I’m honored to run this guest post from Josh Summers, who started the phenomenal blog Far West China covering Xinjiang province and just started a new website called Travel China Cheaper. He’s also a dad here in China and today shares some of his tips for raising kids in this country.
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I remember when I first arrived in China with my 1-year old son. It was an emotional moment as I sat on the hotel bed thinking to myself, “What have I done? Is this really fair to make my son live as an expat?” Away from his loving grandparents. Away from a reliable school system. Away from everything I had known growing up.
It’s been more than 4 years since that evening and I’ve learned a lot as a dad. It’s not that I’m an expert now, but looking back I realize a lot of the things I’ve done well as well as those things that I’ve done poorly.
Hopefully I can share some thoughts that might encourage you as you consider raising your kid in China – or any country for that matter.
Give Your Child an “Exit Word”
In China, this was a big deal for us. Outside of China’s major cities, cute little foreign babies and toddlers are still fawned over like crazy. I can’t even count the number of times that a Chinese lady has taken my son from my arms to hold or show off to their friends.
When my son was a baby, he made his feelings known by crying if he didn’t like this. As a walking, talking toddler, this wasn’t always the case.
My wife and I decided to give our son an “exit word”. What this means is that if people ever wanted to take a picture with him (which happened often on the road) or tried to take him over to play with their son, he could go if he wanted. However, if he didn’t want to for any reason, all he needed to say was “No, thank you” and we would immediately step in and remove him from the situation.
We want our son to be comfortable in the Chinese culture. We also know that he gets special attention as a foreign kid, so giving him this “exit word” has been key to keeping him from growing bitter toward China.
Include Your Child in Major Decisions
My son didn’t make the decision to move to the other side of the world away from his family and friends. The least I can do is respect him enough to include him in other major decisions that affect his life.
Will he go to Chinese school or be home schooled? (We don’t have an international school option where we live.)
Where will we take our vacation?
Is our time in China done? Should we move back to the US?
Mind you, including him in the decision doesn’t mean he gets to make the final decision. I merely want him to know that we’re not dragging him around or asking him to do something without giving it proper consideration.
Be an Example of an Adventurous Attitude
I know a lot of parents who want their kid to be that model expat kid who speaks Mandarin, loves local food and gets along well with both expat and local kids. At the same time, they don’t study, they eat at McDonalds and they only hang out with their expat crowd.
I’m a firm believer that I need to model what I hope to see in my kids. I am the biggest influence in his life!
I want my son to grow up with a sense of an adventure, a desire to learn and an ability to adapt to very different situations. My hope is that he can see me doing that on a daily basis and learn from that.
Are you trying new things? Are you attempting to learn the Chinese language and culture? If not, don’t be surprised if your child doesn’t either.
Be EXTRA Involved in your Child’s Life
As parents, we often don’t realize how good we had it in our home country. We had family we could rely on to love on our children, social clubs for interaction (church, athletic teams, etc.) and a familiar education system.
When we leave that environment, we unknowingly shift a lot of that responsibility on ourselves. And often, unfortunately, we come short. At least I do.
I’ve learned that I need to be very intentional about being involved in my son’s life. He doesn’t have a grandpa around who can share that load. He doesn’t have a basketball coach that can teach him to play basketball.
That’s on me. And I need to own that responsibility if I’m going to live as an expat dad.
Be Intentional with your Child’s Education
Building upon the burden of responsibility I just mentioned, I believe it’s important that my wife and I are intentional about our child’s education.
Most of the time the schools in our home country take on the responsibility of planning for the future. It’s assumed that students will at least attempt to go to university within the country and are prepared accordingly.
Unless you can afford to send your child to a fancy international school, this kind of preparation often falls on us as parents when living as China expats. My son is only 5 years old and we’re not only putting away money for his college every month, we’re making sure we understand all the different tests and other requirements that will be expected when he considers high school or college in the US (our home country). Every country has different requirements and within the US, even each state is different!
Conclusion | Raising a Child in China
I am convinced that raising my child in China is giving him advantages that most other kids don’t have – Chinese language immersion, multi-cultural experience, etc. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here!
But these advantages don’t come automatically. I have learned over the past few years that if I want my family to thrive in China, I need to be personally responsible and very intentional about how our family operates.
Our time in China won’t be forever. I want to take advantage of it while we can!
Josh Summers has been living in China since 2006 with his wife and two sons, all of whom have spent more of their lives in China than in their home country of the United States.