The year: 1986. The place: My childhood home in NY. The scene: The kitchen where a tan, old school phone with an unruly curly cord hangs on the wall. The language: Portuguese.
On one end of the phone was Sergio, my exchange student “brother” from São Paulo, Brasil. On the other end, what felt like a million miles away, were his parents. Receiving a call from them was a BIG deal back then. With that phone call Sergio morphed from my English speaking, high school attending “brother” into a young boy from São Paulo who spoke a foreign language. To me, it felt like a completely different person was standing in the kitchen speaking loudly into the phone. The connections weren’t great back then and the call surely was expensive. Magically, with the click of the receiver, American Sergio returned to our family’s view.
Today, Sergio’s son, Gabriel, is living in my home as a year long high school exchange student. As I write this, he is at varsity (American) football practice. He is as adventurous as his brave dad was back in 1986, playing a sport he had only watched tirelessly on TV and the internet.
As a result, I have a bird’s eye view of what it means to be a parent and to miss your child when s/he is abroad. I see Gabi adapting to his new home city, processing and speaking in English 24/7, eager to engage in the world around him. And through Facebook chat and video, I hear his parents’ bellowing in pain from missing their beloved son. As a parent myself to a 20 month old, I can only begin to appreciate what another 14 years of time with my child will translate to when he eventually heads abroad for an extended period one day.
Yet, I cannot help but reflect back on that very vivid scene of Sergio talking with his parents on the phone. So what does any good interculturalist do upon reflection? She asks questions! I logged into Facebook and called Sergio in Brasil to ask him about how he is coping with his son’s absence AND to discuss his family’s plans to come to the US to spend time with us over the holidays. Yes, despite the title of this piece, Sergio and his family WILL come visit us this winter.
I reflected with Sergio about the scenario above. He thought about it briefly and stated that it is much easier to talk to his son than it was for his parents, yet he has to restrain himself from doing so every day. He wants to talk about the latest Jason Bourne movie that he saw after he heard that Gabi and my husband, Tony, went to the premiere together last week – something they would have done together if Gabi were home in Brasil. He wanted to hear all about his first day of American football practice. He wants to know what he thinks of our city, our home, and what it is like to have a 20 month old brother after having sisters. It is natural to want to stay connected to your child, but Sergio knows how important it is that he allow him space during this tender period of being a new exchange student. He remembers well how he immersed so seamlessly into our family and community in New York…and how he wants that joy for his own son. He and his wife have told me many times – no matter how much they miss him, they are more happy for him than anything.
I called another friend whose two daughters are both abroad – one is in Europe for 3 weeks while the other is on a study abroad program for a semester. I asked her about how she is adapting to the absence of her girls. Her response was that she misses them but has been very careful not to over communicate in that fragile first week or two, as that is when the bonding needs to happen. They don’t schedule times to talk and she has only “facetimed” once with her daughter in Europe. She finds it strange that they have had the occasion to text their daughter in South America for random things (e.g. what is the Netflix password!) but otherwise they’re intentionally keeping some distance. When I asked if they planned to visit their elder daughter at the end of her study abroad program they said they’re thinking about it. When I pushed further, she indicated that they felt it would be okay to visit at the end of her semester program as it would give her a chance to show confidence in the language and experience without interrupting her studies. They would not visit if the program were shorter than a semester and wouldn’t do so in the middle of the program – and they may not even do so.
Sergio said the same – if Gabi were coming to the US for a few months only, he’d not plan to visit. But he is adamant that a visiting over the holidays for two weeks when his son will be here for an entire 12 months is acceptable because they won’t interrupt his studies, sports, or friends’ gatherings.
Why should a loving parent not visit a son or daughter on study abroad? After all, you miss each other, so what is the harm in doing so?
There are my two reasons NOT to visit your child on study abroad:
- You may interrupt their flow: Study abroad requires immersion, space to make mistakes, learn a new language, gain confidence, engage in a new way of being in this world. When you visit your child while on a shorter term study abroad program, you unintentionally are stepping into his/her ability to find and maintain flow in their new surroundings. It is analogous to having to hit pause in your daily life to trot your parents to see everything that you’re experiencing in record time, doing none of it justice. It also doesn’t allow for your child to reflect deeply on the experiences, places and people that are just beginning to capture their attention. If you “leave them be” they will simply have more time to participate in their new culture and to let the new connections in their brains form solid pathways without having to revert back to what they know, their default way of being. So, don’t interrupt their flow, no matter how much they tell you that you HAVE to come to try the gelato in their favorite shop in Venice.
- Your child will become more independent and learn more life skills: If you stay away from that airport you will likely observe, upon his/her return, that you gifted your child with a better chance of kicking independence into high gear. I see it with Gabi – he is speaking in English only, asking questions of others to gain information that helps him navigate his surroundings, engaging in new friendships even though it is scary to approach people you don’t know, washing his own laundry, unloading the dishwasher, making his own lunch, talking with his football coaches directly, and so much more. If you want an independent kid, don’t get on a plane and ask your child to hit pause on growth in their new home country in exchange for the ability to educate you and reinforce their learning for you. They will tell you ALL about it when they’re home while showing you their confidence and how empowered they have become. Additionally, if you’re willing to wait that long, you may find that you are truly the only person on the planet willing to sit through all 7,000 photos and hear all of the stories – an opportunity to bond with each other in a reflective learning space – and they’ll certainly appreciate that.
As difficult as it is to not get on the plane, staying home also offers YOU an opportunity for growth. What can you do with your time instead of checking in on your child? Here are 3 ideas:
- Engage in new activities: Sergio started going to the gym each day, as he has found a lot more free time since his son is away for the year. Perhaps you can surprise your child by studying the language class of his/her study abroad country at home. With less face to face time with your beloved child, you have a chance to find your inner child! Sign up for an art class, join a book club, or pull out that list of places locally you have been meaning to visit. Take your child’s adventurous spirit and apply it at home.
- Reconsider your adult relationship: Your child will eventually return home with a heightened maturity. Think about how you can relate to your “baby” as an adult – someone who has not only ventured away for college, but to an entirely new country and language. Make a list of items to discuss with him/her upon return such as “What has changed for you and how can we incorporate that into our home?” and “What do I need to be aware of to be supportive during your transition home?”
- Talk to YOUR parents: Reflect on your own transitions in life and how your own relationship with your parents ebbed and flowed over the years. What stands out for you? When did you most need them to let you cut the apron strings? How did they deal with you taking the leap and trusting the net would appear? Journal some of these memories to rely on when your own child needs space and freedom from the family unit.
With that said, Sergio and I are planning for his family’s visit over the winter holidays. We decided that a year IS a really long time not to see your child and that we want to support a wonderful gathering, not only for his own family but for Sergio to visit his New York “hometown” for a reunion of host parents, friends, teachers, and families. I look forward to such a reflective experience, not only with him, but with his son too.
What are your thoughts about letting a son or daughter navigate the education abroad experience without a visit from a parent? I invite you to comment below!
Missy Gluckmann is a traveler, educator, interculturalist, trainer, speaker and career coach specializing in international education and careers across cultures. Originally from New York, she has lived abroad three times, most recently in Cuenca, Ecuador, and is currently enjoying the gorgeous mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. She founded Melibee Global and Better Abroad as a way to inject creative tools into international education, with an emphasis on study abroad. You can connect with on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.