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International childhoods: a 21st century approach to family life

It wasn’t that long ago that little thought was given to the long-term effects of uprooting children at such crucial stages in their development, but research now proves there is a need to adequately prepare youngsters for what can be an intensely distressing and unsettling experience.”

I took this quote from the Amazon review of a book designed to support young children to move abroad. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on it. But the quote got stuck up my nose and this blog is my sneeze to dislodge it.

Let me start by confessing that I am myself a product of ‘uprooting’; I dug up my children’s roots; I’ve met thousands of de-rooted children in international schools throughout my nomadic life; and a large proportion of my close friends have also experienced deracination in their youth.

In my long journey as an internationally mobile person I can count on one hand the number of people I know personally who feel that they suffered negative ‘long-term consequences’ as a result of their international upbringing (Note: I have read about unhappy adults who moved as children but have personally met very few – I wonder if it is only those who have regrets that write of their experiences.) Consequently, I find it offensive that the author of the quote above, like so many people who write about international childhoods, begins from the assumption that moving children from one country to another is inherently bad.

I would argue the exact opposite: that moving children during the ‘crucial stages of their development’ is to offer them a range of positive opportunities that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. Children learn empathy, tolerance, languages and are exposed to the wider world and to other ways of doing things. They learn personal skills like how to deal with change, to meet new people and make friends quickly.

These skills and experiences are ‘added value’ in today’s global village. Despite the rise of nationalistic attitudes, people are moving across national boundaries like never before; and the fates of nations are inextricably intertwined. In this environment, children who have lived in more than one country have an edge over their ‘static’ peers.

Having said this, there is indeed an obstacle that can hinder a child’s ability to take advantage of the potential benefits of living internationally: their parents’ attitude to and support during the move. I agree with the author that there is a ‘need to adequately prepare youngsters’: however, I think that this need is obvious – no ‘research’ is required to come to that conclusion.

Furthermore, I disagree with the author’s underlying assumption that to ‘adequately prepare youngsters’ is enough to ensure that a child’s experience is positive. Parental support needs to go further than reading a helpful book to one’s child; it must be more than emotional support and good communication ‘through the hard times’ of the move.

Parents must themselves want to move and be positive and open to experiencing the benefits of the move. Why? Because children do as we do and not as we say. If parents would really rather be where they were before, or are fearful or negative about their current location, then chances are their children will feel the same. I’m sorry parents, but it really is the bottom line: if you want your children to come out positively from the process of an international move, then you need to show them that, though it may at times be difficult, it is worth the effort.

Another problem I have with the quote above is this obsession that non-movers have with roots. People who do not move think that roots have to be permanently placed in the ground – they see identity and belonging as something related to the vague concept of nationality and habituation – as if you have to see the same buildings, the same people, the same street all your life to be a happy, well-balanced person.

This concept is misguided. Having ‘roots’ is about the people you are attached to and the cultural meanings that underpin your life. Here again we see the importance of the parents in raising happy, well-balanced internationally mobile children. Parents ground us in our roots: they give us our values and beliefs, they teach us our manners and social rights and responsibilities. Through international moves, the family unit can continue to give loving support, cultural continuity and a strong sense of ‘self’. Parents can provide continuity with the past and with other physical locations by providing time to visit extended family members and re-visit familiar places and favourite haunts.

The roots of internationally mobile individuals are just as strong as those of non-mobile people. The difference is that our roots, like those of orchids, are grounded in clumps of earth that we carry with us wherever we go.

‘Research now proves’ that the most difficult move is not moving internationally but trying to return ‘home’, however you want to define ‘home’. Moving from being an international person among other internationals, to living with people who only know one way of life is the most complex and emotional of moves. If internationally mobile children have difficulties as adults it is generally in trying to ‘fit into’ life among non-travellers. They need to find ‘their place in the world’ whether that is at ‘home’, a third country or in an international lifestyle.

But today, that process of finding one’s place in the world is becoming easier for two reasons. Firstly there are an increasing number of us internationals around. When an adult from one nationality moves to another country, they will enjoy the company (at least sometimes) of other people of their nationality – they are kindred souls who share certain things in common, cultural references that make social contact effortless. Us internationals experience the same sense of familiarity among ourselves. So the more of us there are, the easier it is to find others with similar experiences.

Secondly, as the author of the quote above hints, much has changed in the last 40 years in the support given to the global nomads of the world. When my parents started their international career in 1967, there were no books, no self-help materials and no counsellors, professional interculturalists, or expat trainers around. My parents moved us around the globe and raised us as best they could, using common sense and strong family values.

Today, I look at the kids in the international school here in Lagos, and see healthy, happy kids. The school is well aware of the nature of their student population: one of the guiding principles is precisely to bank on the diversity at the school to create internationally aware, empathetic and tolerant people. They know that the first weeks of a child’s arrival are difficult – and they deal with it. I can guarantee you that there are fewer unhappy, un-adjusted kids in this international school than at many ‘normal’ schools in any country where kids don’t move internationally.

Raising children internationally may bring with it a special set of issues to be dealt with, but so does raising children in one place: drugs, alcohol abuse, getting in with the wrong crowd, boredom, divorce, death in the family and moving house are all elements that make bringing up happy, well-balanced children more complex. It is time that we stop thinking of moving children across national boundaries as a dangerous, abnormal child-rearing strategy and see it for what it is – a common 21st century approach to family life.

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