Are the Kids Old Enough to Live Abroad?

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The author of 'The Family Sabbatical Handbook' offers insights on what challenges a family should expect to face depending on the ages of their children.

I'd be lying if I said that living abroad with kids is always one big picnic. But one of the most surprising and important things we discovered during our sabbatical is that when children are young, they're amazingly flexible travelers. They're willing to live in the here and now and they're easy to please as long they're provided with a few basics. Give them a friend to play with (siblings count), some sort of daily routine in terms of waking and going to sleep, a couple of familiar foods that can be had for each and every meal if necessary, and your attention. Toss in an occasional swimming pool visit and a video, and young travelers become amazingly pleasant, at least in the short term.

Obviously, there will be difficult moments and each age brings with it a different set of challenges in terms of living abroad:

  • Challenges with babies and toddlers. Asher was a very active two-year-old when we arrived in Mexico, and life anywhere with babies and toddlers can be tough. Letting your nine-month-old crawl around in the backyard at home is a bit different from finding him examining burro poop in a Mexican barrio. And it's not as easy to cope with a sudden nighttime illness without a Walgreen's nearby. (But there's probably a farmacia or its equivalent on the corner staffed with someone who can sell you--and inject--a shot of penicillin or other extremely cheap antibiotic.) Finding a babysitter for a much-needed night out can be an interesting experience. The first time we did it, the sitter let Asher stay up until midnight and consume an entire bag of candy, so we spent the rest of the night cleaning vomit off his bedsheets. Also, what we consider basic necessities, such as diapers and wipes, can be expensive abroad. Baby food, juices, formula, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, and so on, can be either difficult to find, pricey, or filled with added sugar and preservatives. And certainly, it's much easier to actually explore the sights of a new place with slightly older children. (This is probably one of the biggest drawbacks of traveling with very young children, other than babies who will just nap).

For those reasons you may want to wait until your kids are out of diapers and past needing constant infusions of treats and snacks to round out their days. (Does that ever happen?) But the upside is that babies are wonderfully relaxed travelers. And toddlers are so spirited and curious they'll definitely take you to places you've never been before--like the back of every restaurant you venture into and the interior of every bathroom you can imagine. (See Chapter 10: We're Here! for a discussion of sanitation issues, basic shopping tips, suggested daypack supplies, and the ups and downs of strollers, backpacks, and other equipment.)

  • Challenges with children in elementary and middle school. Generally kids this age are terrific travelers. They're flexible, interested in everything, and will usually do what you say. They're also good at meeting other children and making friends, which, as I mentioned earlier, can be your entrée to meeting their parents. However, older children may focus more on what they lack, instead of what they have. And some would rather walk through hot coals than leave their friends to go on some crazy adventure halfway around the world with their parents.

"Two of our children hope never to return to San Miguel at this point, while the youngest one loved it and would go back anytime. The older two missed their comfort stuff from home. They also missed the American school system and all the bells and whistles that go with it (just the things I wanted them to be without for a while). We do still feel strongly that the experience will ultimately be a great one for them, and we are actually thinking of returning next fall for one semester."
--Karen and Rick, with Remington (7), Austin (10), and Tyler (11), who lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for four months

  • Challenges with children in junior high and high school. Once they hit 13 or 14, it can be really hard for parents to pry kids away from home without subjecting themselves to continuous griping. The child may not be able to appreciate much of anything except a good Internet line to instant message friends all day long. An adventurous teen, of course, might consider spending six months or a year abroad the coolest thing you've ever done.

"At 11 and 13, our kids are old enough to do everything with us and appreciate it. They loved experiencing the differences and really enjoyed the 'smaller world' of Mexico. They came to appreciate the new rhythms and basically ignored the lack of modern amenities. Other pluses of this age are that they're old enough to stay home by themselves so we could go out by ourselves. And finally, they're old enough to remember this experience."
--Rob and Marline

Practically speaking, pulling kids out of school and ensuring their place when you return is much easier when they are younger. Not only will your kids miss less academically, but also school administrators are more flexible when specific graduation credits and requirements are not at stake. (See Chapters7 and 8: School Daze Parts One and Two, for more on ensuring your children's place in school back home and finding schools abroad.)

"Both the elementary and the middle school were very supportive. They suggested home schooling in math and making sure our kids continued to read a lot and to try and encourage writing. They said the kids wouldn't miss much and if they did, they could pick it up when they returned, like kids who are transferred in."
--Kim and Andy

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