Syrian refugee child holds Canadian flag
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What My New Syrian Friends Have Taught Me About Parenting

Aug 25, 2017

The boys are eight, nine and 11. I stand behind them and watch as the 11-year-old crashes yet another car into a concrete embankment. It bursts into flames and explodes. His avatar leaps free of the blast just in time. In moments, he is tearing down the sidewalk and elbowing a woman out of his path, hunting for his next joy ride.

“Steal that one!” the other boys scream in a frenzied chorus.

It’s that their parenting style is so different from my own. For starters, they don't spy on their kids, as I am doing now.

I ended up here because I wanted my kids to experience a different culture. I thought they might pick up a few Arabic words, learn a thing or two about conflicts around the world and meet some honest-to-goodness Muslims before the poisonous stereotypes have a chance to sink in. Living out their hooligan fantasies via Grand Theft Auto isn’t exactly what I had in mind.

To be clear, Grand Theft Auto is way outside my comfort zone. Violence, sexism, criminality; as a video game, it is a loser in every category for me. Particularly since my kid is the eight-year-old in the mix. But there is no way I am going to tell our hosts that their computer game is too violent for my kids. For all I know it is the only game on the old PC tower, which has been hastily connected by little hands on the bedroom floor.

Our hosts are originally from Syria. The family of eight has been in Canada a little over a year but has just squeezed into this three-bedroom house. They were in an apartment a week ago. We met through a program that matches Canadian families with refugees to broaden their social network, practice English and help them acclimatize.


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While these boys mug, murder and car-jack, the girls play tumbling games in the next room over. Downstairs the adults calmly sip tea and chat in simple, yet remarkably proficient, English.

I know culture shock travels in more than one direction. But the big one, for me, isn’t language, dress or food. It’s that they’re parenting style is so different from my own. For starters, they don't spy on their kids, as I am doing now. They trust them more and supervise them less; a combo that seems to deliver surprising results.

Their kids, for example, do all sorts of things that seem completely foreign to me. Things like yielding seats to adults, waiting for others to begin eating, not interrupting, watching over siblings and doing as they are told. Like right away. Dream children, in other words. And the real shocker isn’t that their parenting is unfamiliar to me. In fact, watching it sends shudders and trills of recognition up my spine: This is how I was raised. My parents didn’t police the games I played, the shows I watched or the books I read. They had high expectations but my playtime belonged to me. The surprise is that my own parenting style seems unfamiliar by comparison.

I’m not a convert. Not yet. Yes, my kids play Grand Theft Auto now…but only with their new Syrian friends. The experience has given me a nudge in a good direction. I do try to step out of my comfort zone more, to trust my kids and supervise them less. So far, so good.

Sometimes it takes a unique experience to give you a new perspective. Even when that new perspective was dangling there, inches from your nose, all along.

Article Author Rob Thomas
Rob Thomas

Rob Thomas is a writer, editor and a work-at-home dad. Brood, a book of poems inspired by his experiences of fatherhood, was launched at the Ottawa International Writers Festival in 2014. His journalism has appeared in places such as Ottawa Magazine, the United Church Observer, Canadian Running and on CBC radio and television. He is also a founding member of an Ottawa social club for dads called the Ugly Mothers.

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