5 Years Later: 5 Lessons We Learned from Sending Our Kids to School in South Africa

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It’s the question all expat parents ask themselves: “Are we making the right decision with this school?”

When you move overseas, there are many things to worry about: Can we afford it, should we buy or rent, what’s the best health insurance. And when the country you’re moving to is South Africa, you might add the high crime rate to your list of worries.

But in my experience, the biggest fear for most South Africa-bound expats with children is whether they’re making a mistake with their choice of school. Everything else seems to pale in comparison. Of all the questions I get asked, school choice is always the most pressing one, the one that seems to cause the most sleepless nights.

Your kids will be fine

This is a day and age where some of us feel that our children’s entire future hinges on where exactly they first learned how to stack blocks onto one another. I am no exception. I’m not sure exactly how it started, but I know that my parents were much less worried about such things, and I like to think that I turned out just fine.

If you’re reading this because you can’t make up your mind whether to enroll your 6-year old in the bilingual Lycee Francais in Johannesburg or the American School with its International Baccalaureate program (read here about a family that weighed both options), and if you’re terrified that either decision might be an irrevocable mistake, please take a deep breath. Your child is going to be just fine. You love them, you take good care of them, and the rest will sort itself out.

How do I know this?

I admit my evidence is solely anecdotal. But the anecdotes I’ve witnessed over the years all point to this: Many kids going to average schools collecting average grades turn out completely fine, and some get into trouble. And many other kids go to elite schools and collect superb grades and turn out completely fine as well, but some of those get into trouble too. If anything, the ones facing more pressure from their parents about grades and staying on the right track so that God forbid don’t veer off the predetermined stepladder to greatness tend to end up with more personal issues than the ones mostly left alone.

Again, I don’t have any empirical evidence to back this up. But my gut tells me that the anxiety and depression so prevalent in today’s young adults stems from the anxiety and fear that’s rubbed off from our parenting style demanding perfection from an early age. Guilty as charged.

What does this have to do with Africa? Here are my five takeaways from three years in the South African school system:

1. Kids deserve to play

I mentioned that great stepladder to success. Or you could call it a treadmill. We think our kids must constantly improve, learn something, apply themselves, or they somehow fall off the wagon and can never get back on.

There is plenty of evidence that children tend to learn best when they’re playing. But even without this evidence, you should let them play rather more than less, simply because they’re kids. Their childhood will be over soon enough.

Our school in South Africa seemed to get this better than anything I’ve seen in the United States. Kids get to play much longer in their Junior Prep years before having to learn how to read and write. They have shorter school days with less homework, giving them more time to play after school. They get more breaks between classes, and during those breaks they’re mostly left alone so they can play whatever games they come up with – including the ones where stray soccer balls hit errant heads, where bones are broken during falls off the monkey bars, or where a student might hammer a nail through her thumb while building a soap box car.

2. Kids thrive on balance

You often hear the story about the star baseball pitcher who was a prodigy as a high school freshman and by junior year was done, either because he had to have elbow surgery or because he was burned out. When it comes to after-school activities, I find the American system imbalanced: Your daughter plays the flute and lacrosse, and she would like to be both in the band and on the lacrosse team. But the teachers are constantly at each other’s throats fighting over whose practice and games and performances she should go to, making her life miserable in the process and ultimately forcing her to choose. Why?

I suggest they look at South African schools as a role model of how to share the talent all around. In South Africa, our kids swam, ran races, played soccer, field hockey, netball, rugby, and softball, practiced public speaking, debated in debates, and played instruments in the orchestra and sang in the choir. They also left to go on week-long retreats at least once a year. It all fit together perfectly, one sport or activity after another according to season. And during our weekly assemblies, the school came together to celebrate everyone’s accomplishment in each field, without envy or self-interest. The rugby coach would stand on the stage together with the orchestra director and both would display their incredible talent at singing. No one put down another. It was an amazing display of collaboration in pursuit of one common goal: Making good people out of these students, and having a lot of fun while doing it.

3. Kids can turn it on when it’s needed

To this day, I can hear my French teacher telling me that one day I’d land in the gutter, whatever that meant. This was because I was a natural at French, and I was bored. So I did what all teenagers do so well: I dragged my feet at everything and I had an attitude. I got by with the bare minimum because I knew I could turn it up when it was needed, and high school simply didn’t pass the bar.

Fast-forward 30 years with my son playing League of Legends in his room non-stop for 5 hours day after day, without so much as opening his homework.  I can’t keep from nagging him because I fear that if he doesn’t learn how to work in high school, he won’t turn the corner in college where it matters. But evidence suggests otherwise. So far he’s doing just fine in his freshman year of mechanical engineering, just like I haven’t – so far – ended up in the gutter.

When we returned from South Africa, there were about three months when our kids had to turn it up a notch: They had missed a bunch of U.S. history, and math class was at least a year ahead of South African levels. They realized they had to scramble a bit to catch up, and as soon as they were caught up, it was back to YouTube and Netflix. It seems they can work hard when it’s needed. No need to prep them for hard work their whole lives.

4. There is more to life than academics

This doesn’t mean that you should let your kids turn into lazy slobs when they aren’t challenged. In honesty, it’s a fear that is not entirely misplaced when moving to South Africa or any other country where most people have live-in domestic help.

But it turns out that again it was the South African school that did a fine job at teaching our kids good manners and work ethics. The kids were taught to respect their elders, they routinely carried stuff for their teachers, opened doors, took off their hats in greeting, engaged in charitable activities to help the less fortunate. I remember the indignity I felt when we had just returned to the U.S. and I walked into the middle school. The door slammed in my face when the kid in front of me just let go of it – something that had simply never happened in South Africa.

5. Kids are resilient

As parents, we give ourselves way too much credit. We also blame ourselves too much. We seem to think that whatever people our kids turn into, it is either our achievement or our fault. Because we are control freaks, we pat ourselves on the back when things go as we plan it, and we get eaten up by guilt when they don’t. If our kids run into trouble, surely we must have missed a crucial parenting step.

South Africa taught me that all the privilege in the world doesn’t guarantee that my kids will end up happy. And that some people always have a smile on their faces, no matter what hardships they’re dealt day to day.

Don’t let unimportant factors sway your school choice

You have a world of incredible options when it comes to choosing a school for your child in South Africa. I almost wish that we could have sampled more of them. Just know that you can’t really go wrong with any of them. If it fits into your budget (AISJ is notorious for being much more expensive than most other options) and within a reasonable commute from your home (traffic in Johannesburg is a b*tch!), it’s a good choice for your children.

“But we HAVE to have a school on the American calendar for a smooth repatriation,” you will say.

Why, I ask? Why limit yourself to just 3 schools out of 100 because of a mere half a year in your child’s life?

I urge you to think bigger than that. Our kids walked to school every day for three years, and (partly because of that) those were the best three years of my life.  I like to think that I was a much better mother because I didn’t have a frenzied 2-hour commute every day. We did “lose” a year during the transition back, but not because the new school made us. We simply chose to prolong our kids’ school career for more or less selfish reasons.

Good luck for you and your family in South Africa. To learn more about choosing a school for your child, tune in to our next “Moving to South Africa” webinar with the topic of schools on Tuesday, April 10th at 7:30 pm. Attendance is free, or you can purchase a transcript later. (Pls disregard the date on the image, the correct date is April 10th.)

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