about the differences, about me being different. I developed a strategy that made me “blend in”. Whenever I found myself in a new situation, where people might spot me as “different”, I would first observe what others do, and then go with the flow. Sometimes I would smile when they laughed – just to make sure that they wouldn’t notice that I didn’t understand the joke, hoping nobody would ask. I recently compared this feeling with the imposer syndrome: when people who are perfectly able, feel that they are not enough.
The fear of not belonging can become very intense for teenagers. It’s the time when we want to be part of the group, blend in, not stand out! It is also the moment where we question our parents. Every teenager does this at some point.
I questioned my parents’ about many things. Among others, I questioned their decision to raise us, my sister and me, abroad. Why? Why would they do this? Why couldn’t we live in Germany, with the rest of the family? Why couldn’t we live in the same town my grandparents lived? I wondered how it would have been to celebrate my birthdays and other important moments with my grandparents and the rest of the family…
I am aware that mentioning this at my advanced age sounds like I still have a problem with this. – I don’t. But I am very aware that my teenage children are asking the same questions, that they have the same need to belong.
I have often questioned my decision to send our children to an international school. When I was a child, I didn’t understand why my parents would send me to one, as my best friends were locals and I would have loved to be like them. Now I know why. I did the same. I wanted my children not to feel “different” all the time, to be the only ones who transition between cultures every day, but to grow up among other children who make the same experience.
My children have friends who come from all over the world, and friends who are locals. I observe that this mix helps them to keep a healthy balance between otherness and likeliness.
They also have times where they blame us to have moved to the Netherlands: why couldn’t we stay in Italy? Why don’t we live closer to grandpa and grandma (in Germany or Switzerland)? Why does nobody from family come and celebrate my birthday with me? – I having had exactly the same feelings and thoughts!
Why am I doing the same now with my children? Well, because I also remember that I was very happy to be able to go “home” to Italy after a summer in Germany, and to “escape” Italy every year to experience life on the other side of the Alps.
I was happy to have the option to be German and Italian, to speak both languages and to embrace both cultures in my very own way whenever I wanted. I was 14 when I spent three weeks alone with my German family, where I got the opportunity to fully immerse into my german-ness. I got to discover a part of me that I felt was hidden when living in Italy, and I got to learn a lot about how it would be to live in Germany.
I know that being both is not always an option. Sometimes we need to dig into one of our cultures, one of our facets and enjoy them for a while.
I like to compare this need with the need to use one of our languages: if we want to sound like native speakers, there is nothing better than to fully immerse into the culture and language for a while. Ignore all the other languages we know, to work on only one, become better, sound better, feel better. We want to be or feel like monolinguals and monoculturals for some time, to “fit in”. But then, once we have achieved this step, do we feel at ease? Are we happy, or better, content? I know that for me this feeling would last not longer than a few days.
After those weeks in Germany I longed for being the Italian-me and the unique mix-of-German-Italian-me, and the one that loves other languages and has friends from many different countries.
This quest to find who we really are is a natural process. It requires different stages – these are stages I defined for myself and they are similar to the change management phases (but not exactly the same):
- the detachment stage, where we take our distance from what we know (the way we lived during the first years of our lives, without questioning) – this can be quite liberating and cathartic!
- the confusion stage: when we don’t know exactly which part to focus on…
- the decision stage: when we decide for one of them…
- the realization stage: this is the one where we realize what is good for us. Some decide to leave their older self behind and start a new chapter – some of my friends did and became even more German or Italian than the locals! – and others, like me, decide to keep on being “not only… but also…” and embrace the many facets.
- the actualization phase: when you follow your path, depending on the realization and the decision that comes with it.
When we raise our children abroad, we never know what they will decide for themselves. We can not ask them to prefer one or the other culture(s), language(s), value(s), belief(s) etc.
The same way we can’t decide for them what language they like most, we can’t tell them what culture is most dominant.
Once our children decide what language and culture they like the most, they follow their need of belonging to some group. If it is a monolingual and monocultural, or a multilingual and multicultural one: it’s their very personal decision.
The most interesting aspect on this journey is: it can change at any time! We can decide that at some point we want to become local, but we can also choose to lead a more international life, and get back to “local” later, or not…
The most important gift we’re making to our children by raising them with several languages and cultures is that they are way more flexible in their decisions than those who grew up in one culture with (only) one language!
So, my answer to the initial question is: we can’t help our children with what they feel. They have to and they will find their answers by themselves. They will most probably shift from one to the other, and back. Maybe several times, but that’s part of the journey anyways.
As parents we can only be there to support them with their decision, and love them unconditionally just the way they are, with all their facets, doubts, passions and problems.