We often hear about people “studying abroad” or “working abroad” and I think that “parenting abroad” deserves academic credit and a spot on someone’s resume just like the first two. It definitely belongs in the category of life experiences that people choose to pursue for extreme personal challenge.
Those of us who are parents of adolescents are well aware of the challenges we face with our kids even in the comfort of our own home, culture and country. Navigating their social environment and developing their personal identity become their primary goals in life. They are no longer only seeking our approval, as their parents, but the approval of their peers as well. Although the details of my memory are vague, I do remember the somatic experiences quite well; the discomforts of insecurity, the hormonal and emotional waves, the feelings of devastation when my self-esteem was shaken.
Living in Spain and adding a peer group that speaks a different language, wears different clothes, and holds different values has given my kids an additional social layer to navigate. The differences between themselves and their Spanish peers create some confusion for them in their already challenging path of identity development. They struggle on a daily basis with whether to try to be more like their Spanish peers or follow their own cultural instinct and sometimes, it does not feel worth the effort to try to understand a different language and learn new free time activities in order to try to fit in so they opt out and resort to spending time at home. They have a natural desire to want to be noticed, to draw interest, be included and fit in and yet, at the same time, they do not want to draw too much attention or to stand out. As Quinton mentioned recently, “it’s annoying when one minute I feel invisible and a complete outsider and the next, I feel like the center of attention and kids are high fiving me in the hall and calling me by name whom I have never seen or talked to before… there is no happy medium.”
This leads me to the parenting role; the role that requires parents to find the perfect balance (if there was one) between pushing our kids to step out of their comfort zones and supporting and comforting them. George and I feel like we are on a constant learning curve for the following: encouraging our children to keep in touch with American friends while not interfere with building new friendships here, challenging them to try new experiences without over-filling their schedule (as being less busy was one of our goals here), allowing them to keep up with technology trends, valued by their generation, while not allowing screen time to help them escape, supplementing school work to keep them caught up academically without over-emphasizing school work (as learning Spanish is our primary goal here), holding them accountable to school and sport commitments while also acknowledging some of the struggles with cultural differences that make it difficult to learn, and stretching them to engage more socially and actively in their free time while also giving them down time of their choosing after a 6 hour day of being stretched linguistically and socially. And knowing that each decision we make, to work towards this balance, will have an impact on their growing sense of identity.
In addition to finding this “perfect” balance, we are navigating an emotional roller coaster on a daily basis. One day is “the best day ever!” and the very next “couldn’t be worse.” There is always a new challenge to be explored be it the teachers’ style which is very different from the US or overhearing the Spanish kids talk about you when they don’t think you understand them. George and I often have a pep talk with each other to prepare ourselves to absorb whatever energy might come through the door and to be fluid and flexible with their moods and needs.
No matter how much we insist on our kids stretching themselves more socially and interpersonally, we have to remember that it is always easier for us, as well, to spend time with expat, English-speaking friends or to relax in the comfort of our Spanish home. It takes a thorough effort to put ourselves out there and start Spanish conversations with neighbors and acquaintances and trust that we are not going to burden them with our fumbling language skills or limited cultural knowledge. We have also learned that one year is not long enough to achieve the level of comfort and confidence that we aspire to having here. I now understand the many people who told us that after one year, we will just start to feel like we are adjusting. I also am trying to trust, what others have said, that we will see and hear the impact of this experience on our kids and their sense of identity, not now and not when we first return to the US but in the years to come.