When you parent cross-culturally, you lose any sense of what is ‘normal’ at what age. Elliot is different to his Australian peers and to his Tanzanian peers, but I don’t even have a good sense of what Aussie mums would think is ‘normal’, and we don’t have many opportunities to hang out with Tanzanian families, and there are cultural differences between western kids and Tanzanian kids anyway.
When Elliot started talking, being interested in drawing, tantruming, etc I had no idea whether he was ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’ other kids in his age group. There’s something good about that: no comparison means you just parent the kid in front of you and respond to their needs. But it also means that if there was a problem, I might not pick up on it, or have others around us who would. When we were in Australia last year, it quickly became apparent that Elliot was well behind other kids his age when it came to some gross motor skills like climbing, probably because playgrounds had been virtually non-existent in Dodoma. He caught up quickly while we were in Australia, but it illustrates the issue: sometimes comparison can be a healthy thing that helps a parent to understand their child’s needs.
TCKs have a stack of extra needs. Their situation is highly unique. Our Elliot has been through 5 major life changes in the last year. (He and I moving to Australia, Arthur joining us, Callum being born, moving back to Tanzania but not to Dodoma, starting school.) Red Twin the psychologist tells me that the normal adjustment period for such transitions is about 6-8 weeks. That rings true of our experience with Elliot – we’d put it at 2 months. During that time, you’re not yourself as you work through the stress of that adjustment. A kid’s sleep may be disturbed, or their appetite, or they might be extra clingy, or less cooperative than normal. The thing is, our Elliot has gone through each of those transitions about 3 months apart. It’s basically been a 2 months on, 1 month off kind of situation. Equilibrium has been elusive, and short when it does exist. So he’s not really been himself for two thirds of the last year.
Can you imagine how unsettling that is for him? And for us? Where is normal to be found? We keep wondering, is this just a four year old thing, (in which case he might just grow out of it, or it might require discipline)? Is it a cross-cultural thing (in which case he may need defending, or some kind of explanation)? Is it a transition thing, something we can expect to disappear in the next 5 weeks or so, and which requires a delicate combination of mercy and boundaries? And how would we know if it’s a more significant concern, or that we need to reassess things in order to be kind to him, or to keep him safe? How would you tell the difference anyway?
CMS have people who help us to reflect on this kind of thing, and we’re thankful for those who have reassured us “he’s doing fine” and “this is normal”, but God has given us an extra kindness. This past month we have become friends with an American family. They work for the US government here, arrived around the same time we did, and will be here for about 2 years. They have a son a few months younger than Elliot and the two have become fast friends. It’s a pretty good temperament match all round actually, including for the parents. But the great sigh of relief for us has been this: Elliot and his little friend are like one another.
They say similar things about their former homes, have reacted similarly to starting school (not the same one), misunderstand the same cultural cues, are delighted by the same kinds of play, display similar physical behaviours, are tired out by the same things.
Whether they are like that because they are both four year olds, or both TCKs, or are both going through a major life change, and probably because they are doing all three, it gives us a measure of calm, and it gives Elliot a little friend who ‘gets’ him.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.