Maybe you’re living abroad and you’re planning to start a family ? Or you already have children, but you would like to give expatriation a try. In any case, you’re wondering if this is a good idea. You wonder about the impact expatriation will have on your children. I am not the most impartial, because I’m in a relationship with an expatriate, and my child was born in a foreign country. In my opinion, the lifestyle of expatriate children brings them many advantages and I often congratulate myself on being able to offer this life to my daughter.
Obviously, a child doesn’t need to live abroad to be happy, open-minded or bilingual. It is even certain that expatriation can be a difficult ordeal for some children, who must give up all their bearings, often without having a say. However, in most cases, I think this is a very positive experience for little ones. It’s a special way of life, which has drawbacks but also brings many advantages.
Therefore, I wanted to tell you about the benefits that expatriate children can enjoy. Or at least, the good things that expatriation brought to my daughter. I have a broader view of the subject, because my boyfriend is russian, and moved to France when he was five years old. His own experience helps me step back and understand what expatriate children are going through.
Expatriate children know how to open up to others
I think that the first advantage of expatriation for a child is the open-mindedness that it brings. It’s a bit tricky to move to a new country : you’re not really at home, you have to find your place. You become a stranger. Expatriate children must learn how to fit into a new country, how to embrace new customs – without denying those of their parents. Personally, I am very attached to the culture, the traditions with which I grew up. I hope to succeed in transmitting these traditions to my daughter, and I also hope that she will create new ones in the country where she will grow up.
An expat child will socialize with children of different nationalities. First, the “local” children of the country where he lives, of course. But also other expatriate children. Expats often tend to stick together and hang out with each other, like members of a “secret club”. This is a choice specific to the individual, and it also depends on the destination chosen. Malta is a country with a lot of expatriates of various nationalities, so we have no trouble getting together. But a Russian family who just moved to the french countryside will undoubtedly find it more difficult to find “peers”.
When she was very young, I started taking my daughter to a playgroup organized by other expatriate parents. She was the only french girl in the group. With her were belgian, german, polish, english, argentinian, italian and of course maltese children. She then continued to frequent these children at daycare, and would have gone to school with them if we were to stay in Malta. Thanks to this, she managed to understand very early on that there were many countries in the world, with many different languages. She knows that we, her parents, speak french and english, but she understands that her friend Ella speaks dutch, whereas her friend Noah speaks Italian. For her, it’s normal that different people speak different languages, depending on their origins.
This is a difficult concept to grasp for a very young child, but expatriate children generally understand this without a problem, because it’s their own reality. In my opinion, this makes them more attentive to the cultural aspect of life, and teaches them tolerance. For them, all these differences are normal. Obviously, one can be open and tolerant without having ever traveled, but I think that this is more easily acquired in children who witness it directly.
They like to discover new horizons
Expat parents will – normally – spend a lot of time exploring their new country. Usually, when we move abroad by choice, we choose a place that attracts us and that we want to discover. We, therefore, find ourselves playing tourists very regularly, and it’s obviously beneficial for children. They will see the country, discover new things, go on getaways, learn more about the culture and history of their new home…
On the contrary, when we have lived all our life in the same place, that we already know by heart, we are naturally less inclined to explore it with our children. This is a generalization on my part, of course, because there are always exceptions. But I still think that expatriation pushes us out of our entrenchments and helps us to open up to new horizons, as a family. For example, my companion, who moved to Brittany when he was five, knows more about the region than me, even if I was born there.
We have a very curious daughter. She’s always enthusiastic about the idea of going for a walk, discovering a place that she doesn’t know yet. Maybe it would be the same if we were not expatriates, but I like to think that it played a role.
They are bilingual
Unless you’re moving to an english-speaking country, learning a second language will be essential. Young expatriate children quickly assimilate new languages, it’s a real asset for them. After a few months of school, they will be bilingual, while it will take years to their classmates to learn – with more or less success – a second language.
I have the perfect example at home : my boyfriend learned to speak french within a few months, when he was five. Now, he speaks and writes french as well as I do : if you hear him, it’s impossible to guess that french is not his mother tongue. And yet, it was a completely different alphabet for him, since he’s russian !
With our daughter, we speak french at home, because this feels the most natural for us. On the other hand, she hears and uses english everywhere else : at the playgroup, at the daycare, during various activities. She does not speak it fluently yet, because it’s only a few hours here and there, but she already masters a good english vocabulary and will become bilingual as soon as she starts school full time. In my experience and that of other parents, the foreign language is never a problem for long and is always assimilated easily. Expatriate children effortlessly become bilingual, and sometimes speak up to three languages (or more) if their parents are of two different nationalities !
They adapt easily
I also think that expatriation teaches children how to adapt more easily to situations that are out of the ordinary. Expat children are used to traveling a lot – to visit their extended families, but also because their parents often have a fondness for travel. They are generally very good travelers. This is at least the case for my daughter, who loves to take the plane and who knows how to be patient.
Some children need to follow a strict routine and are lost and confused if it changes. Often, expatriate children are used to more flexibility, and manage to adapt easily if their daily life is disrupted – on a trip, during a move… It goes hand in hand with the expat lifestyle. Often, people who choose expatriation have fairly flexible jobs : they work for themselves, or remotely via the internet… They can go out, travel more easily. They benefit from more freedom of schedule and can live “day-to-day”, and so do their children.
My boyfriend and I are self-employed : he owns his business, and I carry out occasional missions. We are free to choose our schedule. If we prefer to work late at night to free our afternoon, it’s possible. If we choose to work on a sunday, we can take our monday off. It allows us to be very spontaneous on a daily basis, so we never had a very strict routine with our daughter. This makes her a very easy going child, almost imperturbable, even when we have to get up at three in the morning to catch a plane. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all expatriates ! Some also work conventional jobs, with standard office hours. In this case, the children have a more “rigid” schedule, but I still think that they are easily adaptable, thanks to their expat experience in the broad sense.
They are independent
An expat child is often quite independent. He has no (or few) close relatives nearby. His parents are not always available either, so he has to learn to play alone, and he’s sometimes looked after by people outside the family circle. The distance with loved ones is one of the biggest drawbacks of expatriation, but, at least, it helps with developing autonomy.
School children must also rebuild their social circle and acquire a whole bunch of codes. Imagine : tomorrow, you’re moving to a country you don’t know. You’re going back to work in a new company where the employees speak a language that you don’t understand at all. You don’t even know what your boss expects from you, because his words make no sense to you. This is what children who move abroad experience. What a challenge ! However, they’re doing their best, they don’t give up, they learn the language and make friends very quickly. Despite a legitimate apprehension at the beginning, they keep their head high and face this ordeal calmly. Do you realize what an achievement this is, on their scale, and how much it can help them build their own personality ?
Do you think that expatriation has impacted your children? If yes, how ?