“You’re making a big mistake, Elizabeth. Your son is only nine, he’s just started third grade and he’s still learning to read in English. If you move to rural Panama, you could really mess up his entire educational future. Think twice, girl.”
I thought more than twice about this big step. And I knew my friend Valerie’s concerns were valid. After all, she was a veteran mother of four terrific boys; she was also a specialist at the master’s level, teaching reading to young children. I had to ask myself: Did I want to jeopardize my kid’s formative learning years in exchange for a life that I hoped would be freer—a lifestyle less available to a society that was becoming increasingly dictated by technology? Was trading in a good education, in his native English, for the possibility of a richer cultural education a fair swap?
In 2006, when my family was still in Florida and my son was eight, I had begun to feel I was fighting an uphill battle against forces that weren’t evil, but that were intruding from all sides on my vision of how I wanted to bring up my child. My stepson, a terrific kid, was eight years older an college bound. I had my youngest all the time, and I didn’t want to screw motherhood up.
Our society seemed to be changing at a pace I couldn’t manage. The increasingly ubiquitous electronics devices, (remember, this is 2006), seemed to be overtaking the social interactive development of our children. And I consider social development equally important to academics.. Kids would sit next to each other, each with his or her own Gameboy in hand, sometimes paying separate games, sometimes together. They were mesmerized and hardly able to pull themselves away from the rapid and seductive images before their eyes. I wan’t sure what was going on, but I knew one thing: I wanted my boy outside, playing, wondering, letting the world happen, awaiting the next surprise adventure.
Then there were the loving and very well-meaning parents anxiously imposing over-managed, highly structured schedules that kept their kids running all day from one organized activity to the next. The children were distracted from dawn to dusk, leaving little time for relaxing into a natural rhythm of play. Often the parents themselves were tethered to the cell phone as they walked their grade-schoolers, hand-in-hand to class, yet oddly detatched from the present moment.
I was hardly without guilt! I had been increasingly sucked into the need to stay connected by cellphone to my job, at all times. My son felt frustrated by his inability to either get my attention or by the constant interruptions. “I hate that cell phone, Mom!” So, one day, I went “cold-turkey” on the thing. I turned it off when we were together or work hours were through. I figured the world would indeed turn without me.
I imposed other rules: only enroll my son in one extra-curricular activity at a time; leave my brief case locked in the car after work; allow no incoming phone calls at story/bed time. I was no longer tied to the outer world but connected to what was directly around me. But it felt like I needed more.
Most weekends I was hoping to arrange a simple“free-play” play-date for my son, and this I was finding increasingly difficult to attain.By this, I am thinking of the summers of my own youth spent languishing with my best friend in the woods on moss-covered rocks, climbing trees, building forts, swimming in the pool until we our little bodies were wracked with shivers, running through a sprinkler, swinging on swings, and coming away only when our mothers hollered for us.
Meanwhile, my husband was beginning to tire from decades of managing night shifts at a busy tourist restaurant. Having spent a good amount of time in Costa Rica, in his twenties, he had long harbored a dream to live once again in a Latin country. We enjoyed our life in Florida, and we happily managed the usual responsibilities of adulthood. But life ticks on, one day runs into the next, years pass and dreams become an occasional whisper in the back of your mind “one day, one day soon.”
We were an extremely hard-working couple and our collective jobs supported a decent—but less than extravagant—lifestyle. We had a mortgage we could afford; we didn’t own a big screen television; we drove small, used cars. We belonged to no clubs and had no expensive hobbies. We paid our bills on time and only twice in ten years of marriage, did we take a family vacation lasting more than a few days. Together, we earned over six figures, yet as is true for many couples, there was little left over at the end of the month for little luxuries.
Still, it wasn’t my husband’s dream alone that propeled us toward the move abroad. I had traveled in my youth, once as an exchange student to the Southern Philippines during high school and later to Mexico. I had come to see travel as one of the best teachers and I wanted our son to have a broader world view. I also wanted him to speak another language.
In 2005, we took a rare family vacation and visited some neighbors who had moved house with their young daughter to Boquete, a town in rural Panama and currently high on the list of “hot picks” for retirement relocation. We stayed nine days, impulsively purchasing a small but lovely lot near town.
Boquete’s is known for its lush beauty. Peppered with gated neighborhoods, Boquete is nevertheless a farming town. It is nestled in the mountains of the highlands, and in what is often referred to as “the valley of the eternal rainbow: or “the eternal spring.” Even the heart of downtown is rich with flowers, rivers, little farms, and livestock.
Life appeared simpler. There were uniformed children walking hand-in-hand to school; a farmer chasing after a small herd of stray cows in the heart of town; chickens and goats and dogs and children were everywhere. And, as with most small towns, everyone knew everyone, which felt safer.
Oh, I thought, as we signed on the property, only two days before returning to Florida, This is where I want to raise my son!
Over the next two-plus years, and largely from a distance, my husband oversaw the construction of what was to be a dream home. I stayed somewhat removed from the project, involved with mothering, work, caring for my beloved dad (who had become ill), and feeling torn about leaving. I wanted something different, but it is not always easy to give up a settled life.
My breaking point came one day after school. My son was now beginning third grade in Florida, a confident and happy little kid just getting a grip on reading. One afternoon, he stepped down off the bus looking all long in the face. “Mom. So-and-so said he’s in the ‘gifted reading program’ and he said that I’m dumb because I’m not in the gifted reading program.”
My heart sank. “Hey, buddy. You can be in the gifted reading program, if you want to. But they give way more homework and I just didn’t think you wanted extra homework.” He perked up. “Oh! Okay, Mom. Want to go skating?” And as soon as we were in the door, we snapped on our skates and glided
Three months later, (by this time, my father had passed away), we were on a plane to Panama, just two suitcases each, one of mine packed with clothing and the other stuffed with a purchased distance learning curriculum. Larry was in luck. Despite being a nester at heart, I am highly adaptable, which means I can make my nest just about anywhere.
My son, then nine, spent mornings working an accredited distance learning program with his dad, and three hours in a local parochial school, just a kilometer from our house. He played with the neighbor kids, all local, and on weekends he saw children from the handful of expat families around us. After ten months in Panama, we distanced him completely from expats so that he could blend even more, and the Spanish really kicked in.
Life was indeed simpler. Most of my son’s friends lived nearby and played outdoors every day after school. All the children wore uniforms to school, the boys sported the requisite buzz-cut hair, and these were great equalizers, eliminating any battles about what to wear or whom to keep up with. If neighbor kids had electronic games and such, they were usually broken or quickly lost or stolen. Skating rinks and skate parks were missed, but these were exchanged for soccer and basketball.
Birthday parties were a welcome family affair, and not only for younger kids, but also for the famed “quinceañera” or “sweet fifteen” birthday parties attended by peers and parents alike. Sundays were also family days. All this family time and the fact that children are not permitted to drive until age eighteen, rendering parents the chauffeurs, seemed to keep family ties strong.
There were little things that made life simpler, such as being able to make and take baked goods to school my son’s classmates, or to any school event, without issues. (This was not the case back home, where the school board had ruled that parents could not take home-made treats to school. All treats had to be store-bought and presented in their original wrapping.)
When my son was eleven, we moved to the center of town and I broke down and purchased a cell phone for him, as this was the best way to locate a kid running free with his posse of friends as they gathered up empty soda cans and bottles to trade in at the local store for treats. Sometimes they spent hours playing soccer, or rummaging the nearby river for errant golf balls for resale.
When he turned fourteen, I buckled and gave a green light for my son to get his first “Play Station.” (I regret this decision to this day!) And, despite my earlier vow to wait until he was sixteen, I gave the “okay on a Smartphone. Like nearly all kids and grown-ups today, this device has become my son’s lifeline to his inner and outer circle: as with most teens, he’s never without it.
Still, I had him close for a long time, longer than I suspect I would have if we had remained in Florida. He is completely fluent in Spanish and moves easily between the two cultures he embodies. He wants to return now to the United States for his last two years of schooling and also to reconnect with his cousins, and just be a regular American high school kid.
I doubt my son will be quite the regular “American” kid he thinks he is simply because he now and forever, bicultural. Will he need to catch up, academically? Time will tell. He son has navigated some tough waters in order to blend in, make friends, and learn a language. I trust he has the skills to face whatever comes next and certainly, we will be there to guide him, whether it be here in Panama, where we remain until the summer months, or back in the United States.
So, by leaving, did we do ourselves a disservice, or did we enrich our lives? This is something we will find out in time. I think that if you want to move forward, or find out what stuff you’re made are made of, sometimes you might want to step away from the herd. And that is just what we did.
You can read the first few chapters of “Helping Expat Kids survive Thrive: Advice on schooling, on Kindle, Free, by clicking HERE.