How is parenting as an expat different from parenting at home? Just as the three rules of real estate are location, location, and location, the three rules of parenting, most would agree they are love, love, and love. We can differ widely in the way we express that love, depending on our personalities and how love was expressed to us as children. And even within the same family, some children seem to need “tough love” while others take a long time to snuggle. But all children need to feel loved and I think one of the main tasks of parents is to let children know that they are kind.
Being a parent as an expat in a foreign country, and particularly in a third world country, I would add three other rules of parenthood; support, support and more support; first for ourselves as parents and second for our families. I often think of the airline attendant’s monotonous speech about putting on his own oxygen mask before helping his son or someone else. For me, this is a clear metaphor for parenthood: if I can’t breathe, how can I help my child or anyone else?
One of the main ways that parenting as an expat is different from parenting at home, at least initially, is the lack of our usual support network of close family and friends. And if we are a non-working spouse, we may also lack the emotional support of our partner, who is often at eye level with new challenges and responsibilities, and simply doesn’t have much to give at the end of the day. (More on this later).
Therefore, finding ways to get the support we need as parents is a primary concern for expats, especially non-working parents. Fortunately, in most major cities around the world there are organizations that help expatriates, particularly expatriate women, to find support. We may also find, as we settle down, that we have more time on our hands due to (hopefully) capable domestic staff, which I will also discuss later.
I urge stay-at-home expat parents to find something to do that they are passionate about. It could be something you’ve done before or something totally new that you’d like to explore. If you think about the past and remember a time when you were doing something that seemed like a few minutes, and when you looked at the clock an hour had passed, that was doing something that you were passionate about. It could be learning something new, like the local language, yoga, volunteering at an NGO, or your child’s school. Just make sure it is an activity that involves others, as it is a wonderful way to come together and start building a new support network.
As suggested above, it can be an imprecise proposition for the non-working spouse to find a partner to meet all of their emotional needs. In fact, I have heard women say that being an expat wife is like being a single mother with no dating privileges.
While this may be an exaggeration, it is important to note that you simply cannot draw blood from a stone. If your spouse is feeling exhausted, stressed, and overworked, you won’t have much to give. One more reason to start building a support system outside the home. And the same is true for the working parent. If he or she comes home at the end of the day and expects their partner to be a supportive shoulder to lean on, this can be met with some unexpected results. In particular, if the stay-at-home parent has been providing support all day and has been unable to meet his or her own support needs.
Children may also miss the working parent with whom they have had a close relationship in the past. They may be confused and angry that they have so little time with their mom or dad. It is important to really listen to your child’s feelings without trying to dissuade him. Parents should function as a “container” for their children’s strong emotions. I often use the milk carton analogy: if a liter of milk spills all over the kitchen floor, it’s a big mess, but if that same amount of milk is in a carton in the refrigerator, it’s not a problem. .
So let your children have their feelings and teach them how to express their feelings in a safe way. If a child is angry, for example, research has shown that speeding up or slowing down activity are effective tools. For example, you can suggest that your child run up and down the stairs in a forward and backward count of 100, depending on their age. Any repetitive activity that increases the heart rate, while at the same time giving the mind something to deal with other than anger, will work. Decreasing activity consists of slow breathing, with your child repeatedly counting 4 full breaths, an inhale and an exhale counting to one, etc. You can also make her lie down holding a pillow. As you breathe in, have her squeeze the pillow as hard as she can, count to three, and breathe out slowly. Next time your child gets mad, try these tools, they work!
At the same time, it is important to offer your children the assurance that both parents love them deeply. If possible, try planning a family event each week, such as dinner or Sunday brunch together. Ideally, children should also be able to spend time alone with each parent whenever possible.
One aspect of parenting that often arises in third world countries is the need to explain a wide variety of topics and customs that are new to you and your children. Problems like the relationship between you and your children with domestic workers and poverty are two of the most obvious.
Most Westerners have never dealt with the problems of having domestic staff, except for a weekly cleaning person. This is far from having someone who is not a member of your family in your home day after day. The concepts of privacy and boundaries that we take for granted are truly culturally bound, and are not understood by most people in third world countries. This is an area where we can learn from other expats about what has and hasn’t worked for them. One word of caution: I suggest that you refrain from sharing your “troubles” with domestic staff with friends at home. I have found that they have no sympathy for us in this regard!
It is important to you and your family that you find people who work for you who you can really trust. There is honestly no need to settle for less. This may require going through several rounds of hiring and firing, but in the end it is worth every minute. The way you talk and relate to your staff, of course, sets the tone for how your children will behave. I’ve heard teenagers giving orders to staff in a condescending way. This is a good opportunity to convince your children of the importance of treating all people with dignity and respect.
You may discover that a younger child is quickly bonding with a babysitter or caregiver. This can lead to concern, even envy and jealousy that your children seem to relate better to your babysitter than to you. There may be several reasons for this: Your child may be angry with you for causing this change in his life, or it may be an indication that he is not getting the kind of love he needs from you. Be open to honestly exploring this with a new friend, spouse, or therapist should this occur.
Let me say something about poverty in third world countries – this is a whole topic in itself and one that expat children have a lot of questions about, particularly when it comes to children begging. Children have a variety of responses to this, depending on their age and ability to know the information. Most importantly, they should know that everyone should be treated with the same kind of respect, regardless of who they are. If they want to help out and are old enough, you may want to suggest ways they can volunteer together to help the children, or they can get involved in a volunteer project at the school. Treating this topic as a learning moment about basic human dignity will serve your child for life.
One challenge that arises in some Asian cities is that outdoor activities are reduced for part of the year due to the heat. If you have young children who are used to playing outside, this can become a problem for both children and parents. Organizing play dates whenever possible is a partial solution. If you decide to hire a babysitter, make sure it is someone who likes to lie on the floor and play with the children. If you are not comfortable with this, you are probably not the best person for your child. Fortunately, most international schools have a wide variety of extracurricular activities to keep your children busy.
If you consider the 3 rules of expatriate parenting, support, support and more support, you will find that adjusting to family life abroad will be rewarding for you and your children. And when all else fails, talk to family and friends on Skype!