Military life has helped to shape the parent I am as much as it has shaped my kids.
Perhaps most of all aspects of military life, the relocating has shaped our family. Moving 10 times, including overseas, surely affected the boys. They are most definitely “third culture kids.” Third culture kids is a term coined by Dr. Ruth H. Useem in the 1960s. They are kids who have spent time living in other cultures and internalize both: pieces of the cultures in which they lived during their development, as well as their parents’ home culture.
Living in China for three years deeply affected all four of our boys, even the youngest who was born there and was just 18 months old when we returned to the US. For the three older boys, living in a country with extreme poverty led to a sensitivity to their surroundings and lifestyle. Seeing how Horatio and I treated the locals, whose lives intertwined with ours, with respect and care gave our kids a sense of empathy you can’t teach.
In China, we lived amongst people from all over the world. We had neighbors from Finland, Estonia, Singapore, Australia, Israel, France, Germany and more. The schools the boys attended included kids from more than 50 countries. The boys spent times with friends from all of these countries; dining with them, going on outings, and hanging out in their homes. The boys are at ease in almost any situation now, having overcome initial reservations with regards to new and different experiences with their foreign friends.
The preschool Bob attended for three years was taught in English, Chinese and Hebrew, forming connections in his brain that allow him to pick up new languages and speak with authentic accents. He now attends a Japanese Partial Immersion program at our local school and has no trouble picking up the language.
As the children of diplomats, our sons learned through trial by fire how to behave in formal settings and how to represent their home country while out and about: whether at school or on the playground; at a formal dinner or at a friend’s house. Horatio and I have always held our kids to high standards and had high expectations for behavior at home as well as at school and out and about. Fair or not, it’s the way we live our life.
Some of these aspects of diplomatic life overseas weren’t easy and the boys were happy to leave them in the past when we returned to America 3 years ago. For instance: the constant attention for looking different than everyone else, with their blonde hair and light eyes, drove them bonkers; and the strange ‘delicacies’ placed before them at special dinners left their stomachs churning. They cannot, however, erase the effect these experiences had on them, nor can their dad or I.
With the vast experiences comes high expectations, both theirs and ours. While they were eager to return to it, they were initially bored by suburban American life. They missed the excitement of their multicultural peer group, their international school and traveling to other countries, including: Singapore, Australia and South Africa. Time passed and they soon adjusted to life in their new home and setting.
As a parent, more than ever, since seeing what the boys are capable of doing, I hold the boys to high standards for manners, behavior and performance in school.
First semester recently came to an end, so we had a family meeting to reiterate our expectations and rules. I think the rules are fair and reasonable and will lead to a successful second semester.
Here’s what we told the boys:
- During the week, they cannot use computers, video games or Ipod touches before school.
- They may watch TV while they eat breakfast.
- When they come home after school they may have down time and a snack, but no screens, before they do their homework.
- After homework completion has been verified by a parent, the boys are each allowed 30 minutes on a digital device of their choice. They may save up their time for use on another day, if they so choose.
- Weekends are more relaxed as long as the children are doing well in school.
- Missing assignments on progress reports will result in confiscation of all digital devices.
I feel I must clarify the statement regarding homework verification by a parent. I chose my words carefully. Checking the boys homework question by question or sentence by sentence helps no one. If a parent corrects her child’s work, the teacher has no idea where the child truly stands academically. If one of my kids has trouble with homework, of course I will do my best to help him figure it out, but I won’t correct his mistakes for him. Editing a research paper is one thing, rewriting it is a completely different thing and is counterproductive to academic success in the long term. I verify the homework is complete, go through a checklist to make sure no assignments have been missed, then give the OK for free time.
One ritual that came from living a busy diplomatic life abroad is family dinner. Horatio and I often had to eat dinner out of the house at work related events, so we learned to cherish family dinner and have it as often as possible, and unless it was completely unavoidable, we never missed a Friday night dinner.
Now, despite the busy schedules of baseball, volleyball, lacrosse, etc. we make a point of having a sit down dinner as often as possible and to find out how our kids are doing, we go around the table saying the best and worst parts of each of our day. We learn a lot about our boys’ days this way and sometimes we learn key information to solving a problem at school or calming a worry.
Family dinner is indispensable and, other than sports and other scheduled activities, everything else is secondary. Playdates (hang out sessions to my older kids) can end early enough to not disrupt dinner, and sleepovers can start after it. Our kids have known for many years now that the family dinner takes priority in our schedule and they relax and enjoy it with us.
We all learned a lot from our life overseas. I hope the lessons the boys learned will stay with them throughout their lives. Everything we do affects our kids. I hope the long lasting effects of overseas life are tolerance, understanding, discipline and the importance of family.