How to Keep Everyone Happy in a Real Digital Nomad Family
As a digital nomad mom of three (ages 3, 6, and 8), my kids have grown up all around the world. My eldest Sebastian was born in Switzerland, entered kindergarten in Belgium, and started school in Chile. Our family now divides our time between Uruguay and the UK and our digital nomad family life is liberating, educational, and never boring. We’ve hiked on dormant volcanoes in southern Chile, feasted on fondue in the Swiss Alps, and chatted up the penguins on the Uruguayan coast. Instead of owning property, I choose to chase the sunshine and work opportunities with my three little nomads at my side, but just because our life is like a dream, that doesn’t mean we don’t have bad days too—and real world problems to solve.
For anyone embarking on a year overseas with their kids, or considering a more permanent nomadic life, here are my tips on fostering a happy family life abroad.
Don’t Sacrifice Safety
As a parent, you need to research and make the call if a place is appropriate for kids or not. Before moving anywhere, I check family travel groups on Facebook, and ask around contacts. If I do go, I’ll speak to locals to get a better idea of the safety situation and scams to avoid. For example, in Quito, Ecuador it’s best not to hail taxis in the street, so I booked cars through our hotel. Meanwhile in Santiago de Chile, I relied on ride-sharing apps and packed a travel sized car seat boosters longer journeys, too.
Most importantly, educate your children so they understand the rules without feeling scared. My kids and I do role play now and again so they know what to do in an emergency or if they get lost. Here in South America, people will stop and clap to signal a child is missing from their parents. In this way, I was reunited with my three-year-old daughter who had strayed the wrong way on the beach. Thankfully my child knew the drill and approached a woman for help using Spanish.
Keep Everyone in the Loop
Traveling with kids requires patience. It’s important to listen to kids’ concerns, fears, and hopes. On one occasion my eldest child, Sebastian, burst into tears because he was worried about leaving the UK. We sat on the doorstep for nearly an hour together and I listened, mostly in silence. It’s not about convincing, just listening and showing you care. Listening also prevents misunderstandings. In the rush of the move, I had wrongly assumed that he knew we’d be back in the UK regularly, whereas he thought he’d never get to return. After our chat together, he felt really confident about the move.
Children’s fears may seem trivial, but they’re valid. My middle child, Rafa, has been worried because ‘horsey’ the teddy is stuck in a warehouse in Chile. Horsey is more than a stuffed toy, he’s an anchor in my child’s life. I’ve been commending Rafa on his patience and doing my best to alleviate his worries. Alongside the importance of listening, this taught me the importance of packing familiar comforts like pajamas, snacks, and toys—especially stuffed horses!
Rafa can feel unsettled by surprise change, so I’ve begun to explain our plans in detail. About a week before a flight, I’ll explain the itinerary in great depth, in a positive, child-appropriate way. We’ll count down the days until our journey and I’ll describe how long things will take in units of measurement they are very familiar with like the equivalent of one episode of Paw Patrol, a full movie, or a whole night. Before moving to a new place we’ll look up the country map, research the animals and cook some local recipes. I always buy my kids a small gift for their arrival in their new home, too. It’s an incentive for behaving well on the journey and helps them associate their new home with happy times.
Be Ready to Let Go of Plans
If someone isn’t up for an adventure, don’t push it. I learned the hard way that it can take longer to recuperate from the journey than you may first realize. A few days after landing in Chile, I took my kids for a walk to get ice cream from a famous parlor. In my head, it was a nice stroll for a treat, but in reality, we were all too tired and my kids complained all the way. I ended up losing it, screaming my lungs out in the middle of a street, and got told off by a passerby for bad parenting. We all returned home in tears. If you’re just too tired, so be it. Let teenagers find their own rhythm, too. It’s normal to want a visa sorted, bags unpacked, and to be able to get on with your work, but this isn’t always feasible. If possible, schedule time out from work to acclimatize. Slow and steady wins; forget the race.
Plan Your Healthcare
Life abroad with children invariably involves a trip to the hospital. I’ve taken my kids in for a concussion, split head, oversized tonsils blocking an airway, and worst of all, a near-fatal allergic attack. I always recommend living not too far from a decent hospital, or at least knowing where the closest one is. It’s not impossible to be a digital nomad family if you’re dealing with chronic illness, but it requires careful planning. While the disease may be routine in your country, you may need to educate people abroad. ‘Alergia’ in Spanish tends to mean hay fever or a rash, so when dining out I use the term ‘anaphylaxis’ and explain how a single pumpkin seed could cause a fatal incident.
You will also need to research insurance plans carefully. Check which clinics and treatments are included on the plan, and whom to call in an emergency. Watch out for any exclusions. For example, Safety Wing covers for COVID, while others do not. Whichever provider you choose, you’ll most likely need to stump up the cost of treatment, then seek a reimbursement from your insurer. I’d also recommend packing a long-term supply of medication (and the doctor’s prescription) in your hand luggage. My son’s emergency allergy medication is eye-wateringly expensive or impossible to come by in many parts of the world, so I bring it with me from the UK.
Seek Out the Education That Works Best for Your Child
My kids are mini-encyclopedias of world knowledge. Rafa, the middle child, can tell you about the symbolism behind the Chilean flag, the importance of mosquitoes to the ecosystem, and how to spot a tsunami. Not all classrooms have four walls, and just living in another country is an educational experience.
Nevertheless, every country has different educational standards, so be careful when choosing a school abroad. They may package themselves as bilingual, international, British, or American, but in my experience, this can be far from the truth. Take a good look around, ask open questions, look at the children’s work and speak to other parents at the school if you can.
Traveling so much has meant my children have missed a lot of schooling. Depending on how long you remain in any destination, you may prefer to home school. I supplement my children’s learning with a little reading, writing, and basic math. I also subscribe to Twinkl (an online platform with crafts, books, and games) and Reading Eggs (an interactive online reading program), and I buy books secondhand or through the Book Depository, which offers free international shipping.
When moving from place to place, it’s tempting to accumulate stuff. However, the cost of extra luggage is huge, both in terms of the finances and the mental load. I’m learning to make do, buy second hand, and then give away to others in need. Contrary to my expectations, my children have embraced the minimalist lifestyle. While they miss their bikes and scooters, they’ve shown themselves to be remarkably adaptable, upcycling rubbish into spaceships and bedsheets into secret dens.
There are some essentials that have served us well as a family, for example, lightweight rain jackets, joggers, crocs, snuggly onesies, coloring pencils, and a hand blender for healthy soups and smoothies. Most furniture, baby equipment, and kitchen utensils were bought or given from fellow digital nomads through Facebook groups or online markets. As I’ve hopped between countries over the last couple of years, my stuff has been in storage throughout. While I’m looking forward to getting my belongings back, it has been an education in what you really need to live abroad as a family: patience, an open mind, and love.