Our family was preparing to leave our expat posting after six years of life there. Our four children ranged in age from seven to thirteen. When the weeks of the ‘last times’ came, I began to be embarrassed by my 13-year-old son’s behavior. A friend, teacher or other significant adult friend would come up and say to him, “Goodbye, good luck, and it’s been really nice having you as a friend.” He would look the other direction, act very uncomfortable, and then walk away. I was angry at him for being, what I considered, rude.
Upon further reflection, I realized that he had never been in a position before where he had had to say goodbye as an older child. He actually did not know the words to say goodbye. I had thought through what I wanted to say in farewell to people I knew in various roles: close friends, acquaintances, my children’s teachers, co-workers, co-members of groups and associations, household staff. But I had never helped my children think through those words of farewell.
As parents, we teach our children all the polite words of our culture. “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me”, “Hello, how are you?”, “I’m fine.”, etc., are all words and phrases that we remind our children of practically in our sleep with the purpose of enabling them to function in polite society. But I had not taught my children what to say when you are leaving someone who has been your best friend, and the likelihood is that you will never see that person again. I had not given them those tools. So, along with being sad and probably angry that he had to leave his home, my son was in an unknown place when it came to voicing the words that make up ‘saying goodbye’ in various situations.
In addition, I believe that saying these words provides a psychological ‘ending’ to verbalize passing through the ritual of farewell. It is acknowledging out loud the close of a chapter in our lives; reinforcing in another way that this is really happening, and helping us move through the experience in a more positive way. When they don’t have these tools, our children will have feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness on top of the other difficult feelings that leaving prompts.
How can we work with our children to teach them these words? What can we do to help them think through to whom they need to say goodbye, and what is appropriate to say in each instance? This may change a bit from culture to culture, and also depend on the situation they are leaving behind. But I do not doubt that a little thought and preparation in this area will go a long way in assisting your child through this time in their lives.
Here is an article you might find helpful, from the weblog of The Forum for Expatriate Management.
Contributed by Norman Viss, an expatriate coach who has many years of broad international experience working with people from a wide variety of cultures, including a 10 year span of living in Nigeria, West Africa, and 22 years in the Netherlands. Currently he lives in the Philadelphia, USA and blogs at the Everyday Expat Support Center