“Don’t worry about the language, the kids will just soak up French like a sponge.” If I had a euro for every time I heard those words, I would be driving a Hummer.
Almost three years ago this summer, we started sensing God’s call to “step out of the boat.” Wise counsel from friends and family left us inspired and awed that this might actually be God’s plan for our lives. But what about our children? Should we homeschool, or should we send them to the local schools? Every international parent we talked to encouraged us to send them to the local schools. “It will be so enriching for them. They’ll learn so much about other cultures.” This comment was inevitably followed by the infamous “sponge” phrase.
As it turns out, the language has been a little more challenging than we anticipated, in addition to some other unexpected hurdles. Our oldest son Sam has always excelled at learning and socializing. This first year in Belgium he suddenly found himself in an environment where he was struggling to understand the teasing of children on the playground, let alone understand his Belgian teacher’s directions for reading French. He withdrew. He became distant, quiet. His teacher said he never smiled. He constantly told us how dumb he felt. Every morning we dragged him to school against his will. My heart broke for my once confident learner.
Soon his self-esteem crumbled further. He confided that classmates were teasing him in the hallways because of his accent. Apparently there was a kid who daily tried to strangle him on the playground. I was livid. Every “mother bear” cell in my body screamed protection for Sam and attack toward his aggressors. How dare they tease him, my beautiful, courageous boy who had moved to Brussels filled with excitement and confidence!
In my helplessness to fix Sam’s problems, I cried out to the Lord for intervention. “Please strengthen and encourage Sam, Lord; and if You wouldn’t mind, smite his enemies, those blood-thirsty, French-speaking six-year-olds!” Though I was hoping the Lord would respond in thunderbolt style, one day He whispered to me, “Wait, Anne. Be patient. It takes time.” New ex-pat friends told us that it took at least a year for the kids (and even us) to feel settled. In complete humility, I nodded my head and smiled. Inside my head I was thinking, “Maybe for your kids, but not for ours. Ours will be adjusted in 6 months, tops.” Wishful thinking…
At this point, we began to take action. Our battle plan was two-fold: prayer and advocacy. Together we prayed with Sam for his aggressors. Miraculously, within weeks Sam began to notice a difference in the kids around him; we noticed a healing in Sam. Our hearts knit together and softened toward his aggressors, rambunctious kids meaning no real harm, from families with whom we could share Jesus.
Our advocacy blitz entailed communicating verbally and in writing with his teacher as much as possible. We discovered there seems to be a different mentality about playground etiquette: pushing and shoving is standard operating procedure, with minimal teacher intervention. I wrote daily notes to his teacher, sharing Sam’s plight. She began responding compassionately, informing playground monitors to be more watchful.
I began to research all I could about helping kids transition to a different culture. Google offered little help, other than Third Culture Kids—an insightful book, but more analytical than practical in its approach. I read the Five Love Languages of Children, by Gary Chapman, which reminded me of ways I could nurture Sam. Where else was I to turn?
The next resource I turned to was people. People have been a source of both discouragement and encouragement in our journey. I had a well-meaning friend tell me her kids had no transition issues. Gee, thanks for sharing. Keep in mind that all children are different and will respond differently in the crucible of crossing cultures—and that’s okay! In our family, we found our preschool kids Ben (5) and Emma (3) responded much more easily to the changes in their lives. Sometimes it is tough not to compare, but each child has his/her own personality and experience.
Unfortunately, after being here only a few months, a member of our community made some very hurtful comments about our children in a public forum. People can and will be insensitive to the stress in your children’s lives and the adverse affects on their behavior. Oh well. Our children, chips off the old blocks, are not perfect. God used this trial to mold and strengthen our parenting pride and resolve.
Fortunately for me, the Lord has brought two encouraging women into my life who have helped me immensely. They daily provide me with a barometer of what to expect, what is normal, and how to prevail in the face of adversity. I appreciate their humility in cross-cultural parenting advice. These treasured relationships are answers to prayer.
After long months of prayer, tears, and striving, a breakthrough moment finally came during a most unexpected time. In addition to emotional and educational struggles, our whole family suffered through countless sicknesses last fall and winter. In May, Sam came down with the crowning malady, pneumonia. Sam’s case of pneumonia left him homebound for 2 weeks, virtual torture for a six-year-old who values bike-riding more than breathing.
After seeing the doctor twice and the kinestherapiste (a fancy word for chest thumper) three times, we came again to ask for Dr. Zasinska’s mercy in allowing Sam to return to school. The room was silent, except for Sam taking deep breaths as Dr. Z tuned into the sounds in her stethoscope. After a few minutes, her verdict was as clear as his lungs. “Yes, Samuel, you want to go to school tomorrow? Then…you may go.” My six-year-old did a vertical butt jump off the examining table and then proceeded to boogie around the doctor’s office in his Buzz Lightyear underwear.
Dr. Z looked at me with a delighted smile on her face, “Such a boy who loves school as much as this, how wonderful!”
“Yes,” I laughed through my tears, “how wonderful.”