July 8, 2013

Moving to Johannesburg with Children

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

I remember the guilt and the worries.

Worries about sadness. About loneliness. About possibly having to pay for a shrink for my children throughout their teenage years. 

But most of all I remember my feelings of guilt. Ripping my child out of her comfortable home, out of her social net of family and friends, means ripping her heart apart, right? Forcing her to learn a new language is condemning her to weeks and months of being unable to express herself, isn’t it? And hauling her into a city with a soaring crime rate is nearly a crime in itself, or is it not?

Moving time. It's hard enough, without having to also worry
about how your children will take it.

Thankfully, my guilt disappeared in no time. Johannesburg became a home to my children at the drop of a hat. They play outdoors every single day of the year, they love being fluent in English (which meant that they could understand everything when they visited Disney World last year), they have a great time at school, and they never tire of exploring the African wildlife – including spiders, worms and bugs.

Grandparents? They conduct video phone calls via Skype. Language? I blush with embarrassment when I think back to how quickly they learned English, and how long it took us by comparison. Crime? Not on their mind. Our children lead perfectly normal lives – even though protected, of course.

Is it just us, I wondered? Are we the odd ones who fell in love with South Africa and now act like the proverbial lover in “love is blind”? Blending out each and every disadvantage and deficit?

While writing my Expat-Living.info Guide to Johannesburg, I did a lot of research into the topic of expat children and their adaptation, since it is of such high importance to us expat parents. As part of my research I interviewed Ilze van der Merwe with Bella Vida, one of Africa’s leading child psychology centres. She reassured me that a lot of how the child feels about moving has to do with the parents’ attitude. Since our children did not experience anxiety or any other problems while moving across continents, it seems that we got this right. Phew. Must be the ‘falling in love with South Africa’ thing. Blindness or not, I’m just glad that it seems to spare us from endless years of driving our children to a shrink – and paying for it.

If everyone seems to be a bit "off" because
of an international move, you may have to
shift your perspective to make everything
"line up" again in the right way!

So I had our own experience and the practitioner’s view, but I wondered what findings and conclusions were offered by science. I searched and analysed studies that have been conducted on expats. What I found was very interesting, and it was a lot of material, and because I like to write books, I wrote a small booklet about it: Why Expat Assignments Fail and What to Do to Make Yours a Success. You can download the booklet for free here.

My husband and I don’t seem to be the only expat parents who found that their children were far from unhappy after the international transfer. One international study determined that “on the whole, children have little trouble in accepting the move overseas and mostly enjoy life in their new country.” Now how encouraging is that?!

Buried in the mass of scientific data were also a few gems of practical advice for us expat parents. For instance this one: children settle much more easily and quickly if their parents learn as much as they can about their host city. Especially where to find their child’s favourite pastime, sports, cinemas, and so on. Familiar and favourite foods and treats were not mentioned, but certainly go down well, too. At least in our family.

Studies also stress the importance of spending time with your kids. Not always easy to remember when you are in the moving frenzy.

Find out as much as you can about the place you are moving
to, and go exploring with your children!

Another important factor is the matter of routine. While everything is new to you and life feels more like an extended vacation, your kids might expect you to bend the usual rules. Don’t give in. Even though it may not make you their hero, sticking to a familiar routine like bedtime rituals will provide continuity, which will benefit your kids while settling in. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but the research is quite clear in this regard.

Far less surprising, of course, is that finding a good school for your child is a top priority. But what should you look for in a good school? The educational curriculum is important no doubt, but as the aforementioned studies revealed, other factors should also be considered. Like providing an environment for meeting friends in the after-school hours, or opportunities for meaningful activities.

South African schoolchildren mingling at break time

The latter is something South African private schools are very, very good at. The amount of extracurricular activities offered by my children’s school, especially sports, is amazing! South Africans love sports - to put it mildly – and most local schools engage in a bit of competition, even at an early age. Therefore our children do not only practise their favourite sport at school but also get to play matches against other school teams on a regular basis. Transport and logistics are typically provided by the school, so if you don’t want to watch each and every one of your children’s matches, you just have to remember at what time to pick up your child at school after they’ve been returned. 

It doesn’t come any more convenient than that.

Home is where your friends are

International school or not? According to the research, this doesn’t make a difference in the expat child’s well-being. In Asia and the Middle East most expat children attend an international school, whilst the vast majority of expats in Australia, Canada, and the USA choose local schools. Most likely this has to do with the local language. 

While in some countries local schools are equivalent to public schools, sending your children to a government school in Johannesburg is not really an option. But in recent years more and more expat parents have become aware of the fantastic education offered by private South African schools (typically at a much more affordable price as well) and have been choosing them over the international schools.

The last advice scientists give is rather hard to follow, I know, but give it a try: have fun in your new host city! Johannesburg has a lot to offer, so make sure you take advantage of the culture, the wildlife, the great food on offer, the leisure activities and last but not least the friendliness of the South Africans.


Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.info Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Johannesburg.