Dear Parents: Your Kids Will Survive A Life Abroad

Hands on a globe --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

When people find out about my very nomadic childhood (I lived in Bern, Lima, New York, Washington DC and Buenos Aires before the age of 17), I usually get two reactions:

  1. “That must have been soooooooooooooo hard.”
  2. “I thought of working for the foreign service/military/international NGO/super-secret-spy-service but decided not to.  I could never do that to my children.”

With regards to the first comment, it was hard. But it was also incredibly fulfilling and enlightening, and I would rather have experienced it than the alternative.

With regards to the second comment, I have several thoughts. First of all, thanks for inadvertently calling my parents selfish, awful people. Whatever, bro. Second of all, let’s not kid ourselves. This has a lot less to do with your hypothetical children and a lot more to do with your own insecurities about a life abroad. And that’s fine! Not everyone is meant to move around every couple of years. But to pretend like you’re making some sort of huge sacrifice when you really want to stay within your comfort zone is shady, shady, shady. Especially because I think geographic stability for a child’s development is kind of overrated.

In fact, I am here to argue the following: Parents, if you have the chance to do so, traumatize your kids with international experience. Not only will they survive it, but they will actually thrive because of it.

First, a disclaimer: if your existential quandary is all due to a career move, rejoice in your privilege. This isn’t about the heartbreaking experience of immigration or the way more chaotic existence of being a refugee. This is essentially the epitome of #firstworldproblems, even if you aren’t technically from the first world and even if your relocation involves less stable areas. So take a deep breath. You’re ok, your kids are ok, and you should thank your lucky stars that this is your biggest issue.

With that out of the way, let’s go back to your little darlings being forced to live and go to school in a place that isn’t their hometown. They’ll cry. They’ll panic. They will accuse you of ruining their lives and might not talk to you for a week or two. It will suck but trust that your kids are getting a great education in this far-flung locale. Why? Because moving around as a child teaches you some pretty badass life skills.

Here are the top 5 things I learned as a globetrotting minor:

1) I learned to be self-reliant

My first month in Buenos Aires, I took a wrong turn and ended up walking for one hour at night, in a city I barely knew, with zero idea of how to navigate their public transportation system, no cell phone and maybe 2 pesos to my name. I was 13 at the time, the kind of teenager who preferred not to be noticed and tried to never call attention to herself. So for an hour I kept my frantic worry to myself. Then survival instinct kicked in and I got up the nerve to ask a newspaper salesman for directions. I got home safe and sound and with a newfound respect for my own ability to get out of a jam. I also learned that the vast majority of people around the world will be willing to give a hand if you simply ask for it.

2) I learned to adapt

I’ve been to public schools, private schools, co-ed schools, same-sex schools, secular schools, religious schools, schools that valued creativity, schools where you were expected to memorize everything, schools that put an emphasis on the sciences, schools that were more focused on humanities, schools with one recess, schools with three. My multiple moves means that I’ve never taken a Geometry class in my life but I was somehow tortured with Organic Chemistry more than once. Sometimes a kindhearted soul would be tasked with showing me the ropes on the first day. Usually it was the dorky teacher’s pet who was so overly friendly I knew hanging out with her would mean social suicide. For the most part, though, teachers and students expect you to figure this stuff out on your own. And not just the academic material, but the social dynamics of these microcosmos: the social hierarchies, the petty rivalries, the do’s and don’ts of student relationships, the faux pas and the cool factors. Pretty soon, you’ll realize that the world doesn’t revolve around your needs or desires because people are too busy dealing with their own crap. A tough pill to swallow as a kid, but one that doesn’t get prescribed enough these days.

3) I learned to be alone

The first month in a new place before school starts can be lonely. The first month in a new place after school starts can be downright depressing as you are forced to wear your companionless existence in public. It sucked. But on the other hand, I figured out how to keep myself company. While I waited for anyone to pay attention to me, I read, I wrote, I analyzed Blind Melon lyrics and memorized ballads by The Cranberries, I watched weird and strange movies that only appealed to me, I walked around my neighborhood and explored whatever looked remotely interesting, I took up origami, I binge watched American TV shows on the Sony channel, I flipped through local magazines and wondered why everything smelled so strange. And throughout all this wasted time, I developed talents and skills and interests without the mindless interruptions of trivial high school dramas.

4) I learned to be tolerant

I watch The Bachelor franchise so I can mock anyone who dare utter “I’m here for the right reasons.” I have spent hours with Say Yes To The Dress, basking in my own self-righteousness and congratulating myself on my excellent taste. I’ve broken up with a guy after hearing him say he thought George W. Bush was intelligent. I am moving in a few weeks to escape the Bro migration that has invaded my neighborhood as of late. Why am I telling you all this? Because I am convinced I would be an even more narrow-minded, judgmental, sanctimonious snob if it weren’t for the fact that I was forced to live away from my own kind for most of my life. The group of friends I’ve accumulated over the years looks straight out of a Benetton commercial. I know what it’s like to be part of the ‘mainstream’ and what it’s like to be considered a minority. Through it all, I developed empathy. Not to mention that I realized assumptions are meaningless at a super early age. I’m not going to ask you if your dad hates your college education because of your ethnicity, why your cousin is blonde if he’s Latino or if you’re ok with gay marriage because of your religious background. (These things have all happened to me, FYI). We are more than our markers of identity. We might even be–gasp!–three-dimensional.

5) I learned to be my own person

Way before Kanye West at this year’s VMAs, even way before Fiona Apple’s appearance at the 1997 VMAS, there was tiny me, thinking to herself: “This world is bulls**t.” See, here’s the thing when you spend your childhood hopping around from one place to the other:  you notice that most of our hangups have to do with idiotic social structures that dictate our behavior for no good reason other than “It’s always been this way.” Depending on where I moved, I was either considered fat or skinny, pretty or homely, wise beyond my years or immature, cool or geeky, savvy or totally clueless, prudish or a hussie, opinionated or meek…you get the idea. It turns out you can never win. This is scary. It is also liberating. Instead of trying to keep up, I started listening to my own voice. After all, that was the only one that remained wherever I went. It was the one that would be with me long after I left. And it is the one, ultimately, that you want your kids to pay attention to.

Of course some moves were more successful than others, and it would be disingenuous to claim that my childhood was scar-free. I sobbed at least 5 times while watching Pixar’s Inside Out, because those bastards really know how pour salt into all my open wounds. I have a tendency to get restless, suffer from grass-is-always-greener syndrome, relish in commitment issues and avoid emotional conversations at all costs.  Still, I feel I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had an unorthodox upbringing. When I hear friend’s stories about growing up in the same place their whole lives, I am fascinated and intrigued. Knowing someone since kindergarten! High school football games! The quiet streets of suburbia! Annual bake sales and yearly trips to the lake! It sounds so wholesome and normal and healthy. Then I remember that I was exposed to world-class museums, international feasts, sketchy street food, far-out faiths, a cacophony of languages and so much more, and realize that I have nothing to envy.

–INES

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3 thoughts on “Dear Parents: Your Kids Will Survive A Life Abroad

    • It’s an interesting way to grow up, but it can also be very difficult. I definitely had some hard times with it. Acknowledging that it’s ok to be sad about moving helps. I hope your kids learn to love wherever it is they are!

      Like

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