Moving abroad is great for your child

Moving abroad with children

- my personal experience as a third culture kid

Are you thinking about living abroad as a family and worried about how it will affect your children? I will share with you my own first-hand experience of the challenges and the benefits of growing up as a so-called “third culture kid” in Belgium and what I have observed as general phenomena in my circle of friends. 

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My family moved to Brussels when I was 13 and I spent 6 very formative years there. I have many friends who moved around a lot more than me when they grew up, some even every two or three years. We all turned into fully functioning and even happy adults. Of course, the experience depends a lot on the character of the child, the frequency of moving, the intensity of the culture shock and many other factors. But I know a lot of third culture kids who grew up abroad under different circumstances and they all turned out fine. I would even say better than fine, because our childhood experiences provided us with some great skills that come in especially handy in today’s ever-changing world. 

"Moving abroad is not easy, neither for the children not for the parents."

To begin with, I want to acknowledge that leaving your social circle and all the things you know behind is not easy, neither for the children nor for the parents. For children, the most important factor will normally be the friends. I don’t remember being very sad when moving to Brussels, I was rather excited and curious. But every summer, at least one of my close friends would move away and there were a lot of tears involved. This is the big downside that comes with expat schools. The fluctuation usually is huge. There is little consistency in the child’s life, so it is important that the family provides some stability. While being tough in the moment, it has its benefits in the long run, however. I learned that for every person that leaves, another potential friend comes. I also learned early on that maintaining relationships requires effort – a great awareness to have especially in romantic relationships! 

"Despite being challenging, it is a really valuable experience."

the benefits of being a third culture kid
Exposing your children to experiences abroad is a great gift!
Some children struggle more with change than others. I personally love change, but my sister needs a lot more time to adapt. Living abroad and coming back was harder for her than for me. Still, she sees it as a really valuable experience in her life that she would not want to miss.Our experience abroad is a part of who we are. This of course means that we don’t fit into the catalogue of national identities. I feel much more European than German, and there was a time when I really struggled with my identity. When I finished high school, my family moved back to Germany and I moved to Scotland to start my degree there. People asked me the typical small-talk question of “where are you from?” and it threw me into an existential crisis. I felt that saying Germany wasn’t correct, because I hadn’t lived there for 6 years, but saying Belgium wasn’t correct either, because I wasn’t Belgian. So I gave them a short run-down of my life. It was hard for me to go “back home” to Germany during term break, far away from my friends and the life I had known for the past years. 

"Growing up between cultures should be just normal."

But that was just a phase. What definitely helped me during that period was having an international group of friends with similar experiences. One of my closest friends has lived in at least 6 countries growing up and her parents are from two different continents, but she didn’t seem to have any identity issues at all. For her, it was just normal. And this is what it should be: normal. Our national identities don’t define us. Our personality does. Nowadays, I have no problem saying: “I’m from Germany.”, knowing that my opposite won’t know any more about me than before, but that’s what you get for asking a superficial question. 

"Most of my expat friends are more open to possibilities and opportunities and more prepared to go their own way."

With our world becoming increasingly global, being mixed-race, multi-national and living abroad is becoming more and more common. This is often seen with scepticism, but I think it is a great advantage. If you grow up surrounded by various cultures, you have so many more options. You can create the best of both (or many) worlds. Static, narrow-minded thinking is what often leads to fatalism, racism, sexism and other -isms that threaten peaceful coexistence. Growing up learning that people are “different” and that there is no right or wrong way to do or be is a great preparation for becoming an open-minded adult.

In addition to being more open-minded, I find that most of my friends who spent a part of their childhood abroad are more open to possibilities and opportunities and more prepared to go their own way. This might have to do with knowing that social norms or a status quo is always relative to the society it prevails in. I also observe that third culture kids are more prepared to leave their comfort zone for a better job opportunity, a partner or something else they find worth pursuing. We already now that it won’t kill us and to some of us, going away is just as natural an option as staying. 

"Growing up in a different country has tought me do many valuable things."

This does not mean that we will never settle down. Some might have a harder time than others, and I certainly fall into the latter category. But I have many friends from school that are perfectly settled in their new home country or back in Germany.  

Speaking for myself, growing up in a different country, albeit in an expat community, has taught me so many valuable things: I learned to accept and even adopt different ways of doing things, I learned that nothing lasts forever, that change is something great and inevitable, that people often are less different than they may appear at first glance, and sometimes more and that we don’t know anything about a country unless we’ve lived there. I also learned to adapt, not to judge until I understood, and I significantly improved my language skills.

I honestly believe that by exposing your children to inter-cultural experiences, you are giving them a wonderful gift. And you’re giving a gift to yourself as well.

What is the most valuable thing you have learned living abroad? What do you think your children will learn/have learned? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

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