Rob and Sandy Shaffer with daughter Kristen the year they arrived in Austria
The best of both worlds
When young families respond to God’s call to serve overseas, they often wonder how the kids will adjust to the foreign country. We asked Entrust staff member Sandy Shaffer, who raised three children in Austria, what advice she would give to young families who are thinking about moving overseas. If you are considering such a move, we hope these thoughts encourage you and ease some fears related to cross-cultural living.
Kids take their cues from you
In general, kids will take their cues from you as parents. If you are happy and well-adjusted in your new environment, they will likely feel comfortable there as well. They sense your anxiety, your negativity, your fears. So it is important to work through your own issues about living in a foreign country in order to be able to help them make a good adjustment. Watch the way you speak in front of your children. Try to talk in a positive tone about the new experiences and ways of doing things, rather than letting them hear you criticize or complain. Avoid comparing your home country with the place God has chosen to plant you. If you comment on the differences, do so in a way that says, “This is just different, not worse.” You don’t want your kids to be thinking that everything in their home country is so much better, as this attitude will cause them to look down on others or resent being there, rather than embracing their new home and culture.
No two kids are alike
Just because your first child does well in a particular school or setting doesn’t mean your other children will. What works well with one may not be effective or beneficial for another child. Seek to have a good sense of whether or not each child is thriving and discuss as a couple how you can help each one to adjust.
Consider national schools
Attending a national school or kindergarten helps your child in the process of feeling at home in the new culture. When a child learns the language at an early age, he or she can more easily develop friendships and feel more a part of the host country rather than viewing everything as foreign. Also, seek out nationals who can help you understand the new school system and what this system expects of you as a parent. In Austria, for example, the educational system was a hands-on system for parents, so we had to learn to quiz them before tests and correct our children’s homework before they showed up to class. When you get a grasp of the curriculum, you can also determine what might need to be supplemented at home. (There were only four pages of text on the American Revolution, for example.) In moral areas such as sex education, parents need to be prepared to teach from a solid biblical perspective before such subjects are introduced at school. Consider times when it might be appropriate and necessary to advocate for your child at school and make positive suggestions for change in a tactful and godly way.
Don’t be too quick to change schools
Every school experience comes with a set of problems to be faced and overcome; it is tempting to think that simply changing schools will solve the problems your child is having, but sometimes God uses the difficulties to make our children stronger in their faith and more dependent on God. On the other hand, know each child well enough to read the signs when a child is not thriving, and consider options together as a couple.
Reinforce the identity of their home culture, too
While our goal was to see our children adapt to the foreign culture and feel at home there, we also sought to preserve our heritage as Americans. We celebrated Austrian holidays and some American ones. We brought family traditions with us that were distinct from the Austrian traditions we enjoyed and these family traditions gave our children a sense of their identity as Americans. In other words, we tried to give them the best of both worlds. Don’t be surprised, however, if your children adapt some ways of thinking and doing things that are different from your own.
They will not, in the end, be as American as you are. They will be “third culture kids,” a composite of all the good things of both cultures (and some of the bad), a rich blend with many flavors resulting from the rich experiences they have had, the kind of parenting they have received and the ways they have each uniquely responded to God as he uses their experiences to shape them.