Why being an expat changes how we raise kids

Coralie Garnier and her family in Puerto Rico

Bringing up children isn’t something you are taught. You don’t need a diploma to become a parent; after all, many consider raising children as something natural. Which is quite funny, really, considering how one might think of childbirth as something natural and yet parents-to-be take birth preparation classes!

It is likely that our own experiences of childhood and observation of our parents and others somehow assures us of our child-raising abilities.

First, as children we were able to live and experience the expectations of the adults who raised us as well as those of the adults in our friends’ lives. Then, as young adults and eventually parents, we saw our cousins, and our friends, becoming parents. We had the opportunity to get inspired, and we had opinions on how things should be done. Some educational models were already attracting us more than others. And this is how we built our own informed system, at least in theory. We never realized that in so doing, we were inadvertently staying within a frame; the frame of the culturally informed model we learned.

And then, we move countries.

Whatever the new country, we discover a different educational system.

For some, something as simple as picking a school is an eye opener.

I remember when we arrived in South Africa, and when I discovered the Montessori system… a whole new world!

Lately, I have been wondering if expatriation influences the way we bring up our children and the answer has always been a resounding, yes.

Discovering New Models

Whether we like it or not, life in another country makes us consider different priorities and interpretations of the situations in which we find ourselves. It shakes up everything we had hitherto taken for granted often forcing us to question ourselves. For example,

When you live in South Africa, being bilingual is extremely common, and notions such as poverty and wealth are redefined.

When you live in the US, there is a kind of over-protection of children, and French people are considered good when it comes to children’s autonomy but not when it comes to encouraging kids or recognizing their efforts! There are no right or wrong interpretations unless one understands them in the right cultural contexts.

Living in different cultures is a chance to challenge ourselves by questioning pre-conceived notions and remaining open to other cultural experiences and lessons.

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The author and her family in Carnon, France.

Listening to our Children

As children of expatriates, our kids also get exposed to a different model of life and living from their teachers and classmates.

The classical, “…but Mom, everybody does/has…” becomes very relevant even as our children, these (ad) Third Culture Kids, will always be different from their classmates.

For everything, we have to question ourselves, “Would I like my child to do things in a different manner?” In any case, as parents, we must explain our decisions to our children, a cultural norm for some.

And then, there will come a time when they will explain things to us. By being exposed to a different system, they will also integrate values that are likely different from ours, almost against our own will, and this is something to take into account.

For years now, aware of all these choices between the educational culture of a given country and ours, I have been hoping that our children will get the best of each! Not so easy…

Yes, being an expat is magical, but it is also a real challenge, especially during the transition phases. We have to prepare kids for the big day, which means leaving friends behind, arriving in an unknown place, with a new language… An incredible mess! For them, and for us. Except that they didn’t chose it!

The author and her kids in Bogota, Colombia

To arrive in a different culture, sometimes at an age when the feeling of belonging is very important, our children are at risk of lacking self confidence and security. That is why we often seek to create a secure space at home, where they can be themselves and where we can learn all the more from them.

Thus, our children become our teachers; we are forced to listen to them, we understand that we will need to develop new parental skills, some that we had never thought about before like listening to their feelings, for example, and trying to give them the appropriate tools to develop resilience and self confidence.

This is how our children are pushing us to better ourselves. Of course, all of the above are also true when we don’t move countries but the situations we live in as expatriates are the kinds that force us to grow, all of us.

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When we arrive in a new country, which is completely foreign to us, home means family. This is the message we’ve tried to pass on to our children when we reached Puerto Rico, after leaving Mexico: Our home is our family.

Freedom to Choose

Another important factor in the evolution of our educational positioning is the fact that we are “out of influence”.

Indeed, far from friends and family, we don’t benefit from their good advice. While some people may miss this kind of community help, another way to look at this is from the perspective of more choice. We are free to choose. We are free to try to do things our own way, without judgment. We are free to decide that we’ll do things differently; differently from our own culture, but also differently from our parents. Because they aren’t around to comment on everything we do, they won’t add to the difficulties we face when trying to position ourselves as parents.

This is particularly true when the educational model we pick is very different from the one received from our own parents.. This is currently one of the issues with which I am dealing.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico

I’ve been trying to implement positive parenting principles in our family for a few years now. It’s a whole new way of speaking, and as a mother, I am self-educated! I try, and I fail. I succeed, and I am happy. And then I fail again, and I feel guilty. But I keep going on because I have the space to do so. I might have given up sooner if I had been surrounded by judgments from my own family and faced pressure from my relatives.

It is certainly much easier to make real choices when away from any kind of influence…


Finally, time is a big factor in transitioning one’s children into a different culture and raising them in that newness.

Indeed, even if it isn’t always the case, it very often happens that when a family goes through expatriation, one of the parents doesn’t work, giving that parent a lot of time. (“work” as in “employed”; I know by experience that being a “trailing spouse” is also lot of work!)

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This is the time needed to observe the children, time to question things, time to dig up useful information; as well as observe and reflect on the ways things are done locally, and then time to listen to the children and reinforce the family bond.

To all of this, we must add a redefinition of the family rhythm; the disruption of our habits forces us to change routines, to reconsider everybody’s role in the family… we must answer questions that we wouldn’t have to answer if we had not been shaken, and pushed out of our comfort zone. Reinventing ourselves, after all, is never easy and always comes with its challenges.

Time, during this time, is also an opportunity to choose on what and where we want to spend our time and energy. We have the luxury to be able to think about what really matters and if it happens to be our children’s education, then we have the time to deal with it too.

In Rincon, Puerto Rico

Indeed, switching from one educational system to another requires a thought process, a lot of reading resources, all of which is followed by repetitive efforts. While we may do the same in our own countries, we often fail to question and reflect upon existing structures. As an expat, we have the chance to put things into perspective.

Putting things into perspective… one of the aspects of being an expat that I like the most!

Originally written and published in French by Coralie Garnier for Exapts Parents. Coralie is a parental coach and blogs at Les 6 doigts de la main. This article has been translated from French to English by Séverine Perronnet.

Coralie and her husband have been changing countries every 2 to 4 years since they got married, and got 4 kids in the process, neither one born in France, their home country. In the last few years, Coralie has stopped working as an engineer to focus on the family. Her “expat’s wife” job has been for her an opportunity to develop new parenting skills, that she now shares both in person, doing talks and leading workshops, and online through her website.

You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.


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