A Traveler In The Foreign Service: What Impact Does Moving Have On Children?

If you’re a parent who is interested in an international career, you’ve probably worried at one point or another what impact your peripatetic lifestyle will have on your kids.
One of the most common questions I get about the Foreign Service is how the lifestyle affects children. Careers in the Foreign Service can take 1,000 different directions around the planet and the only predictable factor is that Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) will move every 1-4 years. Over the course of a 20-year career, one can expect to move 5-10 times, and these days, almost everyone can expect to endure at least one unaccompanied posting, away from family members.

This rootless lifestyle can be tough on kids, who have to get used to being the new kid on a regular basis (though they attend international schools where most are in the same situation). There isn’t a lot of research out there on how moving, on a domestic or international basis, affects children, but one study, conducted in 2010 by a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, might give pause to any parent considering joining the Foreign Service or indeed embarking on any type of international career that will involve frequent moves.The study concluded that frequent moves during childhood – domestic or international – can have a lasting, negative impact on kids. According to a New York Times piece that summarized the study, “Serial movers frequently reported fewer ‘quality’ social relationships, and the more times people moved as children, the more likely they were to report lower ‘well-being’ and ‘life satisfaction’ as adults. And adults who had moved a lot were more likely to have died when researchers did follow-ups 10 years later.”

The study also concluded that moves were hardest on middle school children, and asserted that introverts have a much harder time coping with moves than extroverted children, who tend to adapt more easily. (Another study, conducted by researchers at Cornell earlier this year, concluded that frequent moves before the age of 5 were detrimental to poor children.)

When I was in the Foreign Service, I didn’t have children, but my anecdotal observations lead me to conclude that there are no easy generalizations when it comes to predicting how well kids will adapt to the expat lifestyle. Some kids excel while others struggle, just like in the U.S., and it’s not always easy to predict how kids will do.

In order to try to get a better feel for the issues that affect what are referred to as Third Culture Kids, I reached out to Rebecca Grappo, an educational consultant who raised three children overseas as a Foreign Service spouse and previously served as an education and youth officer in the State Department’s Family Liaison Office.

What would you say are the advantages to raising children in the Foreign Service, or for that matter, any international career?

These kids get to be around a lot of interesting people, and they are exposed to some really interesting issues being in the Foreign Service family. Our kids develop a keen interest in international affairs, and they love diversity and multiculturalism. They learn to love to travel and explore.

The kids who thrive tend to be resilient and flexible; they have a three-dimensional view of the world. When they see something on the news, they might know something about it from personal experience. They know people who have been affected by the news from having lived in different parts of the world. And attending international schools, they get to meet some incredibly interesting people. For example, when we were in Jordan, we got to meet King Hussein and Queen Noor. Their two daughters were in school with my children, so they became friends.

Do kids in this lifestyle learn to be resilient and flexible or is that something you have to be born with?

That’s a tough question. The kids who do really well are the kids who have a strong sense of identity, who know how to connect and plug into their new communities very quickly. They have something, like an interest or talent that helps them be recognized, and feel like they belong.

But do you think kids can learn to be flexible?

It’s like a muscle you have to strengthen. For some it’s easier than others. It depends on the circumstance, the age, the post. There are a lot of variables. Kids can thrive at one post and not in another. Sports, music, drama, hobbies can help them plug into their new community. Kids who don’t thrive sometimes have learning challenges or socially they don’t fit in, or they start to become invisible and no one recognizes them.

Is it hard for FSO parents to “Keep up with the Jonses” at these International Schools? Government employees don’t have huge salaries and some of the parents at these international schools are extremely wealthy.

Most Foreign Service parents try to keep their kids grounded. They want their kids to remember where they are from and what they’ll be going back to and not let them get caught up in the privileges of expat life.

Is it hard for parents to predict whether their kids will thrive or struggle with frequent moves?

It can be, but the kids that have recognition, connection, belonging and identity are the ones who thrive.

How hard is it for parents to evaluate international schools when they are in the bidding process?

It’s very hard. Right now, I’m counseling a family that bid on a post specifically because it is a large school that is considered one of the crown jewels of the international schools system. It’s considered one of the best, but this particular student, who did really well at his previous post, which was a much smaller school that isn’t as highly rated, just isn’t doing well. There is no way to be certain what a school will be like for your children, and even within one family, you can have a situation where some kids thrive and others struggle.

What are some of the disadvantages of this lifestyle for children?

It’s very hard for kids to move and leave their friends and the older they get, the harder it is. The continuous cycle of loss and adjustment starts to take its toll on kids. Sometimes they get to a point where they just can’t move one more time. There is loss and grief. Everything you knew in your life is over when you move. We don’t have our extended families with us, so we bring other people into our family folds. But you lose people along the way. The parents try to stay positive, but sometimes kids just need to be comforted before they are encouraged.

And these days, unaccompanied assignments are more common than ever, so that must be hard on kids as well?

You see the spouses who are left holding up the fort being exhausted. My spouse was on two unaccompanied tours where I had to hold down the fort and it’s hard. We don’t talk about the things that scare us in the Foreign Service culture – its soldier on, stiff upper lip. Our community culture is to keep calm and carry on no matter what is going on around you and that’s hard for some people.

Do you buy into research that indicates that moving is detrimental to children?

I don’t think there’s solid research on that. It depends on the nature of the move, but you do have that feeling of rootlessness and restlessness. When someone asks you where you’re from, you watch their eyes glaze over as you give them such a complicated answer. Foreign Service kids have a hard time answering the question – where are you from? My daughter on Facebook listed a place that she’s not really from as her hometown, but it’s where she’s been longer than anywhere else.

Coming back to the U.S. can often be the hardest transition for expat kids, right?

Absolutely. I call it TCK (Third Culture Kid) land. We live in our expat world, where everyone is from somewhere else. Everyone is mobile. Everyone has traveled, so you can talk about your life without feeling like you are bragging. But back at home, they feel like they have to suppress that because it seems like boasting. It’s kind of sad that they have to be very cautious in sharing these incredible experiences they’ve had overseas just because they want to fit in and seem normal in the new environment.

Is there data on how expat children perform academically compared to the U.S. average?

Expat kids tend to better than the national average. If you look at the average SAT from students at the American international schools, they tend to be higher than average. A lot of Foreign Service kids can be very high achievers. Many of them also end up in international careers.

I know one FS parent who told me that it was easier for kids to move on to a new post before the era of Facebook, where kids can stay in closer contact with people from their old posts. Do you believe that?

It depends on how the kids integrate. I’ve seen some kids who have had hard time making friends and it’s easy for them to go in the basement and lose themselves in the world of social media, video games and what not. Some of them hide behind substance abuse. But I do see kids who aren’t able to connect. It’s easy to lose yourself in the Internet.

If I asked your children how they enjoyed growing up in the Foreign Service what would they say?

My kids have been generous with their feedback. The one thing they told us is that we really were too much cheerleaders and didn’t spend enough time just listening and saying, ‘we understand.’ Some parents have such anxiety over wanting their kids to be happy, and they try so hard, that they haven’t really listened. But looking back, I think my kids valued the experiences they had; they realize they’ve had an incredible life already. They appreciate it more now I think.

Do you believe that every FSO has to, at one point in their career or another, make hard choices about what is best for their career or what’s best for their family?

I think so and families sometimes find themselves in a place where it isn’t working. For example, I worked with a family of four kids, and three were deliriously happy, but the fourth was in a major depression. He had anger issues, substance abuse issues as well, and he made their lives very challenging. What do you do? Do you curtail? Have a separated tour? Pretend it doesn’t exist? Of do you say, there are six of us, and the one who isn’t happy maybe needs more support?

That’s also when boarding school can sometimes be a godsend. It’s not shipping your kids off for someone else to deal with. People make decisions thoughtfully. No one sets out to screw up their kids. People try to be good parents and fulfill everyone’s needs.

Any other advice for those considering international careers who are concerned about how it will impact their children?

In general, kids tend to do well in this lifestyle. Kids realize they’ve had incredible experiences; they travel and attend international schools, which brings a lot to their lives. Educationally, they do well. You can stay in your hometown and face challenges in raising children too. However, sometimes it’s going to be a hard road to hoe for the Foreign Service family, especially those with special needs children. At some point, they will find it extremely challenging and they need to know that going in.

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