I am the daughter of an immigrant Arab mother and father who came to this country to give our family the life they had dreamed of. My country was in between wars and unstable and they wanted to create a better life for their family and children. They sacrificed being near their families and uprooted their lives so they could cement themselves in the UK with their current (me) and future children (my siblings).
My parents gave us the best life they possibly could, and I am forever grateful to them for all their sacrifices.
The focal point of Middle Eastern culture is the family unit. In some aspects, there is a blurring of lines between the individual and the family. Middle Eastern culture is a collectivist one, which places immense value on the family being a strong union which can be great, but also in some ways incompatible with life in the Western World.
I have come to a conclusion that the only way to conquer the doubt and fears of being a “good mother” is by creating my own boundaries and parenting philosophy, which at times may differ from my upbringing. Developing my own parenting style and expressing my independence has been messy, challenging, and, at times, isolating.
However, it has also been incredibly empowering to know I can be that “mama” that embraces parenting her way—not the way I was told it always has to be.
As my mama always said “you take the good from each culture and you create your own”
Parent with empathy as a second gen immigrant
To be a good parent, you need to be able to see the world through your child’s eyes. As an immigrant, this is particularly important because they may feel torn between two cultures and identities. The first step is to be a good listener.
Listen to your child’s feelings and experiences, and learn about their surroundings and try to understand the role it plays in their life. The next step is to try to imagine what it would be like if you were in your child’s shoes. This will help you gain a greater understanding of what they are going through within the context of their family, school and community.
For instance, if your child is struggling with their homework or some other issue related to school work, try asking questions about what they are learning and how it relates to their life or interests outside of school. If you can’t relate well with what they’re talking about, ask questions until you understand it better so that you can connect on a level with them. Allow them the space to be open and honest about you about their opinions, views and feelings.
Maintain an open mind
It’s easy to develop a small narrow-minded view of the world and of people around us – if it’s all you’ve ever known and you remain in the community so you remain in this echo chamber of your own view without hearing or seeing another person’s point of view.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that it is important to maintain an open mind. As a first-generation immigrant, I had differing views from my parents. It’s quite likely your child will grow up with differing views from you too.
However, it has become increasingly obvious to me that being open-minded is essential for learning and growing as individuals as well as understanding other cultures, beliefs and traditions in society today.
Open-mindedness also helps us appreciate both ourselves and others more fully by recognising our common humanity instead of focusing solely on differences between us all which only serves as fuel for prejudice towards one another based on flimsy stereotypes such as race or religion etc.
As children of immigration, many of our parents remained in their own communities even after moving abroad. It can be so easy to understand why; the comfort of being around their own people when the world was so unfamiliar. A place where the language, cultural ideas and in most cases religion were familiar to their own. It is completely understandable; however, this can be self-limiting. It can foster a sense of “us vs them” which can be damaging and dangerous.
You might encounter something that contradicts your previously held view of the world, or makes you reevaluate an aspect about yourself. Children are constantly exposed to different points of view through the media and their interactions with friends in school and the community – and that is a great thing.
To build a deep trusting relationship with your children, listen to what they are saying without interrupting or judging them before you let them know that you have heard what they said.
As first-generation immigrants, we have the advantage of not being so foreign to the country in which we live. We understand both. The importance of mixing with others from different backgrounds, sexual orientations, cultures, religions, races etc is invaluable in solidifying the sense of unity in our children in seeing humanity as one.
Resilience is built in having the courage to simply start over
What many people don’t realise is that resilience is the ability to bounce back from difficult situations. It’s what helps us keep going when things get tough, and sometimes it can feel like we’re starting over again with every new challenge. As children of immigrants, we’ve often seen this resilience first-hand in our parents’ stories and have grown up learning from their experiences.
For me growing up as an Arab Brit, this meant realising how important it was for me not just to have an identity rooted in both cultures. My parents’ story taught me how important resilience is as both an adult child of immigrants or anyone who has been through challenging times growing up.
My children may never experience the true challenges my parents faced, but I hope I can instil the lesson that ‘you are the author of your own story”. The powerful lesson that if you are unhappy with your situation, you have the power to change it. It may be a long and uncomfortable road, but it is your choice to make.
I have implemented this a few times in life – whether intentionally or unintentionally. From switching my degree from science to law as a student to quitting our jobs, selling our house and pursuing entrepreneurship with two little kids in tow. Whatever happens, you write your story.
Traditions can be overrated
You’ve grown up in a different country from your parents, and there will be a number of traditions that you simply do not agree with.
Don’t feel pressured to follow out of fear of disappointing your parents. Stand back and assess your view, look at the good vs the bad, and make your own decision. If you think something is wrong with a certain tradition (and let’s face it: some traditions are just plain weird), don’t be afraid to change it!
You are not your parents, and you don’t have to do the same things they did. If we all followed the status quo; we would never develop as people. We would be stuck doing and thinking the same things. There would be no progress if people begin thinking for themselves and do things differently.
You’re an adult—you’re allowed to have an opinion. This is something that is quite taboo and unexpected in some cultures. In the Middle East especially, cultural ideals are so deeply rooted in society that you are simply expected to follow them – so standing up and openly disagreeing and pursuing your own path can be hard to do.
But information has never been so accessible. We have these tiny computers in our pockets that give us access to literally EVERYTHING. That’s something our parents never had. They relied on their own parents and community for information. You have the privilege of having such vast amounts of information literally at your fingertips. You can research, read, educate yourself and make your own decision. You can implement the positive parts of those traditions into your life while leaving behind their negative aspects that aren’t in line with your own family values.
Stop seeking validation
Validation is the need to be accepted and understood. This is a learned behaviour, borne out of our culture but it’s not something that we need to carry into adulthood.
We need validation in order to feel secure and accepted in society, especially when we’re young. As adults, however, the need for validation should be overcome because this can lead to a sense of insecurity and make us seek approval from others on a regular basis. It can also cause parents to carry higher loads of stress which then gets transferred onto their children in the form of generational trauma or by being overly critical about everything they do wrong and people-pleasing. When you realise that you don’t need validation from other people to feel good about yourself and secure in yourself, it can be a bit of an eye opener. It takes a while to get used to because we’ve been taught our whole lives that this is how life works.
You can release yourself, your children, and future generations from carrying this heavy burden by reaching in and doing some deep self-work.
The Baby Elephant story tells us about how when baby elephants are chained up for too long, they won’t leave as adults even when you let them go. Human minds work in a similar way. Parents may make decisions on behalf of their children when they’re young, but it can be hard for both parties to adjust as the child grows and becomes more independent. The parent wants to keep their child safe and they assume that by making decisions for them, they can continue to do that. And the child often knows no different, feels trapped and doesn’t know how to take back control without disappointing their parents – going back to my point on seeking validation. It often comes from a good place but can be damaging for both parties.
Get comfortable setting boundaries
Boundaries are important for yourself and for those around you. It can be difficult to do this if you’ve spent your life doing what everyone else wants. But when you are able to set boundaries, it will feel so liberating. And it will make you stronger as a person – because knowing your personal limits is one of the first steps to living a fulfilling life.
As a parent myself now and a massive people pleaser, I understand how difficult this can be when all you want is to please those around you and make sure they’re happy with the choices that have been made. But setting boundaries doesn’t necessarily mean saying no or creating conflict; it just means being honest about your boundaries with others so people know and respect them. Before I had kids, I would say yes to anything and everything. Again this can be something deeply rooted in our culture. You say yes even when it doesn’t make you comfortable. You say yes to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings. You say yes to attending an event in order to avoid disappointing someone. This can be a dangerous thing to be modelling to our children as they grow into teens and adults.
Breaking this societal ‘norm’ is so important in raising independent children who are aware of their boundaries and limits and are able to stand up for themselves and say no when they want to.
Invest in healing any generational trauma as an immigrant
It’s important to understand what generational trauma is and how it can be healed.
Genetic memory is a biological concept that explains how our genes carry the memory of previous generations. Trauma is passed through genetic memory from one generation to another, resulting in physical and emotional conditions that affect their lives. This can include mental health issues, drug addictions and suicide.
Although this may sound complicated, it’s actually quite simple: If your parent or grandparent experienced trauma then you are at risk for experiencing similar things yourself later in life. As a child of immigrants and someone who originally comes from a country with a deep history of complicated conflict – this can truly affect us. Seeking help can be the ultimate way to heal yourself and future generations.
It’s important to understand the concept of generational trauma and how this can be passed down. We need to take responsibility for healing our past and helping our children break the cycle of trauma.
There can be great value in embracing cultural traditions
We all have cultural traditions that bind us to our families and communities. These traditions may be religious, or they may be secular. Cultural awareness and tradition play important roles in helping young children develop a positive sense of identity and build self-esteem. Studies show that cultural appreciation and awareness contribute to building a positive self image. There are many ways to teach children about their culture and pass on traditions. Some families may choose to celebrate holidays, while others might focus on cultural heritage or ancestry. The important thing is that each child feels connected to his or her cultural identity, and this connection can be an important part of a child’s development.
It’s up to you which ones you want to keep alive in your family—and there’s no shame in deciding that some aren’t worth embracing.
Being a child of immigrants is wonderful, challenging and special!
Being a child of immigrants is wonderful, challenging and special. It has given me the opportunity to learn about different cultures while being a part of them. I have had the chance to explore parts of my heritage that others might not get to experience, but it has also come with some challenges too.
I think it’s easy for parents who grew up in one culture or country to forget how difficult it is for their children when they try to balance two different cultures at once. Kids are tough and resilient – but they can still find things hard even if they don’t have the ability to process and explain it to you. They may feel like they don’t belong anywhere or fit into any particular category within their family or community if there aren’t other mixed-race families around them.
It isn’t always easy for kids who were raised in a different culture to become parents and try to navigate parenting and raising their own kids knowing the difficulties they faced trying to balance two (often polarisingly) different cultures.
I hope these lessons have been both helpful and insightful for you. Of course, there is no one way to parent and everyone’s journey will be different. But perhaps this article has given you some things to think about or even sparked ideas of your own. Leave me a comment if you are a first generation immigrant parent and let me know what parenting styles and lessons you are adopting to help you kids navigate their two (or more) cultures!