A Sabbatical Abroad With Kids?

While you will undoubtedly face challenges, you'll also reap important rewards, writes Yasmine Kalkstein.

July 5, 2018

Anyone who has met my energetic and exhausting (creative?) children was a bit hesitant about my idea to go abroad with them after I received a Fulbright Scholar award for a sabbatical in Israel. I was excited, but I have a 6-year-old and 9-year-old. Did I mention how energetic they are?

But ignoring the concerns of my in-laws (and probably many other people who kept their opinion to themselves), I went overseas for an entire year with my husband and two children in tow.

The experience was no doubt going to be both challenging and wonderful for my children. And it has been. Nine months later, they have an Israeli accent that every American adult trying to learn Hebrew envies, even if they can’t conjugate verbs correctly. They have Israeli friends, and between riding camels, floating in the Dead Sea, climbing the steps of the Baha’i temple, crawling through ancient tunnels and suffering through school days they don’t always understand, they have had an experience like no other.

However, what about my experience? Without question, and I mean without question, I would have been far more productive without children. Actually, that statement applies to my entire last 10 years of raising kids. In Israel, too, there are sick days, school orientations, holidays, drop-off, pickups, dentist and orthodontist appointments, and babysitters canceling -- a lot -- to mention just a few things. In addition, there are the hours (or so it has seemed) that I’ve spent each day translating Hebrew messages I get from both the school and the very involved parents.

I haven’t participated in late-night discussions at cafes or just gone to any lecture I’ve wanted. Dreams of attending graduate-level classes in my "spare time" haven’t been fulfilled. The Golan Heights hike that involved deep water and a small cliff jump? Yeah, that was tabled. While I’ve watched my colleagues head to Jordan or Africa for a weekend, I’ve been off to some kid’s birthday party.

However, I credit bringing my children abroad with me for having a truly immersive experience. I may have thought I lived in Israel when I studied abroad here during my junior year of college. But this year, I have really lived in Israel. I have attended parent orientation for first grade, parent-teacher meetings and doctor (and hospital) visits. I have participated in memorial services, bonfires, birthday parties and singalongs. I have been treated like a parent, not a tourist.

In fact, I am discovering that most people with whom I’ve interacted are surprised we are leaving -- it seems they didn’t get the message that we were only temporary residents! And so, while I haven’t had the Middle East adventure that I would surely have embarked on without my kids, I have had exactly what Fulbright intended me to have: a truly immersive experience.

The truth is that nothing tells you about a country’s culture as much as learning how children are raised in it. The values of the society, the ethos of the community, the debates of a neighborhood … I’ve been part of it all, not just observing from the outside. For example, the first order of business of my children’s Israeli school was to hand me a class list (privacy concerns are not an issue here) and tell me that I should try to secure my children playdates before they attended to help them socially. The emphasis on social well-being continued throughout the year. In Israel, it is taken just as seriously as academics, if not more so for my “immigrant” children.

After my son gave a presentation on America this year, the floor was opened to the 6-year-olds to give their opinions. They complimented him on his Hebrew and told him he did a great job. I learned what a trusting and warm society this is, exemplified by parents being willing to help out when you can’t do school pickup or by teachers hugging your child.

I learned about the leadership development in this country by my daughter participating in Israeli Scouts, where I rarely saw an adult present. The entire enterprise is essentially run by teenagers. As a Girl Scout leader myself who struggles to deal with a meeting every other week, I was floored that a 16-year-old was managing twice-weekly meetings of more than a dozen 10-year-old girls. Her immediate supervisor was an 18-year-old. Children here are given more responsibility, and I could see how they rose to the challenge.

I could go on and on about all the things I observed and learned because I had the very real experience of living here -- and mostly due to my children being in Israeli school with no other Americans. Had I chosen an international school in an American neighborhood, it would have been quite a different experience.

So, my advice for those thinking of taking your kids abroad? First, if you know the culture you are going to cares about children, everything else is just details. I knew children matter in Israel, and by handing over a bit of trust to the teachers (and by breathing), I found language to be a smaller barrier than I thought. I also learned to ask for help. By accepting that I was clueless as far as living in Israel with kids was concerned, I grew to appreciate that many people were willing to help get me through it.

A few other suggestions if those in academe thinking of going abroad with children:

Prepare your children. Yes, they are resilient, but preparation helps. I imparted a few messages to mine. I reminded them how lucky we were to do this. (Mind you, that was hard when I was trying to find a renter, pack my house up and totally terrified myself.) I also explained that all changes are difficult. I talked to them about how just one year earlier, I had cried when I arrived at my apartment on my first day in Dublin (where I taught our college students for a month). But such feelings passed, and then I loved my experiences.

I also spent time talking with my children about how the brain learns language. I told my 6-year-old son that even if and when he felt as if he was not understanding anything, his brain was going "chug-chug-chug" and actually working. I drew out a language curve and talked about how patience was needed. And I'd remind him of this after we got to Israel when he'd come home telling me that he had no idea what was going on in school.

I also made the academic goals clear to my children: that we were going to learn some Hebrew and make some friends. Any other academic goals were on a back burner. I told them they'd be the worst in their class at Hebrew, and that was OK. (And by the way, I think not being good at something was a valuable lesson for them.)

Make your new home truly home. In the midst of that first crazy week adjusting, we made ourselves do something fun -- an afternoon at the beach -- so the kids wouldn't think Israel consisted of standing in lines and filling out forms. We also knew the children needed to feel some ownership over their new abode. It may be small, but letting your children pick out their new bedspread or a poster for the wall can get them excited about their new place.

If you go abroad with children, will you face challenges? Undoubtedly. But only by being challenged do we grow. We are explorers, I would tell my kids. Some things will be better and some worse. But, I advised them, you should pretend you are a spy and observe and learn all you can about this country. My son's kindergarten teacher in America and I agreed before we left that he'd come back and teach the kids in his class about where he went. That helped encourage the spy mind-set.

Most important, if you are going abroad, be realistic with your expectations. But also realize that bringing your children abroad on an academic trip is a distinct opportunity in and of itself: there is no better way to really understand the country.

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Yasmine Kalkstein is an associate professor of psychology at Mount Saint Mary College. She has spent a year at Ono Academic College in Israel as a Fulbright senior scholar.


Yasmine Kalkstein

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