How to Parent Like a Diplomat

Donna Scaramastra, the spouse of an American diplomat, is known to provide true-life anecdotes into the household of a diplomatic and international family. From providing advice on how to travel with a Great Dane to figuring out how to teach her children mathematics in a foreign school, Scaramastra has a wide range of experience of parenting under the diplomatic guise. She, her husband, and their four children have been posted in China, Jordan, Armenia, Russia, and the US, and spend most of their time parenting overseas and trying to keep their kids grounded in their nationality.

Through her many articles and books, we have summarised her top tips on how to parent like a diplomat that is catered for a nomadic family lifestyle.

1. Let Go Of Your Ego

Working abroad means having to deal with news things: people, culture, language and customs -- none of which you are prepared for before you move for service. All of a sudden, your understanding of the world shifts and you are placed in a vulnerable position whereby you don’t know as much as you think you do. You are no longer the authority figure because half the time, you are trying to figure things out for yourself and make things work. Scaramastra mentioned how her kids have watched her veer between anger, confusion, embarrassment and downright fear as she tried to navigate her family through a Chinese grocery store. As a diplomat, you have to accept that you will look foolish in front of your kids on a regular basis and accept that as a fact.

2. Learn to Go Solo

It isn’t always possible to travel as a married couple. Sometimes, you need to learn to be without your partner for a long stretch and cope with the joys and woes of domestic life by yourself. Sometimes, it’s better not to track the news where one’s partner is stationed to keep sane while also simultaneously being a full-time chef, teacher and nurse to the kids. The reality is that you can’t get promoted without serving in difficult environments in dangerous posts less than four years. While feeling worried about one’s spouse, you also need to be positive and happy for the rest of the family. This takes a lot of skill and hope.

3. Retraining Cultural Stereotypes

Chapter Five of the Diplomatic Planner goes into a series of exercises that makes us re-think cultural stereotypes and biases. This is critical for a diplomatic family when placed abroad. Scaramastra recalls a time when she couldn’t find a parking spot in Amman, Jordan when promising to buy her kids some falafel sandwiches. She ordered her kid to jump out of the car and quickly grab the food to the astonishment of her American friends, who pictured a city that was ravaged by terrorists and refugees. She later said that, “I’m more worried about returning to the States when I have to send them alone to school, or to a movie theatre...envisioning gun-toting crazy people on every corner.” Stereotypes exists for all cultures. Learning to reshape our misconceptions is important for mental stability and survival. 

4. Preparing for Danger Differently

Diplomat parents have to prepare their children for the worst possible scenarios, teaching them about how to use the emergency radio, what to do when the alarm sounds, how to duck and cover, the various numbers for emergency services and how to communicate with them when English is not a language they speak. Scaramastra recalls a time when an intruder entered the embassy, forcing the building into lockdown mode. While the marines and security personnel were on the move to track them down, two of her children had very different reactions to the situation. One of her daughters feared for their father’s life, while her eldest son rolled his eyes, sighing “Again”, worrying instead about his homework. Such situation may become normalised or completely heightened. Knowing how to deal with both situations is the duty of a diplomat parent.

5. Stepping Outside the Elite Circle

At the end of the day, diplomats are public servants who serve their governments on moderate pay. Yet, diplomats tend to move in wealthy circles, sending their children to private schools amongst many elite families, often surrounded by uncomfortable discussions that open up the world of wealth, riches and elitism. Comparing families and the state of one’s wealth starts to become more apparent when a child suddenly realises that their family can’t afford a jet for their next holiday like many of the other families, believing that they are poor. However, in other circumstances, a child starts to feel incredibly wealthy when seeing refugee children search for goods in the trash. It is hard to explain ‘average wealth’ particularly when swinging between two extremes across the continent, yet it is important to keep children grounded over their own circumstance.

6. Everyone Knows Your Business

Most international posts are not big in size. Mid-sized posts tend to have up to 50 employees and their families, while a small post only has a handful of families. Many spouses, mainly the women, do not work because jobs are scarce and communities become intimate. As a result, diplomatic communities start to feel like a small-town backwater community where rumours spread and every silly news about one’s child becomes known by everyone. Get to know your friends, neighbours, communities and be helpful to them.

7. Safety? What Safety?

When living abroad, your tolerance for what is considered ‘safe’ needs to go out of the window. Similar to Scaramastra, you may find yourself driving around town with a gas canister strapped to the job, or buying food from a toothless man on the sidewalk who cooked your meal on a greasy never-been-washed wok. Safety standards need to be adjusted by learning to carefully evaluate the risk-reward curve in any new environment.

8. Saying Hello and Goodbye

Being a diplomat has its rewards but it also has its pains. Just when your children are getting used to the lifestyle and making new friends, they need to say goodbye and start from scratch elsewhere all over again. As a diplomat parent, you will need to learn how to comfort your children during these difficult adjustment periods. Think of the positives. Your children get so much exposure to so many new cultures, languages and ideas, the experience in itself is like school. But it is important to also look after oneself and not feel guilt-ridden about stealing your children’s friends, roots and family from them.

As diplomats, we struggle to keep our families intact. Sometimes, it brings families. Other times, you wonder whether all this is worth the risks and heartaches. Every time you move, life becomes a blank slate but as a family, you hold on to each other. Learn to embrace change and just roll with it.