Why Expat Kids Should Dine with Maps

Map above, world history timeline below.
My eight-year-old knows where Moldova is. I don’t say that to brag. Because, let’s be honest at the risk of offending all the Moldovans out there—bits of knowledge like this are only trivia on their own. But when you stack bits upon bits of knowledge and then you tie them together with understanding, you end up with something substantial. Substance is what I’m shooting for in my kids’ education.

I’m learning that a lot of the success in education is just presenting one gimmick after another until you find something that catches your kids’ attention. So I bought this world map for my kids for Christmas a year ago, hoping to spark an interest in geography (and also because my husband is a map nerd). I wasn’t really sure whether the map would be received as an “underwear and socks” gift or a “holy cow, this is the greatest thing ever!” gift. To avoid punishing you with the same suspense I faced on Christmas morning, I’ll tell it straight: the gift was just okay.

But then I hung the map on the wall next to the kitchen table. . . . And it was ignored.

Then a week later, over lunch, the map had a Rudolph moment. Without warning the kids became inexplicably entranced with the thing. Forgetting their steamy bowls of tomato soup, they pushed their chairs against the wall, climbed up, and started thinking aloud about the distance between Saudi Arabia and Grandma’s house. They started pointing out the countries they had flown to and through and over. They started asking questions like how to say “R-w-a-n-d-a” and “C-z-e-c-h,” questions about land-locked countries, and questions about the staggering breadth of Russia.

Over a different meal, a map game evolved from our “I’m Thinking of an Animal” game. It went like this: “I’m thinking of a country that starts with an S.” Everybody exhausted all of the S country names they could think of. They went to the map and threw out five more countries that they could see. No dice. Another clue was given: “It’s in the northern hemisphere.” (The kids soon learned that most of the world’s countries are in the northern hemisphere, so this is a paltry clue.) Another clue: “It’s on the African continent.” Bam: South Sudan.

We’ve learned about a lot of countries this way. The game can also be played with major cities, but this causes lots of fights for some reason, so we try to discourage it.

Aside from entertainment value, world maps can provide psychological grounding, especially to third-culture kids like ours: maps give them a visual of where they’ve been, where they are, and where their loved ones are. Instead of psychologically grounding themselves in a state or a town like I did when I was a kid, they ground themselves on the planet itself. That grounding will hopefully make the idea of moving to yet another country a little less daunting—more like relocating to a different part of their homeland.

Because I’m a genealogy nut, we’ve also mapped out our ancestral roots. We stuck notes with dates on the places where our immediate family members were born. Then we labeled and dated birthplaces for several more generations, surprising ourselves (okay, so in reality I was the only one who gasped) to find that although our ancestry reached across the Atlantic, almost all of it ends in the British Isles! As far back as the 14th century, no less! Our only outliers are in Spain and Nicaragua. Olé!

So much for building an identity of multinational heritage in our children. Still, it’s the truth, and it’s something to help the kids build their identity. Third-culture kids often flounder when they don’t have a firm grasp on who they are, where they come from, and what they value. To meet those needs, I’m more than willing to decorate my dining room with a not-so-elegant map. I’m feeding minds here.