The shots might have pushed her over the edge. Our family of four was preparing for a six month stay in Rwanda last year, and my 10-year old daughter was growing increasingly ambivalent about the prospect. Now there were rabies shots to contend with? She toughed it out, we went, and a year later we continue to marvel at how confident and self-assured the experience has left her.
Many Upper Valley families have spent time overseas with their kids, either for work or adventure. Ashley Milliken recently spent six months, mostly in Taiwan, with her husband and daughters Perrin and Carly. “We did it to share the rest of the world with our kids and have them study another language in the place where it was spoken,” she explains, “and to give the girls a chance to try what it’s like living in a city. ” But she emphasizes that the trip was not so much about exposure to foreign culture and seeing new things as it was about discovering what it would be like to travel as four people, taking on risk. Doing so teaches kids as much about themselves as it does about the world around them.
Pam Miles spent a year in Cape Town, South Africa, with her family. She says, “Of course we all loved the experience of being on safari out on the African plains. But what most deeply impacted our children (ages 4, 7, and 10), was the concentrated and very regular time we spent tutoring and playing soccer with kids in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha every available weekend.”
Whether you’re in a village in Central America or a bustling European capital, your destination sets the stage for your experience, but what matters more than anything is that you have taken yourself and your kids out of the comfort zone that is the Upper Valley. (Bonus benefit: they’ll come to appreciate just how amazing our neck of the woods is when they return). And even if you spend most of your time on the move, it’s about more than the travel; it’s about living differently for a while.
A year overseas requires significant preparation. The logistics are the same as for any trip, albeit more involved. How long is long enough? Four months is probably the minimum — anything shorter than that, and there will be little time to really settle in before it’s time to leave again. What to bring for an entire year away? When to go? Many don’t, but if you have that luxury, consider when would work best for your kids. “We spent a significant amount of time trying to figure out the ideal year to travel around the world with Brook,” explains Eydie Pines, who completed an epic 15 month trip around the world with her husband and son last year. “We decided that sixth grade was best for striking the balance between him being old enough to get a lot out of the trip but young enough to enjoy spending 24/7 with us.”
You also need to consider how your kids will deal with with the idea and get them on board. How will your rambunctious teenager function in a big city? Or survive without his Xbox? Your anxious child may have a hard time with a transition of this magnitude, and a clingy kid may cling like never before. “You’re going to be away from your friends and your room and your pets for a long time in a big city where people eat strange things with chopsticks. You’ll be in a school where they speak a language you don’t understand. Oh, and weird bugs, too.” That’s definitely not the way to broach the topic, but it may well be how your kids perceive it at first. Be prepared.
Amy Neuman, who is currently spending a couple of years in Prague with her husband and three children, faced some apprehension from her kids, and says, “We validated their concerns. We knew they’d be nervous and uncertain. I was nervous, and they knew that, too. But we could point out other things in their lives that had been challenging and scary and talk about their ability to deal. Tell them that we knew that they would be fine. We also really emphasized that we were a team and that as long as we were together, we could meet any challenge.”
Our daughter was convinced her friends would forget her, but kids at school had traveled for a year and she’d barely noticed them missing. It helps to be honest and acknowledge the known unknowns, and to put the timeline into perspective (you’re not leaving home forever). Remind them that their home and their community will still be there and waiting for them when they return.
The Comforting Routines of Daily Life
You’re not looking for every day to be dawn-to-dusk adventure packed with amazing sights as you would on, say, a whirlwind tour of Europe. You’re settling into a new routine and making the unfamiliar familiar enough that it may serve as the environment for a new daily life, recreating a “home” while “away.”
Those new routines may be very different, and creature comforts may be missing, which will affect how you interact as a family. The Milliken’s life in Taiwan was contained in a small apartment with precious little privacy. “So, everyone becomes more flexible — you need to get used to talking to each other more,” says Ashley. “Bonding was really intense. The four of us were together all the time, and although the girls would get on each others nerves every so often, ninety percent of the time it was amazing.”
You can’t help but empathize strongly with your kids as the deal with the challenges, and their moods will impact your own state of mind: if they’re not happy, chances are you’re not happy; when they soar with accomplishment, you come along for the ride. They may grapple with conflicting feelings of missing home while still appreciating the new setting. One parent remembers her daughter working through her emotions: “‘I like it here, I do,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to go home, but I miss my friends and I am allowed to be sad sometimes.’” Indeed, the social life is often the kids’ biggest challenge: close friends are hard to replace while away and doing so may feel like “cheating.” Attending an international school will connect them with kids sharing their experience and who keen to make new friends, but it’s also worth reach out ahead of time: sports, culture, hobbies — anything that might forge a connection.
Home sickness and travel fatigue may be preempted if not prevented entirely. Eydie Pines and her family planned a route that took them from less to more developed for increased creature comfort, and arranged to reconnect with family and friends from home along the way. A trip home halfway through can give everyone something to look forward to, and will allow the kids to confirm that life back home is there and waiting. And of course, Facebook and Skype enable everyone to stay in touch.
School is likely to be a key part of your kids’ daily routine. International schools cater to temporary visitors with a familiar curriculum, but they can suck you into a bubble of foreigners isolated from the local community. Local schools may be inadequate academically, especially for older kids, and learning in a foreign language can be a real challenge.
Sometimes school doesn’t work well, and you need to find alternatives. As an 8th grader Max Munafo was having a hard time with the school his parents had found for their year in Padova in Northern Italy. “He wasn’t getting what they had promised, and was getting frustrated,” explains his mother, Giavanna, “but we turned the bump in the road into a great opportunity. Instead of structured homeschooling his learning consisted of travel, writing about our adventures, creating photo essays, and soaking up the history and culture all around us.”
Even if you set out to homeschool, the reality on the ground may change your plan. Ashley Milliken came to Taiwan with plenty of curriculum ideas for her daughters.”But in the end,” she explains, “we only did a fraction of what I’d planned — it was just about being and living the experience, we really didn’t need the rest.”
A Life Changer — Yours and Theirs Alike
Parents beware: your kids will become independent as they negotiate their new life and master skills on a par with the adults around them. In Prague, the Neuman kids now confidently commute to school across town using public transportation. Kids will see their parents in a different light as you make mistakes, struggle with languages and daily challenges. They’ll see you ask questions and take risks, start doing the same. They may even rise to the occasion and help you cope.
Amy Neuman reflects on the first tough times in Prague: “I feel like the kids and I became a real team. They really helped me, and they know it.” Ashley Milliken tells of her daughters growing appreciation of having choices to make and how they took ownership and began to call the shots and plan what they did as a family in Taipei. “These are lasting changes that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Our kids are excited to face new and unknown experiences and even if unsettling at first, they have the confidence to move forward,” adds Pam Miles.
Back home, little will have changed when you return. But your kids will not be the same: a second language, big city street smarts, the social skills to meet new people and make new friends. As well an appreciation that their cozy Upper Valley world is not the center of the universe, and that our “way of life” is not the only one. Pam Miles notes, “We have seen quite clearly that our children left their experience in South Africa with an appreciation of what it means to give back to the world and the joy it brings not only to the recipients, but also to the givers.”
Most importantly, perhaps, your kids will have learned how to cope with change, adversity, uncertainty, new things, scary things, the unknown, the untried. As one parent said reflecting on a challenging time with her family in Eastern Europe a few years back: “even the bad experiences are still valuable experiences and worth having.” It all builds character. As parents, we discover our own strengths and weaknesses along the way, and we may end up seeing our children in a different light, too. As Ashley Milliken notes, “This is a chance to have a different type of time with your kids, a different kind of relationship with them. That’s unique, it’s never going to happen again.” And it is definitely worth it.
This story was first published in the February-March 2014 issue of Kids Stuff Magazine, published by 9Dot Magazine.