I’ve never ridden a bus alone – and other expat child woes

The question of whether it’s good for a child to take them to live overseas is one that has vexed many writers and caused many an argument in expat groups over the years. I have written about it myself and am of the view that while every child and every situation is different, overall the jury is still out on this issue.

But one thing I can say is that there are many hidden costs for our children to this life – especially when it comes to preteens and teenagers. Hidden costs that aren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but that can have an effect on the kids and should be taken into consideration. Some of these things are the reasons why people move home or even send their children to board at home if they don’t have the chance to move.

What sort of thing am I talking about? Well, the sort of thing that most kids their age (I am talking really about the 11-18 age group here) simply take for granted: being able to walk to a friend’s house, riding their bike safely in the street, going to the cinema alone and yes, riding a public bus.

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Before I go on I should say that I am mainly talking about children from so-called “Western” countries living in so-called “developing world” countries, or other places where hopping on your local bus isn’t really an everyday occurence. I realise this is not every expat and that even some “developing” world countries are as safe as houses so this info doesn’t apply to all. Take what you will and chuck the rest!

So, what about those of us who DO live in a country where it probably isn’t advisable for a child to even walk round the corner to their friend’s house? Well in all honesty this is one of the  reasons why I’m looking forward to returning soon to our home country.

There are so many advantages of living in a country like South Africa but personal safety isn’t one of them. We are lucky and our house is just round the corner from a large shopping mall which includes several large supermarkets. Even so, while I am happy walking round there in the daylight, I would never allow my daughters (aged 11 and 9) to go there on their own. Some may say this is paranoid, after all, you see very small children wondering around alone all over the place here (including very close to very busy roads).

But when you look at the crime stats you realise that, paranoia or not, it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

At her age, back in the UK, my eldest daughter would probably not only be walking to her friends’ houses on her own but taking the bus into town and “hanging around the shops” or whatever it is youngsters do these days. Here, the only public transport we use (apart from planes) is Uber. And I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting her into a car on her own with a stranger, Uber driver or not.

As for bikes, any cycling we do is all under controlled conditions – on specific trails with good security generally. Biking alone on the city roads brings with it double danger – stranger danger as well as road traffic danger. Again, one look at the appalling statistics for road deaths and you know I am not being over-cautious.

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So while all her contemporaries are starting to gain their freedom, getting out and about with their friends, learning how to be responsible and look after themselves, she is stuck with me organising everything for her, driving her everywhere or arranging lifts, and condemning her to living as an Elementary-school aged child for years to come. It’s tough.

Leaving my children alone at home is also fraught with difficulties. Although we live in a secure house on a secure compound, there are things to think about here that wouldn’t be part of our lives at all back home. What if the electric fence alarm goes off? Do we lock them in for safety’s sake or leave them an easy way to get out in an emergency? And what if – heaven forbid – someone did break in while they were at home on their own? Not only that but dealing with emergencies isn’t quite as straightforward as it is in our home country of the UK. Were one of the children to fall down our very hard, uncarpeted stairs and need to get to A & E it wouldn’t be a case of simply dialling 999 and waiting for the ambulance to turn up. No, it’s all a little more complicated here and I barely trust myself to work it out let alone a couple of pre-teens.

So all in all, living here does without a doubt curtail their freedom. They are still at the age, and we are still at the stage, where it isn’t really a biggie. They’ll both catch up pretty quickly when we get home, just like they will (I hope!) with their maths and spelling.

But with every year that passes I fear they will feel this slightly strange, boxed off life more and more. We all know there are many, many compensations of living here but there does come a point where you have to weigh everything up and decide whether it’s still working for all the family.

We will be back in the UK (semi?) permanently from July, where I intend my children will start living their lives to the full by taking themselves off places alone, using the local bus service, getting trains on their own and doing normal, ordinary things that they can’t here like going to the cinema without an accompanying adult. I know they will miss many things about South Africa, as we all will. But giving up their freedom won’t be one of them.

Photos: Big Red Bus – Tim Spouge, Girls with popcorn – Kymberly Janisch

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5 thoughts on “I’ve never ridden a bus alone – and other expat child woes

  1. My children have freedoms here in Switzerland they NEVER had living in Paris. The oldest (9) walks to school (2km) with his friends alone. He and his sister run up the street (less than 1km) to their friend’s house alone. Yes, the mum texts to say they got their but the kids have ‘freedom’. My son also goes to the bakery alone which is a good 10 min walk away on a very busy road. This is our life here. EVERYONE’S kids were doing it and holding ours back after all the fear and crappy drivers that ignore cross-walks in Paris we experienced, wasn’t fair. Some places are just different and without our own countries ‘back home’, we’d find good places for this and terrible. My inlaws live in a hoity-toity English village (one of ‘THOSE’ places…the ‘good addresses’) yet their house literally opens up to this ridiculous road where cars speed along unable to see anything, never mind the fact that their side of the road doesn’t have a sidewalk. In this good not-the-City village life, their kids have less freedoms than ours do. Perhaps when a certain A-List Hollywood personality’s future twins start going to school, things might change there 😉

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  2. I was talking about something similar with a friend recently and I think to a great extent our perceptions of what is acceptable are moulded by our childhood experiences. Like your daughters my expat childhood meant that whenever I was at home my freedoms were severely curtailed (thank goodness for boarding school and the freedoms it permitted). I shudder when my English friends talk about their children walking to school alone age 11. My husband did this as he went to a day school but being a boarding school child it just seems wrong to me. I would, however, have no hesitation allowing them to take an international flight alone if they wanted to visit family in the UK (as long as they were collected at the airport and did not travel alone when they were there!) and this concept horrifies my friend. I suspect our children are lucky we don’t live in the UK or they would be the most ‘uncool’ child in their class, still being driven long after their friends walk home alone. We live in a compound here in KSA so they have all the freedoms they want, walk to school alone, go out and play as long as they pop home once an hour to say hello.

    They do have bikes but nowhere to use them at the moment other than the school and compound which suits me fine. Mr EE used to take them out in Malaysia but my heart was in my mouth every time. Unusually for someone of Dutch heritage I loath bikes and it was hard for me to let them learn to cycle although I knew I needed to (my father and husband taught them). I can just about cope when they are cycling completely separate from traffic on a defined cycle path or a proper off road trail.

    I am, I appreciate, completely paranoid.

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