Living an expat life means a lot of adaptation to the country and culture that you are currently living in. Perhaps eating times are earlier or later than in your home country. It’s possible the school days are longer. Maybe people’s behavior is really different from how you expect them to act. When living abroad, the burden is on you and your family to flex your typical behavior to fit into the new context. For children, this can be confusing. Children have not had the chance to identify clearly with any one culture. Therefore, it can appear to them that the rules keep changing depending on where they are. Children are flexible, which is good, but it can also make it hard for you to instill in them the values and norms you desire them to have.
When living abroad, what happens outside your front door is usually outside of your control, but in your home you can do the things that feel right for you and for your family. Traditions become important because they are set activities that are repeated on a regular schedule. Traditions can be used to mark the rhythm of the day, week, month, and year. Traditions are activities that you can define and customize and then repeat in the manner that you find appropriate for your family. Traditions can communicate values – what is important and why those things are important. The best part about traditions is the ability to carry them with you from country to country because they are activities that are most often done at home. The use of traditions can make your home a “safe zone” where you can maintain control to instill a sense of family and values, especially with children.
Traditions include both the big ones related to holidays, such as making certain foods or decorating the home, as well as the day-to-day traditions that we want to teach our children about what family looks and behaves like. Both types are useful because they mark different time circuits. Holiday traditions mark the calendar year while day-to-day traditions create routine and flow in a family.
Maintaining holiday traditions permits your family to anticipate together a shared link with your home country. Independence days, religious holidays, or bank holidays can be celebrated abroad to convey a sense of unity with your home country. Usually phone calls or messages are shared with family and friends back home on these days as they celebrate locally. This communication and connection helps maintain bonds with extended family and distant friends. It also gives children a reason to feel like they identify with their home country especially if they haven’t lived there much of their lives.
Daily and weekly traditions, such as a walk after dinner, eating dinner together as a family, Saturday afternoons at the movies, or board game night, gives your family certainty when living in a culture different from your own. These small traditions may seem trivial and insignificant, but they are essential in families with children. Why? Because these small traditions create shared obligation to the family unit. This means that on a regular basis, your family comes together as one to fulfill a task or activity that demands participation from everyone. The repetition of these same activities over and over creates a sense of unity and intimacy.
It’s like you’re building an exclusive club. Only special people are permitted to join. The members have duties and roles to complete. Everyone must follow certain norms and values when they partake in activities. Being a member of this exclusive group means each member is able to enjoy familiarity and closeness with the other members, and has the opportunity to feel confident and secure in his or her role within the family unit. In the end, you are building a solid foundation for a trusting relationship between all members and, simultaneously, passing values and norms about what it means to be part of your family.
Now the important part of tradition, whether holiday or day-to-day, is not to make them so complex that it will stress you out to complete them. The idea of using traditions to create a sense of family that is stable does not mean over-the-top or big parties every day. Quite the contrary, the goal with traditions is to create normalcy for your family on a continuous basis that can be carried out no matter where you live. Having a party every day or creating complexity frequently will only make things unravel and become sporadic.
No one can manage constant preparations, we just burn out. Instead, look for things that you are already doing that you like. Ask yourself if those activities foster the family values you want to instill in your children. Do those activities help you structure your family life at home in a way that is rewarding for you? Can that activity be repeated easily without causing distress? The activities that meet these criteria are the traditions you want to consider implementing.
Also important is that traditions are not competition material. What one family finds appropriate for their traditions may be very different from another family’s. Both types of traditions are OK because different families have different values. Each family should strive to create traditions that fit and support their chosen values. No comparing or judging!
Based on this information, the take away ideas to help you choose how traditions can create a sense of family while living abroad include:
- Identify the values that are important to your family unit
- Select holiday traditions to share with family and friends at home
- Recognize day-to-day and weekly traditions that foster the family values you selected in #1
- Be selective about what traditions are easily sustainable and do not create stress to implement
- Know that the traditions you choose for your family will be perfect for your family’s needs
Knowledge is Power
What new information did you learn from this posting? Did it help you identify something in your family you would like to change? Share your experience below and what steps you plan on taking to guide your family.
About the instructor
Dr. Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.