The world is your oyster!
This well-known phrase suggests that there are many opportunities in the world for you to enjoy. As you’re reading this, you may have just recalled a fond memory of a place or an event in which you felt like the world was at your fingertips. Studying or volunteering abroad. Traveling or touring. A globally-mobile career. Or perhaps you fell in love across borders…
Whatever the positive memory, I’d bet there was an element of excitement and immense possibility for you at the time. Perhaps it was an invitation to adventure to unknown places or maybe you felt sheer joy in the experience of something new. But then, you found yourself moving from couplehood towards parenthood. New realities emerged that presented challenges to your global lifestyle and perhaps even to the dreams you hold for your child’s future.
Challenges Overseas Can Lead to Opportunities
Providing opportunities for your family to experience a life abroad can bring many wonderful joys into their lives. Many of us consider learning an additional language and learning about the wider world as great outcomes for our children as we live away from our passport country and/or home country.
Make no mistake, the potential for incredible, life-expanding experiences can be enhanced when we choose to raise our children across worlds. However, part of the journey requires some social and emotional “stretching” that can sometimes feel uncomfortable. In fact, there are certain things that every parent considering a move abroad with a family in tow, should know sooner, rather than later.
An Insider’s “Need to Know” List for Parenting Abroad
So, what makes me an “insider”? Well, I’ve had the good fortune of having 20 years of experience teaching children and youth in both public and private K-12 schools in diverse settings around the world. The vast majority of my students have experienced global family mobility as expatriates, repatriates and/or immigrants. I’m also a globally-mobile parent and PCI Certified Parent Coach® who has been immersed in a global family lifestyle for many years. Here’s Part I of my list of typical challenges for parents abroad which, I must add, can truly lead to extraordinarily positive and life-expanding experiences for the whole family if parents have the patience to work on resolving issues with (or without) the help of a certified parenting coach or other relevant professional.
1. Any feelings of isolation can be intensified
Most of us know what it feels like to feel alone now and again. We may feel isolated from a particular group of friends, from colleagues or from other relationships. However, when you’ve been living your life for years in a particular geographic area, you have a wealth of inside knowledge about how the norms in the community work. You’re usually confident and competent in the activities of daily life – banking, driving, dentist appointments, the doctor’s office, etc. You easily understand the systems of the community and any isolation you might encounter is against a backdrop of a familiar social landscape. In contrast, as a parent abroad, you may experience an additional layer of feelings of isolation in your parenting. Specifically, confusion about living in a new country in which there is much about the daily routines that seem mysterious or impossible to navigate effectively can lead to “feeling alone”. Language barriers and your unfamiliarity with the social contexts for day-to-day services can make you feel uncomfortable and ill at ease. When coupled with being responsible for raising children well in a foreign-feeling environment, you may feel a heightened sense of stress.
2. Cross-cultural stress is a potential family lifestyle hazard
There is a unique kind of stress that many people abroad experience to some degree. It’s called “culture shock”. It’s so common in the experiences of globally-mobile individuals that a series of books called Culture Shock have been written on the topic, for various countries in the world. According to L. Robert Kohls, author of Survival Kit for Overseas Living: For Americans Planning to Live and Work Abroad, “Culture Shock” is an occupational hazard for overseas living. I would argue that it’s a potential lifestyle hazard for families who live abroad. Kohls defines culture shock as “the more pronounced reactions to the psychological disorientation” that a move to a culture significantly different from your own can provoke. Transitions are a part of every human life. However, experiencing new cultures due to global mobility brings change and ambiguity to the forefront of your life, whether you’re aware of it or not. Parenting within a culture that’s new to you also brings its own menu of issues to resolve for yourself on a personal level. Why resolve any cross-cultural stress? Simply so that you can be the most effective global parent leader for your family in your shared life abroad.
3. Beliefs about childcare may be challenged
If you had a particular idea about the kind of childcare that you wanted for your child, then a move overseas may rock the boat, so-to-speak. A quick search for the world “childcare” in a public internet expat forum yields numerous threads of discussion about daycares, babysitters, nannies and domestic helpers in different areas of the world. Much of the conversation, sadly, is anonymous or posted under fictitious names by people wanting to share what they know about childcare in country X or culture Y. For parents who’ve already arrived in their host country, observations and assumptions about childcare in country X or culture Y can sometimes result in stress due to a perception of a clash in belief systems. The more different culture X is from your culture, the more risk that everything you believe and value as “good” childcare will be challenged. It isn’t necessarily a negative experience when you question your beliefs, but sometimes it can lead to the “I’m right” and “They’re wrong” conclusion which can build up over time and bring even more stress to the family. In some parts of the world, hiring nannies and domestic helpers from countries outside of your host country is common. Thoughtful hiring and effective cross-cultural communication skills are critical when choosing to share a family living space with in-home caregivers. Sometimes a mindless approach to cross-cultural living with helpers and nannies can increase your negative experience of culture shock.
4. Navigating education systems may need more attention
Without the experience of having attended the kind of school that your child is attending abroad, you’ll lack much inside knowledge of how the schooling system works. You may feel vulnerable when confronting new reporting, communication and homework practices that are unknown to you. Every educational institution in the world has a unique school culture which is sometimes a part of the larger national culture. However, in some instances, it may be a school that’s less integrated into the local society. Whatever the type of school – public, private, national, international or a combination of those descriptors – if you haven’t experienced your child’s school system in your own youth, you may need to do some more investigating and learning about how it works so that you can be the best advocate for your child’s education. It’s important to know both how the school system works at the classroom level and also within a broader level of the society in which you’re living. Some of the most common tensions I’ve seen parents struggle with include school social norms of behaviour, reporting practices and homework load. Depending on (1) the school culture, (2) your schooling cultural background and the (3) the culture of the host country and (4) your child’s sense of identity, your level of required attention and learning about the school system will vary. Much also depends your relationship to the school’s language of instruction and on the size of the learning gap you want to close.
5. Effective additional language growth takes a certain amount of time for kids
One of the common reference points for teachers and language educators at the K-12 level is from the work of Professor Jim Cummins, one of the world leaders in second language acquisition and bilingual education. Cummins distinguishes between BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). Basically, when you ask the teacher how your child is doing learning a new language, the teacher may explain the difference between the less demanding kind of oral language that a child learns quickly in order to function when playing and chatting with friends (BICS) and the more challenging type of language associated with the cognitive demands of the kind of thinking skills formal schooling aims to develop over time (CALP). The bottom line is that children raised abroad, in a new language need a fairly predictable amount of time on their side to gain the academic language proficiency required to compete with native speakers. For learners of the English language, it takes about 2 years to acquire Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and about 5-7+ years to achieve Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, depending on how related the new language is to your child’s mother tongue.
PARENT TIP: The world IS your oyster! It’s important to recognize that each of the challenges listed above is a potential life-changing reality for you and your children. Opportunities abound in a life abroad.
What has been the most significant parenting abroad reality for you or your child? Leave your note in the comment box below.