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.

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

Held Hostage By The School Calendar? Year-Round Schools Allow Parents To Travel Offseason

If only kids were in school year-round, the rest of us could actually get a good deal on flights, hotels and cruises in the summertime. As the father of two boys, ages 3 and 5, I still have the freedom to travel outside the traditional summer vacation season, but that freedom will soon evaporate when my older son starts school and I’m not looking forward to it.

We try to travel in the shoulder seasons, but there are times when we have to travel in July and August and I’m always resentful of how everything is more expensive and crowded. A few weeks ago, we visited relatives in Dekalb, Illinois, a town about as far off the tourist trail as one can get. It was a spur of the moment trip and we were shocked when the two best hotels in town were both sold out. We ended up staying in an overpriced, glorified motel for double the price it would be at any other time of year.I was willing to chalk that experience up to a fluke – even though there were no events in Dekalb, at least that we could ascertain, but over the last few weeks, I’ve encountered nothing but high airfares online, sold out hotels and crowds pretty much everywhere we’ve been. Welcome to high-season travel, where everything costs more.

Since I’m accustomed to offseason and shoulder-season travel, I’ve had to recalibrate what’s a good value in my mind, but I still have a hard time swallowing the inflated prices. Our experiences traveling on the East Coast and the Midwest over the last few weeks have me dreading the arrival of the 2013 school year, when my 5-year-old will start kindergarten.

As compulsive travelers who can’t sleep well if we don’t have a big trip somewhere on the horizon, I fear that we’ll have just two unappealing travel options once our kids are in school: prepare to pay a lot more to travel during school vacations or pull our kids out of school to travel.

This parental budget traveler dilemma had me thinking: wouldn’t year-round schools be a boon for travelers? Year-round schools give students the same amount of time off as traditional ones, but the breaks are typically spread out in shorter, more frequent increments across the year. If my kids had, say, three weeks off in May, rather than July, for example, I could afford to take them to the Greek isles or Italy, where we’d enjoy lower prices, smaller crowds and more comfortable weather.

Also, there are some destinations, especially ones in the Southern Hemisphere that are too far to visit on a brief holiday over Christmas, that have less than ideal weather during our summer. For example, I wouldn’t want to visit Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, or Southeast Asia in July or August.

Obviously school administrators don’t set up to the school year for wandering parents like us, but some educators believe that the year-round schedule helps kids retain their lessons better than the traditional school year with a long summer break.

According to a recent Huffington Post story, about 14% of U.S. public schools used the year-round calendar in 2008. Research on the effectiveness of the year-round calendar is mixed but has anyone surveyed the parents and asked them how the year-round calendar has impacted their travels? If more American schools were on the year-round calendar, the entire travel industry would have to adapt, but in general, it would spread the business and crowds out more evenly through the entire year. The tricky part would be for families with kids in different schools that have different breaks.

Despite the potential downsides, I’m hooked on the idea of year-round schools for my kids but finding one can be tricky, depending on where you live. Based on my research, it appears as though most year-round schools are in warm weather states – California, Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida and a few other places. If you’re looking for a year-round school for your kids, the National Association for Year-Round Education maintains a list of them, but before you yank your kids out of their school and plan an off-season trip during the school year, double check it, because it may be outdated.

What do you think about the year-round calendar? Does it give parents more flexibility to travel? Is it better or worse for kids?

(Photo by SinDesign on Flickr)

A Glimmer of Hope for Children in Ethiopia

One thing you notice right away in Ethiopia is the children.

Everywhere you drive they’re by the side of the road, smiling and waving. Whether you’re on a newly paved highway or a rutted, back country dirt track, the kids love seeing foreigners and wave at each one. One day I counted 110 waves and it felt like a slow day.

It’s impossible not to feel good when children are smiling at you all the time, but beyond those smiles there’s a story that’s not so happy. Many Ethiopian live in poverty and lack clean drinking water, adequate health care, and access to a good school. Many have to work to help support their family.

The government is making a serious effort to change that, especially in the field of education. School is free, as are textbooks. Even university is free for students who pass a tough entrance exam. The problem is, many families can’t afford to send their children to school because they need them to work in the fields or at home. Plus the quality of education varies widely. While some schools are excellent and the university students can be downright intimidating with the extent of their knowledge, rural schools often lag behind.

This is where another common sight in Ethiopia comes in–the NGO. Non-governmental organizations are everywhere, building health facilities or engaging in microfinance. Some do a good job while others are criticized for inefficiency and wasteful spending. I couldn’t help but notice the large number of NGO vehicles in the parking lots of the most expensive hotels, the same hotels my wife and I avoided as being too expensive.

While there’s a lot of justified criticism of how NGOs operate in Ethiopia, one organization that gets universal approval is A Glimmer of Hope. This Austin, Texas, based organization has a huge endowment that pays all its operating expenses, meaning any donations really do make it to those in need. Other than some projects in Austin, they focus entirely on Ethiopia, mainly in education, health, water, and microfinance. I got to visit four Glimmer of Hope projects and found them a step above the usual NGO efforts.

Our four-wheel drive bumped and lurched over a rough dirt road through patches of forest and farm fields. We were only a mile off the main highway and already a half century back in time. There were no shops, few villages, and electricity was a rarity. Strange to say, we were only a half hour’s drive from Gondar, a major tourist attraction. Our goal was the villages of Burbex and Girargie. Here Glimmer of Hope was building new schools, a rural health center, and a well. As soon as we pulled into the dirt schoolyard and got out of the car we got more than friendly waves; we were mobbed. All learning stopped as kids poured out of the classrooms to see the foreigners.

%Gallery-89843%The “I’ll teach you English if you teach me Amharic” game that we played at the source of the Nile started in earnest, and it was with difficulty that we waded through the crowd to meet the engineer in charge of the building project and the principal of the school. They showed us the old classrooms. A long building, made of wood, mud, and plaster, housed a few cramped rooms on which students sat on bare benches. There were no desks, no extra books besides the textbooks the government hands out, and few educational materials besides a blackboard. Across the yard the new schoolhouse was being built and it already promised a huge change. It was bigger, made of concrete, and would be furnished with educational materials and proper desks provided by Glimmer of Hope. Donations for another school project in Dali are being collected through an online purchasing system where you can buy individual bits of equipment, such as $45 blackboard, that go directly to the school.

Deeper into the countryside we visited a school that had even fewer facilities. It was housed in an abandoned home and the kids didn’t even have benches to sit on. Instead they sat on rocks. The only light came through the glassless window and the cracks in the walls, and the only equipment was a blackboard with a hole in it. Yet here, too, kids were learning, at least until we showed up and got mobbed again. These shoeless children dressed in tattered clothing proudly tried out their English vocabulary and showed us their government school books, which were well-written and stuffed with information. The government is serious about education and stretches its limited resources as far as possible. A dedicated student can do well. The government will even subsidize room and board for university students so they won’t be a burden on their families. While this country needs help, they are doing everything they can to help themselves.

A Glimmer of Hope recognizes this and does something few other NGOs do–it hires only Ethiopians for its in-country staff. This avoids a lot of embarrassing blunders where well-meaning but essentially clueless Westerners try to graft their own ideas of development onto a society they don’t understand. And it gives much-needed jobs to Ethiopians, from the people hauling concrete to educated professionals working in the head office. Once a school is built, the local government takes it over and A Glimmer of Hope moves on to the next project.

This cooperation has worked well at a school in Lege Tafo, near the capital Addis Ababa. A Glimmer of Hope is building an expansion, a science lab, and a library while the government is stocking the library with books, funding another expansion, and funding school operations. What was once a middling semi-rural school is fast becoming a science magnet school. The fact that most students walk several miles down from the surrounding mountains to go there is a testament to its reputation, and to how serious the kids are about education.

This is something you see all around the country–twelve year-old girls who want to be doctors, kids doing their homework by firelight, and university students who aren’t applying for foreign visas because they want to stay and build up their country.

With a new generation like this, it won’t be long before Ethiopia won’t need so many NGOs.

Next stop: Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region!

You can read the entire series of Ethiopia travel articles here.

Ultimate recyling project: Building a soda bottle classroom

What happens when Peace Corps volunteers, the non-profit organization, Hug it Forward and a bevvy of school children and teachers in Guatemala recycle plastic bottles and trash? A school classroom.

The collected bottles were stuffed with trash and used to form the walls for a classroom addition at a school in Granados, a small mountain town in the Baja Verapaz region of the country. Amazing.

This video shows how the project was done. The music is a fitting addition to a project that brought the widest smiles to dozens of faces.

Imagine what might happen if similar projects happened on a massive scale world wide. There are a lot of plastic bottles on the planet.

For another version of a building project that fits into travel and activism, check out this gallery on house building with teens, college students and adults in Mexico through Amor Ministries, another non-profit that welcomes volunteers.


“Don’t Worry”: Playing for Change–music around the world

Here’s another song from Playing for Change, the project that joins various musicians from around the world. The musicians are filmed singing the same song, but each sing in the country where they live. The parts are then combined into a whole with the footage of the musicians woven together. The intention of the project, as we’ve posted before, is to inspire people to make the world a better place by building music schools around the world with an aim for peace-building.

Of the three songs I’ve seen of this project, “Stand by Me,” “One Love,” and this one, “Don’t Worry,” I like this one the best, although they’re all excellent. The CD/DVD of the project will be released in April. Enjoy.