Raising kids abroad: it’s all just a guessing game

There has been a huge debate going on in an expat Facebook group I belong to over the past few days about whether it is right to take children to live overseas.

Started by a woman who is obviously struggling, the post hit such a nerve that within 24 hours she had something like 200 responses. And almost every one of them with a different view. Which just goes to show – no-one really knows the answer.

Some people obviously took huge offence at the notion that it isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the child to take them away from all that they know and love, into an alien environment where they would have to make new friends and find a new routine. To them, their decision to take their offspring abroad was seen as an entirely positive thing. They would be bringing up global nomads who would navigate their lives with a fantstic grounding in world knowledge, an understanding of different cultures and hopefully an extra language or two.

What could be wrong with that, right?

Well of course to many, this wasn’t so right. Others piled in with a totally different story. Loss of identity, sense of not belonging anywhere, losing friends, missing family……there were plenty of stories from the other side of the coin to counteract the rainbows and unicorns thrown around by the first group.

In between of course were plenty of sensible comments made by people who understood that in the end there is no “right” and no “wrong”. That just like pretty well everything when it comes to parenting (apart from maybe making sure your child doesn’t stand too close to the edge of Niagara falls), it’s all just guesswork. It is impossible to know exactly what effect your decisions today will have on your children in the future – you can only weigh up all the considerations and they chose one way. And hope. Not only that, but every family, every child, every situation, is unique. What works for one will not necessarily work for another. And what worked for your child when they were 5 or 6 years old might be a different story when they reach their teen years.

cooling off day one aug 08

Expat life can definitely have its advantages for children….

So should you move abroad when you have children? Well, having been a Third Culture Kid (TCK) myself, and now raising two more, I am not going to say no. But on the other hand I will caution that it is important to know what you are getting yourself into. I don’t agree with those who do nothing but rave about the experience. To me that sounds very defensive and I think there sometimes is a lot of “guilt” (oh don’t we all hate hearing about the parental gult!) behind their comments. Realistically, taking your children away from their home once, or multiple times, is going to affect them one way or another – and you are doing them a disservice to pretend otherwise.

However, so long as you are prepared and know what you are getting yourselves into, I also believe there are at least as many upsides as downsides to doing this – and hopefully in the end, the scales will come down in favour of taking the plunge. At the moment we are struggling with my youngest daughter who, nearly seven months after we moved here, is still unhappy. But on the plus side she has had some of the most incredible experiences that will stay with her for a lifetime, she is learning new languages, has friends from several different countries and been given an opportunity to learn about a fascinating country with a very unique history, first hand.

My other daughter has settled a lot better but there are a lot of issues around her schooling. Moving her into a different curriculum hasn’t been easy and I foresee problems when we move home again.

I, like others, question every day whether we have done the right thing. But there is no point in beating myself up about it – at the end of the day we are here and unless some emergency forces us home, we are staying for the duration. My youngest daughter might be unhappy but she could equally be just as cross at home – but for different reasons. And of course she isn’t always unhappy – she loves her new friends, seeing elephants in the wild, learning to ride a horse, being in the swimming pool for hours on end….

And the older daughter might have gaps in her maths knowledge, but she will have learnt things from being in a school with an international culture that she would never have the chance to back home. She will also have friends in several different countries – who hopefully we will have the chance to visit once this posting is done and dusted.

So what is my conclusion? Well, really it goes back to the title of this post – which is, who knows! It really is just a guessing game and whilst I would love to give you a straightforward answer, I can’t. To take your children to live abroad or to not take your children to live abroad? Well, that really is the question!

Resources: I can recommend two brilliant resources for anyone who wants to know more, both of which I have reviewed on this site: Your Expat Child website and the book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counselling the Globally Mobile.

What do you think? Have you taken the decision to move abroad with children and if so was it the right one? Were you yourself a Third Culture Kid and if so, do you think it benefitted you? What advice would you give to others?

back-kuaa-on-kickstarter

 

 

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33 thoughts on “Raising kids abroad: it’s all just a guessing game

  1. I never thought of myself as an Expat – we moved our kids twice. From Switzerland to Canada, and then within Canada. They were 10 and 11 the first time, 12 and 13 the second – a touchy age to move. We were lucky, it worked. As you say, it’s always a risk. Sometimes you can mitigate it, sometimes you can’t. On the whole our kids profited by learning English, the global language, and seeing there are other ways to live. On the other hand, one of our sons still struggles at times. And this is years later. I like that you write: but that could have happened if we’d stayed home too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s it – but as not moving is more the “norm” we don’t often see posts where people ponder what would have happened if they hadn’t taken their children to live overseas. When those kids have meltdowns I doubt many people write it’s because we DIDN’T take them to Singapore (or whatever) and made them stay in this boring town…..children will have issues wherever they are. However it is always worth being aware of the impact moving with them can have so that you can try and keep an eye out for potential problems.

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  2. Gosh people really do get exercised on forums don’t they! What works for one family doesn’t for another. Like a previous poster I never realised I was an expat child until I went to boarding school in one country and my parents moved to another. Until then I was just a Dutch/Irish girl living with her family in a succession of different countries.

    Neither of our children settled in our previous posting, for a number of reasons, and their feelings were one of the reasons we decided to move on when an opportunity presented itself after only a short time in post.

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    • People really do! I think the problem comes when they think someone is criticising their personal choices but in the end I don’t think any of us can criticise anyones choices unless we have walked in their shoes. Decisions are made with all sorts of knowledge and information that we don’t necessarily know anything about and we shouldn’t need to explain that to others.

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  3. You’re right. There is no right and there is no wrong. I think the biggest thing we struggle with is that it is so different from the way both my husband and I grew up, which is the only experience we have to compare it to. So I worry that they won’t have the same things I did, that I know, that I appreciate. But I can’t answer that what they are getting isn’t BETTER, because I have no real frame of reference. Your children seem like a terrible thing to take a gamble on don’t they? At the end of the day, my husband and I maintain that the where doesn’t matter as much as the who. That is, as long as we are together, we can ‘live’ anywhere.

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    • I think the only frame of reference we will ever have is a tetrospective one and then it is too late. So we just have to make the most of what we do have and try and block out all the dissenting voices. And agreed the who is much more important than the where. Even if the who isn’t necessarily your average nuclear family – what children mostly need is to know they are loved. And to have access to WiFi….;)

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  4. Brilliant post, Clara. You can´t know nor predict the future. What you CAN do is make a decision for you and your family that is “clean.” Clear – free from guilt-trips, free from “shoulds” free from doing what “everyone” says you should do. The best we as parents can do is show up in our lives fully, taking into consideration what we want and need as well as the childrens´ best interests. No one has that formula for you and your family. It is up to you to crack that code.

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    • Thanks Sundae! I agree no-one has the formula. Do we even have the formula? Well I guess we at least know what we are working with, which others don’t necessarily. Or might think they do…in the end, you just do what you think is right given the information you hold and like you say have a clear conscience with that.

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  5. I just interviewed my little TCKs (ages 11 and 8) on this very topic last week (this is their second expat experience – we are an American family of five that have lived in Australia and now Ireland). It is loads of give and take, ups and downs, positives and negatives. But then their ages and stages present challenges of one sort or another regardless of where one makes their home. I agree whole heartedly with your take on it.

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  6. I moved from the UK to South Africa when I was 10 and it was a very tough move for me. I missed England so much. I grew up to become an expat, we’ve just started country 6, and I have discovered through sweat and tears that I have learned how to move. I HATED it in the beginning, now I’m ADDICTED to it. I’ll never be able to settle in one place. And so with my kids (6 and 3) whilst I absolutely understand that in the future moving around might affect them negatively, I also kind of feel like they will learn to deal. At the end of the day there is no right or wrong answer, but one thing is for certain, if you don’t at least try you’ll never know.

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    • My daughter was just coming up to 10 when we moved here to SA, it’s a great age for it. She’s getting a lot out of living here, just bring able to be outside so much and all the sports etc has been so good for her (well for them both). And like you, I can’t imagine ever living in one place Knowing it was forever…..

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  7. Excellent article Clara. As one ATCK to another here are some words of encouragement. Our son did not settle well on our move to the US, he ended up going to boarding school in England – a country he had never lived in – and flourished. Now both children are all grown up – our daughter lives in Trinidad with her family, and our son cannot wait to get an overseas posting.
    There will always be ups and downs, and who is to say they wouldn’t / don’t occur whether we live abroad or not.

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    • It’s lovely to hear it from those whose children have made it and are flourishing, thank you Apple! It is hard sometimes when you are in the middle of another tantrum or period of sadness to see the bigger picture. And hey looking on the really bright side now you get to go on holidays to the Caribbean! 😆

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  8. What a great post!
    I also ask myself the same question and wonder what my thoughts will be 20 years down the line.
    As you say there probably isn’t a right answer, and you never know how things would be in another place anyway.
    I also figure that as long as we are together, that is what’s important, we are ‘home’ as long as we are together 🙂

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    • That’s it, none of us know what is round the next corner in life. I always say no regrets whatever decision you take but for me personally I know the path of adventure is usually the one I’ll look back on and be glad I took. So long as there isn’t TOO much adventure 🙂

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  9. Excellent post. In the past 15 years, we moved from New York to Nigeria to India to Bangladesh to Serbia with two children from the age of 7 months to 13 years old, and our eldest daughter just moved to a boarding school in the UK. And it’s not over. No, it’s not always rosy or perfect. Yes, there are advantages and disadvantages. No, there is no way to predict whether our children will only benefit from having experienced that life, or not. But who can say that staying put and not being challenged, not seeing our tolerance levels stretched, is the best way to bring up all children? Some kids will strive, and others will struggle. And there’s no way we can predict who, and what or how. So, as for all things related to parenting, we do our best, and… hope for the best. The way I see it, our eldest (almost 16) will always be a traveler: she has that zest, that curiosity, that restlessness, that fire in her belly. Which doesn’t mean all the moves did not impact her in some ways that may not all be entirely positive. Our second child may yet surprise me, but I tend to imagine her choosing a place as soon as she’ll be able to, putting roots and not moving ever again. Maybe they’ll both prove me wrong : it wouldn’t be the first time. Parenting is a wild guessing game, wherever we are. And any situation has pros and cons… wherever we are. Thanks for this post.

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    • Thanks Katia. Your older daughter sounds like me – I have never been able to stay in one place for very long (the five years we were in the UK ject before coming here were the longest time I have ever spent anywhere in my life!). My brothers though, different story. One barely leaves England even for holidays!

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      • Clara, my older daughter is also like me 🙂 The rare times I didn’t move after 3 years in one place, I started getting antsy, restless, uncomfortable. I’m old enough that I recognize the symptoms, now, and can control them, but they never miss to appear. And I have a sister who’s never moved more than one kilometer away from where my parents live (and they haven’t moved in almost 40 years…) So, yet, one’s own nature has a say in the matter, and it’s not something we can necessarily guess early in a child’s life.

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  10. What a fantastic post! You’re absolutely right – you have to do what is best for you and your family, and eveyone is different, not to mention every country. Like everything else in life, there are pros and cons, and you just need to make the best out of it.

    Thank you so much for posting this intelligent post for Trekking with Becky’s #ExpatTuesday, and I can’t wait to read more of your posts! 😀

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  11. Thank you so much for your post. I believe I read the original facebook post you are talking about, or one really close to it. Seeing such strong opinions made me question myself and my motives for really moving to the other side of the world 3 years ago. We moved to Thailand from Wyoming, USA. About as different as you can get! Along with what others have said, I really believe when making any move you have to improve your protective factors for your kids. The most important one (if moving or not) is the relationship you have with your child. Things can happen at home or abroad and having a solid relationship with your children is what will weather the storm. I am a school counselor and often post about this topic on my blog for school. The person’s opinion that I read gave me the chance to reflect on my family and really look at what our goals are as a family. So, even though I did not initially agree with the strong way she put things, it was good that it gave me the opportunity to look at my own life. In the end, I am happy with what we decided to do. Staying in a narrow minded, homogeneous community was not better for him than moving him to Thailand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Krista, it probably was the same FB post. But like you although it was “controversial” it gave me a great. Han e to reflect on our decision to come here. There are definitely some days when I question what we have done, many others when I pinch myself at how lucky we are and then lots of days in between where life is really just quite normal and not that different from back home but with more sun!

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  12. I think as a TCK myself, I find it easier, even though I did spend a lot of time stateside relative to the time my kids likely will. I do know the moving cycle all too well, and I still have never lived anywhere longer than four years in my entire life. I was fortunate enough to go to high school in the U.S., and so I do have cultural touchstones that my kids just don’t have, and that they can’t see and relate to in things like sitcoms from home, and the whole Americana nostalgia thing, so sometimes even I’m “eh?” at things they don’t know much like my family stateside. I sometimes wonder if we made the right choice and then something like tonight’s dinner table conversation happens:
    DB1: I’m looking forward to camp this summer.
    Me: Yeah? That’s great.
    DB1: You know, last year, I learned how lucky I am.
    Me: Really? How so?
    DB1: Well, this one kid was saying how he just had this amazing week out in CA, and how cool it was, and asked me how I started my summer, and I just said, “I just spent a year in India”.

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    • Fab! I totally know where you are coming from but my kids spent long enough in the UK during their formative years to very definitely feel British – proudly so, in the face of a majority of American kids at the school 🙂 I remember only too well coming home from living overseas and wanting to go to the cinema to watch Grease which had just come out (yes, I am old – although I was v young at the time!) and my parents thought I wanted to go to Greece the country! I swore I would never get that out of touch for the sake of my children….

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  13. I think there is no perfect formula. My oldest son hated Spain when we first moved there. Probably for the first 2 years. Then suddenly a switch clicked and he loved it (and it’s as if those 1st 2 years never happened in his mind). Then we moved to the NL and once again he didn’t love it but it was definitely more pleasant than when we first moved to Spain. However, when I ask him (he’s almost 12) where he’d like to be next, he really doesn’t know. Part of him would love to go back to the US to be with family and have a “normal” social life again (he was 5 when we left) and part of him wants to stay in Europe. So I think in the end, you really can’t predict how it will turn out but just roll with the punches along the way and hope you make the best choice for that moment in your lives.

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  14. I have two kids. As a single mum..moving with kids was quite difficult especially with schools. We moved to Ethiopia from Zambia The curriculum was very different my kids changed school twice in order to fit in. My daughter who is 9 hated the idea of changing schools. But now after settling in for almost 3 years, my kids have made new friends and seem happier. When they grow up i feel it would be better to be in school back home.

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  15. Pingback: I’ve never ridden a bus alone – and other expat child woes |

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