So you are considering moving overseas either for work or for pleasure. Do not necessarily expect your children to be excited about the prospect of being uprooted from everything that they know and like. But with patience, empathy, and some solid preparation, you can easily make the transition abroad one that your kids will not only enjoy, but will probably thank you for later in life for making them more adaptable, cultured, and open-minded adults.
How to deal with the language gap
If you are considering a moving overseas to a country which speaks a different language, do everything you can to give your child…and yourself!…a head start. If possible, enroll in classes before you move overseas, rent movies spoken in that language, find some bi-lingual books. Anything you can do to make the language seem not quite so foreign upon arrival will make the transition abroad that much more comfortable. Even grasping a few words or expressions will make your child feel somewhat in control.
And remember, children are like sponges! With exposure, they will become fluent in no time, and with seemingly little effort. When we moved to Argentina from the United States one year ago, my four year old knew not one word of Spanish beyond hola.
Solely through playing with friends and neighbors, he is now completely fluent, without accent, and all of the natives assume that he was born here. It is incredible. He did not have to attend one single class in order to learn to speak Spanish.
Above all, make learning the language fun for them. If they connect with a friend in the new country, get the two together and do a language exchange. Have the friend teach your child new words through creating charade-like plays or songs, etc., and have your child teach him or her some English in return. Make it silly and interactive. They will have fun, want to learn, and will be speaking the foreign language fluently in no time!
There are also many free language learning podcasts that you can subscribe to through itunes or other sites that are focused on teaching kids. But your kids learning a foreign language should be one of the least of your worries…if you put it in front of them and give them relaxed opportunities to listen and practice, they will be fine in no time!
Separation from Family, Friends, and Belongings
This, understandably, may be the hardest hit for your child. But there are many things that you can do to considerably soften the blow.
If they do not already have one, let your child set up his own email account. If you feel it is appropriate, let your child have a Facebook or other social networking profile where he can post videos and pictures and can keep in touch easily with friends. Facebook is intended for children over the age of 13. A more kid-friendly social networking site is bebo.com. Also, within a few minutes it is possible to set up a basic blog on a site such as blogspot.com where he can share stories, experiences and photos with many people at once, instead of having to email everyone separately.
My favorite way to keep in touch is through Skype, a free service that allows one computer to talk to another for free, and even see each other with the use of a webcam. My childrens´ grandparents are able to read the kids a bedtime story most nights, and share in important events like the blowing out of birthday candles and the opening of Christmas presents. All for free. My kids probably talk to the grandparents more now that we live overseas than when we lived ten minutes away from them!
Also, if possible, set up interaction between the students at their new school and old. Organize a pen pal exchange. If one school is privileged and the other is not, have the students fundraise to send supplies to the one that needs them. This will help make your child feel like he is still an important part of the old school.
Also, never underestimate the magic and allure of a care package or a handwritten letter. Ask friends and family to keep those coming as much as possible!
With time and effort, your child will begin to understand that distance alone can not break the connection between true friends and family.
As for their personal items, remember that what is important to you may not be what is important to them. Be tolerant and understanding. If bringing a certain item will make them feel better, even though you may feel it is not necessary, let them win this battle. It is not the end of the world, and if there is a chance that it will make things easier on them , why not? And nothing can be worse than the two backpacks stuffed to the brim with about 30 kilos each of “special” rocks and stones and sticks and feathers that my seven year old decided she needed to bring on our latest move. But when we arrived at the new house, she decorated the porch, smiled, and immediately felt at home. That contentment was definitely worth the effort.
Schooling Your Expat Child
Ahh, so many options. Private, public, bilingual, international, home-schooling, each with obvious advantages and disadvantages…what to do? Tuition, size, location, quality of education, language spoken, and infinite other factors need to be taken into consideration and weighed. There is no one correct answer for every family. This is a very personal issue, I can only recommend that you look into all of your options thoroughly and include your child in the discussion and decision. Talk to other expats. Talk to neighbors. Visit many different schools and trust your gut feeling as a parent. Whatever you decide, make an effort with some of the examples from the above paragraph to bridge the gap make the move abroad as smooth as possible.
Concerns for Childrens´ Health
Your child is going to be exposed to a whole new set of pathogens and you may as well expect them to become sick with minor ailments more frequently than they might back home – coughs, colds, tummy bugs, rashes, allergies and general viral illnesses are not uncommon. Be prepared by having a basic medicine chest with anti febrile, analgesia, antihistamine medicines.
Get immunizations up to date before leaving your home country and be absolutely sure you know when boosters are due because you will not be in the new country’s reminder system, if indeed they have one. Also consider that you may need to vaccinate against diseases that are not routinely carried out in your home nation.
Seek out a pediatric doctor BEFORE you actually need one. Get recommendations from other expats, locals, neighbors and go and introduce yourself and your child. Then when your child becomes sick, you are dealing with a familiar face and not a total stranger.
Seek out the nearest Emergency Room and check to see if there is a separate entrance or department for children as there often is. There is nothing more distressing than having a child emergency and not knowing exactly where to go.
If your child has a medical history that is out of the ordinary, consider getting your doctor to write a summary and then get it translated prior to or on arrival at your new country. There may be information in there that is seriously relevant to any decisions a doctor makes in the new country when prescribing treatment if you present with a new illness or a recurrence of an old one.
Be realistic that the hospitals and doctors offices may or may not look like what you are used to at home. On only day number four in Argentina, my son got kicked by a horse, needed surgery, and was in casts from the waist down. Welcome to Argentina! Coming from the sterile, everything bleached white and stainless steel medical culture of the states, the fact that the room had open windows that let flies in, coupled with the fact that the doctor came out of surgery and immediately lit up a cigarette in the hospital corridors did not necessarily put me at ease. But this was balanced by the incredibly informed care that he got from the very capable doctors, and the fact that the cost of three days of services including surgery totaled $0.
Living in a Different Culture
Depending on which corner of the world you move to, your child may take to the new culture right away or it may take some time for them to appreciate the richness of opportunity they are being given.
For example, moving my children to a Latin culture was easy on them. Children here are for the most part treated like royalty, greeted by warm hugs and kisses wherever they go, and are included and welcomed anywhere and everywhere.
Other countries may not be so tolerant of children, and this may come as a shock to your kids. Try to research the new culture as much as possible ahead of time so that you know what you are getting into.
One benefit of being expat kids that my children especially enjoy is getting to celebrate two sets of holidays. It seems like every week we celebrate something. They get the best of both worlds, and it is also fun to share your culture with your new neighbors. I will never forget attempting to celebrate Halloween with indigenous Mapuches in Patagonia. They were so thoroughly confused about how costumes and ridiculous amounts of candy correlate, but we had a night filled with much laughter and love.
Another benefit of moving your kids overseas is the exposure that they will receive to other expat children. In our town back in the United States, there was not one foreign child in the entire school. When we moved to Patagonia, within a month my children had close friends from France, England, Germany, even Uzbekistan! My eldest fashionista daughter was always up to date on the London fashion scene from her British friend, and my son enjoyed learning to make homemade beer with our grandfatherly German brewmaster neighbor. That type of cross-cultural experience is priceless in creating tolerant, globally-minded adults who feel at home no matter where they are in the world.
With an open mind, patience and preparation, moving abroad does not have to be traumatic for your child. Quite the opposite. Realize that you are giving your child the opportunity of a lifetime, to learn a foreign language, experience a different culture, and to learn to live life with tolerance and adaptability.
Special Report: Options for Educating Your Expat Child, EFAM article by Susan Beverley
One Year Off: Leaving it all Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with our Children by David Cohen
Raising Global Nomads by Robin Pacoe
When Abroad, Do as the Local Children Do by Hilly van Swol-Ubrich
Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollach