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Dubai: Your child’s lunchbox might have some chicken curry, with tabbouleh on the side. Or perhaps you decide to make sushi with labneh and roll it in zaatar, because your son was craving the Japanese dish? Living in the UAE, parents and children are exposed to so many different cultures, cuisines and ways of living that some aspects of the multicultural environment can rub off on your parenting style, even if you don’t realise it.

Gulf News spoke with four parents who are raising their children in the UAE, on the unique experience of being a ‘UAE parent’.

Room for some spice?

Born in Dubai, Filipina national Sheryl Dwyer’s daughter, was four when she moved to Hong Kong. For the next five years, she stayed there, embracing the culture and language of the land. Encouraging an openness to different cultures and being respectful to diversity has always been an approach that Dwyer took as a parent, she told Gulf News.

“My daughter could speak Mandarin and Cantonese and would usually eat Chinese food,” Dwyer said.

Sheryl Dwyer
Sheryl Dwyer (right), with her husband, Australian national William Dwyer, and her daughter - Tatiana Dwyer.

So, when she finally moved back to Dubai after five years, to join her husband, the opportunities to experience other cultures significantly increased because of how multicultural the UAE is.

“Dubai is more diverse, there are a lot more opportunities and the current generation of children is more open [to diversity],” Dwyer said.

Take food, for example. Dwyer feels that the switch back to Dubai has brought on a big change in her daughter’s taste buds, too.

“She never ate spicy food when we were in Hong Kong but now, she loves Arabic food and Indian food. I always knew how to cook but my cooking style is more Middle Eastern now. I make my own bread, I make tabbouleh, and use a lot of vegetables … the country has a lot of impact on what you eat and cook. It definitely changes our menu at home,” Dwyer said.

But this approach to embrace other cultures is not limited to food. According to Dwyer, it has also directly influenced her style of parenting.

My cooking style is more Middle Eastern now. I make my own bread, I make tabbouleh, and use a lot of vegetables … the country has a lot of impact on what you eat and cook. It definitely changes our menu at home

- Sheryl Dwyer, mum of a 14-year-old girl

“Our parenting style now is that we try to have a lot of open conversations with her. She is 14 years old now and children at this age can be outspoken and opinionated. We try to navigate that by listening,” she said.

Looking back at her own childhood, Dwyer feels her approach has changed from that of her parents. The process of disciplining, for example, takes into consideration the child’s voice and perspective a lot more than what would happen earlier.

“Just because she is a child, does not mean that she does not have a voice. Her voice, her opinion and her point of view is important, but we always try to tell her that while we hear you, there is a fine line of respect,” Dwyer said.

Finding that balance between giving children their freedom and ensuring their safety is tricky, but she feels that parents from across different cultures seem to be experiencing similar challenges. She knows that from the Whatsapp group conversations she has had with other parents.

“We created mum’s groups where we can share our experiences. In the group, we have Canadians, Serbians, Egyptians, Emiratis, Indians, Australians and other nationalities, and we have the same problems and issues,” she said.

What that has led her to do is to give her daughter a judgement-free space to share her thoughts and experiences.

“I just sit down and listen, that’s what they want – that we listen to them without judging them. Whether she is right or wrong, just sit down and hear her. This is something we try to do,” she said.

Facilitating children’s language skills

For 34-year-old Chinese national Jie Deng, the move to Dubai has given him the chance to enable his daughters to grow in their experiences.

Jie Deng, 34 years old, general manager of a tourism company
A picture from 2020 of Jie Deng, with his daughter Lvxin Deng, who was three years old at that time.

“One thing I noticed about young Chinese parents like us, is that we emphasise on healthy eating, when it comes to preparing meals for our children, and in my opinion, the UAE has influenced us on this aspect. For instance, the freshness and hygiene standard of vegetables, fruits, dairy items and meats are visibly high, and it encourages us to cook more healthy food for our daughters,” Deng said.

While the two meals they make for their daughters are often Chinese – whether they are fried noodles, fried rice or dumplings – the UAE has expanded the Deng family’s menu as well.

“We are exposed to so many different cuisines on a daily basis here, we naturally would want to mix other cuisines, other than just Chinese, to my daughters’ meals. For example, our nanny is from another country, so she cooks foreign food every now and then for the children. Plus, we are able to explore other cuisines outside of our household, easily, during our free time,” Deng said.

He feels that the exposure to such an international cuisine won’t just help boost his children’s health, it would also make it easy for them to move to any other country in the future, as adults.

“Wherever they choose to reside, chances are, they will not find the food to be foreign to them, because they are already used to different flavours,” he said.

Another uniquely UAE experience, for Deng, is that he does not have to worry too much about his daughters not learning the English language or their mother tongue well enough – the UAE allows them the chance to study both. With their daughter’s British curriculum school providing an English-speaking environment, his daughters are also familiar with Chinese, which the family speaks at home. If they wish to study the language at a higher level, the UAE also has several Chinese language learning institutions available.

“It’s an interesting and proud thing for us to see, that our six-year-old daughter now speaks and thinks in both Chinese and English, and every now and then corrects our broken English, when we make an effort to respond to her in that language,” he said with a laugh.

“They will most probably be a more capable generation than us, thanks to the UAE environment,” he added.

Enjoying life’s diversity

The opportunities the Dengs get as parents at school, through social activities that are conducted, has also helped their elder daughter Lvxin, who is 6 years old, grow her personality.

They will most probably be a more capable generation than us, thanks to the UAE environment.

- Jie Deng, 34-year-old Chinese expatriate, and father of two.

“Another special thing about parenting in the UAE, is that we are hosting multi-cultural social events at home, for our daughter, because her friends’ circle is multi-cultural - her classmates are from different countries. On her birthday this year, she ‘demanded’ that we invite her school friends over, so we ended up having seven little energy balls rolling around our house. They were from the UAE, India, Pakistan and some other nations. It was a pleasant sight to see, as they didn’t seem to distinguish themselves from one another.

“Through these social events and activities, we noticed that our daughter became more expressive – she is not shy in front of different nationalities, which I admire because I was not as confident in conversations when I first meet a foreigner. Her sociability and outgoing personality will help her in her career in the future, especially if she chooses to live in a place with mixed cultures.

“If she chooses to reside in a country where a single race takes up the majority of population, such as China, then she will need to figure out her own way to adjust with that. As parents, we are not stressing over it, because she is being taught how to be adaptive now in different scenarios and she will be used to having to adjust to a different environment.

“All in all, I attribute these positive outcomes in parenting to the UAE environment. It wouldn’t have turned out to be the way it is, if we were in another country.”

When tolerance is a way of life

Mohamed Saleem Allawi, a 38-year-old father of three, said that the UAE seems to have made him a lot more tolerant and open to conversation as a parent.

“I think I am a lot more friendly with my children and like to have a conversation with them. Even if they are young, it should not be a one-way, top-down conversation. This is the main thing that I see as difference in me as a parent because I am in the UAE,” he said.

“Back home, the way they often deal with children is quite instruction based – ‘Do x, do y … don’t’ ask why’. But I have realised that conversation is the best way to convince children to create a change in them and also take into consideration their point of view,” he said.

“I’m lucky that I am living in the UAE. Especially when it comes to children, it is a safe country and has so many rules around how to protect them and how to take care of them. The country has actually secured the kids in so many aspects and given them priority,” he said.

I have realised that conversation is the best way to convince children to create a change in them and also take into consideration their point of view.

- Mohamed Saleem Allawi, 38-year-old Egyptian expatriate, and father of three.

The safety can put a lot of parents at ease, like in the case of 35-year-old Pakistani mum of two, Farah Arbani.

“Just the other day, my sister-in-law and I were talking about her experience, where her son got lost in Global Village. In any other part of the world, if your child got lost, it would have been a traumatic experience, to say the least. But because it was the UAE, they had a process in place for everything. The parents went to the local office, the child was at another location. The officers made sure that the parents shared their IDs, confirmed their identity, and when their son was brought in, they could see that he was accompanied by a female nurse and had been given some chips to eat, while his parents were being located. You wouldn’t find such care being given to children in any other part of the world,” Arbani said.

Farah Arbani with her daughters - Fatima (left), who is seven years old and Samarah (right), who is two years old.
Farah Arbani with her daughters - Fatimah (left), who is seven years old and Samarah (right), who is two years old.

This sense of security has directly impacted the space Arbani is able to give her daughter, to be able to enjoy experiences that she would normally be hesitant to permit, worried for her safety.

"Here, she is able to speak more confidently to strangers or even go to the park which is in our building, for some time, on her own. I find myself allowing my daughter to experience a lot more than I used to when I was her age. I feel like I can let them make those choices, and as a parent I can make those decisions. Because of this, I feel that she is more independent and able to assess situations better. It has to do with the security that the UAE provides," she said.

This approach, which welcomes everyone, every culture and every experience, has been a game changer for Arbani. From parenting tips to recipes, the multicultural environment allows Arbani to adopt practices that would not have been possible in any other part of the world.

"This approach helps in all aspects, not just education or culture, There is not a topic under the sun that you can’t incorporate into your life," she said.