How Parenting Abroad This Summer Transformed Me Into a Calmer & Better Parent

I spent the summer in Europe with my three young children and it was the best parenting decision I've ever made.

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Courtesy of MNStudio/Shutterstock
Courtesy of MNStudio/Shutterstock

There is nothing more American than parents sending their offspring to overnight camp in a log cabin in the woods for the summer.  Breathing fresh air daily, mastering outdoor survival skills, learning to build campfires, making new friendships, and becoming independent are just a few of the myriad of benefits that most children enjoy at sleepover camps. Most parents that send their children to these camps rejoice at the idea of the infinite amount of freedom they will be experiencing while their younglings are away and even plan their “adults only” vacations during this time. 

I never had the joy of sharing bunk beds with fellow campers or sleeping outdoors in a tent in a bucolic setting far away from my parents for weeks at a time.  As a first generation Greek American, my childhood was straight out of the movie: “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and not surprisingly, I went to Greece and Cyprus almost every single summer for vacation.  When I was old enough to be able to vacation on my own, I vowed to only visit my parents’ motherlands only every 2 or 3 years so that I can finally experience the rest of the world. That did happen, especially after I met my husband, we visited an average of 4 countries each year and it was thrilling until we became parents. 

Fast forward several years to my current state: mother to a 7 year old, 5 year old, and a 2 year old, as you can imagine, traveling has never been the same.  Sure, we have taken “off years” with our kids and visited several countries other than Greece and Cyprus, so that we can expose them to other parts of the world and also not to relive my repetetive childhood summers.  However, spending the summer in Greece, or really anywhere in Europe, will become our yearly vacation staple as a result of the nearly 7 transformative weeks I spent parenting my spirited and quintessentially American children there this past summer.

Living abroad with my children for so many weeks was certainly a first and turned out to be an impactful parenting experience that truly changed my childrearing philosophy.  I was surprised to see how quickly my children conformed to Greece’s culture and how they easily picked up on how to participate in games the local children were playing at the village playground. At first, it was my American children simply observing and mimicking behaviors so that they would be accepted in their new play circle.  As the days passed, I quickly witnessed my super dependent babies, that otherwise thrive in structured settings, becoming confident decision makers. The whining was diminishing and was replaced with real time problem solving, that surprisingly took place only between the children. And just like that, my role of having to step in as referee and determine who’s turn it was on the swing or which of my children actually won an unruly game of tag was over.

The perks of parenting abroad did not end there.  For once I did not have to explain to my children why they can’t have the ice pops their friends were happily devouring on the beach, because my kids could finally have them too.  Red 40 and other additives were not present on the ice pop ingredient list. In fact, most of the additives the US allows in their foods are banned in Europe due to fact based research that proves they can be cancer causing.  In addition to the endless amount of frozen dessert goodness, my children were fully exposed to the Mediterranean diet. There was an abundant amount of fresh fruit and vegetables everywhere and at restaurants, children ordered from the same menu.  Needless to say, they did not have a single chicken nugget this summer, but they surely did have loads of french fries that were cooked in fresh EVOO.

My children were now becoming independent, making smarter choices, and eating healthier. Despite my persistent exhaustion due to the late bedtime routine nearly all Europeans, whether young or old enjoy, I was ecstatic to see so much change happen in such a short window of time. What I did not notice until one of my Greek cousin’s mentioned is that I was calmer.  At first I thought he was trying to be nice, but then I took a step back and self assessed and yes I was an all around calmer person. Anyone that knows me will hardly ever associate my name with calmness. But the impossible happened as I was straining less to instill my American overprotective parenting style which enforces structure 24/7 by maintaining control of my children, their schedules, their activities, and food choices.  I found that I too was mimicking behavior by being less of a helicopter parent and more like the laid back European mamas I was meeting, that frowned upon my telling them I feel guilty for taking “me time”.

Our days were spent at the beach, where I shockingly was able to lay on my sunchair while happily reading a novel and smiling at my children as they played confidently with other local children just a few feet away. I should mention that I had this novel since January and had not managed to put a dent in it, let alone finish reading a 400 page book in just a few weeks.  Additionally, I had plenty of energy to have fun with my children and create beautiful memories playing games on the beach or exploring a new island simply because I was rested and happier. I discovered that I did not have to send my kids away to sleepaway camp in order to enjoy the summer. Nor did my kids have to go away in order to become independent, learn new life skills, or make new friends.  Upon leaving Greece, my kids are now speaking more Greek than ever, are more cultured, better behaved, and all around more mature little people. The biggest surprise was the unforeseen and transformative psychological change I experienced as a parent.  

It is safe to say that I can write a book about the lessons learned while parenting abroad, and who knows, maybe one day when my children finally allow me time to sleep, I will. 

Until that day comes, I am sharing the top 3 parenting tips I learned while spending the summer abroad with my children.

1.  Stop Being A Helicopter Parent And Do Not Put Your Child On a Leash

  • It is pretty controversial, but some parents in the United States put their kids on a leash in order to keep them in near-constant supervision and to avoid having to run after them.  While this is wrong on many levels, let’s think about the psychological implications it will have on your child and their overall self-esteem. Children should be allowed to walk around to a certain extent without constant parental supervision.  Researchers say ‘independent mobility’ is associated with numerous health and environmental benefits. 

  • Kids in Europe are empowered to become independent at a young age and are encouraged to make decisions.  Allow your children the freedom to decide what fun activities they want to do and don’t be quick to sign them up for structured classes every day of the week.  Ultimately they will become exhausted and start to resent the excessive amount of busyness and so will you.

  • Become a Free-Range Parent! Let your kids run wild at the playground while you sit on a nearby bench enjoying a cappuccino and a good read.  If they fall, they will get up and sure, they may cry, but ultimately they will be fine.  

2. Serve Everyone The Same Dinner & Eliminate “Kids Meals”

  • Most children around the globe love chicken nuggets and fries, but this should not be apart of their daily meal options.

  • Allow children to participate in the family dinner choices, but certainly do not make a second dinner simply because they do not like what you are serving.  As I learned, when they are hungry, they will eat.

  • When out at a restaurant, share the regular menu with them.  You will be surprised at what they may order when given a choice other than the 4 standard “Kids Meal” options.

3. Be Present With Your Children AND Schedule “Me Time” Daily

  • Together with your children, schedule fun into each day’s flow of events while resisting the urge to overschedule.  Your child doesn’t need a Pinterest worthy activity or a trip to Legoland in order to be happy. All they need is a loving, fully present, and technology free connection with YOU.

  • As you schedule time for your children to have play dates and participate in sports, do the same for yourself.

  • If you are tired and unhappy, you will inadvertently be a patient-less, toxic, and unconnected parent.  Therefore, treat your yoga session and lunch with your girlfriends as the daily therapy you need as a parent, without the therapy bill.

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