Many parents decide to move abroad so that they could improve their family lifestyle and give their children better opportunities. However, when you think of life overseas with a young child million of question come to your mind. How will I organize child care and schooling? Is it a safe place for kids? How about the language barrier? Will they miss a lot their friends and grandparents?
We all know how hard it can be to reconcile work and family life even in our own town, where we have relatives to help and we know how things work. What is more, young children thrive on routines; if a toddler bursts into tears just because he can’t eat his dessert with his favourite Pocoyo spoon or play with Jaimito in the park today, how will he cope in a Pocoyo-free and Jaimito-free world?
So, I’m glad to tell you: you can make it. Yes, you and your kids can happily live ever after in a foreign country. Yes, it’s a rewarding experience for the whole family. Yes, your kids will benefit from learning a new language early. And yes, I know that because I moved from the very South to the very North of Europe with a 2 year old Michał and a 4 year old Andres.
In my case it was much easier as we moved from Spain, where we had lived for six years to Poznań, my hometown in Poland, where I had lived all my life.
Actually we were coming back to my hometown, where I had family and friends, but it was still challenging. We were moving with two small kids from a small town by the beach to a big city with cold weather. My kids, who used to spend all days outside playing by the pool with just their swimmers on, would have to wear warm jackets, scarves and woolen hats. And as we hadn’t travelled to Poland for a while, they didn’t remember anything about the place.
I had left my city, Poznan, as a young student; I knew everything about the best parties in the town, but I had no obviously no idea about childcare, schools, playgrounds and other kid-related stuff. Many people think Costa del Sol is a paradise for kids; it’s a wonderful area with beach, mountains and many green areas. Plus, most housing estates have their own pool. “Your kids are going to hate you for taking them away”! my friends were saying. “They’ll be freezing and they’ll be sick all the time, they’re not used to the cold!”
However, we have decided to move to Poland and we have carefully planned it so that it would be a rewarding experience for the whole family.
Let me share my tips with you and your little expats-to-be!
Please notice that this is only some general advice; I’ll soon publish more posts about expat life for families in different countries with useful links.
1) Learn together about the new place
A 3 year old from France has no idea that a place called Ireland even exists. Talk to your children about “the new country”, tell them things about the place they may appeal to them. If you’re moving to Italy, you can talk about “the place with the best pizza and ice cream in the world”. Try to familiarize your child with the language and culture of the new place: you can watch together your kid’s favorite shows on YouTube in the “new” language, pictures of the town and fun places for children. If it’s possible, go on a short family trip to that country first. Read together illustrated books about the place and answer your kids’ questions. It’s also a good idea for a family activity and spending some quality time together!
Before we moved “from the South to the North”, I spent ages talking with kids about cool things to do in Poznań. We watched pictures from my own childhood, talked about the parks, playgrounds and the zoo. I explained to the kids that kids in Poland don’t play at the beach, but in winter they play in the snow, they can make snowmen and sled. They wear nice scarfs and hats with their favorite Disney characters.
Kids can become obsessed easily; after a few days Andres was asking all the time “when are we going to play in the snow, mummy? Why not today”?
And of course when we came to Poland in sunny September, all he wanted to do was to sled. Everyday he asked when it’s going to snow.
The funny thing is that this year we had only one weekend of snow. What is very rare in Poland. Maybe we have brought warmer weather from Spain.
2) Get the kids excited
Every mum and dad knows how much a kid can get excited about his/her birthday party that’s due in 8 months. Or a holiday trip. Or Christmas. They never get tired of talking about the details, the party guests, their dream present or cake.
Plan a special event as soon as you get to the new place; it can be a party, a trip to a local beautiful beach or arranging together a new room for your kid. Talk a lot, plan a lot, enjoy a lot. Let it be a new, wonderful thing that they have never been able to do at home!
Talk about the journey. If it’s the first time your kids are going to travel by plane, you can take them for for a trip to the airport first and explain what you’re going to do. They will definitely like the idea!
3) The importance of routines
Small children thrive on routines. They won’t have their dinner without their favourite Sponge Bob and they won’t sleep tight if mummy doesn’t read them a story first.
(My son has recently developed a habit of putting all his stuff animals in pairs, giving each one a kiss and “a spoon of milk” from a small plastic pot. He won’t go to sleep if even one resident of his little Noah’s Ark is missing ).
Before you go abroad, think what are the most important routines for your family. Is it a bath and the story before you go to sleep? Or maybe Friday nights with Disney movies and pizza? Pay extra attention to the routines and stick to them at a new place; that will give the kids the sense of belonging and security.
If you start working immediately once you get to your new destination, it’s helpful if your partner can spend some time at home in the beginning and pay attention to the children.
4) When packing together is half the fun
Most kids love to pack their backpacks even for a day trip; they find it important to choose which toys they will they to the park or beach. Involve kids in packing your bags and enjoy that experience! Let them organize their toys and clothes and help as much as they can. They can put different labels on cardboard boxes (ie. “toys”/”summer clothes”/books”).
My boys had a lot of fun hiding in our never ending boxes and organizing their stuff. They became experts in climbing the pile of boxes in the living room.
5) Friends will be friends. Love (and Facebook) knows no distance.
Reassure your children that they will be able to stay in touch with their family and preschool friends. Before you move abroad, show your kids how to talk on Skype, explain that photos and voice messages can be sent via applications like WhatsApp or Line. Kids are very tech-savvy; my 4 year old knows very well that the blue icon on my phone (Skype) is used for talking with granny and the white and red one (YouTube) for watching his Thomas&Friends videos. He often asks “please, take a picture of my new train and send it to Daddy so that he could see it”.
Before we left Malaga, I befriended a few preschool/nursery mums on Facebook. My boys can sit with me in front of a computer, and watch pictures of their friends. Some of the mums are very active on FB; every few days we can see new pictures from family trips, birthday parties, etc. They also comment on my boys’ pictures; Andres is always happy when I read to him different comments about his new bike or our trip to the ZOO.
If you’re not very keen on social media sites, stick to Skype and programs for free messaging like WhatsApp or Line. Your kids will be thrilled to hear a voice note from their cousins on their birthday and answer with their own message. And it will be so much fun to plan online their visit to their home country for Christmas!
6) Help your kids with the language
“How can I help my children to learn the local language? Won’t it be too hard for them? “No matter if I speak with a graduate or a senior-level professional, this question will always come up.
Good news: small kids learn languages quickly and easily. I know many expat kids who are their parents’ personal interpreters; after a few years spent abroad, while the parents struggle with the language, kids attain fluency and even a native-like accent.
My hubby, who’s still struggling with Polish, finds Andres a perfect interpreter; he’s not only bilingual, he also loves running around the house and translating everything that’s said. So if, for example, my mum asks in the kitchen if his daddy would like some tea, the little interpreter is more than happy to run to the bedroom and shout the question in Spanish. And then run again to the kitchen with an answer in Polish. And so on.
How to encourage kids to learn a new language? Before you go abroad, search for their favourite shows on YouTube (Dora the Explorer, Sponge Bob and Disney shows are available in all world languages). You can meet people from your “new” country who live nearby and organize language exchange or classes. But remember, take it easy! Kids learn new languages best through fun activities. They don’t like pressure.
When you get to your destination, try to immerse the kids in the local language as much as you can; nursery, school, extra-curricular activities will definitely help. Go outside, let your kids make friends in the park. You will be surprised to see how quickly they can learn!
7) Search for new buddies
Kids are happy when they can play with their peers and make new friends. Visit local forums for parents (like Netmums in UK or SerPadres in Spain) to meet new people. You can also check forums for expats (like the Expat Forum) to meet families from your own country. Your little ones will be delighted to have new friends, go to the park or playground together.
8) Sincerity is the key
Recently, after one year of living in Poland my son had a conversation with a friend of mine. “So, Andres, why did you leave Spain? It’s such a beautiful, sunny place”! My boy answered seriously: “You know, in Spain there’s crisis, people don’t have money and can’t buy toys and sweets. We came here because Mum has a better job, she can pick us up from preschool everyday and play with us at home. We have more toys and we go on holidays. And we have our granny here, and uncles, and friends…”
Voila. Kids are able to understand more than we think. If your family is struggling with money, when you’re unhappy with your job, negative emotions can affect even the smallest ones who don’t know what it’s going on. Talk to your children sincerely and explain how a move overseas can improve family life. If you are moving abroad to reach a professional goal, explain it to the kids in an easy and approachable way. They’ll get it.
Of course it may not be easy in the beginning. Kids may cry, miss their family and friends home; sometimes the changes affect their behaviour, apetite or sleep patterns. Dedicate your kids time and patience. Every child has their own pace; some little children may get used to life in a new country immediately, others will need a few months before they feel happy and secure in a new place.
Life abroad benefits children not only with foreign language skills, but also teaches them to be more open-minded, flexible and tolerant. It also makes them more aware of their identity. They get to understand that the world does not end at the playground, that there are more countries and each of them has a different language and culture. And in every country they can play, learn and make friends.
Do you have your own tips? How did you cope when moving abroad with small kids? Let me know! I’m looking very, very forward to your comments!