Sunday, May 18, 2008


Well here is a topic on which I think I can speak with some authority; or if not authority, at least experience. My father's career was in the international oil industry and as a consequence I grew up living in a number of different countries (six countries, four continents), some of the countries more than once. My father was famous for going ahead, renting a house, getting the basics set up to receive the family and my mother coming along afterwards with three children and dog in tow.

At one time we were transferred to Tripoli, Libya and my father had indeed gone ahead. We followed a couple of months later, my mother having packed up everything at our last place of residence (Venezuela I think it might have been), and shepherded us all through to Tulsa, Oklahoma to visit family en route to the new posting in Libya. And of course this was all in the days of prop planes with long slow flights leap-frogging from airport to airport. So we were all pretty exhausted when we arrived in Tripoli. It was probably not the most auspicious of circumstances for my father then to have to share a change of plans - "Don't unpack your bags, we've been transferred again." The mean time of moving had gotten longer than the mean time of the assignment. Very fortunately the next destination was England which was sufficiently more attractive than Libya to make up for the disruption.

And that is the name of the game with moving - disruption. Disruption to routines, to certainties, to expectations of what is normal and right. When you are moving from country to country and culture to culture this is especially true. But no matter how far or near the move is, it is still fundamentally a disruption and distressing.

This was brought home to me a number of years ago. When I was fifteen I was in boarding school in England. It was almost an Edwardian throw-back. It was a for-profit school, and there were probably not more than a couple of hundred students, all expatriate kids from all over the world thrown together in an old country manor home in the sweeps and emptiness of East Anglia under the care of two Scottish headmistresses (of a certain age), Miss McFadden and Miss Petrie. They had the particular knack, with their grave miens and clipped Scottish accents, of making every child standing before them suddenly realize they were guilty of something. You stood there in stunned silence, not knowing what you were guilty of but knowing full well it was something.

Being remote from anything, the nearest village was a hamlet of not more than a dozen homes. The kitchen staff, five or six women who prepared the meals, were all local farmer's wives. One of them had a daughter, let's call her Mary, about fifteen or sixteen, who occasionally helped out in the kitchen. The girls in the school became friends with her and she became part of this tight little community.

One day the girls found her in the kitchen, clearly distressed with eyes red and puffy from weeping. All concern and solicitation, they wanted to know what had happened, what was wrong, what could they do to help. The story slowly emerged. Mary had been born and raised in the nearby hamlet all her fifteen years. She had hardly ever been anywhere. Now, her father had taken a new job and they were about to move away from all that she knew and all that she had known, all that was familiar.

The girls of the school were all attentive tenderness and concern. Being expatriates they had all known this experience of moving and disruption, of leaving that with which you are familiar and going to that which you don't know. They could all honestly and genuinely empathize with Mary. And then at some point, someone asked, where is this new town you are moving to? To which Mary answered: the next town over. She was moving about three miles.

In recounting this later, one of my friends, who had been one of the group of girls comforting Mary, said that there was a sort of stunned silence. All these girls were accustomed to moving hundreds and thousands of miles, across continents, religions, languages, cultures. To them, a move of three miles was not a move at all. And then, surprisingly, they seem to have collectively and simultaneously realized, in that particular instant, that it was not distance that mattered - it was the simple fact of disruption that bound them all together.

There is an odd conundrum related to moving with young children. The younger they are, logistically the easier it is to move; you don't have all the complications of deep friendships being left behind, etc. On the other hand, children crave certainty. They want to know what the rules are, who is in charge, and how far they can bend the rules without suffering a negative consequence. They want some predictability in their environment and when you move, you disrupt that rhythm of certainty and predictability.

It shows up in the smallest matters. When we did eventually move to Libya a second time, I was probably in third or fourth grade. We had been living in England and I was coming through the English school system and we had, in that particular year been focusing on spelling. I was no swot but did quite well in school and especially well with spelling owing to the accident of a good memory. We moved to Libya and I and my younger sister were enrolled in the Oil Company School which used an American curriculum and used primarily American teachers.

I cannot relate the anger, frustration and sense of failure that first day. As it so happened we had a little spelling quiz right off the bat. It was a sort of circle competition with the teacher reading out a word and the first student spelling it. If they got it right they stayed standing. If they got it wrong they sat down. Then the next student and the next. Around and around we went with the circle of standing spellers shrinking with each go-around. I was enjoying this immensely. And then my turn came and I was offered a word I knew well. I don't now recall what it was; some simple word such as honor perhaps. But I spelled it the English way as I had learned just weeks or months earlier, honour. Aggghh! - the frustration and humiliation at having to sit down when I knew I had spelled it right. Ah well! Good training in being flexible.

I said above that moving when the children are young is easier. That was poorly expressed. It may be logistically easier when young but that by no means that it is easy. The twenty-four hour journey starting our first international assignment, from Atlanta to Sydney, Australia with Sally and the three kids, aged four, two and three months, remains vividly fresh in my mind.

We have always attempted to position a move with our kids as an adventure - there will be new things to discover, new friends to make, adventures to be had. And that seems to have worked reasonably well over the years. They like to travel and they value the different places they have lived, but they are also very much home-bodies.

And that is one of the benefits of a move, as a shared experience it can bring a family closer together. You are thrown onto your own collective resources in a new environment and can share with one another the triumphs and disasters of adjustment knowing that it is an experience shared. The new neighbor you accidentally slighted in the mall because their face did not register with you in passing one another until too late to acknowledge them, the school rule accidentally broken because you did not know it existed, etc.

Stories that tell a child directly or indirectly what will happen to them as part of a move can be very helpful in acknowledging that there are knowable changes as well as unknowns. A well chosen book can give them a framework in which to understand a move and to make that move their own and not just some cascade of unpredictable events.

For the very young there are some picture books that outline the events of a move and acknowledge the fact that it can be an upsetting change, but that there are good things that come with it as well. The emphasis on the positive is critical. In trying to acknowledge the negative some books tend to dwell over much on the downside. For our first big move we used Stan and Jan Berenstain Bear's series, one of which is The Berenstain Bears and Moving Day which I think strikes just the right balance of acknowledgement while staying positive.

For older children there are stories which are not so much written to prepare them for a move but are about a move happening to the protagonist. I have in mind here Patricia MacLaclan's eloquently moving What You Know First, a beautiful picture book story. Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books are also great stories of a peripatetic life. You read them for the story but it just so happens that there is an awful lot of moving and adjusting to a new life that goes on in them.

What are the stories you would recommend to prepare a child for a move?

Picture Books

The Berenstain Bears' Moving Day by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain Recommended

Oh the Places You'll Go
by Dr. Seuss Suggested

I Like Where I Am by Jessica Harper and illustratde by Brian G. Karas Suggested

What You Know First by Patricia MacLachlan and illustratd by Barry Moser Highly Recommended

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Highly Recommended

Alexander, Who's Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Robin Preiss-Glasser Suggested

Ira Says Goodbye by Bernard Waber Suggested

House on East Eighty-Eighth Street by Bernard Waber Highly Recommended

Independent Reader

Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer Suggested

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan Recommended

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery and illustrated by Sybil Tawse & M. A. Claus Highly Recommended

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit and illustrated by C. E. Brock Highly Recommended

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith Highly Recommended

Heidi by Johanna Spyri and illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith Highly Recommended

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

Young Adult

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck Recommended

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