Freedom in the USA? Freedom in the UAE?
Ah, the classic conundrum of “Freedom Versus Security.” I remember learning about this in 10th grade Modern European History with Mr. Byrnes, and I can tell you that this is one concept that I have not forgotten; in fact, it is the basis for my worldview. Thank you, Mr. Byrnes, for that.
The notion of “Freedom” is not one you generally associate with the Middle East, right? They just do not go together—not they are diametrically opposed–but they are just not a natural fit. When you think of “Freedom,” you indeed think of the USA—or, at least, I do, because I am from there and have been spoon-fed boundless freedoms since I was three. A friend found it odd recently when I wrote to him that life was complicated here in Abu Dhabi, but one aspect of life that I would be very reluctant to part with is the many “freedoms” children/teenagers have in this country. ‘Freedoms? In the Middle East?!,” he gasped—I could hear it loud and clear through the apathetic satellite transmission of the e-mail. “Yes,” I replied. “I would have a hard to time going back to the USA and to give up the freedom my kids have to be kids here in the United Arab Emirates.” In my reply, I told him that when I had a moment I would explain further. I never did clarify this statement, which was so disconcerting to him. This may be something hard for people who have not spent time here to understand. Indeed, I have found it pleasantly unexpected myself. Let me try to justify this by pointing out what freedoms are no longer available to kids in many parts of America.
1) Freedom to Act Your Age
Pretty Woman? Can you get any more inappropriate? This child is couldn’t be older than 3 or 4, right?
My disillusionment with the USA was truly revealed to me once I had children—specifically girl-children. The mixed messages girls receive from an increasingly younger age in America is nothing really new or entirely unique to the USA, but—like many things—America takes it one step farther, bigger and, in this case, worse. Little girls are sexualized and objectified in horrific ways and, often without our even knowing, it can begin as early as when they are toddlers. Television shows, such as Toddlers and Tiaras, only illustrate the problem that we, as a culture, accept this treatment of children both as a cultural phenomenon and, more sadly, as a form of entertainment. Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council stated, “There’s no question, TV executives are complicit in robbing these small kids of their childhood. For years we’ve seen adult sexuality being inappropriately and aggressively foisted on innocent young children, but children today are being sexualized at younger and younger ages.” Nothing more needs to be said really. These pictures say it all.
This does not happen here. Period. End of story. I cannot tell you why it’s unacceptable to parade a 2 or 3 year old dressed provocatively here, but it just is. Perhaps it’s religion. Maybe it’s just good taste. You never see it thankfully. Of course, I knew no one back home went to such extremes to overtly sexualize their baby girls. Shows, such as the one mentioned above, are extraordinary examples, but what I found was that most people tolerated overt displays of sexuality from younger and younger girls than I was unwilling to tolerate. I simply wanted a childhood for my girls. I am not sure if I am too late, but I can tell you that they are enjoying their newfound freedom. They aren’t enjoying everything about it here, of course, but I know they feel a certain amount of pressure lifted. Here, a 12 year-old is not a “tween,” nor is she conflicted in any meaningful way about adult issues. She is still just a kid. At least, this is my experience.
2) Freedom to Be Unmedicated
Back home, I heard story after story of parents of children alarmingly younger and younger being coerced by schools, doctors and other specialists into giving their kids prescription medications about which they felt very uncomfortable. We all know that many are very addictive. Some have side affects that cannot even possibly be known until a patient has taken them for some time. I am very conflicted about this one. I am fortunate to have two children who, thus far, present so academic or health issues that might warrant even a mention of any condition for which parents are often told to medicate their kids in the US. I have no idea what I would do if I were told that my child needed a certain prescription/diagnosis to return my child to a public school. I have no idea what I would do if the reliance on said prescription meant my child having a successful academic career. I like to think I would search out more healthful alternatives to anything pharmacological, but that’s easier said than done, I know. I have agonized over this with far too many friends to oversimplify it as such.
Many prescription drugs are flat out illegal here—apparently anything that has the potential to lead to an addiction is heavily controlled if not outright banned in this country. I’ll admit when I read this prior to coming over, I thought it was a little whack. After all, if I have a legitimate prescription for something in my home country, why would it not be honored in this country?! It made no sense. Then, I thought more about all the illegal prescribing done in the US. I thought about the over-prescription of opiate-based painkillers that often leads to horrific, life-long addictions, or worse, overdoses and death. I researched this phenomena in the most cursory of ways, and the results were pretty alarming.
Drug use in the United States — of the prescribed variety — is clearly out of control. The average American, aged 19 to 64, now takes more than 11 prescription drugs, according to the latest statistics from the Kaiser Health Foundation.
The average annual prescription rate for children and seniors in the United States is sky-high! The statistics are something like this: almost 4 prescriptions per child (age 0-18) and more than 31 prescriptions per senior, aged 65 and over.
Here, there is no reliance on controlling children through medication, which of course is far easier than discipline. Not that doctors and leaders here have everything right medically or educationally; they way over-prescribe antibiotics and, well, education here is interesting…hmmm–well, that’s fodder for another blog, I tell you. Though this place is not perfect, perhaps it’s onto something with a crack down on pharmaceuticals? Perhaps the USA needs to take a harder look into exactly what they are controlling. Is it symptoms of various honest conditions? Is it another way to control the masses? Is it a Band-Aid for atrocities being committed nationally, perhaps globally to our food and water supplies? I can say I don’t notice a nation of hyperactive kids here, bouncing out of their seats or depressed ones, for that matter, waiting for their impending prescriptions to be phoned in. The classrooms remind of how they looked when I was a kid. There are antsy kids. There is discipline—it’s as simple as that. Or is it? Again, I really don’t know. This is just a window looking in from the outside to what I consider a really big problem in the USA and, from which, I can say I am happily thousands of miles away.
3) Freedom to Roam
Look Mom! No Hands!!
In the states, my family lived in a very safe, small town. We were really quite lucky to have a wonderful community, which looked out for one another, and we knew it. Yet still, it would have been very unlikely for us to let our daughters walk home from school, bike outside of the confines of the neighborhood, wait at the morning bus stop or wander too far out of our collective sight without one of us. I did know some people who did let their kids, but we just did not. At times, I wished I could, but I was too fearful. There was, and still is, much debate over whether this fear is warranted. Is there is really any more of a real threat to our children’s safety than there was 30 years’ ago when I was pretty much allowed to roam my town carte blanche? I came home to eat. I came home to sleep but, aside from those two states of being at home, I was always out gallivanting about with my pack of friends. Some speculate the media is propagating this message of inherent vulnerability to parents, but most would argue that the world is a more dangerous place for kids than it once was, and it probably has more to do with the breakdown of families and communities than anything else.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I landed here and noticed children (my kids’ ages) playing in the park alone. There were kids in packs playing at the beach—not a parent in sight. There were kids biking and skateboarding around our complex. Kids eating with friends alone at restaurants and cafés and finally—and here’s the biggie—kids in wide-open, public places, like theme parks, without their parents. I kid you not! Kids can go to theme parks here alone without fear of abduction?! Now, I would not send a 5 or 6 year old to any of the aforementioned places by his/herself anywhere, any country, any continent, but a 9 & a 12 year old, sure. Why not? I wouldn’t at home, but I would here as long as one kid in the group had a phone and they vowed to stick together. There are many reasons why it’s considered so safe here–too many into which we could get. Of course, all it would take is one bad apple to spoil this kid-friendly country—and, it could happen—but,
Don’t get me wrong there are very serious issues with life here too. I have blogged about it here, and I have not been as transparent about other extremely problematic issues with life here. The U.A.E. is a very far cry from perfect. I’ll also admit that we are living in an “expat bubble” here that is not indifferent to a heavily secured gated community in the states. There are more cameras here in our community watching our every move than you can count stars. Surprisingly, I can live with this. In the US, I think I would find such a state of surveillance rather disconcerting. After all, we are spoon fed all that freedom gibberish from such an early age; it’s hard to admit that all the rights and freedoms we believe unalienable, have mostly been eroded over past few decades. Don’t get mad! This is just my opinion, and I think, according to the US Constitution, I still have a 1st Amendment right to Free Speech, don’t I? And, you know it’s true anyway. Admit it.
My larger point in this post is that, in this particular phase of my life having young-ish daughters, I choose Security over Freedom. I may not have 15 years’ ago; I might not again in 10 years’ time. But for right now, I delight in allowing my kids to be kids, to be sober and to roam–not always under my watchful eye. It’s relaxing for me and edifying for them. It’s a security bubble of sorts, of course, and all bubbles do burst, but I’d be more than happy getting a few more years out of this than returning to the over-sexualization/objectification of kids, over-prescribing meds and general fear-mongering back home.