Lucille Abendanon

Where's the best place to bring up your kids?

Global access to healthcare

PUBLISHED: 15 June 2020 | LAST UPDATED: 13 August 2020

Lucille Abendanon

Written by Lucille Abendanon

Lucille is a freelance writer, 15 year expat and mother of three children.

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In this article, we explore what makes a place good to bring up children and discuss the articles and studies that have made claims about the best (or worst) places.

When you make the decision to move abroad, be it with the backing of your employer or under your own steam, your first thoughts may be: where is the best place to raise a family? What is it like to live there? How will my family life be enhanced? How will my children benefit? So you hop onto Google to try and get a sense of how life would be in a new country.

One of the things you’ll come across in your online exploration is surveys that rank countries according to feedback gathered from thousands of respondents already living abroad. You want to find the best expat location that fulfils your requirements, that has the mysterious x-factor, and so your first instinct will be to look at which country is ranked number one. Perhaps you’ll look at the top three. But these rankings should not be used as a blanket judgement.

Personal preferences and requirements should always be your first consideration, regardless of what the list says. For example, Thailand and South Africa tend to rank quite low, yet as someone who has lived in both, Lucille thinks it’s perfectly possible for your children to have a fantastic upbringing in either of them. It just depends what you need as a family. There’s no one size fits all list, and so whilst these rankings do serve a purpose, don’t give them too much weight when making your decision.

In this article we look at the following surveys, and then speak to expats about whether their experiences match the survey rankings. 

  • HSBC’s Expat Explorer Survey is one of the most well-known and creates a league table of 33 countries, considering three aspects of life abroad: Living (which takes into account wellbeing and society); Aspiring (looking at finances and ambition) and Little Expats (which includes making friends, learning and schooling). 

  • Mercer’s annual Quality of Living Index ranks 450 cities rather than countries and considers a number of factors including general cost of living, transport, political stability, climate, education and healthcare. 

  • Internations.org produce many lists and surveys including the Expat Insider, which covers 68 countries via more than 18,000 expat respondents on moving, living, and working abroad. 

  • The Internations.org Family Life Index ranks 50 countries according to childcare and education options in general, their availability, their costs, the quality of education, and overall family well-being.

Raising kids abroad: what’s important to you and your family? 

Surveys such as these can be a great source of information, but they do need to be interpreted carefully and with your own personal situation in mind. Surveys based on quantitative data such as Mercer’s Quality of Living Index don’t put as much emphasis on personal experiences as the Internations surveys, for example. However, personal experiences are wholly subjective and differ considerably. It’s therefore a good idea to think carefully about your needs and aspired outcomes when interpreting any form of ranking system.

Do you rank education or healthcare highly? Are you looking for a better work-life balance? How old are your children? (Some countries are better suited to younger kids). Do you prioritise clean air and outdoor space over convenient city living? Is safety and freedom something you won’t compromise on?

And importantly, what are the circumstances of your expatriation? Is your company supporting you or are you an independent entrepreneur looking for favourable business opportunities? Will your move be short-term or permanent? Do you see your family moving in mostly expat circles, or are you looking for full integration with the local culture?

All of these factors will influence how you interpret the surveys mentioned above. 

“And the winner is...”

The countries that follow frequently top expat surveys – though not necessarily across every factor or index. Looking beyond these latest survey results (2018/2019), we’ve caught up with a team of expert, expat parents who’ve added their insights on the ups and down of life abroad.

Singapore 
Singapore is positioned at number one for raising a family abroad in in HSBC’s 2019 Expat Explorer survey.  The Asian powerhouse is ranked 2nd overall out of 33 countries (beaten only by Switzerland) and scored consistently high in all three categories: sixth for living, seventh for aspiring, and first for little expats. Respondents cite excellent schooling, better overall quality of life and political stability as positives. Dana Bachar, founder of mediation firm Medi8 and the author of Fight or Flight: The Survival Guide for Flying with Kids, lives in Singapore with her husband and four boys. Originally from Israel, Dana has called Singapore home for the past ten years. She has many great insights into what makes the island nation top the league table for raising little expats. “Singapore is a very safe place,” she says. “Older children can use public transport, the bus, taxis, the metro. The streets are safe and that brings huge peace of mind.” The tropical weather is also hugely appealing. Dana says, “They can crawl easily, they can wear their diaper and walk everywhere. They are hardly sick because it’s always hot. They can be outdoors all the time. It’s fantastic.”

Dana praises the international school system in Singapore. “For expats there are so many options of beautiful, high quality, international schools, so there is the opportunity to give our kids a high class education with amazing facilities, many languages, and international sports events.” Expats are also attracted to Singapore’s cultural identity. “Your kids go to school with 80 different nationalities,” agrees Dana. “You live in a condo block with people from all over the world. You get to be exposed to the culture, the cuisines, the languages. This is very highly valued as parents look to raise global citizens.” Dana goes on to list, access to wonderful travel destinations in the region; high salaries; help in the home and diverse activities for kids of all ages as major draw cards. “Everything just comes together to make raising kids in Singapore easy, enjoyable and safe.” 

“Singapore is a city, an island and a state. It’s the greenest place I’ve seen in my life,” says Dana. “Its an urban jungle. There’s an ocean all around, you get the fresh air and you enjoy being on an island with the best facilities in the world. They have the best healthcare system. They manage the country as a company.”  

Switzerland 
Switzerland ranks 4th for Little Expats, but comes in 1st overall in the HSBC Expat Explorer Survey, and 2nd in Mercer’s Quality of Living Rankings. Claire Hauxwell, the voice behind expat blog My Theory On Blooming recently moved to Switzerland from South Africa. Originally from the US, Clare and her family have also lived in Mexico. 

Claire says, “Switzerland has an abundance of good things to offer families. In my opinion, the number one benefit of living here has been safety. Our previous expat postings (Mexico and South Africa) did not allow for much freedom outside of our home or gated community. It took my children and I some time to get used to our newfound freedom, but now my kids roam the forests and visit the city on their own.” Claire says the transportation system is a major benefit. “My 10 and 13 year olds have really been enjoying their independence and have become responsible bus, train and tram users. It’s extremely convenient, easy to manage and reasonably priced. Children under 12 ride for free with a parent, and the app is very user friendly.” 

Enjoying an outdoor lifestyle has always been important to Claire and her family. “Switzerland offers a wide array of outdoor activities for the entire family. We’ve really enjoyed getting 'above the clouds' to enjoy the sunshine, soaking up some Vitamin D and taking in the picturesque mountain views. No matter your level of fitness, there’s something available for everyone. On a beautiful sunny day (or even a dreary rainy one) you’ll see loads of people outside — walking with their families, biking and running.” 

Claire says she values the clean air and streets and notes the enviable recycling program, which teaches children to think about the Earth. “And of course, it’s central location in Europe offers great opportunity to visit loads of destinations with ease.” 

“Swiss life is quiet. It’s slower and somewhat simpler. As international as Switzerland is, we have not had much issue with language barriers. In Zug, a large percentage of the local population speaks English. This has allowed us to be more open to interacting with locals since our German language skills are not strong yet. Overall it’s been a good transition for my family. The kids have adjusted well, and we’re enjoying life in a beautiful country.”

Australia 
Australia ranks consistently well and is a popular destination for expats and immigrants with families. The HSBC survey ranks Australia sixth overall out of 33 countries. Good weather, the standard of education and safety are what drew Lauren Watson to make the move with her husband and two children from Durban, South Africa to Sydney. “The main advantage for us is that we have excellent infrastructure and transport, a great free public schooling system, free medical care for all permanent residents and citizens, and a strong feeling of safety” says Lauren.

She also says, “freedom is our favourite thing about Australia compared to South Africa. Playing in the street or running next door to a friend’s house is something we never really did in South Africa, but having it here makes me realise that this is an important part of growing up and feeling independent.” In terms of challenges, Lauren notes that she found it “difficult to make connections with people that you have no history with, although having younger children definitely helped in making school connections.” Lauren also mentions the extremely high cost of living in Sydney, specifically housing and food.

Was moving so far away from family worth it? Lauren replies with an emphatic yes: “no matter how many hard times we face, or financial challenges we have making this move, nothing will ever compare to the feeling of knowing that we’re giving our kids the best start they can possibly have with every opportunity at their fingertips.”

Germany 
Germany is an interesting case. It ranks highly on all surveys considered here: fifth for working life aspirations (HSBC), seventh overall for raising a family (HSBC), with Munich ranking joint third place (with Auckland and Vancouver) in the world for quality of life (Mercer). Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that Germany is one of the most difficult countries to adapt to as a foreigner.

Difficulties in learning the language rank highly. “Making friends if you don’t speak German is tricky” says Eylem Canatadurucu who made the move from Texas to Germany with her husband and twin daughters. “When I first moved here I used to greet people on the street but they would mostly avoid eye contact or look at me as if I was from another planet!”

Rebecca Hilton, the voice behind the expat blog Making Here Home, moved to Germany with her husband and daughters, and has the same concerns regarding speaking German. “We live in a very international city where English is widely spoken. In other places I think you could feel isolated if you don't speak the language.” Language difficulties aside, Rebecca feels Germany is a great place to bring up a family with “lots of fresh air, green spaces and lots of activities geared towards children.” She also values the amount of freedom children are given at a young age, “It's normal for children to walk to school by themselves from the age of seven.” However, she does say “The stereotype of Germans being rule-abiding is true to an extent; and when you don't know what the rules are, you can feel like you're constantly being told off!”

Low ranking, great life

Countries that rank low on these annual surveys should not be discounted, however. It’s perfectly possible to have a great family life and experience in Uganda for example: given the right circumstances these countries can actually be wonderful for children.

Erika Roberston, mother of three, serial expat and EAL teacher at an international school in The Netherlands, has lived in three of the fifteen lowest ranking countries on the Family Life Index (Indonesia, Oman and Qatar), and passionately disagrees with their low ranking.

Indonesia 
Erika moved to Jakarta, Indonesia with her husband and two-year-old daughter, and had her second child whilst living there. Despite the fact that Indonesia is ranked in the bottom five in the Internations Family Life Index, Erika says life with kids in Jakarta was wonderful with a busy social life, many kids’ activities and green neighbourhoods. “We had several amazing playgrounds close to home, with pools and small waterslides” she remembers, “They were the centres of the neighbourhood where you could gather.” Child friendly surroundings combined with an outdoor lifestyle and help in the home are other major attractions.

Oman 
According to Erika, “Oman is a children’s paradise.” The country is ranked 32nd out of 45 in the Family Life Index and 15th on the HSBC Family League table of 46 countries. Erika says this ranking doesn’t reflect the realities of life as an expat raising kids in Oman. “Muscat is a fishing village, there are mountains and camping is very popular. We used to go camping in the dunes, the wadis, mountains, beaches; the kids were with all their friends, loving being outdoors. It’s a very outdoorsy lifestyle.”

Erika also mentions the sense of community and lack of the expat bubble so prevalent in the rest of the Middle East. “The local people are incredibly warm,” she says, “they love children and lavish them with gifts of money and sweets. There’s also a real sense of community as expats and locals are not generally segregated, instead living together in mixed neighbourhoods.” Erika does concede however, that it may be more challenging to raise teenagers and older children in Oman given the lack of entertainment options.

Qatar 
This country ranks low on both the Internations (37th) and HSBC (31st) Indexes. Erika’s third child was born in Doha, and Erika says the standard of healthcare is exceptional. “The standard of healthcare in Qatar is the best I’ve experienced.” Erika has lived in Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Oman, Qatar, France and The Netherlands. Education is of a high standard with a number of excellent schools to choose from.

Travel to the rest of the world is easy and affordable, and the crime rate is very low. “When we moved out of our house, we realised we hadn’t locked the doors in so long that we’d lost the front door key!” laughs Erika. Downsides include having to evacuate every summer for three months due to the unbearable heat, and the fact that expats and locals tend to be more segregated.

Conclusion

There are many differing opinions about the best places to raise kids, but the best advice is to do your research fully, taking into consideration your needs as a family, the circumstances of your move (company driven or not) and anecdotal as well as empirical evidence.

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