Many of the benefits of family life abroad are immeasurable, but let’s take a moment to consider some specific advantages for children, parents, and the family as a whole.
Why Take Your Kids Abroad?
First off, taking young children abroad means giving them the gift of multilingualism at just the right developmental stage. Learning a second language before puberty is thought to be easier for a number of reasons: kids love to imitate, they have more time for social immersion and, believe it or not, their bodies are even better adapted to learn new pronunciation and intonation. In short, if you wish for your kid to be fluent in Mandarin or Spanish, there’s not better time than the present.
Case in point: we started our year abroad with a month of language lessons in Guatemala, but for the last three months, we’ve been living in Costa Rica. In that short amount of time, our kids have already morphed their Guatemalan accents into Costa Rican accents to match their Tico peers. We adults, on the other hand, still sound like Guatemalans (or really gringos who learned Spanish in Guatemala). We’re slow, in comparison, to adapt.
Beyond language, kids learn all sorts of lessons from living abroad: flexibility, tolerance, confidence that they can overcome challenges, and compassion for outsiders, having been one themselves. In our month-long stay with a Guatemalan host family, our children learned that even though they don’t like avocado, if that’s what our host mother served us, then that’s what we would eat. This lesson in flexibility certainly would have taken longer to learn at our dinner table in Maine.
Here’s another example. In Costa Rica, our six-year old is the only kid in his class whose mother-tongue is English. According to his teacher, he spent the first month of school quietly observing his peers. He’s now at a place where Spanish feels more comfortable–in fact, he can now read better in Spanish than in English–but that experience of being the odd one out, the kid who didn’t understand, is a good lesson in compassion and a reference point he likely won’t forget.
How About Parents?
Family time abroad is not just for the kids, of course. How often, as busy, middle-aged professionals/caregivers/homeowners, do we get to change our rhythms, explore, learn something new for the pure joy or learning, and reflect on our lives? For me and my husband, our month of Spanish lessons in Guatemala this past July was a wonderful indulgence. Who knew it could be so much fun to be students again? Here in Costa Rica, we remain wide eyed, learning more Spanish and the names of the birds that fly through our backyard (toucans and mot mots), reflecting on cultural differences (why do the Costa Ricans seem so much more attuned to climate change in their daily conversation than Americans), and reflecting on patterns in our life here that we’d like to bring home (the short version of this: slow down).
Benefits for the Family as a Whole
Finally, experiences abroad as a family can be life changing in terms of bonding. Part of this is the simple fact that you’re likely to spend more time together as a family than you did at home. When my family lived in India, we went on a morning walk together every day. In Costa Rica, because we don’t have a car, we spend a lot of time walking as a family. Then, of course, there’s “pura vida,” a Costa Rican philosophy of life that I try to explain in one of my blog posts that goes well beyond the literal translation of “pure life.” For us, part of our pura vida experience has meant not running off to soccer practice and hockey practice and art and piano after school. Instead, we take life slowly, stop to sniff the orchids and gaze at the toucanets, and generally enjoy a lot more unscheduled time together.
And it’s not just more time we’re spending together. In the face of new languages and cultures, we’re also sharing a lot of novelty. Sometimes this can be stressful, but mostly it means we’re writing new family stories. That’s a real gift.
Convinced but overwhelmed by the prospect of planning a family adventure abroad? Read how our family chose to move to Costa Rica, and how you can pick the country that’s right for you.