Parenting Overseas: When Kids Become Partners

Benefit #33 of our kids’ school: Extended Easter Break. Three cheers for Catholic schools! The kids are off today (Thursday), Good Friday, and the Monday after Easter!  It’s like Spring Break #2 and we couldn’t be happier.

I’ve been thinking lately about how my parenting has changed by us living overseas. I think it’s hard to differentiate between the changes that come from living outside our native culture, and the changes that come just by having older kids. I think one major difference that comes with our location is the freedom and independence our kids can experience at younger ages.

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Back when we lived in the US I used to read about “Free Range Parenting” and wish that was more possible for my kids. I’m pretty sure no one could have ever accused me of being a helicopter parent, but I did always wish for more opportunities for my kids to learn independence at a younger age. That sounds great, but is stinkin’ hard to do in American suburbia! It’s hard to teach independence when the city bus routes are super inconvenient and expensive. It’s nearly impossible when the city plans are made for driving and not for walking. Cell phones are expensive and pay phones are nearly non-existent. In my humble opinion, the culture of ultra-protection of kids also makes it really difficult for well-meaning parents to provide opportunities for their kids to learn and make mistakes and recover without repercussions from outside sources. It felt like for our kids to learn their way out and about without adults they would need to wait until they were 16 and could drive! I know there are creative workarounds for parents who are really intentional about teaching independence, but it just never felt quite natural like I wished for. You know?

I didn’t realize how moving to Ukraine would make it easier for me to be the kind of parent my heart longed to be, in that regard. In Ukraine we have opportunities a’plenty for our kids to explore and learn and even be forced into situations where they have to think for themselves and be independent. It’s just built into the culture! There are some parts of Ukrainian culture that I imagine are similar to American culture back when my parents were kids. I like that.

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Public transportation in our city is cheap and super easily accessible. Our kiddos come home from school by themselves on city buses most days. It’s totally normal to see a kid Hava’s age (8) on the bus alone or walking alone down the street. Hava and Seth can go to the store by themselves and get me a few grocery staples. No one bats an eye that my 6 year old is at the store by himself (unless he’s not dressed warmly enough..hehe). It’s AWESOME. I love it because I KNOW my kids can do it, and they feel so proud of themselves when they are successful.

The little store down the street from our house is an old Soviet type store where you have to go up to the counter and ask the cashier for what you want. The thing is, there aren’t really lines. Whichever customer is the quickest or loudest gets their voice heard first.  Our Seth is super shy. The first time he went by himself to get me bread he must have been gone for more than 20 minutes.  I kinda started to worry a bit, but I knew he was fine, so I just waited. When he finally came home I found out he had been too embarrassed to pipe up and ask for the bread so he just stood there and waited until the store was completely empty and the cashier finally asked him what he wanted. 🙂  But he learned that day and he was so proud of himself when he came home with the bread!

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Our Addy is 13 and is off right now with two friends from school, out and about in the city. She took the bus to meet them and later they’ll find a bus that will take them to youth group. She has a cheap little phone that she uses to call me and let me know she’s okay. It’s AWESOME!  She has learned which buses to use and how to get where she wants to go most places in the city. I’m so happy for her that she has that chance to be independent and I’m also happy that we don’t have to drive her all over town so she can see her friends! Ha!

The big ol’ language issue also changes our parenting, and I haven’t quite figured out how I feel about it. 😉 Back when we lived in the US and I worked as a nurse on the pediatric floor of our hospital it was extremely common for us to treat Spanish-speaking families.  I remember so many times when the parents couldn’t speak much English and they would have their child translating for them. We would use a medical translator for official communication, but for just basic conversation I remember always feeling relieved when there was a school-age kiddo in the room who could help us communicate with mom and dad. I also remember thinking in the back of my mind “Why don’t these parents learn English?  Certainly they don’t want to live their lives with their kids better understanding the world around them and translating for them!”

Yeah, I can give a definitive answer on that one. Those parents didn’t want their kid in the driver’s seat of communication, but guess what? You get desperate and it happens. And in those important moments it’s better to have your kid there to help you rather than no one at all.  Guess how I know?  Yep. Been there done that. Last week.

We’ve gotten to the point where our kids’ language is better than ours. NOOOOOOOO!  I swore I wouldn’t let it happen, but it has. They are immersed in Ukrainian 5 hours a day and I’m not. It was bound to happen. I guess I just didn’t expect it to happen so fast. Now when we’re out and about and I need to understand something I’ll make sure all the kids are listening too, so that if I miss it I can know that somebody will understand. Addy has the best language and I find myself looking to her for help way more than I’d like to admit. The other day I had the kids at the dentist and the dentist actually looked at Addy and said “I want you to listen really good so that you can help your mom understand.” OMG. Low point. I made sure Addy knew, after the fact, that I had indeed understood the dentist (well, at least 70% or so…). Ahem.

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It’s funny how that lack of understanding, or handicap in communication kind of changes your relationship with your kids in small ways. Adults will look to my kids when relaying information, assuming they will understand better than I will. And sometimes they’re right- especially at school. In some ways, and in some moments it changes our role to more like partners with our kids, rather than us moving in the more traditional roles. We’re all working together to make sense of a strange new world, rather than us adults understanding the world and teaching our kids how it all works.  It can be a bit unnerving, especially when we’re talking about partnering with a first-grader, but I think I like it. It causes the kids to take more responsibility for themselves, rather than all the responsibility being on us parents. I know I like that.

All of this learning and growing and digging in roots in a different culture that we are still learning to understand is a heckuva lot of work. It’s stretching and confusing and painful much of the time. But, there are also beautiful parts of it that are unexpected blessings. The partnership with our kids and family teamwork is one of those unexpected blessings. The natural independence training is also an extra blessing. Sometimes it’s mind-blowing to consider how extremely different our kids’ childhoods are than our own, but I have to believe that there are things they are learning by living this curious life that they absolutely need for their futures.

So, steady on, my friends. This parenting gig is no joke, but God will give us everything we need for our specific children. We can trust Him on that one.

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