“I’m from… um… New England,” my 12-year-old son (a proud Patriots fan) spoke into the microphone, introducing himself before his turn navigating a boat around Boston’s waterfront, as children on duck boat tours are often invited to do.
“What?!?” the duck boat operator said disdainfully. “No one is FROM New England! Where do you live, son?”
My son shrugged as he stated the name of our town before turning his attention back to steering the boat through the water.
What the driver didn’t know was that the day before, my son had just arrived back in Massachusetts after a three-week visit with his grandparents in Norway. While he was there he was doubtlessly peppered with questions and had many conversations that went something like this:
“Do you still live in Tokyo?”
“No, we moved from Tokyo to Boston two years ago.”
“How nice for you to live in America — so close to your cousins! You must see each other all the time!”
“Actually, Boston and Chicago are pretty far away from each other, almost the same distance as from Oslo to Moscow.”
“Really?! I had no idea.”
We are an international family. I am Norwegian, my husband is American and all three of our children were born in Japan, where they lived for a majority of their lives. They also lived in the greater New York City area for a few years, and we now reside near Boston.
Naturally my son knows where he lives. After all, he attends the local public middle school, participates in town sports and blends into life here on a daily basis. However, when asked by the duck boat driver, a total stranger, to share his identity, he had to perform a mental calculation in order to judge his audience’s frame of reference. For the past three weeks he had identified his home as the United States. At this moment, instead of adjusting his perspective by zooming in close and stating the name of our suburban town, which the local driver would have most certainly recognized, my son chose to zoom out, arguably a bit too far, bypassing the name of the state and choosing instead to identify the region, thereby incurring the contempt of the tour guide.
While I could bemoan my son’s apparent lack of roots and his grappling with a sense of geographic belonging, I choose instead to focus on the resilience I see him developing. I have seen the same resilience in the hundreds of international school students I have taught over the years, many of whom I have had the privilege of maintaining relationships with well into their adult lives.
They are part of a growing number of children who reside in one or more places outside of their country of origin with no intent to settle there permanently. Although not all of these globally mobile children are accounted for in the following statistic, according to one report from the International School Consultancy, more than 7,300 international schools are in operation throughout the world, educating nearly 4 million students. Based on current trends, this number is expected to double within the next 10 years.
Globally mobile children are not without roots. They are simply rooted in something bigger than place, often connecting their identity to relationships rather than a physical location. The advantages exceed the immediately evident benefits of traveling and experiencing different cultures, food and languages; these kids’ social and cognitive skill development are deeply impacted by their multicultural and multilingual world views.
Children who have lived in multiple locations and cultures are able to take on the perspective of others and to anticipate the point of view of the person with whom they are communicating. This is one component of executive function. Multiple studies have shown that children who speak, or are exposed to, more than one language at a young age outperform their monolingual peers on tasks related to executive function.
Because globally mobile children are often accustomed to change and to being new and sometimes different from the people around them, their experiences tend to lead them to seek commonality between themselves and others. This skill may spill over into all areas of their lives as they become adept at finding common ground when encountering new situations and relationships. When we search for similarities instead of focusing on differences, we may be surprised to find more than we had hoped for while appreciating the differences and discovering commonalities that bind us together.
Globally mobile children have a knack for blending in and becoming local, yet will never fully belong to just one place. Their eyes have been opened to new perspectives and ways of thinking and seeing, and they will have this ability throughout their lives. With appropriate guidance, they can learn to embrace this skill and to adjust their lenses and focus on what is important and of value in their immediate contexts.
When parents and other supporting adults encourage them to recognize the positives in their lives and nurture the strengths they develop, globally mobile children can become agents of hope. They can lead their peers to reach for understanding as they find common ground among differences. As the world becomes ever more interconnected, all children need to feel supported in identifying positive intentions, and to look for ways to lead others in understanding and finding common ground.
The incident on the boat tour passed without commentary or outward reflection for my son. I regard the encounter as indicative of how he sees himself and his place in the world: as a global citizen who happens to be spending his time making meaningful connections and having interesting experiences in New England during these formative years of his life.
Merete Kropp is a child development and family specialist and mother of three. Kropp can be found at familynurturance.com and @nurturance on Twitter and Nurturance on Facebook.
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