The Life Of An Expat/Traveling Child

 In Blog, Family, Travel, Vagabond

What can travel do for a child?

Bali IndonesiaShe was born in California and stayed until she was 1.5 yrs old.  Her last 8+ years have mostly been abroad.

Her birthday parties can be described as a “multi-cultural smoothie” if you will, blending a multitude of cultures, ethnicities, and genders all together to make a delectable treat.   You watch in amazement as she moves between multiple languages and cultures while collecting her gifts.  She has celebrated birthday’s in Bali, Fiji, Florida, Panama, & California so far.

When we took that first 3-month world tour around South Africa, Australia & New Zealand, we were thinking this was the last trip before children.  We would come back, settle down and start a family.   1.5 years later we found ourselves back in a foreign country, yet this time a baby in tow,  diapers in our suit case a stroller.

While our friends back home were recreating their own childhood with their families, life as an expat, traveling parent is very different, But traveling and living abroad with your family can be the most rewarding thing you’ll do together.  You just need to make a few preparations and adjustments.

 Who are the Expat/Traveling Kids?

Hanalei and local kids in the street at Bocas Del Toro Carnival 2011

Some children think a nomadic life is normal; they’d put any Khao San road backpacker to shame.  It’s all they know.

Children from military, missionary and now online business families like “The Unstoppable Family”  clock up the miles, sometimes before they’re even old enough to understand what’s happening.

Researchers working with these children call them ‘Third Culture Kids’. They discovered that children take what they know or remember from their home culture, and mix it with their host culture to make a third mixed-up bag that works just fine for them.

So, for example, 90% of those recently surveyed here said they felt they understand foreigners better than the average American and 80% said they can make friends with anyone and handle transitions better than most adults.

What is important to an expat/traveling child?

Well, you need to listen to them. Your own relocation or travel issues might seem bigger but knowing that Santa will find her is a big deal for a 7-year-old, and sometimes it means going back to a place that is more known for them during a holiday like Christmas.

Take the time to find out as much as you can about the new culture so you can recognize things like tasty fruit or dangerous spiders and order your favorite foods at a restaurant.

If your children look radically different to the people in your new home, be ready for some healthy curiosity and prepare your kids for life as a minor celebrity if you’re moving to a rural area.   I will never forget when we moved to Fiji, and Hanalei was the stand out child Ballet Class in Mexicoeverywhere we went, with her blond hair and blue eye’s, but at 3 kids are just kids, they have no judgements or fears.

Playing games is a big part of life for many kids too, but ice-hockey isn’t big in the tropics and the football isn’t quite what you’re expecting. Talk to other expat parents online and find out what they do and how to join in.   We met a little girl and her Mom at the Beach in Puerto Escondito, Mexico and while the girls were playing she asked if Hanalei wanted to join in a local ballet class.  We joined them for ballet for 6 weeks at a small local church and it was one of the best experiences for both of us.

One of my favorite ex-pat resources is Expat Exchange.  For relocating, schooling and adjustments to new environments, I have used this site plenty of times in our last 7 years of travel.

I highly recommend the Good Schools Guide to compare and learn more deeply about all the possibilities when choosing a world class school for your kids.

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What language should you speak abroad?

Sure, you will find someone that will speak English, and have other expat friends that speak English,  but do you want your kids to continually impose English on their friends or learn some local words?

Even a six-month stay can leave them with an appreciation for the way the non-English speaking world runs, and give a child the confidence of a powerful lion in the jungle.  (even at 7)     We make a point to have Hanalei order her own food, walk up to ask for the check and buy things on her own using the local currency and language.  In the beginning, it was difficult and she was shy, but once she realized we were learning too, and that people loved to hear her speak Spanish she wanted to more and more.

Schooling for Expat Kids

Your choices for longer stays usually include:

  • an international school
  • the local school
  • home schooling

Bali FamilyThe familiarity of English and the curriculum are the benefits of the international school system. Most countries have American schools and if not, then the UK system comes a close second.  While we were in Spain we opted for a British International School with Spanish as the second language taught.

In Panama, she attends Tangerine Education Center for expat children with a split English/Spanish curriculum.

The first time we lived in Bali, Hanalei attended Bali International School in Jimbaran area, closer to the Bukit Peninsula. Although she was quit young [2 years] she still had the opportunity to attend a 4 hrs a day kids interaction class with children from all over the world.

sunriseWe moved back to Bali in July 2015, this time we chose Sunrise School, in Seminyak for Hanalei.  We love their philosophy on teaching and their motto “Think globally, Act Locally and Be Totally”.  They have kinder all the way to high school.

Another great school that holds similar values is Green School. Green School is located in the center of the island in Ubud. They offer a natural, holistic and student-centered education and is one of the most amazing environments on the planet.

When we lived in Tenerife, Spain Hanalei Attended Callao Learning Center for 6 months. Another small, International School that focuses on the British Curriculum but offers an open source style learning that is personalized more to the child with small classrooms of under 20 kids.

Your kids can mix with other expat children and their local classmates are the perfect way for your kids to find out what the country is really like.

But because of the exclusive nature of most of these schools, some parents take the local option. If your kids are younger and not facing exams, then this could be a great experience for them with guaranteed local friends.

Up until this year we have has the luxury of finding private international schools for Hanalei to attend before she started “real” school.  She was able to drop right in and interact and learn from the children even if the language was not English.

But do remember that their first weeks here can be tough. Being the new kid on the block is never easy, and if they don’t speak a word of the language, it can be frustrating.

Coral Levu SettlementHanalei has attended school in Bali with very little English spoken, Peru with no English, Brazil with only Portuguese,  Spain with both English and Spanish and Panama with both English and Spanish.

I can tell you, she has never once complained about not understanding or feeling frustrated.   Play has no language barrier.    I do believe this year, being 1st grade it was necessary for her to be taught in English as the primary language.   This way she was learning to read and write in her native language and have Spanish as the secondary.

The third option is home-schooling, which is easier than ever before, with so much support online.  Home-schooling is a good choice in countries where enrollment can be a challenge or if you are moving around for more frequently.

For the last 8  years, we have been staying in one location for 4-6 months and she would change schools as we moved.  Now that she is in 4th grade we made the decision to stay in one place for the school year and take “mini vacations” during the year because Hanalei told us she did not want to home school.  She likes attending schools and meeting IMG_8830children her age.

So it is very important to listen to the needs of your child when traveling abroad and choosing their education.

Expat Kids Love Life

Don’t stress too much. Most expat kids are incredibly well-adjusted and have friends all over the globe. They get to visit worlds that most teenagers just see on television and are comfortable with traveling in a way many older people only dream about.

Biking to school in PanamaHanalei has the biggest heart and the most open mind I have ever seen in a child or an adult for that matter.  She is in love with learning new things and meeting new people.  Traveling has made the world so small in her eyes, and she believes she can and will see every country on the globe because they are just a plane trip away.

But it’s not just about travel; these kids tend to be more tolerant than children raised in only one culture.  They do not judge color or race.  They grow up understanding compassion and empathy with no judgment.  They look at the world as a beautiful place, not a place of war or destruction.

I am excited to see more children like Hanalei and learn about your children and their experiences traveling the world. I am even more excited to help families and parents discover how they can work online while traveling too.  We welcome you to join our Private Facebook Group of Freedom-Preneurs that are all living FREE.

Take this short survey and download our Starter Guide, once you do you’ll be added to our private group.



Brian, Rhonda & Hanalei Swan


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Showing 13 comments
  • Tanya Patxot

    This is so awesome. I so believe traveling and letting your kids experience new cultures and life helps them appreciate life and want more out of it. I so admire that you have done that and I can’t wait until can do more of that. It’s really not enough to see it on TV or hear about you have to go and see it for yourself, breath it taste it the whole 9 yards.

    • Brian Swan

      @tanyapatxot:disqus…..thank you for the kind words….much appreciated. Experience is the way to live. Since you mentioned that you are looking to do more traveling…..which places have you and your family traveled or lived in?

      • Tanya Patxot

        I have traveled to London, Trinidad, Canada, Spain and many states within the US. I am from New York and live in VA now but am relocating to PA. I have much more of the world I want to experience and show my kids.

        • Brian Swan

          Nice…yes, the world is a big one and time is a ticking 🙂

  • Paul MacInnis

    Absolutely amazing. I’m sure Hanalei’s passport puts most adult’s to shame! Your decisions are enabling an experience that will be so powerful for your daughter as she grows. I am working to do the same for my 2 kids who are now 5 and 3.

    • Brian Swan

      Haha, @paul_macinnis:disqus…. Hanalei is on her 3rd passport now since we got our backpacks stolen in Costa Rica 6 years ago and in Peru 4 years ago. Keep going, Paul, with your 2 young ones 🙂

  • Scott Stembridge

    Thanks for an insight into tsome of the considerations of travelling. You are blessed to have an amazing soul join you both in your life experience. Peace!

    • Brian Swan

      Thank yo much, @scottstembridge:disqus….Cheers!

  • Andrea Robinson

    Awesome post! I’ve loved watching Hanalei grow up to be a beautiful kid, so full of life and so welcoming of other cultures! Yet, she fits right in, back home in California, too! I love what you guys are doing and the way you’re living your dreams and being so diligent to make sure she has an awesome, loving upbringing. 🙂

  • Alysa

    Considering Tenerife for our family. We are also American. Did u enjoy the island, the people and how about the school u mentioned?

  • Alysa

    We are considering Tenerife for our family and we are also American. Did u enjoy the island while u were there? And how about the international school u mentioned? Thx for any input 🙂

    • Rhonda

      Hey there! So happy you asked about this. Question for you, are you currently living in the Canary Islands? The school was great, though I could give you some tips. Let me know.

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