Parenting, Travel

Seven Ways to Keep Life Balanced while Raising Expat Kids

My husband and I worry about the effect of our Foreign Service lifestyle on our children.  Raising expat kids is a real challenge!  Will they grow up rich with experiences, polyglot, and appreciative of all that they have?  Or will they grow up spoiled and entitled, used to having the world at their feet?  We hope the former, and fear the latter. A recent blog post from another mother who’s dragging her family around the world made me think about the “new” normal for our kids, which is nothing like the normal I grew up with.  How do we define normal while raising expat kids?

I wonder if my kids will ever regret not being able to range over the countryside like my brother and I did (not that we ranged terribly far, but we at least had the illusion of freedom).  Bertrand wonders whether they’ll miss being surrounded by an enormous family and the sense of belong that comes from a structured family hierarchy.  I wonder if my kids’ educational experiences will suffer because they won’t grow up in just one school system, where all of the teachers know their parents and their siblings and everything about their family for the last decade.  Bertrand worries about how the kids will make lifelong friends if they move every few years.

And then when we’re done worrying, we think about the fact that our kids can say thank you in more languages than we can, and our three year old is figuring out the cues here in Jerusalem about whom to thank in which language.  Our kids love fou-fou, and hummus, and pita, and cassava.  They’re figuring out the difference between West African pigment, Jerusalemite harissa, and their parents’ Tabasco sauce, and which heat they like and they don’t like.  They’re friendly and respectful and so wonderfully confident that the world welcomes them.

Could I ever take that away from them for twelve stable years in the States?


Not ever.

But there are some things that we are doing as they grow (we have a preschooler and a toddler now!) to keep their lives more normal:

Insist that the girls say please and thank you, whether buying dried fruit in the market, ordering hummus at a restaurant, or getting yogurt out of the fridge.

Make the girls clean up after themselves.  Yep, you guessed it, at the market, in restaurants, and at home.  The world is indeed at their feet, but that doesn’t mean their food needs to be.  It’s a slow slow process, but the girls are starting to understand that the “circle of shame” after a meal, as friends of ours from another post called it, is actually, well, shameful.

New toys are a special occasion.  We buy the kids food treats all the time (and we are blessed with kids who think strawberries are the BEST CANDY EVER).  We take them out to dinner.  We explore Jerusalem and it’s wonderful.  But we don’t buy them stuff.  They have plenty of toys and plenty of clothes and frankly, we are happy for them to learn to entertain themselves without the mountains of plastic.

Emphasize that “normal” is wherever we are.  In Freetown, rice pilaf with chicken was normal.  Here in Jerusalem, hummus and olives are normal.  In Cotonou, bright colorful pagnes are normal.  And back in the States, jeans and a t-shirt?  Perfectly normal.  We want our kids to realize that normal is essentially meaningless.  Each wonderful place we live will have it’s own normal, and we want the girls to understand that as well.

Encourage drawing and art and creativity.  My preschooler loves scrapbooking (well, cutting triangles out of pretty paper and pasting them onto more pretty paper).  My toddler loves scribbling.  And pretends to write words (I know!  humblebrag!  already!  ahhhhh!).

Read every day.  I hope to foster in my kids the same love of reading that I have.  As a child, books exposed me to a wide variety of ideas and ways of life that I never would have seen if I didn’t spent every spare moment with my nose buried in a book.

Be each other’s best friends.  We made the decision early on that we wanted to have two children because we wanted them to have each other as we move around the world.  We are following a very Beninese school of parenting when it comes to our daughters’ relationship with each other.  They’re responsible for one another, both for the good and the bad.  The elder must take care of the younger and must serve as a good example, and the younger is obliged to follow her sister’s lead.

Any other great ideas for maintaining normality and stability as we drag our daughters around the world?


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13 thoughts on “Seven Ways to Keep Life Balanced while Raising Expat Kids

  1. The best part about kids (especially at that age) is that they easily adapt. They’re a lot more flexible than we are as adults. And I think this is a really great experience for them. Of course some sacrifices had to be made, but I think these experiences will make them very well-rounded. You also shared some very great tips! Best of wishes to you and your family. :)

  2. This is very interesting to me, as our situations are sounding quite similar! We too are raising our kids abroad, and they are young like yours..just 2 and 4. We too, pride ourselves in them saying please and thank you in the appropriate language ALWAYS. We rarely buy toys as well, and we are obsessed with books! The best choice we have made in keeping life balanced, is to let go of the time constraints of our previous life. We go with flow, let things go, and enjoy spontaneity. We have learned from the locals, that the best life is lead in lieu of schedules and deadlines. We have gained so much peace from letting go of bed times, meal times, work times, etc. Each change every day to mold around the events of LIFE rather than the other way around. It is a beautiful concept to discover.

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