I love living in Grand Junction. We have easy access to world-class outdoor recreation, better health care resources than most comparably sized communities, and the weather is tough to beat. But I love to get out of town, too, and offering our child a broader view of the world is something we do whenever possible.
A few years ago, we had the chance to fulfill a 20-year dream of spending an extended period abroad, when we lived in Guanajuato, Mexico, for six months.
My husband and I started our relationship sitting next to each other in college Spanish, but due to athletic and academic commitments, neither of us was able to study abroad. We always felt like we had missed out on something important, and we wanted to experience that missing piece of our education as a family.
Our daughter was in first grade when we packed up our house, turned the keys over to a renter and headed south. We figured she was old enough to absorb many of the benefits of our adventure, and young enough that she wouldn’t put up a fight. We were mostly right.
The thing that took us by surprise was that being in Mexico got harder for her the longer we were there.
Since that time, I’ve talked to a few other ex-pat parents who’ve had a similar experience. The beginning is easy – everything is new and interesting, and there’s a semi-blissful obliviousness at not really knowing what the heck is going on. We hadn’t settled into a real routine and life felt like a long holiday, as we explored our new city and the surrounding areas.
A few months in, though, our life started to feel a little bit normal, and our daughter started to figure out that we weren’t actually on vacation.
Kids pick up new languages incredibly fast. When you think about it, their native language is still pretty new to them. So it didn’t take long for her to start getting a basic grasp of Spanish, and to start picking up on what was going on around her. That was when things got more difficult.
She had plenty of playmates, as 6- and 7-year-olds find all sorts of things to enjoy together without a lot of complicated conversation. But she also began to understand some of those not-so-nice things little kids say about other kids who are different from them. Her teacher started expecting more of her, too, and unlike school at home, which had always been easy for her, school in Spanish was quite a challenge.
What it came down to was this: She had gotten to a point where she knew enough Spanish to understand almost everything that was going on around her but not enough to express herself well.
And she was tired. Language immersion is exhausting, which we adults in the family demonstrated by falling asleep by 8 most nights. One day, she came home and had this to say: “You know how you feel when you’ve been under water for a long time and then come up for air? That’s how I feel when I get home from school here.”
I’m sure that if we had been able to stay longer, she would have gotten over that hump and would have settled into a much more comfortable and easy existence. In the end, her frustration was one of the few negatives of our experience in Mexico. The positives were many, including our improved Spanish-speaking abilities, immersion in a rich and welcoming culture, new friendships, great adventures all over the country, and more family togetherness than we had had in a long time.
But really, the challenges were good for each us and I wouldn’t change them. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is, by definition, uncomfortable. Our daughter learned to be adaptable and was presented with daily opportunities to strengthen her persistence, confidence and resilience. As parents, we were reminded that letting our child struggle a little bit, and come out OK on the other end, offered her far more benefit than stepping in to make things easy.
Now, several years later, she speaks Spanish with less fluency but with an accent close to that of a native speaker, and Spanish class at school is a breeze. She talks fondly of our Mexican adventure and has plans to study abroad, maybe at the Universidad de Guanajuato, when she is in college.
She’s a great kid, and I have no doubt that six months in Mexico played a little role in that.
Sarah Johnson is a mother and coordinator of The Parenting Place. She is also a member of the Healthy Mesa County parenting action team. Read her every other Thursday on HealthyMesaCounty.org.