06 April 2013

Raising Second Generation Expats

Ever wonder what it would be like to live abroad with your family?

In my last post 
I interviewed four American expat moms
who described what it was really like 
to live in a foreign country when they were kids

- the good and the bad -

Next I posed the question 
'Did you want to raise your children abroad?'
Here are their responses

Miss C (Raised in 4 European countries, now in England) Absolutely!!  It's a gift that they, once they are adults, will fully appreciate and treasure for the rest of their lives.

Miss S (Brazil as a child, Japan as a teen, now in England)I didn't have a preference per se but my husband and I knew if the opportunity arose, we certainly would consider it. I'm glad my kids live abroad now. It makes them different. They are truly citizens of the world. They have family in Africa and America, and they live in England - but to them that's normal. How crazy is that?!

Miss G (England as teenager, now in India): I absolutely wanted my kids to live abroad, and longer than I got to. I came away from my own experience thinking that living abroad was an essential part of a person’s education in life.

Miss L (Costa Rica as teen, now in England)Both my husband and I were eager to live abroad with our children.  Because of my experiences in Costa Rica, I saw the benefits of living abroad, but I also hoped to move where there would be a lot of activities for our children - our current school and England certainly provide that.

What insights or advice would you have for parents new to the expat life? 
What words of wisdom would you have for their kids?

Miss C: Don't try to live your "old life" in your new location. Open yourself up to your new culture and embrace it, experience it. Expose your children to as much as you can - make them realize that the world is vast and interesting.

Miss S: Laugh. Things will go wrong. If you're lucky to know the language where you are an expat, there are still nuances, jokes, sayings, signs, measurements, and mannerisms that are different. Ask questions. You're a foreigner and people know it. Usually, people are willing to explain things and if you say something silly or out of place, just blame it on your ignorance because you're new!

When we first moved to Brazil, my mom would go to the supermarket and try to speak Portuguese. She wasn't very good at it, and she only knew whole numbers. When she asked for cheese at the cheese counter, she only knew how to say "1" so she would come home with 1 kilo of cheese. That's 2.2 pounds! I did something similar when I first moved to London and ordered groceries online. I got my gallons and litres mixed up and ended up with about 4 gallons of milk in my first order. That's about 15 litres of milk! Whoops.

For the kids - you're never the 'new kid' for long in an expat community. Once you start feeling like you've got it, look around for someone who isn't quite there yet. They will be eternally grateful just as you would have been if someone helped you in your early days.

Miss G: It’s harder to live abroad than at home, harder and richer. In other words, it takes work, but it’s worth it. As a mom, my primary concern is getting the kids settled, and I think it’s really helpful if one parent can focus on just the kids for the first 6 months of a move. Setting them up to be comfortable and with activities they like and one or two friends before you start your job (if you have one) will make the rest of your stay much more comfortable. 

I have tried to be lenient with my kids as moving and being someplace new is stressful for them too - I try to allow them extra treats (an ice cream now and then when you don’t have a friend yet really CAN help!) and lots of listening to them and playing with them. Remembering that they are nervous or homesick or stressed just like you are can help focus your energies on helping them through it. One specific trick that has worked for us: one of my two kids doesn't like change and we have found that keeping his room roughly the same wherever we go makes a huge difference to him. It’s a kind of familiarity that we can provide – when all else is novel.

We also have found that a lot of preparation before you move can really help the kids. I found YouTube videos of the cities we were moving to, to show the kids what it would look like, and we watched together, focusing on things we couldn't wait to see for ourselves or try. We bought coffee table books with big bright pictures of the towns and cities, books of the local folklore and children’s stories also helped engage them. We also had the opportunity to take photos of their new schools (and some of the teachers and kids!) to bring back for the kids to see. Our kids really poured over all this before we moved them and they knew, to some degree, what to expect when we left the airport.

I have found this sort of preparation helps us a lot on our travels as well. Since we've been living abroad (Ethiopia & India), we've taken our kids on vacations to 10 different countries. To engage them before we go, we talk about where we’re going and what we’ll see and do and eat; buy activity and story books when possible (there are great ones for Egypt and China) and make playdoh structures out of the amazing buildings we will visit. After a kid has tried to build the Eiffel Tower out of playdoh, he is even more excited to try to climb to the top when you’re actually there. Putting in the prep time with the kids BEFORE we move or travel has really engaged them and made our travels a lot more fun.

Miss L: Before moving here, we moved quite a bit in the US, and I quickly learned that no matter where you live, there will be things you don't like very much and things that you absolutely love. And that is certainly true to living abroad, only on a bigger scale.  But we've always said, "Just focus on the things you love", and that always seems to work. There is definitely an adjustment period to any move. It takes a while to figure out things and to find your niche socially, but it always gets easier and better as time goes on.  

I would suggest getting involved as much as possible because you'll enjoy it even more. We absolutely love our school - it keeps us very busy and productive - but some of the things we enjoy most are the local activities (sports, church, our British neighbours). My boys have been really happy here, almost immediately, and I keep telling them, "You've learned that you can be happy anywhere". It's a good skill and a good mindset for them to develop.

Anything else you would like to share?

Miss S: I think if you live abroad it's really important (and a lot easier) if you have a safety net. We always went with a big corporation who looked after us, took care of all the logistics, schools, housing, gave us trips home, etc. Living abroad without that safety net can be very difficult. If anything really bad happened, we knew we had a way "out" and would be taken care of. 

Miss G: I have been amazed how clearly my kids mimic my husband’s and my feelings about a move (or a trip). If I am excited and happy about it, then they are too. If I am nervous and homesick and feel out of control, then they will follow suit. Putting your most positive attitude into this adventure will come right back to you. Finally, having the opportunity to live abroad with your kids is a special privilege, and I would encourage anyone interested to embrace the adventure!

Wow! I love all the wonderful insights
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all my questions, girls!

Great tips for vacationing with kids (love the playdoh idea, Miss G!)
and loads of good advice for families moving anywhere, not just abroad

Plus just a lot of sound advice for raising a family

Good stuff!

- all photos by me -

Related posts: 


Jeanie said...

I loved "You're never a new kid for long in an expat community." Don't you wish new-kid would go away quickly anywhere?

Thanks for a fascinating series of posts. This is something so foreign to me (no pun intended!) and only a bit of a dream. It's fun to learn what those experiencing it feel!

Vintage Sheet Addict said...

Just off to pack our suitcases and go and live in another country, actually several for a few years! Loved these insights Laura! :) x

My Garden Diaries said...

It would be such a dream to pick up my crew for a bit and move! Even for just one year so that we could experience a new way of life! Hmmmm you have me thinking with this post!

Pondside said...

We raised our children in three countries, and by and large it was a good experience - at least that's what they told me! We all benefited, grew, learned and I think the children are better world-citizens for it. I would caution any North American parent not to let the children fall into the trap of apologising for their country, though. I found, especially in Europe, that local friends felt very free to criticize Canada and the US in a way that we would never have spoken of their countries.

Anna-Marie Field said...

Hi There, What an interesting post!!! I think there's more pro's than con's to living an expat life! Different experiences and conditions can only make you a better and more understanding citizen of the world!! AND it broadens your general knowledge!!!
Again, very interesting post!!

Down by the sea said...

One of my favorite books of all times is Heidi's Alp by Christina Hardyment. She takes her children to Europe one summer and explores many of the locations of the children's fairy tales and well known books. It makes the country so much more special and memorable for everyone being able to look at it through a children's eyes.
Sarah x

Iota said...

Very interesting post.

Sandra said...

It's nice to hear people's different takes on living abroad. I liked the fact that everyone was so positive!
Living abroad for a certain length of time is very mind broadening and it's really enriching to learn about other cultures. I have lived in several different countries with two new languages to learn and I really loved those times. In fact, I still live in a country which is not my mother country and have learned to feel quite at home. One of my children works and lives in Canada.

Victoria said...

I have to be honest in saying that, I'm not completely sure what the term "expat" means! I hear it a lot now. We left England for Canada when I was 8, for what was to be a 2 year contract job for my dad...my parents ended up divorcing during that time and we stayed. But I'm guessing, since we were originally there for my dad's job only, we would have been expats?

I did have to go to 3 different schools in the 3rd grade but I adjusted quickly. We moved to the U.S. when I was 14 and my 3 boys were born and raised in So Cal...I actually feel sad for them that it's all they've ever known. Now that they're adults I think they're scared to live anywhere outside of So Cal. My ex H refused to move but I would have loved to have given them a more "checkered" upbringing. I think it broadens ones horizons and opens their mind! My only problem is I can never quite figure out if I feel British, Canadian or American...a bit of each I think!

Barb said...

Your post and the expats' answers to questions are very interesting. Though I've never lived abroad with my family, we did move within the US. I found what one of the respondants said was also true for us. The children would mimic our emotions. If we were confident, positive, and happy about the new place, they would follow our example. (Your photos are wonderful!)

Crystal said...

Thank ladies for creating such a post, my family and I will most likely be moving some where outside of the continental US by the end of this year. I have a three year old and five month old. I appreciate the tips for the child who is not used to change as I can see my three year old being that way. Thank you again I am going to bookmark this page.

- Cheers,


MK said...

Glad to have found your blog! And that this post was my first read is fortuitous since we have about two weeks to decide if we are moving to England next year.

I will be reading through your archive and following along on your adventures. Thanks for the inspiration and insight!

Heather Keenan said...

We plan on moving our family, which includes 3 boys (3,5, and 8) to England in the next year, so this post totally put my mind at ease! I'm so grateful to have found your blog! Thanks so much for sharing your experience and advice.