Why You Should Raise Your Children Abroad

We both considered the white button-down shirt as I held it up for inspection. It, like almost everything else in the trendy clothing store, was made out of an inexpensive grade of cotton, would require daily ironing and would probably shrink the first time it was washed. All this for only $29.99. “I know it’s kind of expensive, but can we get it Mom?” my sweet 17 year-old daughter pleaded.

Our daughter had been raised abroad and was bilingual, so she’d landed a great job at a nearby hospital. This was the type of shirt she was required to wear at her job, so even though she and I usually hunt for bargains, I bought the shirt.

That’s right, after spending her formative years in Costa Rica, our daughter had grown into a thrifty, empathetic, confident, and bilingual teenager. When we first returned to the US from living abroad, she was shocked at the overt materialism and cost of things, but the sticker shock had worn off some in the almost three years since our return.

TCK – Third Culture or Trans-Cultural Kids

I wasn’t worried though, she was a TCK (Third Culture or Trans-Cultural Kid) after all!

According to the website, TCK World, “A TCK is an individual who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than that of their parents, develops a sense of relationship to both. These children…who live abroad, become “culture-blended” persons who often contribute in unique and creative ways to society as a whole… A TCK can never change back into a monocultural person. Parents of TCKs can return “home” to their country of origin, but the children, enriched by having shared life in their formative years with another people, will find characteristics of both cultures in their very being. Acceptance of this fact frees TCKs to be uniquely themselves. In fact, TCKs have tools to be the cultural brokers of the future.”

What it was like

This glowing description of TCK’s is spot on. Our children were 5 and 7 when we moved to Costa Rica, and while I struggled to master the language, their young brains picked it up with ease while they played with their new friends.

Diet

Our children ate a diet rich in fruits and vegetables from our garden, helped collect eggs from the neighbor’s chickens, and drank fresh milk delivered by the local dairy farmer in his little pickup filled with metal milk cans.

Housing

We lived in a tiny (400 sq. ft.,) simply furnished, 2 bedroom home, where our kids shared a bedroom. They spent time with friends who lived very different lifestyles; some of their friends lived with extended family members in very modest, open air, 300 sq. ft. homes, while others lived in spacious, air-conditioned, mansions, overlooking the ocean. Regardless of where they found themselves, our kids were always comfortable and content in any environment.

Schools

All of the schools our children attended (both private and public) did not have air conditioning. Just ceiling fans in various states of disrepair, but having no memory of air-conditioned modern classrooms in the US, our kids adapted to each days’ weather conditions (even in the jungle) with little complaint.

Lifestyle

No one (except expats) is in a hurry in Costa Rica, so our children learned to be incredibly patient. Like the Ticos (the preferred term for Costa Ricans,) they would wait without complaint in the inescapable hour-long lines at banks, government offices, or utility companies, which was remarkable because cell phone use is not allowed inside of banks, even to play a game.

Instant gratification is unheard of in Costa Rica, and Ticos understand that life is rich and should be savored. It took a while for us to learn how to slow down and smell the roses, but our children had no memory of the stateside stress and embraced each day, and moment as it came.

Days unfolded slowly, as our friends and I visited with each other in rocking chairs, while our children played in the yard. Like most kids today, our kids enjoyed some electronic gaming, but they were equally happy outside exploring and playing active games with their friends. The lack of malls and theaters nearby prompted imaginative play and a willingness to help in the garden and (sometimes) kitchen. Going to see a movie in a theater was a special treat saved for our infrequent trips to the “big city.”

Spending

Trendy clothing/gear was simply not available where we lived in Costa Rica, so our kids were not aware of current fads or “must have” items like their counterparts back home. Electronics were prohibitively expensive, so we never had the “latest or greatest” anything, technologically speaking, but our kids never felt deprived. They simply did not know anyone who had or used any state-of-the-art technology so what the were lucky enough to have, was perfectly adequate.

Safety

During our seven years in Costa Rica, we lived in four different small towns where everyone seemed to know each other (or were often related.)  The Ticos are captivated with children and treat every child as their own, so we were blessed with a “village” of kind, loving, supportive “family members” who also watched over our children.

Once our kids became teenagers, it was wonderful being able to confidently let them hop on the local bus with their friends and go down to the beach, or to other friend’s homes. Violent crime was practically non-existent in the communities where we lived, and news (gossip) traveled fast in our “village.” Whenever our children were out of sight, someone would invariably be “watching them and later mention they’d seen them with their friends enjoying an ice cream, or walking along the beach.

What it’s like now

We decided to move back to the US three years ago, and the transition has been seamless. We wanted our kids to attend high school (and beyond) in the US, letting them experience their home culture for a while. The time spent both here and abroad, will inform their decisions and provide advantages in the future.

Here are just a few of the advantages, our children enjoy as a result of living abroad (in no particular order):

  • Our children have befriended many of the kids in both of the large public schools they currently attend in the US. I believe their ability to make friends and maintain friendships with kids in different social circles is a direct result of growing up in Costa Rica. As bilingual TCKs, they’ve become better listeners, are more empathetic, and communicate much more confidently than many of their peers. Studies have shown that being bilingual keeps you alert and improves your listening skills. You follow social cues more closely, which helps you figure out which language to use, with which person and in what setting. BTW, It is also said to improve memory, help you multitask, solve puzzles, make decisions and stay focused.
  • Now that both of our TCKs have entered the workforce, their ability to speak two languages and their broad cultural exposure, has given them access to more, and better employment opportunities.
  • Our kids now recognize, and are often “turned off” by the materialistic world in which they now live, and I’m proud to report that they search out bargains whenever possible, even without my prompting!
  • They are incredibly patient, and seldom flustered or fearful.

…and these are just the some benefits we’ve encountered so far!

We, like thousands of other expats with well-balanced, confident, kind, bilingual and fairly fearless children, believe the advantages of raising a TCK almost certainly outweigh the disadvantages.

My husband and I are incredibly grateful we had the opportunity to raise our children abroad and learned numerous impactful life-lessons ourselves, while living in Costa Rica. If you’d like to learn more about raising your children in another country, and expat living in general, visit my blog, Penny’s Pura Vida. There, you can also sign up to receive my free eBook, 5 Truths About Expat Living and be one of the first “future expats to be notified when my upcoming book, The Ultimate Guidebook to Moving To Costa Rica becomes available. (Hint… it will be just in time for holiday giving!)

Pura vida, Penny

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