Despite all the hassle, you’re thinking about traveling or living abroad with kids. Exciting! This post will give you some food for thought as I’ve been thinking about doing just that for the past year.
I loved growing up overseas. It was always a treat to meet new people, eat new food, and learn about new cultures. My parents worked for the US Foreign Service and were stationed in Manila, Lusaka, Kobe, Taipei, and Kuala Lumpur before finally arriving in McLean, Virginia for my high school years. McLean is 20 minutes away from the US State Department in Washington D.C.
Because I attended international schools for 13 years, I felt like I had a much richer childhood compared to many of my high school peers who mostly spent elementary school, middle school, and high school in the Northern Virginia region. Every summer I’d go back to see my friends in Taipei and KL, which was an absolute blast.
Living abroad helped me understand and embrace different cultures. For example, because roughly 61% of the Malaysian population was Muslim, I had several close Muslim friends who shared with me their traditions. I’m certain there would be much more love and harmony around the globe if more folks traveled.
Going On An Adventure
As a father now, I often think about ways in which I can provide the best childhood possible for my son, while also creating a life of adventure for all of us.
“Best childhood” can subjectively be described as one that is: filled with happiness, friends, unforgettable memories, abundant life lessons, adventure, the learning of at least one other language, and continuity in the family.
Because we run an internet-based business, we have the ability to provide for a unique childhood experience by living anywhere. If we don’t travel or live abroad, it would feel like such a waste, especially now that the San Francisco Bay Area has become so crowded and economically homogenous.
Before our son was born, we always noticed a nice uptick in our happiness when we traveled abroad. We traveled aggressively for five years before our son was born. For example, spending three weeks on the Hapsburg Trail helped us love our online business even more. Prague, Vienna, and Budapest are truly wonderful places to visit. It was a dream to spend the final week in Paris to watch the French Open.
The following year, we spent three weeks in Asia, finally visiting the great temples of Angor Wat after spending a week diving off the island of Pulau Redang, Malaysia. It is unbelievable to dive in 80+ degree crystal turquoise water.
Only One Problem: Childhood Amnesia
Traveling is enriching. Unfortunately, few adults can remember life before age three. Even though I had specific country anchors in place during my childhood, I only have two memories between the ages of one and two.
The first memory was sitting in an outdoor restaurant in Lusaka, Zambia while I tried Pepsi for the first time. It was delicious.
The second memory was when I had to go to the bathroom, but couldn’t because it was occupied by my dad. I banged the door hard, but he wouldn’t open it, so my mom had to clean me up in the tub.
The other memory before three was in Arlington, Virginia. I remember playing with my sister and babysitter in this makeshift room that was made out of sheets.
If I couldn’t remember much before three years old, I must imagine others who’ve lived their lives all in one place might have a difficult time recalling their past as well. Everything tends to blend together if you don’t go anywhere.
Sigmund Freud coined the term “childhood amnesia” to describe this loss of memory from the infant years. According to a study done by Emory University, they found that a child’s earliest memories begin to fade around the age of 7.
Therefore, we can conclude that any family traveling with a child under the age of three is doing so not for the child, but for themselves. We purposefully traveled as much as possible because we knew we likely weren’t going anywhere for at least the first two years as parents.
If a family wants to provide the richest cultural experience for their child, the family should travel after their toddler or toddlers are at least three years old.
Three Childhood Experience Models
Based on the logical conclusion to travel after the age of three, we’ve come up with three different childhood experience models to consider.
1) Anchor in San Francisco, and travel all summer and winter. The easiest solution is for us to live in a diverse city like San Francisco for the next 18 years until our son goes to college. Every summer break we’ll spend three months living in one or two countries as a family. Every winter, we’ll spend the 2-4 week break in another country. By the time our son goes to college, he’ll have lived abroad for a total of 52 months, or a little more than four years. He’ll also have visited at least 20 countries, thereby expanding his cultural experience.
2) Anchor in Honolulu, and travel all summer and winter. San Francisco, unfortunately, has the lowest kid density for cities in America. As a result, SF is the least kid-friendly city. Instead of staying here, we would move to Honolulu, one of the highest kid density cities in America that is very focused on family (ohana) living.
The advantage of living in Honolulu is that we also get to be close to my parents (but not my wife’s parents), and we can send our son to a school that goes from K-12. In San Francisco, you have to go to a different school for elementary school, middle school, and high school, and it’s inevitable your friends will end up going to different schools. The disadvantage of living in Honolulu is losing our social and professional networks we’ve spent 17 years building in SF.
3) Completely live abroad and come back to America during summers and winters. I like the idea of living abroad in three international cities for four to six years each once our son is old enough to attend kindergarten (age 5). The idea is to be in one city for all of elementary school, another city for all of middle school, and a final city for all of high school. We’ll use the summers and winters to come back to America and visit other cities close by to where we are currently stationed. Some places we’d love to live in are Amsterdam, Barcelona, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Kobe, Tokyo, and Rome.
Which Childhood Adventure Would You Choose?
A big part of me wants to go all out and live abroad once our son turns five. I did it for 13 years of my life and traveled internationally for 25 years since. It would be a blast! We could rent a fully furnished house and rent out our home in SF.
My wife, however, isn’t so keen on the idea because she has never lived abroad for an extended period of time. Only summers in Japan. She’s more keen on option #1 or #2.
She reminded me about the pain of having to change our business address, file different types of taxes, and all that type of stuff she deals with as the CFO of our company. We’d also have to go through the arduous process of applying to expensive private schools with limited spots.
Life is so comfortable now, but I long for excitement. I’m the guy who has to get out of the house and do new things every day. Whereas my wife can comfortably stay home for weeks.
Biggest Concern Living Abroad
My biggest fear about living abroad for my son’s entire grade school life is him not developing lifelong friends from childhood. I don’t have any elementary school friends I keep in touch with because I don’t know them well enough.
I do sort of keep in touch with my middle school friends from Malaysia, but the relationships aren’t tight since they are so far away. Because I started high school as a new kid, I wasn’t able to develop deep relationships either. There’s really only two people from HS I keep in touch with, but they are both on the east coast, so I hardly ever see them.
That said, we now live in the time of the internet, social media, and video chat with our phones. It’s much easier to keep in touch today than when I was growing up.
I’d love to get everybody’s opinion on what you think we should do, and what you would do if you had these options. If there’s a different childhood model that I’m missing that could also be amazing, I’d love to hear it.
The Benefits Of Traveling Abroad For You And Your Kids
* Potentially easier to learn a new language
* Forces your child to open up given he’ll have to make new friends at a new school
* Gives her firsthand experience of things other children might only see online or in textbooks
* Might make him more unique when applying for colleges
* Creates more empathy and understanding for other people and cultures
* May let her appreciate living and working in America if that’s where she ends up
* Make international friends in addition to American friends
Note: Digital wealth advisor Wealthfront came out with a new tool to help you take time off to travel full-time. The tool helps show how long you can travel on a pre-determined budget while also being able to hit your retirement goals. Given we’re living longer, the argument goes why not bring up end of life travel and disperse the trips over your lifetime instead. I’d much rather climb up the 587 Santorini steps at 40 than at 70!
Any readers who currently live abroad with children, who have lived abroad with children, or plan to live abroad? What are some considerations I have not mentioned in this post?