Olympic games

It is just 2 more sleeps until the opening ceremony of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Whilst many of us in the world are pulling out our favourite national sporting paraphernalia ready to cheer on our country’s athletes, those in the globally mobile world are being confronted by a cultural identity crisis. Having lived a significant part of their developmental years outside of their passport country, members of this community often feel like they belong everywhere and nowhere. At this time every four years, such a lifestyle regularly leads to the daunting question: Which country do I cheer for in the Olympic Games?

Why do world sporting events such as the Olympic Games and the Rugby & Soccer World Cups cause such angst and how can they be used as an opportunity to support our globally mobile kids’ cultural identity development and sense of belonging?

Why do The Olympic Games cause angst in some children?

The Olympic Games causes angst because globally mobile kids spend a significant part of their developmental years outside the parents’ or passport culture. They build relationships to all the cultures they have lived in, while not having ownership of any. By the time children are 2 years old, the cultures in which they live shape how they view objects and events in the world that surround them.* You may remember my blog post last year during the Rugby World Cup showing the little girl traumatized about whether to support New Zealand or Australia. In the case of this little girl, her parents are from New Zealand but she doesn’t feel as though she belongs there because she has lived a significant part of her life to date, in Australia. She does not have a connection with either cultural identity in the same way as someone who has lived their entire life in the one country.

Yet Cultural Identity is important because the development of identity is inextricably linked to self-confidence. Learning to be proud of who we are is underway between the ages of 3 and 5. “One of the major developmental tasks that helps us form our sense of identity and belonging is to successfully learn the basic cultural rules of our society while we are children, to internalise these principles and practices as we move through adolescence and then use them as the basis for how we live and act as adults.” ** It’s very hard to do this when the basic cultural rules keep changing as globally mobile kids move from culture to culture, even if it is just from their parents’ passport culture to a host culture. It is known as Cultural Confusion but there are strategies we can employ, at this time, to help our children develop their own cultural identity and sense of belonging.

5 Strategies for supporting your globally mobile child’s cultural identity development and sense of belonging

  1. Celebrate their Life Story

Now is a great time to celebrate your globally mobile child’s Life Story. It is a unique story of places lived and loved, incredible experiences savoured, friendships made and opportunities taken. Talk to your family members about their life and the countries in which they have lived. Pull out the family albums and movies. Reminisce. Laugh. Cry. Celebrate the unique human being they are by identifying and encouraging specific character traits, personality attributes and abilities. Underpin these with your own family values to give them a solid foundation upon which to continue to write their Life Story.

  1. Give them permission to cheer for more than one country

It’s OK to feel loyal to more than one country. During our years of living in Singapore, we had the privilege of watching the progress of a swimmer by the name of Joseph Schooling. Next week he will compete under the Singaporean flag right alongside Australian swimmers in the 100m and 200m butterfly events. I know that my globally mobile boys will be cheering on Joseph Schooling with great enthusiasm and pride, even though their passport says they are Australian…and I will be encouraging them to do so. My boys’ life story is different from mine and I don’t want to force my nationality and cultural identity on them. As they grow, they are fostering their own global identity and part of that will be on show when Schooling hits the water next week. I firmly believe that we need to give our globally mobile children permission to cheer for more than one country, fly flags for more than one country, wear the colours or sporting uniforms of more than one country and cheer loudly in more than one language.

  1. Remind them that they are not alone

The latest statistics show that Expatriates (someone who relocates abroad but anticipates returning home at some point) make up the 5th biggest population in the world – 232 million and there are 13 million globally mobile children under the age of 9 (ranging from those travelling with wealthy expatriate families to unaccompanied minors fleeing their homeland). Your globally mobile child is not alone in facing the challenge of which country they belong to and/or to cheer for in the Olympic Games. Encourage your child’s teacher to talk about this in class. If you are a teacher of globally mobile students, use the Olympic Games as an opportunity to explore cultural identity and belonging using their emotional vocabulary.

  1. Highlight The Refugee Olympic Team

On 6th August 2016, over 10,500 athletes from 206 nations will come together to compete in 28 sports over 16 days. For the first time, however, there will also be athletes competing in Rio, not under their nation’s flag but under the Olympic Flag. The Refugee Olympic Team consists of 10 athletes who “have no home, they have no team, they have no flag, and they have no national anthem.” *** They are all Olympic calibre athletes, who have qualified under the same standards as all other Olympic athletes, to compete in swimming, athletics and judo. Made up of athletes who have fled the countries of South Sudan, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia, they will take their place in the opening ceremony parade right before the host team of Brazil. Whilst it is tragic that these athletes have been forced to flee their homeland, what a great opportunity this is to highlight the plight of Refugees around the world and to show that challenges can be springboards for growth. Out of extreme adversity, these athletes are great examples of resilience, determination and success, even when you have no country to call home.

  1. Reinforce the Olympic Spirit

“The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”**** Peaceful and better world; without discrimination; mutual understanding; spirit of friendship, solidarity and fairplay – isn’t this what we want for our children and the world in which they live? Just as the world’s best amateur athletes will (hopefully) display these qualities in Rio, our globally mobile kids can be the cultural bridge, promoting dialogue between and among cultures. By living in cultures outside their passport culture, they are well positioned to be instruments of peace and exemplifying the Olympic Spirit in our globalised world.

The Olympic Games and other international sporting events can cause angst in the hearts and minds of globally mobile kids but they are also an opportunity to support their cultural identity development and sense of belonging. By celebrating their unique Life Story, giving them permission to feel a sense of belonging and loyalty to more than one country, reminding them that they are not alone in this feeling, highlighting The Refugee Olympic Team and reinforcing the Olympic Spirit we, as their parents and educators are allowing them to develop their own cultural identity, based on all the cultures in which they have lived. In doing so, they will remain authentic people – true to their Life Story.

* Northwestern University

**Pollock and Van Reken

***Thomas Bach – IOC Chairman

****The International Olympic Committee


Photo Credit: Budapest Business Journal



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