A letter to parents of expat children

Parenting is fraught with anxiety, joys, challenges.... Parenting expat children is a different ballgame altogether.

With Australia’s Mother Day around the corner, I’ve written a letter to parents of expat children, and parents of third culture kids:

Dear expat parent

From the outset, I should mention that I’m not a parent. But I had a childhood as a third culture kid (TCK), attended 12 schools before going to university, and have bounced between 14 different countries in my lifetime. Born to a Singaporean mother (in Singapore) and a British father, I lived briefly in Singapore after birth, and only spent a few years of my life living in the UK.

My move to my now home, Sydney, was my 18th international relocation - and I now work with professionals, most moving abroad with children. They are equal parts riddled with guilt, giddy with excitement, paralysed with fear, overwhelmed with information. Yet they are also blissfully unaware of challenges they can’t fathom - they simply need to live the experience, take the leap and embark on the journey. I can only help to guide, advise, console, assure - and let them know they are not alone. I liken my role to an usher in a cinema (movie theatre for those Americans reading this) - I simply light the way so they know what’s on the path ahead.

No doubt - moving as a kid is scary. The uncertainty can be unbearable. Not knowing if my father would come home that evening and declare that we would be on the move again - that was a daily reality. Being uprooted more than once during a school year - another reality of mine when growing up. There was also the additional complexity of moving between different school systems and cultures - from Spain to Canada, then to Egypt...

The moves were so frequent at one stage in my childhood, my parents made the decision for my mother to relocate ‘back’ to the UK until we were more ‘certain’ of where my father needed to be for more than a 6 month period. (I say ‘back’ to the UK - I was neither born there, nor lived there permanently until the age of 12. It was an arbitrary base as that was my father’s ‘home’ country even though he left in his late twenties and didn’t return until retirement).

To an outsider, this may sound weird - and yet, to me, this was my reality, and I knew nothing different. It was my norm - my childhood. My life. My upbringing. The way I was raised. Not being a parent, I can only guess - but this is what many with children may not realise. What happens when you’re a kid is what happens - you don’t know anything else until you go out into the world and educate yourself - or get told that you are different. This usually happens when we ‘settle down’ in one country and integrate into a routine and a local community. Or surround ourselves with a stable set of friendships or people for more than a few months at a time - allowing us to form more than superficial bonds, and achieve a depth of understanding and relationships that a nomadic lifestyle simply doesn’t permit.

I started to realise at the age of 10 or so that I wanted to settle down - as we had moved to Cairo, Egypt - I had started to form firmer friendships, elected hobbies and extracurricular activities, missed my friends during the school holidays and when they didn’t return as their expat assignments took them elsewhere.When we left Cairo at the age of 12, I begged my parents to send me to boarding school. I craved the stability - the risk of moving again was horrible, and I wanted to be a kid. The nomadic expat existence had taken its toll and I wanted to be with my friends at dinner time and after school - not overhearing my parents discuss crossing another border, or something that could impact my stability.

I don’t have the same points of reference as people I went to school with - when they say ‘remember when…?’ and refer to anything that happened during their childhood in the UK to age 12, my eyes glazed over. They watched Rainbow, Grange Hill, Neighbours - I was listening to Run DMC, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and TV in Egypt wasn’t readily available. Back then, I relied on cassette tapes my father would bring back as gifts from his overseas trips, or what we would buy when we went on holidays.

So - what can I tell you about how this expat life will impact your children? What the ‘fast forward’ to their teen years, or even adult years, will be like? What will thank - or blame - you for? What letter would they write you, what assurances would they give, what would they tell you to feel less guilty about?

With the benefit of hindsight - bearing in mind kids these days have access to social media, and live in a scary and VUCA world, I can imagine the core emotions, craving for memories, desires for stability and to fit in remain consistent, no matter the amount of technology in our lives.

Identity

Depending on the number of moves or transitions required - this will vary. It can be said that Third Culture Kids (TCKs) or even expat children dread questions most people consider a standard ice-breakers; “where did you grow up?”, or “where are you from?”. The truth is - we feel like we belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. These questions are never easy. We typically have a long list of countries we’ve lived in, parents of different nationalities - or certainly, they didn’t originate where we were raised.

Now in my forties, I’m still working through my identity. Inherently, I feel British - it’s where I was educated the longest. When asked where I’m from, I tell people I’m half Singaporean - they always ask, as by looking at me I’m not ‘quite’ Caucasian. Having a Chinese mother, she has instilled Chinese customs and values that I do understand and appreciate - so, I do feel somewhat Chinese. However - when I visit family in Singapore (which I do often) they definitely consider that I am English, and not in the least bit Chinese. So basically, I’m neither here nor there. Not great on the identity front!

On the plus side, I can feel at home most places. Travelling doesn’t phase me. Plonk me in San Francisco and my vocabulary changes, like I’ve flicked a switch when going through customs (or indeed, if I’m on the phone to an American). I don’t know how. It’s the closest (regrettably), I’ve come to being multilingual. My sense of wanting to belong, to not stand out is so strong, my accent unconsciously adapts too. Suddenly a bin is a ‘trash can’. A loo is a ‘restroom’, a mobile a ‘cell’, pavement is ‘sidewalk’. Appreciating cultural norms comes naturally - no explanation is needed - I just ‘get it’.

For years, I thought I was the normal one - I’ve come to realise since finding more who’ve experienced my type of upbringing that I am the odd one out!

In conclusion - kids tend to be more adaptable than you give them credit for. Their identity will be anchored not only to passport, birth or parents’ countries, but those in which they are raised. Help them understand how to answer the question when they meet people, this will help them appreciate their identity faster.

Memories

Please, please, please catalogue, document, log, journal what you do, when you do it, take photos, keep money, souvenirs, remember names of the help, the restaurants you visited, the holidays you took, the stories, where you go - your kids will want to know when they’re older. These stories are so much a part of who we are, to have a record of our experiences is key. Social media, note keeping apps and other technology is making this ever easier.

It sounds ridiculous, but my parents had lived so many places, they forgot the years and length of time spent in some of them - even forgetting the names of the schools I went to. In a way it’s funny, but also sad that this isn’t recorded in some way.

Fitting in

That pair of shoes, laptop, iPad, going out to a certain place, amount of pocket money - all of these things mean so much more to us expat kids. Our need to fit in and assimilate - to simply not stand out, is so important. Especially in the teenage years. Especially when we’re the new kid in class. The hormones will wreak havoc, they’ll say they hate you for the upheaval you’ve put them through - but eventually, they’ll be grateful for the experience. The stories they can tell, what they learn about themselves that can’t be learnt in the classroom - will be indispensable in their life. There is evidence that travel and new environments are stimulating to children and their brains - skills that kids develop in expat life such as diplomacy, cultural awareness, adaptability, all of these are huge benefits if nurtured accordingly.

The trajectory of their lives will be forever changed as a result of the doors they can open as a result of the cultural muscle you’ve equipped them with. Not to mention the broadening lens and mindset they will benefit from as a result.

Learning an instrument/language

My biggest regret - not learning an instrument or a second language fluently. After living in so many countries and with so many opportunities, chopping and changing made it difficult to follow through on the discipline needed to hone a skill. Whilst it may be difficult to follow through, they’ll thank you in the long run.

Normality and routine

A family pet, routine events like Sunday family catchups and having friends you ‘were at school with your whole childhood’ - these realities don’t exist for many expat kids. Mundane as they may seem to many, these ‘normal’ attributes of a suburban life can seem alien to an expat.

If there’s any way you are able to introduce routine to your kids’ life - staying in one school system for consistency, having a ‘home base’ that is known and acknowledged, regular Skype or other communications with family overseas. All of these customs or habits create routine and familiarity.

Friendships, relationships and bonds

Relationship bonds was the largest aspect of my life affected by my upbringing, and it’s one that I still find difficult to grasp as an adult. I’ve worked with many professionals over the years to understand how a lifetime of constant transitioning between cultures, friendships, schools and education systems has impacted how I bond with people and view/value friendships. The answer is - not well…!

Frequent moving means leaving without goodbyes, or the ability to leave issues unresolved. Knowing it was a matter of not-very-long before another move was inevitable, I’d never built the resilience often developed in young children who have to resolve playground tussles, as they’d be at school with the other child until the ripe old age of 18. Me - I’d be lucky to be there until the end of the school year, so I’d be on a flight before I’d even have the chance to resolve any conflict or issue. This can create an ‘Armadillo’ effect - where they have a hard exterior on the surface as they need to be on guard and best behaviour meeting new people all the time, but this may be covering up insecurities on the inside - so do beware.

I fear that social media will impact the expat child of tomorrow - and the bonds that they are able to foster. However, any emotional or friendship resilience muscle they can exercise will be of huge benefit.

Don’t be soft on us

We’re stronger than you think. Don’t worry about us. Don’t overcompensate and spoil us because you feel guilty. This is not necessary - we will be grateful for the experience. All they want is their own room, and to feel safe. And to feel as much stability as they can (ironic, I know) - under the circumstances. Knowing what’s going on, having a say, being communicated to, seeing that you are happy. Ultimately, I look back on my parents as amazing role models. The sacrifice they made for us to have a great education, comfortable lifestyle, see the world, was incredible for me to have as a role model growing up - and it has made me strive to be better, and to achieve more.

You might enjoy this video of Simon Sinek explaining how parenting is partly to blame for frustrations organisations feel about Millennials in the workplace.

Repatriating is hard

Moving back ‘home’ will be hard for you, and in turn, hard on the kids. By the time I was 12, my hormones kicked in and I was loving being a teenager in an American school. It was a shock to the system when we returned to the UK - where my father hadn’t lived for over 15 years - to a house we’d owned but never lived in, a school system which was the complete opposite to what I was used to (with an American accent that everyone took great delight in teasing me about), where it was cold, and in the English countryside which was so BORING. Compared to Cairo where we would go horseriding by the Pyramids of a weekend, or cruise down the Nile for a school excursion.

Preparing for repatriation is extremely difficult - you have no idea how the family and friends you’ve left behind will have moved on, how you will cope, and whether you will be able to adapt to ‘home’ when the reality is that ‘home’ has been elsewhere - an adventure - for many years.

Yours faithfully

Sharon Swift

Founder of SETTLEto

  • Born in: Singapore
  • Passports: UK, Australia
  • Birthright citizenships: British, Singapore
  • Countries lived in: 14
  • Countries visited: 37
  • Number of international moves: 18
  • Number of schools: 12
  • Number of times repatriated: 2.5
  • Countries worked in: 4
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