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Things to Know About (my) Expat Kids

Ask any parent why they decided to move overseas, and “for my kids” usually ranks at or near the top of the list.  “A chance to expose our kids to different cultures and experiences” is one of the main reasons parents choose to take an expat assignment. It was definitely near the top of our list!  Raising third-culture kids (TCKs), i.e. children that spend at least a portion of their childhood outside their passport country, presents a unique set of challenges. In many ways, expat kids are just like any other group of kids.  But in some ways, they are very different from their peers back in their home country.  Like all of my posts, this one is written from mainly my personal experiences of parenting young kids in the expat environment.  Some expat parents will find different challenges…

1.  They are worldly, yet naive.  They can navigate public transit systems, different languages, cultures, and quickly become politically savvy. (My 7-year old has very pointed opinions about US transportation policy…)  They understand that their current home may be different than their passport country, but they may not be able to fully appreciate those differences.  Our kids are easily overwhelmed by the buy-buy-buy consumer-oriented culture in the US.  If I walk into Target, I love seeing all the choices and selection!  But my kids quickly shut down.  It is too much for them – almost sensory overload.  On the other hand, they are genuinely surprised to find out that their peers in the US may have NEVER left America, or flown on an A380! (The latter is particularly shocking to Isaac.) They cannot comprehend why American kids don’t travel internationally like they do.

2.  They can be great on long international flights, yet a two-hour car ride can seem like forever.  To make the trip from our home in Dublin to Amarillo, Texas – our hometown, takes 3 flights and appx 22 hours doorstep-to-doorstep.  (In the expat world – this is a comparatively short trip.) Generally, my kids are GREAT on the long-haul flights.  They know the security drill, how board the plane, put their headphones on, and settle in the long flight.  They may watch Doc McStuffins ad nauseum, but they are much better behaved than some of my adult seatmates.  At the same time, a two or three hour car ride with them can take FOREVER. “Are we there yet?  I need to go to the bathroom. Why can’t we watch a movie?” and on and on and on!  It is all in what you are used to.

3.  They are incredibly resilient, and their bonds with their siblings are very strong.  There’s nothing quite like uprooting your kids, and throwing them into a country where they know no one to encourage resiliency!  I won’t lie – the transition is really tough.  On the other hand, their bonds with their siblings strengthen during this period.  Isaac and Liesl are very close, and I attribute most of this closeness to the fact that for the first 6 months or so, the only playmate they had was each other.

4.  They can easily assimilate into different cultures – almost like chameleons.  Expat kids grow up shifting between cultures, as they travel home, to other countries, and back to their country of residence.  They may meet many kids in their school that are also expats, but from a different country entirely.  Once they get the hang of it, they can blend into most any group, and easily take on the characteristics of that group.  When we were in the US last summer, I thought everyone would find Isaac and Liesl’s Irish accents so cute.  Only one problem. Within 24 hours of us returning to the US, their accents were GONE.  I was shocked at how fast they were able to switch back to “American” English. They had both completely adjusted the tone of their voice – almost subconsciously.  The only thing that gave away their expat-ness was their vocabulary for different things, “car park” instead of parking lot, “lift” instead of elevator, “to mind” instead of “to watch”.  But even those linguistic differences quickly disappeared.

5.  They are scarily, eerily good at saying goodbye.  This is probably the strangest one to experience.  It is written about in expat parenting books, and although you can be prepared for it – seeing how quickly your kids can say goodbye to friends and family and move on with life is both rewarding and scary.  To my kids, they don’t seem to notice the physical distance between themselves and their cousins, or the time spent apart.  Partly because technology has made the world much smaller.  It’s hard to miss your cousins when you can Skype with them whenever you want.  When we are saying goodbye at the airport, I’m usually much more emotional.  Is it because I know how far the distance truly is?  Or is it because I wasn’t accustomed to saying goodbye as a child?  Seeing the detachment that expat kids can show makes you worry – will they ever have a sense of home?  Will they be able to put down roots as an adult?  At the same time, it makes you proud that they understand that saying goodbye quickly and often just comes with the territory.

What are your thoughts?  If you are the parent of an older TCK, are the challenges different?  What should I be looking out for?

P.S. If you are considering moving abroad with kids, or having a child while living overseas, I highly recommend reading Third Culture Kids. Some people give the book negative reviews saying the book itself is too negative, but I think that more information is always better than less. I also really liked that this book did not assume that every expat family was financially well-off.  It covers a variety of situations from corporate expats to military families to missionaries.

One thought on “Things to Know About (my) Expat Kids”

  1. Having married an ex-pat kid, I love hearing your perspective! One comment I have about the goodbye – they learn early on not to become strongly attached to any person or place, with the exception of their immediate family. I (at least partially) attribute the reason both Don and his brother Jeff dated for 4+ years before proposing to the fact that it just takes that long for them to let someone in. They have to be really sure that person will not leave them. For the first year of our relationship, Don was very surface-level and didn’t let me in at all. Adults who were ex-pat kids (like Don) tend to make friends easily, but very few know him well.

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