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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Should expat children have a voice?

So you’ve been offered a job overseas. Somewhere I don’t know, quite exciting. New York maybe, or Paris. Or perhaps somewhere tropical and exotic. Mauritius. Or the Caribbean. Anyway it matters not – you’re on your way home, full of excitement. Your partner already knows this offer was a possibility but up until now you’ve said nothing to your kids. You can’t wait to tell them about their new lives – new school – new friends – travel and adventure….

But guess what? When you finally sit them down round the dinner table and break the news, they don’t want to go. So what now?

A while back I wrote the story of how we told our own children (then aged just 6 and 8) that we would be moving here to Pretoria. I can’t pretend it was easy. They were both pretty upset, neither of them wanted to go. Whereas we were excited at the opportunity to live and travel in Southern Africa, all they could think about was what (and more importantly, who) they would be leaving behind. I could feel myself wavering as they sat there in tears in front of us but then I pulled myself together. No, we were going and that was that – as adults that was the decision that we had made for ALL the family and we had to stick with it. We told them we would get a dog and eventually they calmed down. It really was just the shock but once they were used to the idea, life got a lot easier.

Recently we have done all of this in reverse. For reasons mostly related to education we had to make a decision whether to stay another year or leave next summer (SA winter). Everyone in the family – apart from the dog – had an opinion. And, unsuprisingly, not all views were the same. I was caught between the two – knowing that I personally want to stay for the good life that I live here, but that it would be better for the children’s education if we left. I was torn between listening to my heart and listening to my head. And trying to drown out the constant pleas from both children (never mind my wonderful friends here trying to pursade me to stay!). In the end though it was me (with a little help from my husband) who made the final decision – we are leaving next summer – because as the adults only we have the ability to take all the information available to us and put it into the right context for our situation.

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No-one wants this reaction when they tell their kids they’re moving abroad…..

But should children have any input into these decisions at all? About whether to move abroad, where to move, which school to attend, which house, when to move home again? Are these decisions only adults can make or does everyone in the family deserve a say? And what do you do if your child eally puts their foot down and says they don’t want to go?

On a recent expat group Facebook discussion about this the view was pretty firmly that the adults needed to be the ones making the final decision. But even within this view there were varying degrees of how much the kids should get involved – as well as how important their needs were. Some people thought it was okay to involve the children in the discussion but not let them make the final call. Others believed it should be presented to them as a fait accompli. Some also thought the needs of the adults – in particular their careers – should overide everything else. I, on the other hand, feel that there comes a time when you need to put education before promotion. And all of this of course depends on the age of your kids – not just as to how much say they should have (it would be slightly weird to ask a toddler if they wanted to move to the other side of the world…) but their educational and social needs.

In the end though as adults we have to make a lot of decisions that won’t be popular – but that ultimately we know (we hope!) is the right one for the family. It’s tough and it’s called responsible parenting. But once the decision if made the most important thing you can do is own it – make it as positive as possible and ensure that you get everyone on board.

Even if that means promising them a puppy.

Photo credit: Marco Nedermeijer

Help! It’s International Day!

All around the expat world this cry goes up at least once a year. Or at least, it does in British households. Where we have no national costume.

Our International Day is on Friday and it will be the first I have had to endure plan for since I myself was a child attending the International School of Manila in the Philippines. There weren’t a lot of Brits at the school in those days – we were outnumbered by the Americans and then by Australians/New Zealanders and Asians. So we were always a small group traipsing around the parade ground – although our numbers were slightly bulked out by the fact that there were four of us children in our family.

But every year we had the same dilemma. What on earth were we going to wear? All these years on, I actually have no recollection as to what we actually did wear in the end – although I know friends of ours cheated slightly and wore Scottish kilts. Even though I don’t think they had a drop of Scottish blood in them. But at least their costumes were recognisable.

What gets me is those countries that have these amazing, beautiful national costumes. It just doesn’t seem fair that some children get to dress up like goddesses – and we have what? Raincoats? Some would say though that this means we just have to be a bit more…imginative. And I know from previous discussions in a Facebook group this has led to children being dressed as punks, Harry Potter, Victorians, Tudors….in fact – here’s a thought! Maybe we should just recycle some of the outfits we used for those endless dress-up days back home, where one daughter was a young Edward VI and another a poor Victorian child in her nightdress.

Is this traditional British dressing up?

Is this traditional British dressing up?

Instead though we will be doing what I suspect many of my fellow English parents do all around the world and resorting to national colours or flags. We have a “Geri Spice Girls” Union Jack dress left over from a hallowe’en that we accidentally ended up in Florida for one year (a long story – maybe it will make it on to this blog one day as a Memorable Journey post). My youngest still fits into this so that’s her sorted. As for the older daughter, I dug out an old “England” t-shirt from one of the various football tournaments we have failed to progress in over the years which now seems to fit her. We also have a large England flag from the same event. My only worry is, wearing an England shirt and carrying an England flag does have underlying associations with football hooliganism. Which actually…..now, there’s an idea…..

So how about you? Got an International Day coming up? Have you had to come up with any ingenious solutions to dress your child in? Or do you come from one of those smug countries with its own national costume?

Photo credit: Kalexander2010

Guest post: Expat Emergencies and Turbulent Postings – a Child’s Perspective.

Today’s post in my summer of guesting comes from a blogger with whom I share a lot of background. The more I read or hear about The Ersatz Expat, the more I keep wondering if we have actually ever met in real life. Both of us have lived in Nigeria and Venezuela, and both went to school and university in the UK. We also both married Brits. Our lives are very different now, but both of us have a similar sort of childhood to look back at and compare to what we are able to give our own children. Here, the Ersatz Expat talks about some of the experiences from her younger years – and how it has helped her parent her own expat children.

Irrational fears

I have never not been an expat. As a child we lived in some benign places (Norway, the UK and the Netherlands) but also experienced some more challenging postings. This has coloured how I relate to the expat experiences our own children have and I try, wherever possible, to see things through their eyes.

Age 11, I was parachuted into a British boarding school far from the culture I had grown up with. Following a first term at my new school, I had to travel to Lagos on my own. (Yes the airlines supervise UM (unaccompanied minors) but the help they gave in the 1980s was close to useless so I had to fend for myself). I remember sitting on the plane to Nigeria for the first time having had no correspondence with my parents for 4 months. I was very worried about what I would find on arrival; I even thought my family would have become africans because they were now living there and I wondered if I would recognise them with brown skin and curly hair. This crazy memory makes me realize that children, no matter how mature and capable, can become irrationally worried about things.

A few months ago our son, who had previously spoken good Russian was refusing to ‘understand’ it any more. He was also failing to progress in his Mandarin and Bahasa Malay lessons. It turned out that he realised that I no longer spoke my birth language (Dutch) easily and that it takes me some time to get back into the groove, mostly because I have no real reason to speak it now my mother and grandmother are dead. He was worried that he might forget English if he learned another language. It was another irrational fear that, when analysed, makes perfect sense in the mind of an expat child.

Handling emergency situations with children

One time, when leaving Nigeria I got caught up in an armed robbery at the airport. Our flight could not leave as we were in lockdown and had been sent to the arrivals hall to collect luggage. We heard shots in the unloading bay and 5 bodies came up the conveyer belt. My mother took me to her car and told the driver to wait somewhere safe she then went off to investigate. I knew that I would be safe if I did what my mother told me with no questions asked and I trusted her to know what to do. Luckily our children have not been involved in an armed robbery or anything like that but we make sure that they know that when we speak in a certain tone they must do as they are told (being absolutely silent when the car is hit by a sudden blizzard for example) and that we will explain the reasons why later. We also make sure that they have confidence that we can handle any situation we are in (even if we don’t) and that our children are never an outlet for our fears.

We lived in South East Turkey in the 1990s (enough said). It was possibly the most dangerous posting we have ever had. A bomb went off in the building next to us while I was doing some work experience with a family friend, my parents were directly involved in another bomb scare and we had to check under the car on a daily basis. A guard followed me if I went out and flights to the local airport were in danger of being shot down and these experiences were the tip of the iceberg. Every time I called to reconfirm our flights (remember those days) I was told the airline advised against travel there. My greatest fear was that I would be called in to the housemistress’ room to be told my parents had been killed and I used to think carefully about how I would tell my sister. I was scared stiff for three years straight. My parents were always scrupulously honest about dangers and issues that arose which helped me to worry less. I also got the school to let me have R4 (Radio 4) on late at night in my room so I could sleep knowing that there were no reported issues at home.

What do you tell the chilldren about something like this?

What do you tell the chilldren about something like this?

Being honest

From this I have learned never to brush things under the carpet, we have always made sure that our children are aware of everything they need to be without blowing things up out of all proportion. We also make sure that they have the props they need to feel safe. My father in law died just before we left the UK for Kazakhstan. They were very young but felt his loss keenly and when they first went abroad they were concerned that another family member might disappear or that they would never see them again. We have always promised them that we will let them know if they need to worry and make sure that they have regular ‘phone and skype contact. Hopefully this helps to dispel some of their concern.

Just after we arrived in Sarawak the terrible news came through about MH17. A child in the children’s new school lost a parent and many others in the community were impacted. Our children heard what had happened and they knew that family would be coming to visit us via the same route and that we would be flying with Malaysian Airlines whenever we travelled out of country. They also knew the Ukraine, Kiev being a regular stop over on flights to and from Kazakhstan. Knowing how I would have reacted to the news as a child helped to inform the way we spoke with our two. We were very honest about what had happened and why and we have been similarly upfront about recent terrorist attacks. We feel that if the children are prepared for the world being a scary place while knowing that there are good and decent people in it they will be better able to handle it as they grow up and have more independent experiences in life.

One of the great benefits of expat life is the independence, maturity and capability it fosters in children from a young age. I certainly hope that our children gain those benefits although I also hope they avoid bombs and shootings for a few years yet.

(photo: RNW.org)

Have you been in any emergency situations with your own children? Or needed to speak to them about something that has happened? How have you handled it? How honest have you been with them?

Expat children – how and when do you tell them you’re moving?

When and how do you tell your kids you’re about to move to the other side of the world?

This is how it happened for us.

Whenever we’d broached the idea with our two daughters – E, who was 8 at the time, and her sister, M, 6 – we were met with a negative wall. Nope, they did not want to go. They were (are) both very happy living in our little home in the west of England, their beloved school on the doorstep, friends living in the street across the road. Parks close by, grandparents and cousins only a short drive away. Life was sweet.

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A Happy life in a Happy street in a Happy town….

So sweet in fact that we put off the move for a year. My husband had a chance to apply for an overseas posting the year before; but when our older daughter said she would tell him not to take it if he was successful, he stopped his application.

But fast-forward a year and he was still stuck in the same, highly stressful work environment. He had been there for four years, dealing with human trafficking, as well as a lot of political interest and pressure from bosses up the chain. It was time for a change – and due to cuts, the only real opportunities open to him were overseas. So this time we gritted our teeth, and he went for it.

I didn’t think he would be offered a post. Lots of people chasing too few jobs, apparently. He didn’t necessarily have the right friends in the right places. Or so I was led to believe….he ticked off each hurdle (paper sift, assessment centre, interview…) until the fateful day when he received an email letting him know he had been successful – and would we like to go to Pretoria.

Holy c**p.

We were on holiday in Devon with my family at the time. Within minutes of receiving the email, my mother and my youngest brother were already aware of what its contents were. This was not a secret we would be able to keep for long. We needed to tell the children – and fast.

Surfing in Devon

Surfing in Devon

We were both dreading it. I knew E, in particular, would feel betrayed. We had reassured her the previous year that we wouldn’t be moving overseas. I had gently mentioned that it might happen anyway a couple of times since then, but she had always shut down. We were on our way to the beach with my mum and youngest nephew L when the email had come in, so we continued with our plans, all the time communicating silently about how and when we were going to tell the girls.

We had an enjoyable morning at the beach, mostly digging in rock pools and clambouring over rocks. But we knew the inevitable was drawing closer and at lunch time in a nearby typically English pub, as we waited for our food to arrive,  the moment had arrived. We told them we had something to tell them – and my husband broke the news.

Silence. Tears. Both of them.

My heart dropped and my immediate instinct was to withdraw the news. Tell them we wouldn’t go after all. It was going to make them so unhappy. But then my head over-ruled my heart and I told myself to stop being silly. We couldn’t allow the children to run our lives – especially as what we were about to offer them was actually quite an exciting adventure.

So instead of placating them, I told them how wonderful it would be. How they would see giraffes and zebras in the wild. How we could go whale-watching, and zip-lining and visit not just South Africa but other countries nearby like Mozambique and Madagascar and Mauritius. My mother, who has visited South Africa herself, was able to join in, telling them about the penguins in the street in Cape Town. The tears started to slow but they didn’t stop, so I pulled out my greatest weapon: “We’ll get a dog,” I said.

Pause.

“Or a giant tortoise?” asked E. And stopped crying. I can’t say her mind was totally changed yet, but she did at least start taking some interest in the things we were saying.

dog tortoise captioned

And at this point my little nephew L, still just seven and not much travelled, piped up “I’ll go. I want to go”. It may have been the dog, or it may have been their cousin’s reaction – but one thing I think the girls finally realised was actually how lucky there were to be offered this amazing chance.

We’re not out of the woods yet. My younger daughter in particular, always the more dramatic of the two, still bursts into tears from time to time at the thought of leaving her friends and school and family members behind. When I asked her once what she was most looking forward to about going to Pretoria, her answer was “coming home”.

But on the whole they both seem to be looking forward to it now. It helps that we were able to do a pre-posting recce, and they have seen their school and house and even been on a little safari. I know the day they say goodbye to their friends is still going to be hard. But hopefully the as-yet-unknown dog at the other end will make it slightly easier. So long as it IS a dog and not a giant tortoise…..

How did you tell your children about a move? I would love to hear how people have dealt with different ages – ie what do you tell a teen? A toddler?

 

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My Expat Family

Travelling with children: why introducing them to the world is so important

Yes I know taking children overseas is hard work. I’ve wrangled with the miniscule changing tables in airplanes. I’ve dealt with the most horrendous nappies known to mankind at 30,000 feet. I’ve also worried about malaria and sunburn and heat rash and food poisoning. Oh yes and I have dealt with the tantrums from hell while trying not to miss a plane.

Granted, much of the travel we have done with the kiddies has been sort of forced upon us – either to get to my husband’s place of work, or to escape from it before we went insane. But even if our life didn’t involve moving abroad for work, I still think we’d be taking our children to other countries as often as we could afford. Let me tell you why.

First there was Pakistan
When my eldest daughter was nearly three, and the baby not yet seven-months-old, we moved from the UK to Pakistan. We weren’t there very long – just three months, before we were evacuated following the bombing of the Islamabad Mariott hotel in 2008. And those three-months were pretty hellish: the outside heat made it difficult to leave the air-conditioned house between the daytime hours; most of the other expat families were out of the country and preschool was closed. We also didn’t have most of our stuff – the girls’ toys only arrived a few weeks before we left.

But despite everything, despite the heat and the loneliness and the fear and then the massive disruption of having to re-pack everything we’d only just unpacked, I’m still glad we went.

 

My older daughter and the Faisal mosque in Islamabad

My older daughter and the Faisal mosque in Islamabad

I have lived in many places in the world but until Pakistan I had never lived in a Muslim country. For the first time in my life, the calls to prayers became a backdrop to my daily routine. As did having to think really hard about what I was going to wear every time I left the safety of the diplomatic compound. Oh, and missing pork products too – pizza just isn’t the same without pepperoni or ham. But what I liked about living in Pakistan is that it exposed not just myself and my husband (who worked at the British High Commission), but the children as well, to a completely new culture.

We are a family of atheists, but we live in a predominantly Christian community. The girls’ school here in the UK (where we are currently living, preparing for our next overseas move to South Africa) is not church-run but prides itself on its “Christian-ethos”. There are children from other faiths at the school but they are few and far between and subject to the same Christian-dominated RE lessons, assemblies and general dogma as my own children.

So by living in Pakistan we were at least able to introduce the idea that there are other major faiths in this world, and that it is important to understand not everyone thinks as we do, or as our Christian friends, neighbours and school teachers do. It was also a good way to introduce them to the fact that despite these different faiths, we are all (or at least MOST of us) basically the same. We all like to eat and play and sing. We all love our children and moan about work or school.

Of course the children were a bit young to absorb more than the very basics of this lesson – in fact, the baby was too young to absorb anything at all! But to help reinforce the message we took them on a holiday to Egypt a couple of years ago.

And then there was Egypt
This time they were both old enough to understand why the staff at the hotel we were staying in weren’t eating between dawn and dusk (we were there during Ramadan). We were able to discuss why we saw so few women and when we did, why they were so covered up. We were also taken out into the desert where we met some members of a Bedouin tribe – and were able to talk about why their children probably didn’t go to school. On the same trip, our guide discussed why so many men were called Mohammed, talked about the make-shift mosque used by the local tribes and introduced us to the joys of eating gritty naan bread straight off the fire.

Fire in the desert

Fire in the desert

It was certainly a trip the children will never forget. We have travelled a lot with them but mainly it’s been to relatively “familiar” countries (the US, Spain, St Lucia, the Netherlands). To go to somewhere totally different, where people have a different faith and a totally different way of life, was a fantastic learning opportunity for them as well as a lot of fun (there was a large waterpark in the hotel where we were staying!).

The impact of travel in these countries
Now when we talk about Muslims, the girls don’t just think about the women covered from head to toe in black that we sometimes see in one of our neighbouring towns, or the snippets of news from Syria or Nigeria or France that they might overhear on the radio. They also think of our guide in the desert showing them the stars, the colourfully-dressed little girl who tried to get us to ride her camel, and the life-guards who hurried off as soon as the sun started dipping towards the horizon to have their iftar meal.

Yes travelling with small children can be hard work. But as we prepare to take them to yet another completely new culture, where they will learn first-hand about poverty and racism and inequality, but also about how these things can be overcome, I think the effort is worth it.

This post was written as part of a series about travel with children on tinyexpats.com.