World view replaces comforts of home for kids growing up abroad

September 05, 1995|By Felicity Barringer | Felicity Barringer,New York Times News Service

In a courtroom in Frederick, a divorced couple and a handful of lawyers wrestled last year with a central issue of being a parent: how to create a world where a child can grow healthy and confident, curious and challenged, safe and happy.

The mother, a diplomat named Elizabeth Rood, wanted to take her children, then ages 11, 9 and 6, to the American Embassy in Moscow, where she was slated for a three-year tour.

The father, Mark Kimbrell, argued against allowing them to go. He said that among the more generic considerations like the effect of uprooting children, Moscow would pose peculiar hazards: Their health would be at risk from the city's poor air quality and long winters.

This, of course, was only one theme in the symphony of issues that usually pervade child custody cases. But it was not trivial. The children's own court-appointed attorney and the judge agreed: Moscow was an unfit place for children to live on a regular basis.

The children now live with their father in southern Pennsylvania during the school year and spend summes in Moscow with their mother.

The case raised issues that have troubled many doctors, lawyers, businessmen and journalists offered the option of overseas work: What do American children gain -- and lose -- by spending part of childhood abroad? Would they miss some essence of America? Julie Hunt Blair, Mr. Kimbrell's lawyer, argued that they would.

"In Russia," she told the court, "there would be no 'Baby Sitters' Club,' no Barney, no 'Jurassic Park,' no Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, no fireworks on the Mall on the Fourth of July."

A lot of families who spent time overseas might find that myopic. My own sons, who spent three years in Moscow and were 4 and 8 years old when we left, returned to the United States just before Christmas in 1988 blissfully unaware that four turtles had become cultural icons. Nintendo games were a mystery, until about a week after we returned.

Although they lived in what foreigners in Moscow called "the bubble" -- separated from Russian life by segregated apartment complexes and the Soviets' initial unwillingness to allow them in Russian schools -- they emerged with a perspective that few American schoolmates share.

"It's very parochial to think that having a child grow up in the United States is better," said Sidnee Tyson, a staff member of the Foreign Service Liaison office, a section of the State Department that assists foreign-service families with difficult transitions, and a trustee of the Foreign Service Youth Foundation. "But there are pluses and minuses."

Ms. Tyson said that a 1992 government-sponsored study on the effect of an overseas childhood found "for some kids it can be costly, for others it can be very stimulating."

Other researchers, like David Pollack, who was a missionary in Kenya and is now the director of Intercultural Programs at Houghton College in upstate New York, have found that such children grow up feeling both part of American culture and apart from it.

"They are like fish taken out of the water and returned to it," said Ms. Tyson, who has raised children in Moscow and Sydney. "They can see the water," she said, while others simply swim in it. There are many trade-offs in taking children to live in an unfamiliar country. There are questions of health, education and, most difficult, the question of a child's developing identity.

"Health is a big issue," said Louise Campbell, a banker with the Polish Development Bank in Warsaw. "I don't know if I'd go if I had a child who is prone to illness."

Ms. Campbell and her husband, Allan Hirst, who works in Warsaw for Citibank, have an 11-year-old daughter, Katharine. She was born in Venezuela and lived in Dubai, Frankfurt and London before moving to Warsaw.

There, for the first time, they had to confront the question of pollution, a problem endemic to Eastern Europe, the former Soviet states, and places such as Athens and Mexico City. "Warsaw is unquestionably polluted," Ms. Campbell said. Nervous about the lead content of city water, they found a home outside Warsaw that had its own well.

Another worry is the quality of overseas schooling and its compatibility with American schooling -- an issue that changes as children get older.

Many families who are willing to go overseas with toddlers or elementary school children become reluctant when their children are in junior high or high school, when stresses of adolescence and college preparation are already great.

Moving from country to country can be deeply unsettling. After a little time in Warsaw, Katharine Hirst told her mother, "I don't want to make any more friends, because they'll leave me."

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