Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Raising Kids Abroad: WHEN ROOTS ARE EXPOSED
ALL THAT IS FAMILIAR SHOULD NOT BE LOST
We spent the better part of our preparation months getting rid of TONS of stuff. This seems to be the norm among families creating this change in their lives. We had MAJOR garage sales and for three weeks straight, our kids witnessed objects of stability and security slowly mosey out the door with random people. Hot wheels now belonged to a friend of theirs, their swing set went to live with cousins, their bunkbeds were replanted at grandma's house, and most of their toys that they had spent their entire 7-year lifespan accumulating were being sold off to random strangers. I could sense that they felt the bottom was falling out of their little world. Those things were their things. Now, they were gone. Rooms became bare and all that they held so dear was being packed up into 13 total suitcases. This is scary for grown-ups. Kids that associate material possessions as security have a really hard time with this process. One of our friends told us that we needed to keep certain things that would be remembrances of "home". Aside from the blankets that we were bringing already, we decided to keep a large star nightlight that we plug into whatever room they are sleeping in. This has been something that provides security. We have moved to three different homes in Nicaragua within our first year and their star burns bright in all three. Wherever they are, there it is also. We even brought it with us when we returned back to the States for a visit and kept it lighting up their room at Grandma's. It's something they can count on and even these little things have made a huge difference.
This is an idea that I credit to our missions pastors at church. They lived for 4 years in Cambodia with small children like ours and had so many helpful suggestions for making this transition as a family go smoother. One of my favorites was their idea of creating "signposts" throughout your day for your children. In any move abroad, whatever routine that kids held dear back home has been thrown to the wayside. Each day in a new country is a growing and learning experience. The new language and culture and food and way of life forces one into living more adaptively. This is especially hard for kids who have always associated daily occurrences with security. For example, back in Oklahoma, every time we got into the car to go to school or the park or to the store, I would put on the ipod of songs that the boys loved. Car rides meant fun, sing-along time with mom. It's something they looked forward to on a daily basis and counted on. When we moved to Nicaragua, we didn't have a vehicle. We still do not. We hail taxis and grab rides with friends or walk anytime we need to get anywhere so those moments of family sing-alongs in the car are distant memory. In exchange for all the "moments" that were normal in the life we led before, we have tried desperately to created new "signposts". Moments that are routine throughout our day that the boys can hold onto and know that they are a "constant" in their new lives. One is morning bible study during breakfast. Once we all wake up and get our cereal and fruit and coffee, the boys and I sit around the table and read a chapter story out of the Jesus Storybook Bible. They look at pictures and ask questions and we spend those few moments every morning creating a repetitious moment that they can count on. Other "signposts" throughout the day could be 15-minutes of "face time" right after school. A moment every single day that they know that you ask questions and are interested in what's happening in their day. Or maybe a "highs and lows" game at dinner time when everyone goes around the table and talks about their high of the day and low of the day and discusses them as a family. Another one that we've tried to stick with is bedtime stories. Each child picks a book and we sit on the bed, read each book and talk about the story right before we say goodnight. I think the best signposts are just moments that you can consistently create on a daily basis no matter where you find yourself. They are not tied to geography and can happen anywhere. Our friends encouraged us to a a few of these each day so that when our days get away from us in a foreign country and we are on-the-go and shoving the kids in and out of taxis and restaurants and constantly meeting new faces and places and all is turned upside down in their little worlds, they have moments throughout the day where they can regroup and feel some form of stability. Living abroad can be difficult for anyone and people of all ages can benefit from the idea of "signposting".
GETAWAYS ARE STILL A MUST
It seems silly sometimes to think that once you are living abroad in a new country, that you may still need a vacation. We are surrounded by palm trees and live a short drive from the beach. Our kids build sandcastles daily and are constantly in the water. We live in a perpetual state of summer here in Nicaragua. People back home look at our lifestyle and see "fun-in-the-sun" with some mission work opportunities in the mix. One would assume, Why would you need a vacation?! You LIVE on vacation!" While this observation is correct to a certain extent; we live in paradise compared to where we lived before, it's not exactly the full picture. When you move abroad, as opposed to when you "vacation" abroad, your perspective has changed. This new place is a whole new life, not just an "experience". You are finding your new grocery stores and gas stations, your kids are settling into school, you are learning to eat new foods and find out where you can buy necessities and cleaning supplies and pay speeding tickets. You are setting up a new life and all that comes with that. Geography and scenery after awhile, become secondary. You and your family must learn to function in this new paradise. You make friends and hold play dates and help with homework and most of the time still work a job of some sort (my husband does graphic design work online). No matter where your new home is, it's important to get away every once in awhile as a family, even if only for a long weekend to refresh and recollect yourself. For us, it's been going home to the States every 6 months for a visit. We've needed that time to reconnect with family and indulge in conveniences that we've missed. As well, we just recently were able to travel to another part of Nicaragua to house sit for some friends and had a mini-vacation away from our small coastal town. This time was perfect for us to reconnect with each other, spend ample quality time with the kids, and just relax without the normal daily responsibilities of school, work, and mission work. "Stay-cations" are also beneficial for the family. We've had many days that we have stayed at home and just relaxed and napped and removed ourselves from the bustle of this new life abroad. I think it's especially important for the kids to have this time away. No matter where you are living, sometimes you just need a break. Even more so when you are extra exhausted from learning a second language and striving to find your place in a new culture. Remember to step away every so often to rest.
THEY MAY NEED CONTROL OF THE SMALL THINGS
Kids are flexible. For the most part, they are way more adaptable to new surroundings than adults are. But we, as parents have had time to emotionally prepare. These months leading up to the move, we have read books and blogs, adjusted budgets and made special provisions for our new life abroad. To children, one day they are going about their normal lives, and one day all that is "home" is gone. We can try to talk to them about it and prepare them for what will happen when we relocate, but the truth is, kids lack a sense of timing and mental preparation. Anything that happens to them, happens suddenly. When their roots are exposed and they cannot find a semblance of normal for while, they tend to feel completely and utterly out of control of their little lives. We, as adults still get to decide where we live and find a new home, decide on what we will have for dinner that night, what sights we will see that day, who we will befriend and how we will function day-to-day. WE have chosen this lifestyle, not our children. They benefit greatly from being able to come to a new place, have exposure to new language and culture and diverse new friendships. And they will grow and have the time of their lives in the process. But it doesn't alleviate the fact that they are hopelessly out of control and may try to compensate in ways that will make the transition harder on everyone else involved. We noticed a lot of tantrums the first few weeks. They wanted things that were always readily available to them and because we were still blindly searching our way around a new place, we asked for their patience way more than they were accustomed. Meltdown city, over here in Nica. Crying and whining and complaining about the smallest things filled our first couple of weeks. Then came the boycotting of foods. To this day, food is our biggest cause for concern in living abroad. Our kids have control of little else, but what they can control is what they put in their mouths. Sometimes, I feel as though they will exert their stubborn will of not eating THAT simply because they have had no control over anything else that day. It's the one thing they can say NO to. As well, we were met with digression from the potty-training accomplishment we had made earlier in the year. We moved with a three-year-old who was completely potty-trained and the minute we stepped foot in Nicaragua, it became a battle again. Accidents and refusal to go to the bathroom. Grasping for control whenever possible. I've spoken to many moms abroad and this is something that is found to happen a lot. Eventually kids settle into the new lifestyle and can release the clenched fist of control once they feel safe and secure again, but don't be surprised if their behavior and attitude change drastically for a time during this transition. As you are all growing and allowing this new lifestyle to change you as a family, it may take the children a bit longer. Patience and understanding that they need to feel in control of some things is important. Letting our kids have some leeway and more choices along the way has helped.
Though the transition of moving abroad with kids can be a difficult one, I'm finding the perspective and growth it provides for a family is far worth it. I think it's all about having realistic expectations about how it will affect everyone and reacting accordingly. Immersing ourselves in this new culture and language and lifestyle has grown us closer together. We have learned to understand and relate to each other better. It's created a healthy dependence on the family unit that we were lacking in the States. Because we "uprooted" together, we have had an opportunity to be more vulnerable together and adopt a perspective on life that sees things differently. The world is HUGE and people are DIVERSE and memories are EVERYTHING. These are just a few of the lessons a family can learn while raising kids abroad. I pray your journey abroad is just as eye-opening as ours has been thus far.