The Kids are Alright — How Moving and Traveling Can Instill Confidence

I stepped off the plane in Honolulu, Hawaii, anxious and excited to eat dinner and get one of those beautiful leis. I hadn’t seen my three young cousins for four years. Liam, now 7, was taller, more handsome and eloquent in conversation. The twins, Cian and Brigh, both 5, went from only knowing how to laugh or cry to speaking full sentences, sharing opinions and wreaking havoc. It felt more like meeting them for the first time than reuniting with family members. I wondered who these kids were, what they liked to do, and most importantly, if they were going to like me.

My aunt, Lt. Colonel Lisa Richard, picked up my brother Brian and I and brought us to her home on Hickam Air Force base, where she, her husband Ian, their three “buppas,” and dog Duncan are currently stationed. I spent the next week getting to know my incredibly smart, well spoken, and confident young cousins.

Meeting and spending time with the Richard family led me to ask questions about my own life and future family. Aunt Lisa has been all around the world, and seems perfectly fulfilled, yet still adventurous. As an avid traveler and a young woman with big goals, I wondered: Could I someday have a career like my aunt, and so many others, that requires frequent relocation and raise stable, well-adjusted children? Her children seemed more than fine, but were they the exceptions? What is the real impact of a lifestyle of regular moves on kids, who have no choice in the matter?

The common impression is that kids suffer a psychological blow when they have to move a lot. I found the truth is quite the contrary. All across the country, modern families are proving that “home” doesn’t have to mean staying in one particular small suburban town in middle America. An abundance of careers take families all around the world. The pursuit of these careers, contrary to popular belief, can help, rather than hinder children. It can introduce them to the world at an early age, help build their confidence, and teach them skills that will help them throughout their lives.

Parents can do many things to ease the stress of a move on their children. Parents should reduce the element of surprise as much as possible. A first step can be to discuss the reasons for the move with children according to research published in Marriage and Family Review by Thomas Cornille, a Florida State University psychology professor.

Children also adjust better in the relocation process when they can have some kind of control. Let the child decide what to pack, and they will feel more comfortable about the decision as a whole. Another option to make for an easier transition is to take the family on a trip to the new area before the move, if possible. This trip will lessen children’s worries and help them develop a stronger link to the area. Kids will also benefit from participating in the unpacking process on moving day. Generally, keep children involved and engaged and they will have an overall better attitude about the relocation, according to Cornille.

Sometimes showing kids the new hometown before relocating isn’t possible. In military careers, for example, families can be sent from Alabama to Korea in a matter of weeks.

Major Amanda Evans enlisted in the Air Force straight from high school. While serving, she pursued a bachelor’s degree and master’s in business. She and her husband, Lt. Colonel Brian Evans, have three children: Trevor, 10, Parker, 8, and Katelyn, 7.

The Evans Family. Photo courtesy of Amanda Evans.

Since marrying her husband in 2004, Evans has lived in California, South Korea, North Carolina, Alabama, Hawaii, and Washington D.C. Evans says the relocation of her family gets more difficult emotionally for her kids as they get older, as they make closer relationships with their classmates.

“Parker had a hard time when we left Hawaii, but we had the opportunity to take him to D.C. before we moved there,” she said. “He got to take a picture in front of the Washington Monument, and it made it easier on him..I think all my kids are sad to leave their friends. But they know that they get cool opportunities that other kids won’t get, and they have friends all over the world now.”

The family attitude toward the move can shape how the children feel about it. If parents and family are excited at the prospect of a new place to live, the child often will be too, according to research by Cornille. The process of moving to a new home is a stressful event, made even more stressful by the transition to new schools and jobs.

Cornille finds that if this “pile up” of challenging life events becomes too significant, it can get difficult to work through. Children can become easily overwhelmed. Cornille found that social support from family and friends is vitally important for families as they transition to new members of a community.

Sociological studies generally find that there are some negative effects on children after relocation. In one study by Cornille of high school counselors, the children were perceived as having been ‘somewhat more disturbed just after the move,’ but the upset cleared rather quickly. The exact time for recovery has not been quantified, but these findings suggest children’s negative reactions to relocating generally fade quickly.

A survey of high school counselors done by Cornille suggests that new students take three weeks to assimilate and adjust in their peer relations. This time frame varies depending on the child. Some children are overly shy, unfriendly, or withdrawn, qualities that can add time onto a child’s adjustment period, according to Cornille.

Kathleen Cusack, 22, a student at SUNY New Paltz and lifelong military brat, moved 9 times as a kid, and said she and her brother developed a technique for adjusting to a new school: “The golden rule is you can’t be friends with the first person who comes to talk to you at lunch. You need to avoid them like the plague because they’re a weirdo.”

Cusack also decided that to manage all the transitions she would “have to be a chameleon, unless I wanted to be a loner.”

Kathleen Cusack, lifelong military brat and 2016 graduate of SUNY New Paltz. Photo by Katherine Carroll.

To fit into the many different cultures she lived in, she had to open herself up to new things: taking Karate lessons with her brother in every different city, participating in middle school antics with Spanish-speaking classmates in Miami, or getting on the competition cheerleading team in South Carolina.

The Cusacks only lived on their respective military base during two of 10 relocations, to places including Valparaiso, FL, North Carolina, Panama City, Rhode Island, California, Virginia, Miami, FL, South Carolina, Stuttgart, Germany, and Ohio.

Cusack’s father, Stephen, burdened by the financial stress of student loans from pharmacy school, decided to enlist in the Air Force. Despite all of the challenges of growing up with an ever-changing hometown, Cusack says she wouldn’t trade her childhood.

Cusack’s military ID card. Photo by Katherine Carroll.

“Some of my first memories are of when we lived in Panama, and we weren’t even allowed to do our own gardening because of the anacondas that lived in our bushes,” she said. “We lived in the middle of the jungle.”

It was there she learned Spanish, a language that would stick with her throughout her life and later help her fit in when her family was stationed in Miami, FL.

Cusack’s parents kept her and her brothers in the loop by letting them know where the family would be going next. Each place presented new “accepted adventures,” she said.

Although a move can seem daunting to a child, a strong family base can help them get through it, said child psychologist Michael Reisner, who has 8 years experience counseling in New Paltz, NY. “If kids are internally resilient, and they have good connections and feel secure, they can get through a lot,” Reisner said.

In terms of making friendly connections outside of the family, Reiner says that there are both pros and cons to a frequent relocations.

“A child might wonder, why would I connect outward if everyone else changes? But also it can make them think, ‘I might as well make a connection,’ because I’m here now and this is who is around me,” Reisner said. “The combination of a child’s personality and how the family works is the real determining factor.”

My aunt, a Lieutenant Colonel in the JAG division of the U.S. Air Force, has moved her family four times over the past 12 years. Richard has been stationed in a variety of places, including South Dakota, Kansas, England, Alabama, and Hawaii. After her recent promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, Richard was presented another possible relocation, this time, to the Air Force academy in Colorado Springs, CO. If she gets the assignment next year, the family will live there for a minimum of eight years.

Lisa Richard with General Lori Robinson, Commander of Pacific Air Forces. Photo courtesy of Lisa Richard.

“If we don’t go to Colorado, I hope we go abroad to England or Germany,” she said.

She said by now her children see making new friendships as “no big deal.” She attributes some of the ease of her choices between family and career to the confidence of her three children.

When trying to find a place for my cousin, who’s in second grade, during his spring break, she sorted through her choices: take vacation days, which wasn’t an option because she had an important meeting; bring him to work, which wouldn’t look good to her colleagues; or enroll him in a weeklong camp, yet another situation in which he’d be coping with a brand new environment and kids. “I asked him if even though he didn’t know anyone, would he want to go? He said ‘yeah, sure Mommy,’” she said.

The Richard clan. Photo courtesy of Lisa Richard.

Liam has known nothing but making new friends. He claims he has no fears when it comes to going somewhere he doesn’t know anybody. Liam says he is happy when his family moves to a new place.

SPOUSAL RELATIONSHIPS

Another challenge to families that move a lot is the impact on spouses.

My uncle Ian, doesn’t seem to be suffering. He says that his family’s transient lifestyle is “perfect for him.” He’s had a wide variety of jobs and experiences. He was a cartographer in Denver and a special programs liaison for schools in South Dakota. He did job training for other military spouses in England, sold books online, and got a graduate degree in Alabama. In Hawaii, he’s writing a book on subterranean themes in science fiction and fantasy.

Frequent moves have been integral to my aunt and uncle’s marriage. But they’re not typical. According to research by Abraham, Auspurg, and Hinz in the Journal of Marriage and Family, (hyperlinks) the probability of moving drops significantly when people form a couple. Often, women are not the partner to receive a job offer with a higher salary than their male spouse. However, this statistic is changing as more and more women participate in the labor market, according to this research.

New job opportunities for one partner may correspond with decreasing opportunity for the other. A couple has to decide whether the incentive to move for the partner with the job offer makes up for the potential of a worse employment situation for the other partner. Abrahams and colleagues write that partners must bargain over the decision for or against migration, as well as the arrangements that may follow after the household move.

Reluctance to relocate due to family considerations, by sex, spouse’s earnings, and gender-role beliefs. Credit- American Journal of Sociology

For the Evans family, this has not been an issue, as both Brian and Amanda serve in the air force and relocate together. The Richard and Cusack families have different experiences in terms of spousal employment.

According to bargaining theory, the partner with the job offer typically has more power in the negotiations. He or she can threaten to leave the relationship if the other partner does not agree to migrate.

Researchers coined the term “tied mover” for the other partner. This tied mover experiences a loss of power in the relationship, which can affect the dynamic of the relationship as a whole.

My uncle Ian would be considered the “tied mover,” but he told me he’s not frustrated by the situation. “I had wanderlust before I met Lisa, and I have lots of different interests,” he said. For him, the opportunities presented to the family because of the military give them more reasons to stay in rather than leave.

“It’s much more difficult for a civilian to just move abroad, you have to get a visa and all of that,” he said. “Stability is not as important to me as life opportunities are.”

Being a male spouse in the military, Ian is among the minority. According to military data, men make up between 6 and 8 percent of the population of military spouses. “A military wife is just that, but I have my own identity. I still do my own thing.”

The Cusack family has had similar, yet also vastly different experiences in military career. Cusack’s mother, Kathy, a nurse, did not work after she was born until they moved to Germany in 2010. This was mostly because her husband, Stephen, was deployed more frequently (as often as every 8 months) as medical relief to disaster areas in South America.

With an increase in women in the labor market and on ambitious career paths, more women are gaining the bargaining power in moving decisions.

Bargaining theory in relationships is influenced by gender norms, which assign the core responsibility of a household to the male partner, with the husband’s employment options traditionally more likely to take priority over the wife’s.

Being a career woman has not been a decision without guilt for my aunt. “It’s definitely a constant struggle with guilt. I always feel like I’m sacrificing something for another,” she said. Once offered a promotion while stationed in England, she had to turn it down when she found out she was pregnant with her first child.

There is no question that moving entails sacrifice, particularly for children, who have little say in the matter. As Cusack put it, sometimes moving “sucked.” It was hard to leave friends behind or start anew. But she says it made her a better person with more far-reaching ambitions.

“I think it helps me a lot with what I’m doing now, because I have a very different point of view on people,” she said. “I’ve seen and experienced them all, and it makes me not as quick to put people in boxes.”

Even with all the disconnected friendships and packing and unpacking, Cusack says she wouldn’t change anything about her childhood. It’s something she’s been thinking about a lot, as her father plans to retire in the next few months.

“I’ve had crazy, amazing experiences,” she said. “If my parents had consulted me, and asked ‘If we raised you this way, would you like it or not?’ I wouldn’t trade it. Hell no.”