Lucille Abendanon

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

27 August 2018

Lucille Abendanon

Written by Lucille Abendanon

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent.

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 bring up kids? 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 judgment.

Personal preferences and outcomes should always be your first consideration, regardless of what the list says. For example, Turkey, Thailand and South Africa tend to rank quite low, yet as someone who has lived in all three, Lucille thinks it’s perfectly possible for your children to have a fantastic upbringing in any 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, 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 46 countries, considering three aspects of life abroad: economics, experience and family.

  • Mercer’s annual Quality of Living Index ranks 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 65 countries via more than 12,500 respondents on moving, living, and working abroad.

  • The Internations.org Family Life Index “ranks 45 countries according to childcare and education options in general, their availability, their costs, the quality of education, and overall family well-being.”

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Raising kids abroad: what is 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 (2017), we’ve caught up with a team of expert, expat parents who have added their insights on the ups and down of life abroad.

The Netherlands
This European powerhouse takes the number one position for raising a family abroad in HSBC’s 2017 Expat Explorer Survey. Lucille Abendanon has lived in The Netherlands for two and a half years with her husband and three sons, and whole-heartedly agrees with its top ranking. “Despite the weather, the quality of life here is wonderful” she enthuses. “Children are encouraged to be independent, to be on their bikes and to play sport. Life doesn’t stop because it’s raining and I really love that.” Lucille is also impressed with the Dutch work-life balance, “both parents play equal roles and share household tasks evenly. Part-time work is very normal.” According to The Economist, 26.8% of men and 76.6% of women work less than 36 hours a week.

According to Unicef, Dutch children are among the happiest in the world and benefit from more relaxed parenting styles, open spaces, excellent infrastructure, and independence due to a safe environment. “Life here is really family-centric” says Lucille, “families have dinner together, children play in their neighbourhood streets, and life is very social. Add to that excellent (and free) schooling, good healthcare and infrastructure that just works, and you realise that raising kids here is pretty special.”

Sweden
Sweden consistently clinches the top spot for the best place for raising kids, but in 2017 is pipped to the post by The Netherlands and so drops to number two in HSBC’s Expat Explorer Survey... Paid parental leave, excellent (and free) healthcare, and a culture geared towards encouraging children to be independent are major draw cards.

Lisa Ferland, editor and publisher of the Knocked Up Abroad series relocated five years ago from the US to Sweden, where she currently lives with her husband and two children, aged six and four. Lisa has high praise for Sweden’s parental leave, which is a staggering 480 days for the parents to share, “We would never have had the quality time at home with our kids when they were babies without Sweden's paid parental leave policies.”

Lisa continues, “Sweden takes children's rights very seriously and has written it into law to protect and support their education and rights. Sweden is part of the UN Convention on Rights of the Child, which entitles children to play in a stimulating, safe, and appropriate environment. This provision has led to the development of multiple playgrounds in every neighbourhood with play structures that are accessible to children of all abilities.”

Indeed, quality of life for kids is one of the things Lisa loves most about living in Sweden, “Kids in Sweden enjoy a lot of unstructured free play and the Swedish right to access public spaces, ‘allmansrätten’, means that kids (usually aged 5 and older) are often seen playing unattended in playgrounds, backyards, and in the woods. Their freedom to wander their local environment helps develop a physical competency to handle unexpected situations that many kids in the US don't have.”

When it comes to overall experience (which considers lifestyle, people and ease of setting up your life in the country), the same HSBC survey ranks Sweden at 23 out of 46 countries, which suggests that whilst it is fantastic for raising kids, there are obviously factors that do not sit well with expats. Lisa lists weather, language, geographic isolation, and discrimination against foreigners as factors that may contribute to Sweden’s lower score, “There is a strong cultural pressure to conform — to do things the Swedish way. That makes sense since we are living in Sweden, but it can often feel like a rejection of anything "other" and can be quite isolating if you do not fit into their societal expectations.”

Singapore
Singapore is the overall winner in HSBC’s Expat Explorer survey showing that the Asian powerhouse scored consistently high in all three categories: fourth for economics, fourth for experience, and third for family (beaten only by Sweden and The Netherlands . Respondents cite excellent schooling and better overall quality of life as positives.

Pang Kue Van moved from Houston, Texas to Singapore with her husband and twin sons before moving on to The Netherlands two years later. She only has good things to say about the island nation. She most values Singapore’s education system, its safety, and its location as a regional hub. “Raising kids in Singapore is a unique experience. Local schools are some of the most academically rigorous in the world, and the international schools are a mixture of Western and Eastern teaching.”

Pang goes on to say, “the rigor of Singapore’s border control and harshness of its laws help to keep the country one of the safest countries in the world. Who wouldn’t want to raise their children in a country where safety is practically guaranteed, education is of the best in the world and family travel is so easy and affordable?”

Mercer’s Quality of Living Index however, ranks Singapore 25 for overall quality of living. Factors such as pollution, expensive (and small) housing options, and the high cost of living affect its rankings. The qualitative data suggests that people are willing to compromise on the higher costs of living in exchange for the benefits of excellent schooling, safety and all the other things life in Singapore has to offer.

Australia
Australia ranks consistently well and is a popular destination for expats and immigrants with families. The HSBC survey ranks Australia seventh overall out of 46 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: second for working life (HSBC), fifth overall for raising a family (HSBC), with Munich ranking fourth 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 is 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 does not 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,” says Erika, who has lived in Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Oman, Qatar, France and The Netherlands. Education is of a high standard with a number of excellent schools from which to choose.

Travel to the rest of the world is easy and affordable, and there is zero crime. “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.

 

Lucille Abendanon – personal & family profile/professional work

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children (all born in different countries) to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent. Lucille is a British expat currently living in the Netherlands, and has previously lived in Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey and South Africa. Professionally, Lucille is a copywriter who focusses on travel and property. She runs the website Expitterpattica.com, posting on the blog on a range of expat topics, including expat parenting and children’s issues. Via this blog, she has guest posted on HuffPo, Global Living and a number of expat blogs and other sites.