Let Them Climb Trees

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Tree Climber

Here is a peek into our work on our book project, The Invisible Power: Expat Life Through the Eyes of Supporting Partners. Thanks to all we have interviewed – it is such a rich and powerful experience to talk with you all.


Let Them Climb Trees

As part of our research for the supporting voices book project, we are interviewing expats all over Switzerland to hear their stories. We ask about how they felt before embarking on the journey and how they feel now. We wonder what surprised them, what was hard and what was joyful? It is a fabulous process, not only for us, but seemingly for those being interviewed as well. Sometimes there are left over feelings that need to be expressed. We can all learn so much from each other, and are extremely thankful to those who have been willing participants in this process!

This morning I am working on a transcription of a wonderful woman (I’ll call her Jo Ann) who moved to central Switzerland with her husband many years ago. There weren’t many support systems set up for expats then; ok, there weren’t any! But they were a young couple, eager for the adventure. They agreed to take it a year at a time, to play it by ear and see how it went. Now, 28 years later they are still here, and still happy with life in Switzerland. However, it wasn’t always happy nor easy, as anyone who has made a move abroad understands.

“We would joke about how I thought I was going to be here for one year, three at the most. And now 28 years later…but that doesn’t mean that every single year I wanted to be here. I’ve gone through phases where I definitely did not want to be here. What I’ve learned is that you constantly have to make the choice over and over again. Sort of like being married.”

When I asked Jo Ann about what struck her as different from home, (she is from the United States) she began to speak to me about how kids are treated differently in Switzerland. She is a teacher so I was eager to hear her thoughts.

“I had been teaching in an international school, where whistles were blown, everybody got in line, no one moved until there was quiet, and the focus was on nobody getting hurt, ever. Then I put my kids in local school and wow, what a difference!

I walked them to their neighborhood school one morning and saw the great big iron gates surrounding the playground. On top of the gates were big spikes, kind of sharp looking, and the playground itself consisted of only asphalt. No equipment, just blacktop. Just outside of the playground there was construction going on, and there was a large hole that was part of the construction.

As the kids arrived they would open the gate, and each time they did so, a few kids would leave the playground and move into the construction site. There was a policeman there at the construction site, but no teachers to be found anywhere. I thought, “Oh my god, there’s a hole right there! And the kids are climbing the gate with those sharp spikes! Where’s the teacher???”

The policeman just stood there, watched them and let them look down into the hole, and I was flabbergasted. I just stopped and watched. After a few minutes he told the children it was time to go back in. The bell rang, they came down from the gate, came in from the construction site, and ran into class. This all happened without supervision.

This was my introduction into holding back a bit as a teacher and a parent. As an educator, I was trained to intervene quickly. I ended up teaching for 10 years in a Swiss school and I loosened up a bit. I saw that the Swiss kids were much more in control than the ones we were working so hard to control. It was a whole new insight into how to deal with children, even young ones.

For me as an educator and as parent, I learned to step way back, and not be so quick to intervene. I think it was a major lesson that I learned. But I’ll never forget watching those kids scramble up on those pikes and scramble out to the hole. I was aghast! Aghast! But I’ve been converted to their way.

It is really symbolic for me – the way the Swiss let kids experience life. And if you break an arm, you break an arm. You don’t want anyone to get hurt, but you want them to be able to climb trees. If you don’t let them climb trees, what is it you are robbing your kids of in their lives?”

What is it indeed? Perhaps the ability to gain physical and emotional confidence in themselves? Maybe the chance to learn about what they are and are not capable of? What about practice at evaluating risk?

And what about the sheer joy of climbing a tree and seeing the world from a different perspective?

It isn’t easy to let go of our kids ever, and especially not when we are in a foreign country, out of our element and perhaps unable to communicate as clearly as we’d like. And yet, as this wise expat learned, it is important. It is an example of where another culture does things differently. No right or wrong, just different. And we who are lucky enough to be exposed to that can then make a choice whether or not to incorporate any of the different way into our lives. Like the child who climbs the tree, we too gain new perspective, a broader vista, and more choices.

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