How do we protect our expat children?

I attended an interesting workshop this week at my children’s school on the topic of bullying. This is obviously a subject that all schools have to deal with, whatever type of educational establishment they are and wherever they are in the world. But being an international school there were some issues – not all of them related to bullying –  that came up that are perhaps more unique to our children and which have really started making me think.

It’s pretty tough for our kids. First of all, we drag them away from their friends, family, school, home, possibly even pets, and take them somewhere completely new. Often they have had no say whatsoever in this move but it has been presented to them as a fait accompli. Of course many of those whose lifestyle has been a global one ever since they can remember will be aware this is coming and be prepared for it. Nevertheless, any international move is always going to take its toll on a youngster (not to mention the rest of us!).

So they get somewhere new. They start a new school, they make new friends. And then the next thing they know, those new friends start leaving. So they feel the wrench again. And again. And again. Life at an international school is often one leaving party after another. And that can have quite an impact on someone – especially an emotional teen.

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International School life – it can be fun, but it can also be tough.

The reason this came up in the bullying workshop was because one of the signs that someone was being bullied, so we were told, could be that they told you they had no friends. But one of the mums pointed out that with five children having just left her daughter’s already pretty small class, it was quite possible that she really did have no friends. It really brought home to us all how difficult this life can be.

One of the teachers running the workshop has had a lot of experience in international schools and she had some good tips on how to help our children deal with this sort of constant emotional pounding. First of all, she said, acknowledge with yourself and with your child that this is part of international life. There is no getting away from it, friends will leave. If you are lucky you may have one or two that stay for the duration of your assignment; but at some point either you will go – or they will. This is part of your life now and as a family we have to accept it. There is no point in pretending it isn’t going to happen.

Secondly, she said, let them know that you also feel this way. You are sad too when friends leave, you miss home, some days you may want to leave. Talk to them about culture shock in an age-appropriate way and – if they are struggling at the beginning of your time in a new country – assure them that things will get easier over time.

Although we didn’t dwell on this topic for too long as we were straying from the main subject of the workshop, enough was said to make us all realise that this is an issue that we all needed to tackle. As well as the tips from the teacher, I also think it is worth talking about technology and how we can continue to keep in touch with friends even after they have left (or you have). Just because they are in another country doesn’t mean you will never speak to them again – or even see them. The world is a shrinking place and you never know who you will bump into in the future. And of course think about all those wonderful places you will have to visit in the future!

There is a lot more that I could say on this topic, but there is also a lot more already written. So to finish I want to share a few links to other sites that you may find useful. Firstly is the  Expat Child website, which has sections focusing on the different age groups (although I found the 9-12 year old section a lot more relevant for my 8 year old than the 4-8’s section). Here, for example, is one article from the site about Expat Child Syndrome.

Then there is a website called International Family Transitions, which includes a number of articles and links on the subject of moving with children.

And another interesting expat website, Expat Family Health, has this article on Helping Your Child Adapt Abroad.

Finally, if you haven’t already seen it, the Pixar movie Inside Out is highly appropriate for families moving overseas (although the film is actually about an American family moving to another state within the same country). You might want to think about when you watch it with your kids – eg possibly not just after you have arrived somewhere new and they (and you) are feeling particularly emotional. But it can be a great way to open up discussion about the move.

Do you have children at an international school? How have you helped them cope with the constant comings and goings? Or perhaps you were an international school child yourself – if so, how did you feel when friends moved on leaving you behind?

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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

Funny Rituals in Foreign Schools

We hadn’t long arrived in St Lucia. It had been a difficult, sticky, tiring few weeks, but finally pre-school was open and the girls would have somewhere to go and other children to socialise with. It was a huge relief for me, despite the horrible settling-in period when my older daughter screamed and clung to me every morning. But I knew we had to get through this phase – if they didn’t go to “school” then what on earth was I going to do with them all day? Yes, it was definitely for the best.

A beautiful St Lucia sunset

A beautiful St Lucia sunset

But they’d only been there what seemed like a few days when we were told that the next week was the La Marguerite festival. And that we had to sort out clothes for my older daughter, who had been chosen to be the Marguerite Queen and lead the parade.

The whaaaat festival? The whaaat parade?

St Lucia is an island with a lack of the sort of shops I was used to back in the UK. No fancy-dress places, nowhere I was likely to be able to pick up a quick queenly dress, the right size oh and yes, the right colour. Didn’t I know that the Marguerite colours were always blue or purple?

And so started my love/hate affair with the strange rituals in this slightly-eccentric island, rituals which go back centuries and are actually very interesting once you start reading in to them. But rituals that, at this point, simply caused me a massive headache as I tried to procure the right dress for my Queen.

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The pre-school class at the Montessori school in St Lucia

La Marguerite (known colloquially in the local creole as “La Magwit”) is one of two societies in St Lucia – the other being La Rose (“La Woz”). The societies originate from the time of slavery and and started out as co-operative groups for mutual support in difficult times. Probably the closest we can get to them in this country is the Freemasons – although I am not sure that the St Lucian versions have the same funny hand-shake. However, there are other rituals that go with La Marguerite and La Rose which involve singing songs and parades.

My Marguerite Queen with her king leave the classroom to lead the parade

My Marguerite Queen with her king leave the classroom to lead the parade

This is all well and good and understandable. But what I never quite understood is why not only did the schoolchildren sing and parade, they also had to dress up. As queens and kings. But also as lawyers, police-officers and (it seemed) old ladies. And then they had to parade around waving flowers and singing the creole songs. In the 110 degrees heat. In their finery. We certainly got a nice, big dose of culture shock right there and then.

If you’re wondering, I did manage to find a dress for my daughter – or rather, I found some suitably-coloured (and suitably shiny) material and a dressmaker, living on a patch of land, surrounded by chickens down a back road in the middle of nowhere. Which I would never have known about if it wasn’t for my housekeeper who at that point was more or less the only person I knew on the island.

A year went by and we had to go through the whole ritual again. Although this time we were prepared, and E decided she jolly well wasn’t going to be the Queen again, she was going to be a police officer.

This time a policewoman

But luckily the dress didn’t go to waste as by now my younger daughter was out of pre-preschool and old enough to join in the parade. So off she went, in the same dress, with high heels (she was 3!), clutching the hand of her “king” friend. And singing away in creole, not a word of which I was ever able to understand.

Mind those heels...

Mind those heels…

La Marguerite was one of a few strange rituals we were part of while living in St Lucia, and I still wake up at night in a cold-sweat after dreaming about trying to find them an outfit for Jounen Kweyol (“creole day”) with just a couple of days notice. But  I wouldn’t have swapped it for all the book days and red-nose days our children have to go through in this country. It was part of the charm of lving on that tiny Caribbean island, and it was, in the end, one of the most memorable things about it. I can’t say I ever really enjoyed the last-minute scramble to find the right costume for yet another strange event I had never heard of, but it certainly made me a stronger person. Although with an International school looming for us in Pretoria, I think I’d better start thinking about what the girls are going to wear for the no-doubt-obligatory International Day Parade. Just as long as it doesn’t involve waving daisies in the air….

Have you had any experiences with bizarre new rituals or events in any of the countries you have lived in? Have your children had to dress up in strange clothing? Have you taken it in your stride – or has it pushed you over the edge? Come on, share away!

This post was written as part of the My Expat Family link-up

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