"I really wish you'd reconsider your decision," my neighbor Steve said. He strode over, hands on hips, and added, "I hear it's dangerous down there. I'm really worried about your kids."
The decision he was referring to was the radical idea that my husband and I had settled on. We were moving, along with our two young sons — at age 7 and 9 — from small town U.S.A. to a modest mountain village in Ecuador. Steve wasn't the only one with concerns. My brother, who normally lauded my parenting choices, was ominously silent on this one, afraid that talking about it would make it real, give it life and validation.
Some of our friends turned on us, calling us terrible parents, or saying we were unpatriotic. Why would we want to leave the land of the free and the home of the brave? And where was Ecuador, anyway? Somewhere near Mexico? Africa? We were taking our children to a country that most Americans can't even point to on a map. What were we thinking?
Well, we were thinking a lot of things, and taking a number of factors into consideration. In America, it seemed every third child was taking pharmaceuticals to treat behavioral issues, anxiety, or depression. High school students were unloading automatic weapons into their classmates. Opioid use was reaching all new highs. Bank executives were defrauding their customers and Wall Street was walking an increasingly thin tight rope. It felt like The American Dream as we knew it was all but gone, having transformed into a shadowy unknown. We fretted about what the future would hold for our family. We thought maybe, just maybe, a simpler lifestyle somewhere else was the answer. And so, in 2011, our family walked up to the edge of the unknown, took a deep breath, and jumped.
When we landed in this little equatorial nation, the culture shock was intense. Aside from the daunting language barrier, nothing in this part of the world runs on schedule, so we constantly showed up hours early for events and just had to wait around. Or we found they would be held at some undetermined future time. For a punctual, time-conscious person like me, this ramped up my anxiety to new levels.
It was tough for the kids, too. Back home, my sons played little league, but baseball isn't really a thing in South America. Instead, soccer reigns supreme. They missed some comforts of home, like the public library on rainy afternoons and the local swimming pool on summer days.
I began to worry: What if the naysayers back home had been right? What if the United States really was the greatest nation on Earth and we were ruining our children's futures? What if we never could learn to truly adapt? What if my children ended up in therapy all because I'd moved them halfway around the globe?
But within six months, our plan began to work. Our kids were soon chatting away in Spanish to their new friends and started showing interest in learning other languages. Some of Latin America's best features were rubbing off on us, like the emphasis on family time and community involvement, which I loved.
Still, many of the best rewards were more subtle.
For example, over the last six years, my children have experienced childhood without viewing the world through a privileged first-world lens. Though we live comfortably here in Ecuador, my sons are surrounded by families that work hard and live simply. There is no internet shopping. There are no big box stores stuffed to the brim with the latest useless merchandise. And Christmas in these parts is about church and family, not piles of presents and deepening debt.
While they're still kids with wants and desires, runaway consumerism and material greed has passed right by my boys. When they do want something special, they're willing to work for it — like when my oldest son baked and sold cupcakes to earn money for that electric piano keyboard he had been eyeing.
My kids have also learned to be patient. Living in a country where instant gratification is a laughable concept, you learn to develop some mad waiting skills. When my youngest found that his 11th birthday present was going to arrive two weeks late, he took it in stride. "That's okay, mom, we'll celebrate my birthday when it gets here." I know that if this had happened to me, my 11-year-old self would have collapsed into tears.
Theme parks and big animal attractions just aren't a thing here, so my kids have never seen Shamu or visited the fairy tale castles of Disneyland. While some might say my children have been denied a crucial childhood experience, I would argue the opposite. Instead of replicas of world locales or re-enactments of what occurs in nature, my kids see the real thing. They've never met Snow White, but they have bicycled through a living forest of poison-apple trees. They've never set foot in an adrenaline-inducing water park, but they have snorkeled with sea lions, penguins, and sea turtles. They may not have access to larger-than-life, man-made attractions, but they have a world of true adventure at their fingertips.
Here in Ecuador, the world is their classroom. Both my sons have taste-tested lemon ants in the Amazon rainforest, trekked to the top of 15,000-foot-high volcanic peaks, and discovered pre-Incan artifacts buried in our horse pasture. Of course they attend school, too, but nothing beats an up-close and personal experience of the world at large instead of simply reading about it in a textbook.
Today I have two teenagers who I truly love spending time with. They're well adjusted, curious, and mature for their age. Maybe I just got lucky with genetically programmed great kids. Maybe things would have turned out just as well if we had stayed put. But I'm confident that life in Ecuador has molded them — more than I ever could — into the promising young men they've become.
Eventually my boys will return to the U.S. to attend college and build their adult lives. When they do, they'll have a leg up. In a world where the up-and-coming generation is castigated for their feelings of entitlement and inability to handle disappointment, my sons have no notions of being owed a thing.