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How do you teach your children about their ‘identity’?

Eve Dugdale

Published: Updated:

How do you teach your children about their identity?

Do you tell them about what life was like for their grandparents or why they pray in a mosque?

Maybe you live as expats enjoying a different way of life to your family back home. If this is the case, do you think it’s important to remind your children about their heritage while helping them identify with the place they now call home?

One school in America is going all out to help its students learn about both their American and Muslim identity.

Indeed, just recently, Al Fatih Academy in Reston, Virginia, hosted a ‘Wild West’ evening which included a mock campfire and hot dogs and beef jerky. All food was of course Halal and the saloon scene was free of any references to alcohol but fifth-grade teacher Mike Matthews wanted to make his class about the American West as exciting as possible.

Fitting with the school’s ethos to “cultivate and nurture a thriving American Muslim identity that balances religious, academic and cultural knowledge,” the school combines traditional classes with Islamic instruction.

But how important is it for children to understand all aspects of their identity?

It’s ‘essential’ says mother of four Ain Ul-Khalil.

A Pakistani expat in the UAE, she takes educating her children about where they come from and where they live very seriously.

She says: “I teach my children about the UAE in lots of different ways. For example, why we celebrate National Day and that the UAE has a system where the ruler is called Sheikh. They are impressed how Sheikh is so humble and does a lot for the country and supports his citizens in many ways.”

“They see other things like the luxurious cars that they associate with the UAE and they know about the many rules and regulations that the UAE has.”

While educating her children about the country they’re being raised in is important for Ain, keeping their cultural traditions alive is too.

She adds: “The dress code in my country is shalwar kamiz. On Fridays we bathe our kids, wear shalwar kamiz and then the boys go to masjid with their fathers for the Friday prayer. When they return home, we all have lunch together..

“It’s important for us to maintain these traditions because it’s what you are, it’s what our grandparents did and we love to cherish it. I believe it holds us together.”

Maintaining traditions and reminding her children about their heritage is also important to British expat Laura Qasim whose two children have never lived in their home country.

Having lived in the Middle East and now France, food plays a big part in teaching them about their identities.

Laura says: “My husband’s family are from Pakistani and Punjabi food, or as close as I can get to it. This is a big thing for us and makes everyone feel a bit closer to home, especially in France where it's rare to find anything that's at all spicy or considered exotic! We're in a weird situation where we're raising these so-called third culture kids - born in Dubai, with British-Pakistani heritage, being raised in rural France. If anything, we cling on to a weird mix of things to remind them of where they came from, as both kids miss Dubai, their Sri Lankan nanny, and of course their extended families back in the UK. I just ordered tonnes of tahini and Lebanese spice mix so I can make better Arabic food and the kids still occasionally randomly start singing the Dubai national anthem which I guess they learned at school there.”

While Laura has enrolled her two children into various clubs, she says living in a country like France it would be impossible for her children not to feel a sense of belonging with their new home.

She adds: “They go to a fully French school, where no English is spoken so they are completely immersed and learn about things through just being here day to day. France is very proud of its customs and heritage so many of them are integrated into everyday life, such as the food and various celebrations and fetes throughout the year.”

And while cultural celebrations and traditional dishes are important, often it’s the everyday little things you instil on your children that you hold dearest.

Lebanese expat in Saudi Arabia, Lina says: “The Arabic language varies depending on which country you’re from so I make sure my children still use the Lebanese style when they speak at home. Sometimes they pick up other dialects but I correct them when they’re at home!”