Updated: Nov 1, 2019
If you plan a long trip or relocation and you have kids, things can get a bit more complicated. There are additional hurdles to consider such as school, friends and each child’s affinity for travel.
We hear from many parents who learn about our adventure, “But I can’t take the kids out of school for so long!” But, the truth is, you can (if you want to). There are three main concerns in regard to your kids’ schooling:
1. The kids will miss important educational material.
There’s this notion that the school system is holy and kids shouldn’t miss a day. The school system is like a twelve-year-long pipeline that starts in one place and ends twelve years later, somewhere close to college. You help your child enter into the pipe in first grade and, twelve years later, your child steps out of the pipe well-educated and ready to start their life as a model citizen.
The reality is, however, that the education system is an imperfect, leaky pipe which you might want to think twice about before committing your child to for 12 years. As of 2015, the U.S. was placed at unimpressive 38th place out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science, so we should all be open to the idea that there are other ways to educate our children, outside of the standard education system.
An international travel experience or period of international living has much more educational value for your child than the same time sitting in a classroom. Whether he or she is road-schooled, home-schooled or un-schooled while you travel abroad, the exposure to the world will significantly add life experience and learning opportunities. Whatever curriculum material your child might miss can be caught up on in a short while upon your return or be taught while your travel.
For example, in the 8 months we road-schooled our kids while driving the motorhome to Chile, our daughter, who had just finished 1st grade when we left, zapped through 2nd & 3rd grade math material by spending just 3 hours a week studying math with a curriculum workbook. Why? Because in a class of 24 kids, you can’t get the same personalized attention as she got while we were road-schooling her.
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2. The kids will miss their friends.
Yes, the kids will miss their old friends for a little while, but it’s very easy nowadays to initiate a Skype or Facetime call on your smartphone or tablet for children to keep in touch and maintain relationship with their friends.
Kids disconnect relatively easily and make new friends quickly. We were surprised how our 10- and 7-year-olds moved on from their past friends and started making friends along the way. It was comforting proof that our concern that our kids would miss their friends was unjustified.
3. The kids won’t be accepted back to school when they return.
You should verify with your school district, but federal laws require schools to accept a child to a school which he or she is zoned for. The school needs to assign them to an appropriate class based on their age.
Your child will have a place to return to, even if you come back mid school year. There is no risk that your child will not a have a room to return to when coming back from a long period abroad.
Other non-school considerations that we and other families considered before embarking on our adventures:
4. How will the children handle long-term travel or relocation?
Kids respond differently to new experiences based on their personality. Some adapt better than others and only you know what your child’s tendencies are. Social kids will have an easier time making friends on the go, while shy kids might take more time to open up to changes in their environment. What we have experienced, traveling with two kids (a 10-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl) is that, while they had their moments of fighting (they call it a play-fight, but…), they became ultra-good friends while traveling. Especially since, some days, they were the only kids around – so they needed to figure out how to play with each other.
What we tried to do is to find, once a week, a kid-oriented activity, such as a water park, amusement park or games arcade so they could have pure fun. Whenever we could, we’d stop at a local playground and let them be with other kids. Sometimes they connected well with locals and sometimes the language barrier hindered communication attempts.
After traveling for a year, we realized that the kids would benefit from a steady set of friends, so we took a break from our world trip and decided to have them join an international school in Bali, which we loved as a place to live. They are taught in English but also learn Indonesian, which is a plus. They really enjoy their international school - so much that they are ready to leave the villa 15 minutes before we need to leave for school in the morning. Should we be taking that personally? Hmm, a thought for another time.
5. How will my kids be able to communicate when they don’t know the local language?
First, kids communicate with other kids in sign language (the unofficial kid kind) and on playgrounds can connect with other kids very quickly simply playing hide and seek.
Secondly, children learn new languages much faster, their brains are like sponges that absorb words when they hear them. Our son picked up Spanish mainly by listening to locals. He can now handle himself at hotels and restaurants and communicate with other kids in Spanish after just 6 months traveling in Latin countries.
Lastly, in the majority of countries, you can manage with just English, and the youths usually learn English in school, so children will speak it better than many adults.
Traveling or living abroad certainly raises some safety concerns. You are used to your existing environment and feel safe in it. You know the laws and the rule of the land. Therefore, any new environment will seem threatening at the beginning - I get it!
We research any safety warnings in the areas we are planning to travel to. Most of the countries in the world are totally safe and we make sure that there are no known issues that can put our family at higher risk than we experienced in our ‘safe’ life in California. But the reality is that there are thieves and robbers anywhere.
We use common sense. We don’t travel to areas that are flaring with violence, but we also don’t limit ourselves from exploring places just because someone said an area might be “dangerous”. In most cases, when we heard preliminary warnings about a country from someone, we found their fears to be unjustified and purely wrong.
The bottom line is that almost all locals we met along the way, even in areas that were considered “dangerous” like Mexico and Columbia, were welcoming, sweet and helpful. Our motorhome was broken into once in Peru; it happened midday without us being in it. But car thieves exist everywhere. And, considering we parked a huge, weird-looking, Mercedes-Benz sprinter motorhome on a side road in a sketchy part of town, perhaps we deserved it. (We also left that giant sign on it that said "Rob me!" which may have compounded the issue...)
7. Communicating with family back home.
Nowadays, it is really easy to communicate with family and friends back home. On your smartphone, you probably have Skype, Facetime, Whatsapp or other free apps that enable you to connect via voice or video. A WiFi connection is common and provided free in 90% of places (e.g. restaurants, coffee shops, hotels) so you won’t even need to buy a data plan to make these calls.
It is advisable to schedule calls with family for a fixed time of the week (such as Sunday at 10AM) so both sides can expect the call and you don’t end up missing each other.
That’s it! While the affects of long-term travel on kids are not well research and known, we These are the key issues to consider when traveling or relocating with children. I’m sure you can think of several more so please add them in the comments section below. Alternatively, if you want to speak with me privately, you can schedule a call.