Moving kids abroad is like moving a kangaroo to New Jersey – I’m sure it would eventually adapt but it’s gonna take some time because, well, kangaroos know nothing about the Jersey Shore or fist pumping or driving on the Parkway. I’m sure a kangaroo from Down Under would like living in New Jersey: they probably know a thing or two about solid fist pumping and maybe they’d like being by “The Shore” – they are from an island, after all – and with a name like Joey… they might fit in after all. Driving on the Parkway might be a struggle but then again when is driving in another country ever easy? Joey will encounter some struggles. Struggle is inevitable but not impossible. Parents moving kids abroad might also face struggle and, like Joey’s parents, want to help their Joey’s adapt too. So I’ve talked to some mom-pat (mom+expat) experts about moving kids abroad and here’s some advice they gave to help your kids move abroad in all stages of kidhood and all stages of the moving process.
(Before we move on, remember…kids are different. Duh. I know, you’re thinking, but I remind you because it is so extremely important to remember this now more than ever. Maybe your kid is naturally outgoing and social and will make friends and adapt easily. Awesome. But maybe your child is introverted, shy and takes longer to warm up. That’s ok. It is your job as the parent not to panic or throw your hands up and say This was a mistake. Stay calm and adjust on.)
One of the things that drives me crazy about (otherwise fantastical) Husband is that he waits to confront some situations. He does this to avoid confrontation. He does this with good intentions but it drives me bat poop crazy to find out that he’s known about something and hasn’t told me to avoid the outcome (which, by the way, is always made worse by waiting). My point? Tell your kids immediately. Don’t wait. Don’t hold off for the “right moment.” There is never a perfect moment and the longer you wait the less time it gives you to start talking about and adjusting to the impending move.
You know what else you should immediately be honest about… you’re own fears. Who wants to be the first kid to call home from a sleepover because they’re afraid? But if another kid calls home, doesn’t that make it easier? I was that kid and I could tell you that I was always embarrassed when it came time to go to sleep and I had to call my mom, running to the car with my pillow tucked under my arm like the devil was chasing me. Kids, like people, don’t like admitting when they are having a hard time or afraid. One of the experts I asked is a kid-pat. She was a teenager in her abroad move and this is what she had to say about how her parents handled the move, “They were very open about the struggles they had with adjusting so I never felt like I was the odd one out.” Basically, Mom and Dad, open up about your own struggles and fears too. Don’t slam your new location but let your kids see that you, too, have your own struggles. Kids look to us to be strong but they also look to us to be vulnerable so that they know they can be also.
Who wants to see Machu Pichu, anyway? Um… I do. Especially since I’ve learned about it in school and in history books and on travel shows. According to a few mom-pat experts showing and teaching your kids about their new home is a great way to get them eager about where they are going. It focuses them on the adventure ahead and less on what they’re leaving behind. “I showed my kids a bunch of cool photos of whales and flamingos and they told their friends they were moving to see them. They seemed excited about it…” Show them pictures, read them books, visit websites. Talk, talk, talk.
Giving your kids control can be another way to build excitement. For me, imagining a new country to live in is exciting but for kids that might be too overwhelming. So how about asking them to start smaller and imagine their new room instead. What will your new room look like? What color do you want to paint your new room? Not only can it bring them a sense of control but it can build excitement and creativity.
Another great way to build excitement is to count it down. I love advent calendars – yes, for the yummo pieces of chocolate they dispense, but also for the countdown itself; it makes the wait for Christmas exciting. A mom-pat expert has taken the countdown idea and tweaked it to work for her son’s transition. She hung a huge calendar on the fridge for her son, marking the happenings of each day so that he knows what to expect and when it is coming. “Having the calendar has helped for him to visually see our schedule of what is happening each day…” A countdown helps to focus on TODAY (yay! We’re going to the pool today!) and gives today a face, lessening the anxiety of some faceless, ominous day in the future.
BE SMART ABOUT STUFF
Unos, dos, whatever? Nope, not whatever. If you are moving to a place where Joey’s language will be different then his current one, language is not whatever. For adults, jobs are most likely executed in our native language. Our kids, however, will be super exposed to the new language at school, while socializing with local friends, or staying home with nannies. Here’s the upside. Kids learn language so fast that they will adapt to this fast (and probably surpass you) so give them a head start. Start at home by teaching them to count to 10 in the new language. Teach them a new word everyday. This could peak their interest and give your kid a sense of mastery before even getting there.
You know what else we have to be smart about… stuff. As a good parent, I have to say that stuff doesn’t matter, but as a realistic parent, I know it does. Have you read Knufflebunny? It’s a mixed media children’s book about Trixie and her beloved stuffed rabbit, Knufflebunny, and how on a trip to the laundromat Knufflebunny gets lost and Trixie freaks out (←major understatement)! Stuff matters to kids. When I was a kid, a friend said to me, “You could have a seizure in this [my] room with all there is to look at.” The truth is, had you asked me then to leave any stuff behind, I would have kicked you in the shin. While you can’t possibly take everything, realize that kids might need a little more space for their stuff to make the transition easier.
While we are on the topic of not being able to take everything, let’s talk about furniture, pieces of art, the distressed wood side table that was given to you by your Grandma Jean – the things that make your house a home. One mom-pat says, “We made a decision a long time ago to bring our material home with us. This helps everyone feel at home and gives a familiar feeling in an unfamiliar setting.” Imagine how nice it would be to walk into your new home, on your new street, in your new country and sit on your old, cozy couch. Pretty freakin’ marvelous? Now imagine how Joey might feel? This is a good argument for not leaving it all behind.
BE FLEXIBLE AND CONSISTENT
We all know that parenting is a balancing act and that doesn’t change just cause you move abroad. A mom-pat of a teenager had this to say “You need to be flexible with going along with the expectations of the new culture…obviously within reason and using your own values, but the reality that you grew up with is not the same as what your own kids will experience, so be flexible!” For instance, in Dominican Republic, as in other parts of the world, it is totally normal for high school aged kids to go out to parties and drink but if you are a parent coming from the U.S. where that is frowned upon you might want to safeguard your child from that scene, but keep in mind that while you are protecting them from parties and drinking, you are also possibly holding them back from making some cultural connections, making it difficult for your kid to fit in. I’m not saying to let Joey go wild but like our mom-pat said, “within reason and be flexible.” This is a tricky one. (Luckily, my kids are a decade+ away from having to worry about this.)
On the same token, another mom-pat of a younger child weighs in, “I would add that, even though the setting, language, living space, climate and culture is different everywhere we might move, our family values are solid and provide security, continuity and a sense of ‘home’...”
Both mom-pats are dealing with different aged children but both are saying the same thing. Defining values for younger children provides familiarity. Young kids like to know what to expect and traditions, rituals, and routines can help them to feel safe. But as the parent of a teenager, you have to loosen the reigns in order for your child to build their own connections and hope that the family values they were taught when they were kids will aid them when steering through any set of values, cultural or not. And when all else fails, let them blame you. This is great advice for anyone with kids, no matter where in the world you are. Expert mom-pat says, “Let your kids use you as an excuse for something that they are uncomfortable doing in a social situation.” Teach your kids to get out of uncomfortable situations by saying things like, “My dad has the nose of a bloodhound and he would totally smell that joint on me and then I’d be grounded f-o-r-e-v-e-r.” OR “Ugh, my mom is so strict and such a [insert choice curse word] when it comes to drinking. She’d never leave me alone about it if I got caught.”
Moving abroad can be an amazing adventure for kids but like all adventures, you will encounter obstacles.
And then, you will overcome obstacles.Pack lightly. Live well. Move often. Repeat.