We’re excited to welcome back global veteran David Armstrong. He’s set foot in 15 countries, and confesses that Crepes and Waffles in Bogota, Colombia is one of his favorite restaurants.
My kids spotted me as I rounded the corner two blocks from home–and started laughing and pointing. I was sporting the shortest haircut I had had since basic training. I tried to look confident.. I meant for it to be this short. I’m cool. Truth: I didn’t know how to tell the barber “too short”.
But it made me the winner of the “Most Mortifying Moment” prize that month–and paved the way for my kids to succeed. My too-much-off-the-sides demonstration: You can roll with this.
Deer in the headlights
When your kids realize you are moving overseas, you very well may witness that “deer in the headlights” look. Some kids don’t take kindly to being ripped out of their neighborhood, drug away from their friends, and forever separated from their favorite breakfast cereal.
But there is hope. You can help them to not only accept the changes but to embrace them. And thrive.
Our kids were 7, 10, and 12 when we entered “foreign” territory. And after a year in the first country, we moved to two other countries over the next three years. Let me share a few tricks we learned in the process.
Commit to their success.
But know it will cost you in the short run. I was committed to our whole family enjoying and benefiting from our time overseas and even wanting to go to another country later. That meant steering our attitudes in an adventuresome direction. They watched me sample strange foods–and of course handle my embarrassing failures. Committing to their thriving also meant some money and a bunch of time: emotional investment, talking tough or awkward things through; quality time invested, exploring, perhaps finding the fun niches of our host country.
Unexpectedly, it meant my language teachers were less than happy with me. Putting more time into helping my kids venture out meant I spent less time on my language lessons. My wife spoke better Spanish than I did after our first year, but my kids were enjoying being there.
Include them…from the start.
Talk about where you’re going and why. Don’t wait until the last moment and surprise them. (This likely means you’ll have to process the decision with your whole community of friends, because kids tend to spill the beans. That isn’t easy in our private U.S. culture. Everyone will ask how things are going and why and what. It’ll require patience. Confidence. Steadiness.)
Hear your kids–in whatever way they express themselves.
Don’t freak out about negative comments and “I don’t want to go there!” Ask questions and listen to them as they process. What are they feeling? They’ll reveal key pieces you’ll want to help them with when they land in that other country. (You can’t help them if you don’t know what’s rattling around in there.) P.S.–this means listening to and understanding their “acting out”, the common language for less verbal and younger kids to communicate their fears. (I’m talking fears not unlike the ones big people face, too.) Help them put words on their emotions. (Editor’s note: Consider posting this “wheel of emotions” to help your kids articulate where they’re at.)
Are your kids especially hurting because they’re losing friends? You’ll need to engineer friend-making opportunities when you arrive in that other country, and maybe FaceTime-ing with the old. (And, yes, there will be tons of opportunities to connect with other kids within the expat community and with many nationals.)
Play the tourist (but be street smart).
For the first 90 days everything will be radically different. So look at it. Enjoy it! But keep your eyes open and blend in.
We found that for 30 days, all of us were open to trying new things. Make sure they visit all of the fun places their soon-to-be-friends have visited. The favorite park, the mall (whatever size), that restaurant, the place with the giant boulders, the best swimming hole, the gold museum, the one and only place you can buy (overpriced) Legos (even if they only have 5 boxes). This helps them recognize words and the subject of conversations and gives them something to share. Every month, take one Saturday and venture out to somewhere new. All of this helps to make them feel like they are becoming a part of your new home.
This was our favorite! Normally we hide our failures and embarrassing moments, like when you tell the cab driver you are 303 years old. Or that time you (…or I) are socially forced to sing “Happy Birthday” in the local neighborhood store in front of customers in your brand-spankin’-new language. Sharing your failures allows them to share theirs.Sharing your failures allows your kids to share theirs. Click To Tweet
We had two prizes each month: $20 to the family member who got themselves in the most embarrassing situation, and $10 to the one who said the most stupid or funny thing in the local language. The rules: Write them down and put them in the middle of your dinner table. Everyone gets an equal vote at the end of the month. We never lacked entries in either category! And what are your kids going to beg you to do when they win $20? To take them to the store so they can practice their language and culture some more.
Ruin their teeth. Really.
For the first 90 days, fork out the money for them to go buy a Coke or an ice cream each afternoon at the little neighborhood grocery store. Go with them the first couple times so they can see you do it, but then hand them the money and stay home. They may drag their little brother with them for moral support. But let them experience the exhilarating joy of success. And listen to their stories of conquest when they get back.
Prepare them, practically.
- Visit the international store in your area and everyone buy a fruit and a cookie or a weird flavor of chips.
- Start learning 100 words in the language where you are going: nouns and adjectives, common objects, and body parts. That will help them to know what the conversation is about even if they don’t understand it. Colors, prepositions, numbers, and days of the week/months also are good.
- Pull up some pictures, travel DVDs, and even videos about cultural differences.
Keep learning about the country and its people.
Each week or month, observe one particular item.
- Try, for example, the shapes of buildings: Are they square? Round? Simple boxes? Complex mixtures? How are they different from your original country?
- What about colors? Which colors are most popular? What color represents money, success, jealousy, purity, death?
- How many ways do they say “I’m sorry”–and what are the circumstances for each?
Most expats stop learning about the way the people value and see life after one year. Keep asking “why” questions and you will become the local pro, and you will gain new friends!
You really can help your kids thrive overseas. Bonus: You might end up with some best friends you just hadn’t met yet.
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