How can you maintain a healthy family culture if you are a globally mobile family?

The roots of a strong family culture are to be found in the everyday activities and experiences we share as a family unit. But what happens when constant moving makes these shared family activities difficult or impossible to continue?

By Lucille Abendanon

Some families just gel. Know what I mean? They’re the ones who love being together, who laugh and cry and fight but never seem to break.

They have inside jokes, delight in their shared history and seem to genuinely like each other.

Being drawn into their orbit feels almost conspiratorial, like you’ve been granted access to a secret club but you’re not quite sure what it’s all about.

What makes a cohesive family unit? Is it love? Shared involvement? Common interests? Angelic children? Compatible star signs? Pure dumb luck?

So I started reading about family dynamics and I discovered that there is a term for this je ne sais quoi a family may or may not have in varying degrees. It’s called Family Culture.

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What is Family Culture?

Wikipedia defines family culture as an ‘aggregate of attitudes, ideas and ideals, and environment, which a person inherits from his/her parents and ancestors.’

Put another way, family culture is determined by how members think, how they act towards each other, their judgements, ideas and habits.

Your family culture is not determined by where you are from, although that does of course play a part.

Multicultural families may blend aspects of two or more cultures to create a unique family culture: for example a Spanish and German family may opt to have family meals in German, or celebrate both Christmas and Spanish Three Kings Day.

Your family culture is anything that defines you as a family unit and includes your beliefs, behaviours and interests.

Are you a religious family? Do you have liberal political views? Are you sports crazy? Do you love to read together, or schedule a weekly games or movie night? Does a shared sense of humour define you? Or are the individuals in your family all different and so your family culture is built on respecting each others interests?

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Family Culture in Globally Mobile Families

So, this got me thinking…

As a globally mobile family with three young kids, we can impart our core values to our boys, things like curiosity, tolerance, respect, sensitivity to other cultures and beliefs…but it occurs to me that the roots of a strong family culture are to be found in the everyday activities and experiences we share as a family unit: things like being outdoors, quality family time, playing and watching sport together, visiting cultural sites etc.

But what happens when constant moving makes these shared family activities difficult or impossible to continue?

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What happens when moving interferes with family culture?

Let me give you an example. When we lived in South Africa, we ran as a family. On weekends we’d load the kids into the Ironman Duallie jogger and run 10 or 15km races.

We’d be up early in the morning, excitedly drive to the race venue, give the boys a croissant and a bag of cornflakes to munch on, and off we’d go. Home for a fry-up and a swim by 10am.

Most mornings we’d take the boys for a run along the beach side promenade before school, they’d play in the sand, drink water from the fountain, just enjoy being barefoot and free. Being outdoors and fit was a major part of our family life, our family culture.

Then we moved to The Netherlands and it all stopped. The weather is a major cause…no-one wants to run in the rain…and there just isn’t the same running culture here as in SA. And so the thing that had defined us for years was suddenly gone.

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What happens to family culture when quality family time is cut?

In South Africa my husband was home by 5pm every evening. The office was five minutes from our house. He was there for family story-time, and had plenty of time to throw a rugby ball around with the kids after work.

Here in Holland he’s lucky to get home by 7pm. A long commute makes getting home early almost impossible. Again, there’s a change in our family culture.

On the positive side, moving to The Netherlands has meant that we can do many cultural things together as there are amazing museums, heritage sites and castles to visit, and of course our shared love of travel can be easily indulged.

My point is that the conditions in which we live as globally mobile families are not fixed as they would be if we remained in one country. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it surely has to impact the continuity of family culture.

Can family culture be a fluid thing?

I don’t actually have the answer to this, but I’m hoping so.

If we think of family culture as existing on three levels: the core value level (respect, tolerance, curiosity etc); the experiential level (the things you do together as a family); and the emotional level (how you interact as a family, unconditional love, laughing together, making fun of each other etc) then being internationally mobile should really only impact the experiential level as the other two are not location dependent.

Create your family story

The importance of ‘story’ comes up time and time again when it comes to raising kids across cultures, finding your purpose abroad, and making smooth transitions between countries.

I think it has relevance here too. Your story is your journey. It’s joining the dots between vastly different life experiences to create a flow. It’s understanding that starting over in a new country is a new chapter in the same story, and not a whole new book.

On the surface everything has changed, but there is continuity to be found.

Perhaps through creating your family story, family culture can be strengthened with each international move.

TIPS for creating and updating your FAMILY STORY

You could create yearly photo books as a way to keep memories fresh and accessible. Children may have a hard time remembering past homes and activities, and being able to look through a book of photos is a lovely way to reconnect not just to a past home or country, but also to who they were in that place.

Try, where you can, to create opportunities to maintain the experiential form of your family culture. For example, instead of running as a family we go on regular forest walks, or explore the sand dunes along the freezing coast. This way we are still fulfilling our family culture of being outdoorsy people, even though our behaviour is different. Story time with Papa still happens, but its now on a weekend.

Focus on adding to your family culture rather than redefining it. Talk about the things you used to do, but perhaps don’t do anymore. Keep your old family culture in the front of your minds. Focus on adding to your family culture rather than redefining it.

Take a holistic view of your family culture. You can share your core values no matter where you live, and the same goes for how you behave within your family unit. Changing your shared experiences cannot, in isolation, negatively impact a family culture.

So whilst you may lament the days of sunshine and running, or watching sport, or whatever it may have been, there are always different ways to create the same family culture value, it may just take some adaptation and ingenuity.

I do worry that our constant moving will harm the degree to which we gel as a family. Will constant change kill our mojo? I’m hoping it doesn’t, and perhaps our ‘thing’ is that our ‘thing’ is always changing…and that’s pretty exciting.

Lucille Abendanon has lived in seven different countries with her family. Apart from writing for Your Danish Life, she blogs about expat life on her blog: