First Time Expat Parents: The Essence of International Parenting

Date Created: 10.06.2014

There are two types of ‘expatriate’ parents out there today – those who were globally mobile children themselves, and those who are taking the leap outside their nation for the first time as adults. In the literature the first group are known as Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCK’s). TCKs are defined as people who lived a significant portion of their childhood in a country other than that of their parents’ home nation.

I’d like to dwell for a moment on the fact that the above paragraph means that there are first, second and even third generation globally mobile individuals out there today. This is good news for people who are deciding to take up a job abroad for the first time for two reasons:

1.      It means that there is a body of experience out there for them to tap into, and

2.      Since there are hundreds of thousands of us doing it, some choosing to continue this lifestyle after having done it as children, it must mean that a globally mobile lifestyle is a viable, perhaps even desirable, option for our families.

I’ve been writing on, and researching, global mobility for many years now and have come to conclusion that there are three essential issues for parents to be aware of in making the decision to move abroad for the first time.

1. Be aware of the pros not just the cons

If no one in your environment has ever moved abroad, your choice to leave can seem like an eccentric decision, a perilous journey into the wild unknown. People around you will be able to point out risk, the things you will lose out on, they can tell you what your children won’t do, see, experience by not being in the current, known environment.

But your decision to move is not whimsical. In fact, research has shown that there are significant benefits to children who have the opportunity to experience life abroad:

a)      Expat kids tend to get an excellent education. Research in the United States in the 1990’s showed that TCKs were four times more likely to go on to higher education than Americans who had not lived abroad.

b)      There have been many articles recently pointing to the fact that employers and universities are starting to actively recruit TCKs because of the skills they gain during their experiences. For example, research has shown that people who live abroad are more creative and develop better problem solving abilities, they are better adapted to dealing with change and uncertainty and more open to dealing with people from different cultures.

If you would like to read some serious research on the impact of expatriation on children, I would suggest you go to Dr Barbara Schaetti’s Transition Dynamics website: www.transition-dynamics.com/resources.html#articles

2. Take control of the process to deal with the cons

Although I cannot base my conclusion on extensive scientific studies, my personal experience and anecdotal research points to the fact that the single most important factor in how children experience expatriation is the strength of the family. Children who come home to a supportive, loving and safe family environment can handle a lot of difference and change outside their front door. In other words, there is nothing inherently good or bad about the experience of living abroad as a child –how it is managed within the family will determine the outcome of the experience.

For example, moving children frequently and with little regard for their school calendar will make it more difficult for children to cope. Leaving children to be raised by foreign nannies will also make it difficult for children to cope. In our book, The Mobile Life: a new approach to moving anywhere (www.themobilelife.eu), Anne Parker and I discuss how families can act as teams to ensure that each individual family member gets the most out of the experience abroad.

3. Understand that your children will be different

Moving abroad will impact your children’s identity – who they see themselves as, what they think is important, the behaviours they think are proper, the goals they have in life. In fact, TCK’s recognise each other: just like two people of the same nationality who meet abroad will have things in common, TCKs have common values and experiences that bind them even if they never lived in the same countries. 

Expecting children to return after expatriation and blend in as if nothing happened is unrealistic. What you call ‘home’ will not necessarily feel like home to them. A child raised in a different country will necessarily have different experiences and values than the friends and cousins who didn’t. They may have taken up different sports, be interested in different topics and a very different view of the world and their place in it. They may have developed different skills – they may not be able to drive but they can fly to a new city and navigate the metro without batting an eyelid.

For parents who are moving abroad for the first time, the good news is that there is a lot of material out there and an entire support industry to assist expats with transition management. There might, in fact, be so much information that it is difficult to see the forest through the trees. Your family will experience huge amounts of change and an unsettling period of transition as you move for the first time to a new country. The trick to wading through the trees is knowing what the forest looks like, aiming for the full and pleasant life that you create for your family in your new home.

Diane Lemieux  has spent a whole lifetime as an expat and sees moving to live in a new country as a life choice made by an increasing number of people. Those who successfully recreate a full and satisfying life in a new place develop the skills and approaches needed to deal with any change that life presents us.Her new book, The Mobile Life, co-written with Anne Parker, helps those who are undertaking this journey for the first time, and highlights the achievements of those who are experienced resettlers. Blog: http://diane-lemieux.com/mobilelife/