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

movingIf 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.

rebecca grappoIn 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.

Read More From “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

Geoguessr: The Internet’s Newest Educational Time Waster

Where does this look like to you? I guessed central Mexico based on the Spanish signs and the mixture of dry soil and lush plants. Actually it’s Brazil. The next view I looked at showed the characteristic onion domes of a Russian Orthodox Church. I guessed Russia and was correct.

This is an addictive new online game called Geoguessr. It gives you random Google Street View images and you have to click on a world map to guess where they are. You’re awarded points based on how close you are.

It’s surprisingly addictive. My young son, already a fan of Google Maps and MarineTraffic.com, is becoming obsessed with it. So am I. The best way to wrack up points is to explore a little. Start heading down a foreign street, studying traffic signs, plants, and passersby. They’ll all give you clues as to where you are.

It’s also really difficult. I’ve mistaken Korean writing for Chinese, the Australian Outback for Nevada and New Zealand for Hawaii. No matter how well traveled you are, this game will trip you up and make you want to play again. So if your boss has stepped out of the office for a drink, click on Geoguessr and spend some time learning a bit about how the world looks.

Better Know A Holiday: Showa Day

Formerly: The Emperor’s Birthday, Greenery Day

When? April 29

Public holiday in: Japan

Part of: Japan’s Golden Week, a series of four public holidays in the span of a week that sees offices closed, trains and planes packed and a mass exodus from the major cities like Tokyo.

Who died? Former Japanese Emperor Hirohito, posthumously referred to as Emperor Showa.

They changed his name? Showa refers to the era of Hirohito’s reign. After death, Japanese emperors were referred to by the name of the era during which they ruled. The Showa Emperor’s reign lasted from 1926 to 1989, the longest era in Japanese history. Showa can be translated as “enlightened peace.”

… wasn’t he the ruler during WWII? Hirohito chose the name “showa” for his era after returning from the post-WWI battlefields in France and witnessing the devastation there. His anti-war sentiment seems to have been legitimate, but he ended up reigning over a period of unprecedented military brutality. However, he also reigned over a period of unprecedented economic growth in the years after the war.

How is the holiday celebrated now? Officially it’s a time to reflect on the era of Hirohito’s reign, Japan’s turbulent past and subsequent recovery, and where the country is headed. In reality, as the start of Golden Week, it’s when most Japanese take off for a vacation.

Other ways to celebrate: Public lectures talking about Japan’s participation in the war, to pass on the memories to future generations.Why was it Greenery Day before? Until 1989, the April 29 holiday was still referred to as the Emperor’s Birthday. But when Hirohito died, the Emperor’s Birthday was necessarily moved to December, when his son and successor Akihito was born. Hirohito loved nature, so April 29 became Greenery Day, which allowed people to acknowledge Hirohito without expressly using his name. This actually isn’t the first time this has happened in Japan. The Meiji Emperor’s birthday was celebrated on November 3 until his death in 1912, and after November 3 became Culture Day.

What happened to Greenery Day then? In 2005, Japan passed a bill that turned April 29 into Showa Day. Greenery Day was moved to May 4.

This pissed off: China, South Korea, North Korea

Why? They see the holiday as honoring Hirohito, who reigned during an era of Japanese war crimes and occupation of their countries. Japan argues it that the holiday is a time to reflect on those turbulent times, not celebrate them.

What else is going on during Golden Week? Besides Greenery Day, there is also Constitution Memorial Day on May 3, which is meant to have people reflect on the Japanese government. May 5 is Children’s Day, a day to celebrate the happiness of being a kid. Traditionally, families fly carp-shaped flags to bring good luck to their boys. Girls don’t get any flags, fish-shaped or otherwise.

These aren’t really “party time” holidays, are they? Last time, we covered Songkran, Southeast Asia’s annual drunken water fight. This time, we have a series of holidays that encourage reflection on, chronologically, a nation’s past and future, man’s place in nature, the meaning of democracy, and the innocence of children. They are decidedly not party time holidays, but that’s hardly a bad thing. You can have a party anytime. But when’s the last time you thought about the importance of effective governance and the dictates of post-war economic recovery? That’s what I thought.

Check out more holidays around the world here

[Photo Credit: Flick user Summon Baka]

Surviving Spring Break Madness In Washington, DC

crowded hotelWhile American college kids bake in the sun, pound tequila shooters and do things they hope won’t end up on YouTube in Cancun, South Padre Island and other venues for Spring Break debauchery, their younger siblings all seem to be on class or family trips to Washington, D.C. I’ve visited D.C. many times over the years and lived there on three separate occasions. But until this week, I’ve mostly managed to avoid the hordes of tourists that descend on the place during the Cherry Blossom/School Spring Break season.

I’ve always been an off-season or shoulder-season traveler but now that my kids are in school, I don’t always have the flexibility to travel when the prices are low and the crowds are sparse. When my kids have a break from school, our choice is to: A) hire a babysitter so we can continue to get work done (expensive and hard to do for just one week), B) stay at home and go stir crazy, or C) bite the bullet and travel despite the higher prices and crowds that are inevitable during school breaks.My wife needed to visit D.C. on business, so I had two and a half days in D.C. with my little boys, ages 3 and 5, this week, when hundreds, perhaps thousands of grammar and high schools around the country are on their spring holiday. The city was absolutely crawling with school groups and families on vacation.

I thought that we lucked out when I bid for a 3.5-star hotel on Priceline and got a luxury chain hotel downtown that had rave reviews from customers on Trip Advisor (4.5-star average from more than 800 reviews) for $105 per night. But even the best hotels fall apart when they are jam-packed and this place was a circus. If you didn’t shower by 7 a.m., there was no hot water. Wi-Fi, which cost $9.99 per day, was ridiculously slow, no doubt due to the volume of traffic. And the breakfast lines were unlike anything I’ve experienced at any hotel in my decades of traveling the world.

museum of african artThe place was so overrun and dysfunctional that I actually felt bad for the employees who had to absorb all of the customer complaints. They were clearly sick and tired of the guests’ complaints and were getting creative in their responses. A woman from Georgia whom I commiserated with in the breakfast line told me that a front desk agent suggested she use the pool, when she complained about the lack of hot water in the room.

I wasn’t brave enough to bring my kids into the Air & Space Museum, the National Zoo, the Cherry Blossom Festival, or the Museum of Natural History (they’ve been to these places before) but I saw how crowded they were and was thankful my kids are too young to insist. Instead, we focused on some of D.C.’s less visited museums, like the Freer and Sackler Galleries, The National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African Art (all are manageable and are highly recommended). We also went to a couple higher profile museums, like the National Gallery of Art, but made a point of getting there at 10 a.m., right when they opened to beat the crowds.

If you’re visiting the free Smithsonian museums on the weekend or during school holiday periods, plan out your strategy carefully. Visit the most popular museums right when they open (usually 10 a.m.) or after 4 p.m. and use the peak hours, around 11:30-3:30 to visit the more off-the-beaten-track attractions. If you aren’t sure what the most popular museums are, have a look at Trip Advisor and take note of how many reviews the place has. The museums with 1,000 reviews are more are the ones you have to be worried about.

cupcakesThe other minefield is trying to have lunch near the museums during peak hours. Packing a lunch is a great idea but if you can’t be bothered, try to eat by 11:30, or after 2 p.m. The cafeteria at the Smithsonian Museum of American History has excellent food, including good BBQ, sandwiches, craft beers and a lot more, along with high prices, but you do not want to try to eat there or at any other popular lunch spot near noon or 1 p.m.

D.C. in the spring is a peculiar brew. You see armies of guys in dark business suits, badges swinging from their necks, marching around dodging strollers and school kids. But despite the crowds, D.C. is still better in the spring, when the weather is mild, than in the summer, when the humidity is brutal. Just get up nice and early, you’ll be sure to have hot water and you’ll be hungry for lunch before the crowds are.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Happy International Pretty Brown Girl Day!

International Pretty Brown Girl Day
Today is International Pretty Brown Girl Day, a movement launched a few years ago that seeks to “address the harmful messages about skin tone and beauty in media” and is “for little girls of all ethnicities to send the message that brown skin is indeed beautiful.”

Knowing a couple of pretty brown girls who are facing racism here in Spain, I understand the reasoning behind this, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Instead of merely aspiring to be pretty, girls are better off aspiring to kick ass, so by the power invested in me by myself, I hereby declare today to be International Kickass Brown Girl Day.

This is inspired by a little Nepali girl I met many years ago. I had just come back to Pokhara from trekking the Annapurna Circuit and Base Camp and needed to return some gear to a rental shop. As I entered I saw the proprietor was gone and had left his daughter, who could have been no more than 10, in charge.

Two burly young Israeli guys were there arguing with her. They were returning some gear and didn’t want to pay for that day, even though it was early evening. The girl insisted that they pay an extra 100 rupees (a little more than a dollar) because the shop was about to close and there was no way she’d rent that gear that day.

The Israelis didn’t see it that way.

“No, we don’t have to pay!” they shouted, towering over her and acting aggressive. They actually puffed out their chests and clenched their fists… at a little girl.

Shit, I thought. I’m going to have to jump in and protect this kid and there’s no way I can take both these guys. Hopefully the neighbors will come in time to help.

Turns out she didn’t need me. She furrowed her little brow, stuck out her slim little hand with the palm up and said in the most forceful voice imaginable, “NO! You pay me 100 rupee!”

They backed down.

It’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in 25 years and 36 countries of travel.

Little brown girls have it tough. Disproportionately poor and discriminated against, many still play sports, go to school in underdeveloped areas, and kick ass in various other ways. So check out the gallery for some inspiring images, and be sure to celebrate International Kickass Brown Girl Day …

… because girls who kick ass are automatically pretty.

This photo shows girls in a rural school in Ethiopia. Most don’t have electricity or running water at home and have to walk several miles to get an education. Photo courtesy Almudena Alonso-Herrero, a kickass pretty brown woman who used to be a kickass pretty brown girl.