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.

London!

A few weeks ago, we took a quick trip to London.  Can you believe that we have lived in Dublin for over three years, but hadn’t been to London yet?  My sister and mother were going to be in town, and my brother-in-law would be passing through London on his way back from the middle east, so we decided to take a long weekend all-together in London (minus Brad, who was in the US for a conference).  We flew out on Friday, and back on Monday, so we didn’t have a ton of time, but we certainly packed in the sights!  A few highlights:

Friday afternoon:

We took in Hyde Park.  I love urban parks in Europe.  Quiet, sophisticated, relaxed…there is just something about the parks in Europe that is missing from US parks.  We had lunch at the Lido Cafe near the Serpentine Lake, and then found a chicken coop, playground (shocker!), and then an adorable ice cream truck.  The weather was cool, but felt so much warmer than Dublin without the brisk wind off the Irish sea!

Saturday:

Did I mention that we forgot that it was a three-day weekend in London?  Ooops.  Luckily, the kids wake up at the crack of dawn (and the dawn cracks early this time of year…) We made it to the Natural History Museum before 10:00am.  We had to walk through what felt like miles and miles of empty queues, but the museum staff said they queues would be filled before noon.  We spent about 2 hours looking at their awesome dinosaur exhibit, and their life-size model of the blue whale.  There was so much more to that museum that we didn’t see – I’d love to go back.  As we left, I looked back towards the entrance, and sure enough, there were people queued to enter.

In the afternoon, we went back to Hyde Park to visit the Princess Diana Memorial Playground.  If you are visiting London with kids, I can’t recommend this playground enough.  (And we have been to plenty of good playgrounds.)  It had an enormous pirate ship in the middle of an even bigger sand pit.  It also had play structures for older kids and little kids, plus picnic areas, a cafe, toilets and changing facilities.

Sunday:

We got a later start on Sunday, as we had brunch with Taylor and Evan, and then decided to take the bus from Marble Arch to Westminster. It was a regular London bus – I can’t remember the route number, but it was like a mini-tour of sights in London!  We saw Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, and Trafalgar Square – where we saw one of the more memorable sights of our trip.  As we were making our way through the square, a group of men came running through the intersection clad in nothing but multicolored briefs. “Look!! Mom!! Those men are running in their UNDERWEAR!”  And to every person who has asked, “What did you see in London?”  my kids have answered, “Men running in their underwear!”

We saw the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben, but the crowds were absolutely HUGE.  So we quickly decamped to see the Tower Bridge, which the kids really enjoyed.  We ate lunch at a wonderful restaurant – Perkin Reveller.  Great food, lovely design, and wonderful service – especially for the kids.  Near such a major landmark, and in the height of tourist season, I had decidedly low expectations, but it was a great stop.  Highly recommended!

Sunday Evening we rode the London Eye.  Naturally, it hadn’t rained all day…until about 30 minutes before we rode the Eye.  Sigh.  The views were still great, and the kids liked riding in the pod.  (Pro tip:  Paying for the “Fast Track” tickets is worth it.  Instead of waiting in a loooooong line, (in the rain!), we collected our tickets and waited about 15 minutes before boarding.)

So there you go – a very quick trip to London! We packed in a bunch of sights, some good family time, etc.  One thing I realized over the course of the weekend is that the kids are not ready for a “walking” city like Rome or Paris.  I had to haul the stroller up and down the stairs of the Underground, and as much as Patrick insisted (loudly!) that he could walk, he just isn’t ready for walking-sightseeing.  A few more years perhaps!

How to take an infant passport photo

You have this beautiful new baby, and now, you’re itching to GO somewhere.  Or maybe you have a wedding to attend. Or a distant relative to visit. Or maybe you live overseas, and you want to take your baby back to your home country to meet the rest of your family.  You’ve looked at flights, vacation schedules, travel advice, and decided to go for it.  Now you just have to get that tiny, floppy, bundle of joy to open her eyes, look straight at the camera, keep her hands out of her face, to take that all-important passport photo.

Wait…what?

All persons on international flights require a passport, which sounds all well and good, until you’re faced with actually getting your infant’s photo taken.  The main requirements are:

[checklist icon=”fa-camera” iconcolor=”” circle=”” circlecolor=”” size=”small” class=”” id=””]
[li_item icon=””]In front of white or off-white background[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Both eyes open[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Neutral facial expression[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Fully facing the camera[/li_item]
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Source: US State Department

It is harder than it appears, especially with really young kids.  Did you know you can take your own passport photo pictures?  I have done this several times, and it is so much easier to do at home than trying to get it done at your local drugstore.  We took Isaac’s passport picture when he was 3 weeks old for a family trip to Spain.  We took Patrick’s picture when he was 6 days old for his Consular Report of Birth Abroad (equivalent of a US birth certificate), and passport.  Liesl was 13 months when we got her passport, so it was a bit easier.  Here are some tips and tricks for taking the getting a decent passport photo of your infant at home:

1.  Cover your changing table in a plain white or off white cover (no print or major texture), or use a sheet as a cover.

2. Place your baby on the changing table.  (I use a changing table because the concave shape of the pad prevents the baby from rolling to one side – thus improving the chance that you’ll get a picture with him looking directly into the camera.)

3.  Stand on a chair and take the picture from above. It helps to take the photo in a well-lit room, so that you don’t have to use a flash.

4.  Go to a Passport photo template website, such as epassportphoto.com, and load your picture.  The online service will help you size the photo to the correct dimensions.  You can choose to download the file for free (to print at your local photo kiosk), or you can have them mail you the photos for a small fee. There are several of these websites available, but we have used ePassportPhoto several times, and have been really happy with the results.

Don’t worry if the picture isn’t great. Kids passports are only valid for 5 years, and by that time, they will look so much different than they do now, no matter how good or bad the picture was.

Above is Isaac’s passport photo from his now-expired passport. (Yes, all my kids had GIANT hands and feet as newborns.)  We had to renew his passport at the US Embassy last year.  Those 5 years went really fast!

10 Tips for Flying with Infants

Terrified of flying the not-so-friendly skies with your infant? Relax – and go for it!  I personally think that, of all the ages and stages I have experienced so far, traveling with infants is the easiest.  They don’t need any toys, they can’t talk back, you don’t have to bring a year’s supply of snacks… I have flown with my kids as young as three weeks old.  I think that the smaller they are, the easier it is.  Here are my tips for a less-stressful experience:

[checklist icon=”fa-plane” iconcolor=”” circle=”” circlecolor=”” size=”small” class=”” id=””]
[li_item icon=””]Check your stroller with your luggage.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive, right?  But it is so much easier to not worry about the stroller until you get to your destination.  No trying to fold a stroller one handed while holding your baby.  No worrying about whether the “gate checked” stroller will actually make it off the gate and onto the plane. Instead, carry your child in an ergo/sling/bjorn or other carrier that you like.   I like the Ergo because it has a zippered pocket in front where I kept my wallet, phone, passports and boarding passes. This will keep your hands free. Since you are flying with an infant, your stroller and car seat should be free to check.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Carry all your diaper bag supplies in a backpack.  That cute diaper bag you love, the one with one strap?  Pack it in your luggage.  It is so much easier to have both hands free, rather than trying to keep your diaper bag on your shoulder.  This is the less fashionable option, but definitely the most workable.  You can always carry your diaper bag or purse  when you get to your destination.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Sit on the row with the airplane bassinet, if possible.  If you are flying on a wide-body aircraft, and flying “infant in arms”, you should call the airline and ask to be seated on the bassinet row, if is available.  The bassinet row is the bulkhead row – sometimes the first row of coach – where you can attach a bassinet. The bassinet is this baby bed that attaches to the wall of the bulkhead, and you can place your child in it, as long as you are at cruising altitude, and everything is going smoothly.  Bring a blanket to put in the bassinet.  It makes a great place to put the baby while you rummage through your bag, stretch your arms, or have a snack. Even if you don’t use the bassinet, the extra space in the bulkhead row is so helpful![/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Wear slip-on shoes. At TSA checkpoints, you are basically on your own. They will help you put everything through the scanner, but they will not hold your baby while you take your shoes off, or anything else. If you have liquid baby items (diaper cream, etc), I usually keep them in their own plastic baggie. So I have one baggie for my stuff, and one baggie for infant stuff.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Nurse, feed, or offer a pacifier during take off and landing. This is a big one. To keep your child’s ears clear, you’ll want to feed him during take off and landing. If you’re not feeding him, definitely use a pacifier. The sucking that they do during feeding will keep their ears clear in the pressure changes. I try to hold off on feeding until we are taxiing to the runway. Bring a nursing cover if that makes you more comfortable, but it is 100% legal to nurse a baby uncovered on an airplane. I have hilarious stories of nursing on an airplane.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Bring disposable changing pad covers. Changing tables on airplanes and in airports can be gross. I pack several of these large disposable changing pad covers. That way, you can just change your baby and wrap everything up in the changing table cover, and toss it into the trash. You can get them at BabiesRUs, Target, BuyBuy Baby, and other places. (I buy them in the US, and bring them back to Ireland!)[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Pack just enough diapers to get you there. It’s tempting to plan for the absolute worst and bring 30 diapers and a full package of wipes with you. I usually bring enough diapers for 24 hours (more for international trips), about 10-12, and a half-used pack of wipes. I buy more diapers and wipes at my final destination. Or better yet – have whomever you are staying with buy diapers and wipes ahead of time! It is the kind of job that people LOVE.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Check the identification requirements. Infants may not need a picture ID for domestic flights, but you may need to bring a copy of the birth certificate. If you are flying internationally, your child must have a passport.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Water and snacks – FOR YOU. Especially if you are nursing, you can get super thirsty and hungry. I always bring a snack like trail mix that has a good mix of carbs and proteins. Luna bars are also good and can take a beating in your carryon. Rather than try to fill up a water bottle after security, I just buy one.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]Don’t worry if he starts crying. I know that is easier said than done, but take a few deep breaths and relax. Don’t worry about what everyone else is thinking. You don’t have to see them again anyway. I have traveled multiple times with infants, and not once has one of them cried the entire flight.[/li_item]
[/checklist]

In my experience, the good far outweighs the bad when traveling with kids.  Traveling with kids takes work, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.  I’ll follow-up with posts about flying with older infants and toddlers, and flying with young kids.

Did I miss anything?  Any advice you disagree with?  What tips would you offer?

How Travel Changes You

A few summers ago, we spend a week in Copenhagen.  It was our first vacation as a family of 5, and we stayed in another family’s apartment (via airbnb).  This family also had two young children, so the apartment met our needs perfectly.  We got to experience how the residents of Copenhagen live.  I loved the apartment – light-filled, airy, and simple. It put IKEA to shame! They had several large orchids and I loved how they brought a freshness to the room.  I figured if they could grow orchids in Denmark, surely I could grow them in Ireland.  (Since Denmark and Ireland are at similar latitudes, we get the same long summer days and short, dark winter days.)

Copenhagen
(Baby) Patrick and the Orchids

The apartment had no formal dining room, rather an open kitchen with a long table that served as the dining table and also as additional kitchen prep space. I could go on and on, but you can look for yourself on their airbnb listing:

Copenhagen cosy familyappartment in Frederiksberg

Flat in Frederiksberg, Denmark. Large 134 square meter appartment, with a nice shared garden. In our appartment you will find toys, books, a large dining kitchen with all appliances and a possibility to relax after a long and hectic day as a tourist in Copenhagen. The bathroom … View all listings in Frederiksberg

Soon after we returned to Ireland, we bought some orchids (at IKEA, no less) and moved our long dining room table into our kitchen.  I was amazed at the difference those two simple changes made.  Our orchids flourished, despite my attempts to kill them off, and we enjoy having more space in the kitchen for everyone to hang out, chat, draw, etc.

I share this story, not to convince everyone to run out and buy an orchid, rearrange their kitchen, or take a trip to Denmark, but rather to emphasize how travel changes us.  By changing our environment, we change our perspective.  We see how things could be done differently, and then take those lessons and experiences and apply them to our lives.  We have stayed in apartments via airbnb several times, and each time, we have had a great experience.   It’s easy to stay comfortable at home, with our usual stores, restaurants, schedule, etc. Traveling – near or far – forces us out of our comfort zone.  Staying in someone’s home pushes us further into the local culture.   Just writing about it makes me want to plan another trip!  And my orchids are still living!

Orchids

What to do in Dublin with Kids

Planning a trip to Dublin in the future?  At first the city does not seem to be particularly kid-friendly, but there are plenty of fun activities for the young, and young at heart!

Natural History Museum: Free, near Merrion Square

Natural History Museum Moose

This museum is affectionately called the “dead zoo”.  It has a huge collection of taxidermy animals from all over the world.  Most of the animals are in the large gallery upstairs.  Just park your stroller in the entryway (with all the other strollers) and climb the stairs to the second floor.  It also has clean bathrooms and changing tables, and since the museum is free, there is nothing stopping you from going in just to use the bathroom.

Merrion Square:

One of the five Georgian Squares in Dublin.  Great place for a picnic. It has a brand new playground, the ‘Giant’s Garden’, based on Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Selfless Giant”.  There are also beautiful planters of flowers and plants from around Ireland all over the square.  The tulips in the late spring are AMAZING! On Sundays, there is an art show around the perimeter of the square.  On Thursdays during the summer, there is a lunchtime market.

National Archaeology Museum:  Free, on Kildare Street.

This is a great museum with lots of interesting stuff to look at.  My kids love this museum – there is a Viking boat, mummified remains of people found in bogs, and lots of interesting items from the prehistoric through medieval periods.

St. Stephen’s Green

St Stephen's Green

Another excellent example of the Dublin Georgian Squares.  It is in the centre of town, making it a convenient midday picnic stop.  The fabulous playground has spaces for little and big kids, and a weatherproof surface, so you can go there even if it recently rained.  There are ducks and swans to feed as well.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

St Patrick’s Cathedral is an amazing church to tour.  You have to pay for admission, but it’s free for kids. Among other things, you can learn about the Irish phrase to “chance your arm”. Fun Fact: The Catholic Cathedral in Dublin is called the St. Mary’s Pro Cathedral.  “Pro”, as in, provisional.  Apparently the Catholics are still hoping the Anglicans will return St. Patrick’s to them at some point!  There is a beautiful small park next to the church with a new playground, and on the weekends, there is almost always an ice cream vendor in the park.

For families with older kids and teenagers:

In addition to the above activities, these sights are great for older kids.

Book of Kells & Trinity College

Trinity College is definitely on the “must see” list for any Dublin trip.  The Book of Kells is a wonderful exhibit.  You can take the walking tour of Trinity College, which includes your admission to the book of Kells.  Kids are free.  (You can just buy your ticket to see the book, but I think the tour is worth the extra cost.) The tour is a bunch of walking, then standing and listening.  It’s a great tour – but little kids will tire of it quickly.  Older kids will love The Old Library at the end of the Book of Kells exhibit.  It looks like it was taken straight out of a Harry Potter movie. Even if you skip the tour and the Book of Kells, the campus is still open for you to walk around if you wish.

Grafton Street

Worth a stroll.  You can walk from the corner of Trinity College to St. Stephen’s Green on Grafton Street.  There are usually plenty of street performers and musicians.  There is also a mediocre McDonalds and Burger King, in case you have tired of pub grub.

Dublinia & Christchurch Cathedral

Dublinia is an interactive museum about Viking and Medieval Ireland.   Dublinia is lot of fun for kids, especially those ages 7-12.  I recommend buying the combo ticket for Dublinia and Christchurch Cathedral, which is attached via an enclosed bridge. (See photo above!)

Guinness Storehouse Tour

This is pricey, but a great tour of what makes Guinness the iconic beer (and brand) it is today. The tour includes admission to an enclosed, rooftop bar (serving Guinness and non-alcoholic beverages) with 360-degree views of Dublin.  A great stop for older kids or teenagers.  Adults can even learn how to pour their own pint at the tap.