100 Days to Rwanda: When To Go?

103134426So, in the first part, I talked about why you might want to take your family on an extended overseas adventure, and then I went over the discussion of how badly you need to want to do it, and picking a place that meets your criteria. And now it’s time to talk timing: when is best and when actually works — particularly when kids are involved. 

Timing: When To Go? How Long is Long Enough, How Long is Too Long?

There are two sides to timing: when does it make the most sense to be there, and when does it make the most sense to be away from here? Practical considerations like climate may determine when you’d like to be there, but at the end of the day, you may have no say in picking the timing on that end – as in, the project/job has a start date of x, and that’s when you’re expected to be in place.

Your commitments back home may also offer up restrictions – your may not be able to start your sabbatical or take your leave of absence until after a certain date, or you may have to be back home in time for the start of a new fiscal or academic year. Overriding all of that is the school calendar for the kids. If you’re going for a full year, then it makes some sense to miss an entire grade, rather than imposing the social and academic disconnect of missing half of two grades. If you’re going for less than a year (as in our case) then it may make sense to time it so you get the summer vacation to regroup and get your bearings at your destination. If you’re going for six months, then the Christmas holiday break allows you to do some traveling before heading home and dealing with re-entry.

So, when is the best age for the kids? The recommendations you get from other parents are endless and inconclusive: don’t go when they’re so young that they can’t really appreciate the experience, say some, while others point out that it’s better not to go when they’re so old that the disruption to their social life at home will render them reluctant to leave. By the time they’re in high school, their social life is complicated and they may not be keen on going; there’s also the added stress of preparing for college, which seems to commence earlier and earlier. If you’ve got more than one kid, the timing challenge gets all the more complicated.

Initially, we were planning to go for a full school year, but the coming year will be Lucas’ last year of middle school, and we felt it was important for him to be back in time to get closure on the middle school experience and get a proper transition to the start of high school.

So, what’s long enough – and what’s too long? Going for more than a year is a pretty huge commitment, and requires all the more in the way of planning and flexibility on the home front (not many employers will be able to grant more than a year’s leave of absence, and sabbaticals usually run for an academic year at most). It’s also going to have the kids out of circulation long enough to make the return all the more complicated.

Six months is probably the minimum to consider for a “real” overseas adventure. Going for less than that is really too short to feel like anything other than an extended vacation with a twist – sure, you’ll be away from home for a bit, but mentally, three months would only really be a summer and change, and if it takes a month to get settled in a new place and a few weeks to get ready to head back home, then you’re barely going to have any kind of day-to-day routine on the ground. It also would be harder to get the kids in school “over there” for less than a semester, so the experience would be a different one for them. One traveling mom broke it down his way: four months is enough to try it out, six months will get you a shot at getting the language down, and a year will truly get you in the groove of calling a new place home. 

Having said that, three months is obviously much simpler to pull off: time it right over the summer, and the kids will only miss a month of school back home. But it wouldn’t be the same.

Selling The Kids On The Plan

Okay. So, you want to go. Your significant other wants to go. You’ve picked a place you think will work (or where your work will work). You’ve decided how long you want to go for. You’re ready to go. By now, you’ve probably already at least talked to the kids about the possibility of going, and maybe they’ve sounded excited at the thought of a family adventure (or not). But if you’re getting serious and want to make it happen, then the challenge now is to get the kids on board with the very real notion of leaving it all behind and heading off into the unknown. And by “it all” I mean the comfort of home, the everyday routines, their familiar surroundings, their friends. For a kid, that’s pretty much everything – and the notion of suddenly not having it, even if only for a while, can be very intimidating.

The classic “guy” approach would be to encourage the kids to see the bigger picture, suck up their apprehensions, and remember that it’ll all still be there when they get back. Of course, that’s probably not going to go over well. It may make more sense to talk through specific sticking points, and it certainly helps to try to appreciate a 5th graders perspective. Try to think each aspect through ahead of time (packing up, leaving, the trip, the new surroundings, the new school, a place where they speak something other than English, eat different food, etc), and have the (hopefully) compelling argument ready as to why that might all be a fun challenge, not a threat to their existence.

Our daughter is a glass-half-empty kind of girl, and has a knack for finding all the potential pit falls and threats in any given scenario. From “alas, my friends will all have forgotten me!” to “argh, some stranger will be sleeping in my bed?!?” she’s gone over the horrors of leaving, declaring the whole thing a non-starter. Add in her dislike of travel, her fear of bugs, and her general weariness of the unfamiliar, and she’s a tough customer. All the same, she has slowly come around – in part because we’ve continued talking about this as a fait-accomplis, not discussing whether it would happen, but how it would happen, and making it clear that no amount of foot stomping would change it. So, yes, not so much a question of selling her on the idea as making the idea palatable to her. A few well-chosen bribes helped as well. We’re not above that…

Lucas was much more receptive to the idea – he loves the notion of travel and adventure, and while he’s more socially inclined than our daughter, he seemed to have no fear that he’d be forgotten by the time we return. His biggest moment of disgust so far came when I broke the news to him that his Xbox was not going to join us on the trip. Good grief, you’d think I’d suggested that he cut off his left hand and leave it behind. “But… but…” No buts. No Xbox. We are bringing a full complement of laptops, so he’ll be able to stay in touch with his posse via Facebook, Skype and email if and when internet connectivity allows, but part of the whole point of this exercise is to break his habit of spending hours in front of the screen online with his buddies from down the road.

In the next installment: “Practical Stuff: Paperwork, Cars n’ Houses. Schools – Again.” Stay Tuned.