(Re)producing First World Brats?

One of my Erasmus friends grew up as the daughter of expat aid workers. Her parents had been working for a couple of organisations in different countries of  Central America for a few years. They went back to Spain when she was a pre-teen. I remember from the stories she told us her beautiful, dreamy memories of growing up playing in the jungle with local kids, but also her melancholy in adjusting to a Western town with traffic lights after years of living close to nature and her sadness about losing contact with her early childhood friends – social media came up a few years later. In my early 20s I dreamt of becoming myself an aid worker; I envied her for her hippy-style, open minded parents and valued a lot the opportunity she had to spend a part of her childhood in such a different environment.

While browsing the “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like” blog, I met with a few posts about kids of expat aid workers, which pretty much unpack the myths around the experience of bringing up children in a so-called developing country. As Christie pointed out, SEAWL is a humorous,  refreshing, and I would add sometimes corrosive blog about representations, self-representations and common experiences of expat aid workers.

The issue of parenting among aid workers seems to be a complex issue in general, especially in those situations  in which deployment affects only one of the parents. As shown by some anonymous aid workers reporting their thoughts in the “Secret Aid Worker” web column  of The Guardian, deployed parents happen to be dealing with guilty feelings  and struggle quite a lot with their work/life balance. SEAWL bloggers sarcastically write about the difficulties met by couples and families in which one parent will always put his/her vocation first.

Don’t waste your breath saying that his agency must only believe in child rights for other people’s children, since the only time he sees his own children is when they are sleeping. Don’t bring up that you could use a little family reunification or peace and reconciliation or gender equity program at home.

When the  family lives together in a foreign country, following SEAWL, it is common to meet with an over-positive discourse about aid workers’ children “having a great opportunity to experience diverse cultures and customs, and gain a real appreciation of poverty by living right there on its doorstep”; also, the bloggers explain, long-standing expat aid workers tend to be proud of their multilingual, cosmopolitan offspring.

If you’re lucky, the EAW will have some pop statistics about how children who speak multiple languages are more intelligent and socially adept than those who only speak one language, and how speaking more than one language makes children have better problem solving abilities and more developed activity in the regions of the brain that deal with empathy. This helps the EAW feel OK about moving the children around every few years, having a variety of local women do the majority of the child rearing and putting aid work first.

SEAWL bloggers have no pity towards the idealisation of  expat kids. Children will not happily run with the kids from the village and play with a ball of twine, as in their parents’ fantasy. In the “field” they will get bored with no shopping malls or bowling alleys. They will “essentially remain first world brats”,  kept at home in the care of local housekeepers, with plenty of expensive toys and technological gadgets, which will be one day thrown aside and given to the local kids down the road.

This little portrait about young kids  slightly echoes Fechter’s reflections [1] about Third-culture teenagers, children of aid workers.   Third-culture kids [2,4] is a term coined by Ruth and John Useem to describe children who, having lived in more than one country, feel that they belong to multiple cultures. Literature on internationally mobile young people tends to stress the potential benefits of their condition in terms of open-mindedness – a characteristic that the Cambodia-based kids interviewed by Fechter often use to define themselves [1]. In her research, though, Fechter concludes that

being highly mobile and having parents involved in aid work doesn’t necessarily furnish young people with the reflective capacity or motivation that would allow different engagement with their position between privilege and poverty .[1]

The public discourse of “open-mindedness” of these kids does not always reflect a deep, critical awareness of inequality and poverty, especially for those who have limited exposure to urban poverty [1]. Also, several kids involved in the interviews  experience a sense of disconnect from peers in their passport countries, while at the same time not feeling part of the local fabric such as their neighbourhoods in Cambodia. The issue of identity is critical in TCKs because their identity is challenged with every move [3]; they may have a multiple sense of belonging or no sense of belonging [3]. Fechter’s work appears to highlight, overall, a discrepancy between the kids’ representation and self-representation and some of their real experiences.

I guess aid workers’ kids can maybe be seen as the litmus test of aid workers’ lifestyle on the “field”.  The way they are raised can be seen as a reflection of their parents’ views about their own job and their position versus the local population. If some aid workers keep their kids living in a Western lifestyle bubble, is that because the world outside is really that dangerous? Because their deployment is short term and they want their children to get used at the routines of their passport country lifestyle? Or is it out of a sense of superiority and distance (you don’t want your kid to mix too much with local kids his/her age)?

As Terence Wood points out in this post on WhyDev, Western attempts at doing good often bring with them huge inequalities  of their own. Of course, SEAWL’s posts portray a stereotypical situation – in real life there will be many different shades in the practice of raising Western children in developing countries. Certainly the situation depicted by Mrs. Expat about “Expat Brats”‘s lives mimicking suburban Western lifestyles even if they are growing up in Bolivia or Tanzania can raise questions about the core meaning of aid work,  the relationship between aid workers and local people, and the way we intend to take care of our children. As adults, do we want them to be aware of the reality they live in, to help them  blend in the complexities of the world we brought them in, and/or up to what extent do we want to keep them in a shell to protect them from our own life choices?


[1] Fechter, A. (2016). Between privilege and poverty: The affordances of mobility among aid worker children, in Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, 2016, Vol. 25 (4), pp. 489-506.

[2] Lam, H., Selmer, J. (2004). Are former “third-culture kids the ideal business expatriates?, in Career Development International, Vol. 9 No.2, 2004, pp. 109-122.

[3] Fail, H., Thompson, J., Walker, G. (2004). Belonging, Identity and Third Culture Kids: Life histories of former international school students, in Journal of Research in International Education, 2004, 3:319.

[4] Useem, RH. (1973). Third culture factors in educational change. In: Brembeck CS and Hill WH (eds) Cultural Challenges to Education. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, pp. 469-481.


  1. Rudelene Nanette

    Hi Elena,

    I found the article from Fechter very interesting. My family just left Cambodia for another assignment in Laos when the study was made. So it sounded so familiar especially that my children were also attending the international school there. I talked to my children about what I read and it was a good discussion. My older son especially felt that being away for 15 years gave him quite a strange upbringing but in a good way. There were pros and cons but no regrets.

    1. Elena Poletti

      Thank you for sharing this thought, Rudelene. I don’t have your experience, so I found Fechter’s findings and the bloggers’reflections very interesting, but I’m just proposing questions as an ‘outsider’. I guess there are so many ways to raise children, and that applies also to expat aid workers. Every child’s experience may be a little different from the other and surely there are pros and cons in raising a child abroad.

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