Please accept my apologies.
The truth is, I’m almost ashamed to reference the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchise from the late 80s and early 90s. It is difficult for me to avoid a snarky academic smirk when thinking about the premise and overall acting quality in Rick Moranis’ big breakout series. Still, the reference serves well to situate how we often view children in our academic lives. As we ‘build our careers’ in the academy, it is often very easy to minimize the importance of children, even our own. Children are generally viewed with a lens of cool detachment or even animosity in some academic circles – I know, I’ve seen the looks I sometimes get when bringing my own kids onto the university campus. The implication is that the university is a place of “higher education” and that children don’t really figure into that equation. But, truth be told, those of us with young kids realize how much of our lives they actually play into. If your two-year-old decides to ‘offer up’ a major tantrum right before you go to teach a class, chances are you won’t really be thinking about “higher learning.”
How then should we approach a decision to teach abroad as parents of young children? One of my colleagues told me that there was no way he could even consider it. “What about their schooling?” Others have suggested that the stress of taking young children abroad would be too much. Functioning well as a parent in our own country is challenging enough. Why add the stress of another culture, another language, another currency, etc.?
I’d like to advocate a different position. Here, then, are three reasons you should apply to teach abroad – ESPECIALLY if you have younger children. (I was going to come up with a cool ‘Top Ten’ list, but as a parent of young children (we have three kids under the age of nine), who actually has the brain cells needed to come up with ten good reasons?)
1. The world opens to your children.
One of the main reasons we encourage our college students to pursue a semester or year with the Study Abroad program is to allow them to “experience the world.” What a different experience it was for my Study Abroad students to read a Shakespearean play and then go to see it performed at The Globe. Compare this with students who are reading the same play while stuck inside a florescent-lit classroom within the bowels of Kennedy Theatre. The author is the same. The words are the same. But the experience between the two groups couldn’t be more different. Guess which group tends to like the experience of reading Shakespeare more?
In the same way, our children experience a whole new world of possibilities and challenges in living abroad. We were lucky to find housing in London right next to a tiny local library. It seemed only fitting that we should dive into British children’s authors. While we’d read one or two Roald Dahl books as a family while living in the U.S., living in London opened up his works to our children in wonderful ways. Some of my fondest memories of the entire semester involve our kids literally laughing themselves onto the floor upon hearing some delicious passage in The BFG, Danny, the Champion of the World, or George’s Marvelous Medicine. My son – a rather reluctant reader at age eight – devoured the first two Harry Potter books, only to stop himself on book three. “I think I need to wait a few years more. It is getting too scary.” BEING THERE made all of the difference.
2. Your children open to the world.
One of the best experiences we’ve had in taking our children abroad has been re-experiencing Hawaii after our return. Suddenly, things here at home are new – the weather, the lack of traffic, the colors, etc. Even language becomes an adventure. Our almost five-year-old had us rolling when she announced at a park play date, “Mum, I need to use the loo!” Suddenly my kids are “cosmopolitan,” chatting with their friends about Harrods department store, daily tea time, and public transportation. They have not only seen another part of the world, they have brought parts of that world back home with them.
While in London, we all grew in our knowledge of the world. We would often pull out a map of where we were heading for the day, with occasional input from our children as to the best method of getting there. The simple act of “moving to a place where you need a map” has introduced our children to geography in the real and practical way. This relatively simple act has opened our children to new practices – pulling out maps, for example, or asking to participate in the “geography bee” at school.
3. And perhaps, if you are lucky, YOU open to your children.
Let me be honest. Living abroad living with children is a challenge. Our family of five shared a tiny two-bedroom flat in London that cost nearly double the price of a similar place in Honolulu! Can you imagine thinking that living in Hawaii is cheap? Go to London. Suddenly the prices at your local Foodland seem downright reasonable. Getting three kids under the age of ten onto a jam-packed London tube line during rush hour can give even the best of parents nightmares for months and years to come.
But, the benefits are enormous. Since everything was new to everyone in the family in this new place, we all learned how to do things together. My son took great pleasure in navigating the various tube lines by the end of our time abroad, “helping Mom out.” London is filled with activities that families can do together – including lots of cultural activities for everyone. We toured many museums with specially designed “explorer backpacks” that many of London’s stuffiest museums now provide for children. Several theatre companies in London are “hand crafting” events for only 30 to 40 audience members, catering especially to those audience members under two. Our entire family thrilled to see “Mr. and Mrs. Moon” – a simple tale about the man in the moon, but performed in and around a giant sand pit where all of the audience members were required to take off their shoes and dig in the sand while the performance took place. I don’t remember ever playing in the sand in Hawaii quite like the way we played in the sand in central London.
My kids are already begging to go back to London or to another city. Why? Their number one reason is always something along these lines: “Because we did lots of things together.” So, my rather simple and non-academic premise is essentially good parenting advice for all of life. Don’t neglect your kids. Involve them in your life. Take them with you. Bring them to work. Their childhood is too short and your academic life will always be full of too many pressures that will always be pulling you away from them. Don’t forget those things of first importance – the health and happiness of our families and children. Going abroad can actually help to support these ‘First Things.’
AUTHOR INFOMark Branner Assistant Professor, Department of Theatre & Dance University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
Born in Los Angeles but raised primarily in Taiwan, Mark returned to the U.S. to attend college, whereupon he quickly dropped a scholarship from UCLA to work as a clown with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Mark eventually received an MFA from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He teaches courses in theatre for young audiences, puppetry, mask, and physical comedy.