Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Raising Kids in Mexico

One of the more frequent requests I receive is advice about raising children in Mexico. I have two children, and I have lived with them, alone and with my husband, when they were three and nine (I have twins). However, I have only lived in Mexico on a short-term basis, so what I will report here is based on interviews I have had with expats and Mexicans who have lived and raised their children in both the U.S. and Mexico.

Before I go too far into this discussion, I want to emphasize that too often Americans will compare their options in the U.S. and Mexico as if there were only two variables at work (i.e., saying something simplistic like, "Schools are better in the U.S. than in Mexico"). The truth is, in the U.S. parents and others make choices every day about the type of lives they want to lead, and each choice made means that there were other options that were not selected. For instance, I'm not thrilled about living in American suburbia: it's an isolated existence, we're car dependent in many respects, and things are too sterile and consistent for my taste. The schools are great, however, and my husband and I have made this "deal with the devil": we live in the burbs because it works well for one set of priorities (the kids). We realize we could live a much different life in my home state (West Virginia) or my husband's (Pennsylvania), particularly in a college town. To make that move, we would have to give up living close to the city and the benefits we enjoy here: museums, world-class performing arts, great restaurants and bi-lingual schools. The schools in WV are not bad, but they just cannot offer the same programs and experiences we enjoy here.

I know all of this seems obvious, but the fact that our options are limited even in the U.S. it is something that is often overlooked in these types of discussions.

What is it like to raise children in Mexico, and specifically San Miguel? It depends on the age of your children. Most everyone I know in SMA (myself included) believe that small children (younger than 12) really benefit from the Mexican family lifestyle. Children are cherished in a way that is (I believe) almost incomprehensible in the U.S. For the most part, young children are not expected to act like little adults in public, so you don't have to worry if your baby cries during a solemn church service or wedding (yes! you can bring children to weddings in Mexico) and you can take small children nearly everywhere. It is common for couples with babies and young children to take them to dances during fiesta season, for example. The children play together while the adults socialize. It is really quite charming.

Specific to the SMA Expat community: if you're a young mother, for instance, you'll find a "mommy" group, but you'll also find a large number of people of different ages who will also support your parenting endeavors. You can also expect childcare to be less expensive than in the U.S., but to be honest, it depends on where you live to make this comparison soundly. I live in suburban D.C., and the summer camps for school-age children are not less expensive in SMA than here in Fairfax. If I were in West Virginia or some areas of Pennsylvania, I expect most childcare would be significantly less expensive than SMA.

My children LOVE going to Mexico. They have more freedom there than in the U.S., and opportunities to do things that we might not be able to afford in the U.S. For instance, my daughter took private tennis lessons last summer (we have to settle for group lessons here) and I have friends in SMA who are big equestrians and their children compete in events that are largely the hobbies of the rich and famous in the U.S. Art and music classes in Mexico are generally very affordable as well.

While some activities are more accessible, others are less so. There are fewer organized sports (especially for girls), beyond soccer, so children who want to play organized baseball or basketball will not have that opportunity in SMA. The availability of sports will vary with the community in Mexico, however. Where I did my first fieldwork project in another community in Guanajuato there were baseball leagues for kids. Also, sturdy girls who really want to play can join boys. I have a good American friend in Quito, Ecuador, and his daughter plays soccer in the boys league, and she is the only girl in the city doing this (we fully expect her to receive a Division I scholarship when she returns for college). Alternatively, there are pick-up games in Parque Juarez in SMA, and there are summer sports camps available for children as well.

The big issue that concerns the parents of younger children in SMA is the educational system. As is the case in the U.S., educational options are variable from family to family. I have met parents who have been adamant that the trade off of living in a loving supportive community outweighs the lack of great schools, and that the Mexican schools are just fine and their children will study in Mexico schools through high school. Most parents agree that the primary school offerings are adequate but high school is not, and many reported concern that their children are not getting the same exposure to science education and computer literacy that is common in the U.S.

Some parents of high school age children opt to send their children to the U.S. to live with relatives during high school, to leave SMA so their children can study in the U.S. or another country, and I met one family that will be sending a child to a private boarding school in the U.S. I also interviewed one woman who explicitly stated that her now grown children did not have the same educational opportunities that they would have had if they had grown up in the U.S., and that was her one regret about raising her children in Mexico. Despite the lack of educational options, I met only one family that home-schooled their children. I was surprised by this, and still wonder why this is not a more common option for parents who are concerned about the educational system in Mexico.

The larger issue (from my perspective) is the socialization of children who are raised in the Expat community and how that experience shapes them and their future relationships. While every parent I spoke to this year and last is convinced that the experience of growing up in Mexico is a good thing for their kids, my interviews with the grown children of expats have not demonstrated that the experiences were unequivocally positive. Keep in mind that I have only interviewed grown children who still live in SMA--I have not had access to adults who were raised in SMA but now live in the U.S. Of the group that remains in SMA (and it is small), it is significant that these children of expats have decided to remain in SMA and report being happy there. A few also had regrets: living far from extended families was not a big problem growing up, but later in life (after parents passed away) it made life much more isolated than it might have been. Some grown expat children also reported feeling alienated or out of place in the U.S. and in San Miguel. For the most part, adult children of expats seemed to feel most at home in San Miguel when their own parents were more integrated into the community.

What is not clear is how "bi-cultural" expat children are or will be. By this I mean it is not clear if children raised in San Miguel are truly able to easily work and adapt to life in both the U.S. and Mexico. Clearly, the adult expat children raised in SMA were functioning well in SMA, but as I have noted previously on this blog, SMA is certainly not typical of life in Mexico. The young parents who are currently raising their children in Mexico believe that there is an inherent benefit to being completely bilingual (and I concur), but it is not clear that children or their adult parents are (regardless of their language abilities) are bi-cultural. I mention this only because many people in the U.S. write to me indicating that they want to move to SMA for a Mexican cultural experience. While SMA is part of Mexico, the local culture is not so much Mexican as a Mexican-Expat hybrid. It's not Mexican, it's not U.S. (or Canadian, or foreign), but a combination of the several cultural traditions that is in itself a distinct culture. That is (from my academic perspective) fascinating, but living in SMA does not mean that a foreigner who enjoys SMA could expect to live comfortably or successfully in other parts of Mexico or Latin America.

There are other concerns about raising children in Mexico that were not raised by my informants, but I have observed watching Mexican immigrant families in the U.S. One is freedom: kids in Mexico have a lot of it. This works well because families tend to be well connected and even if your mother is not watching your every move, you can bet that one of her friends (or a friend of your grandmother, aunts, uncles or cousins) will be watching and report straight back to your folks if you do something you should not. Mexican families in the U.S. are often shocked at the behavior of their teen-age children who do what they want shamelessly (sin vergüenzados). It takes a while for Mexican parents in the U.S. to figure out that without the vigilance of friends and family, their child rearing techniques do not work very well in the U.S. It seems unlikely that expat families have the same connections and "village" experience raising their children, as most Americans are not deeply connected to native San Miguelenses. The expat community is very close, however, so it could be that people watch out for neighborhood children in a similar way that Mexican families do. I simply cannot say definitely that they do.

My advice for anyone considering moving their family to SMA: you have to consider why you want to move and what you expect to gain for your life there. Like any community in the U.S., there will be benefits and limitations to living in Mexico. There are other locations in Mexico that I would choose over San Miguel to raise my own children, but that is related to the fact that the children and I already speak Spanish and living among Mexicans would be a top priority for our family. That is not a criticism of SMA; its a personal preference. What you have to remember is that what SMA has to offer is a strong, supportive community which is worth a great deal, especially in today's world.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Deb: I wonder if many in SMA read your entries here and exactly how, if they do, they will respond. We've had a very interesting 4 plus years making some of the same observations and meeting with not-so-kind responses. But, hey, you are far more diplomatic than I am.

Doug Bower

Deb said...

On average I have between 50-100 readers per day, most of whom are subscribers. Of the regulars, more than half have IP addresses in Mexico, but it is not clear if they are Mexicans, expats who live in Mexico, or others who may be reading the site in Mexico (i.e., folks in D.F.).

As for responses, from time to time my observations have rankled a reader or two, but most of the hostility I receive is from folks in the U.S. who are rabidly anti-immigrant. This does not surprise or concern me too much, because I know putting my thoughts and opinions out there will occasionally ruffle feathers.

From the SMA crowd, every now and then I'll get a response from someone who thinks I've made a mistake in my observations or perhaps overlooked an important facet of the community. Those posts have consistently been constructive and polite, and to be honest, in most cases their critiques allow me to see the expat community and its complexities. I do not live in SMA year-round, and my observations are limited by that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Deb-
I am living in Veracruz with my husband and two kids. I like your observations. I think it would also be interesting to take a look at the financial situations of the expat families. For example, there is so much about Mexico that makes us prefer it to the US, as far as raising kids is concerned. However, we live off of my husband's salary (pesos) and find that we are even more limited in terms of schools, activities, etc. If a family is living off of the local economy rather than dollars, it really changes their whole experience in Mexico. It's for that reason that we are now looking at moving to the US. I really enjoy your blog, by the way.


Deb said...


Thanks for your feedback. I have plans for a "making a living in Mexico" post (or posts). I've had a little trouble getting "back in the saddle" with blogging this summer.

I'll try to keep what you said in mind and would love to hear more about your experiences in Veracruz. My work has been limited to Guanajuato, and I'd like to know more about your experiences.


Anonymous said...

We spent the day in San Miguel de Allende and arrived home hours later exhausted. We went equipped with our notebooks but ended up taking no notes at all but mostly sitting and marveling at what this city has become. We actually had a good time running around watching people and observing. There were more tourists this month as summer vacation winds down for Americans. There were lots of families with kids and some expats that were very, very interesting to watch.

I marvel at how it appears the town's redesign is to cater solely to the Gringo tourist and expat. It really is a carnival there, a circus, that entertains, feeds, houses, medicates what seemed to be mostly Gringos parading the Jardin.

What you said in your Blog entry on "Raising Kids in Mexico" about,

"While SMA is part of Mexico, the local culture is not so much Mexican as a Mexican-Expat hybrid. It's not Mexican, it's not U.S. (or Canadian, or foreign), but a combination of the several cultural traditions that is in itself a distinct culture."

Is not just true but profound. Is the end result of the Gringolandizing of Mexican towns always going to be a total redesign of the local culture? How does one cope with this result of Gringos who are attracted primarily to the well developed Gringo infrastructures in which the local culture is engulfed and hybridized into something not Mexican. Instead of the gringos assimilating, the local Mexican culture is assimilated into the Gringolandizing sub-culture...why? I find this troubling.

I sat with an abuelita on a bench and worked up the nerve to begin asking her questions since I assumed she would have the memories of how things used to be. I wondered what went through her mind and how she felt about it all. Does she miss Mexico in San Miguel? Does she wish it would return?

She left before I could start a conversation.

Anyway. We are getting ready to move or I should say, we are being run out of town—which is a very long story.

Doug and Cindi Bower

Deb said...

Hi Doug and Cindy,

Good luck with your move! Please let me know where you end up!



Anonymous said...

I'm young and Canadian and have been with my partner for 5 years now. He is from Mexico and recently recieved residency in Canada. We plan to move and live in Mexico in the near future and start a family there. ( I worked and lived in Mexico for 2 years). I'm wondering where you would prefer to raise your children in Mexico and why, and if anyone that you spoke to had there children in private schools in Mexico?
Also, I'm sure children having a lot of there family there (ie my partners family) would change some of there feelings significantly.

Deb said...

To my Canadian reader:

I would suggest that, if you live in SMA, you contact some of the parents there regarding the private school options. Especially in SMA, this changes frequently, often for the better.

As for my personal choice for living in Mexico? I would probably start in Morelia or Puebla. Both are lovely cities with great cultural and social offerings. I also LOVE Cholula, a small pueblo near Puebla, where the Universidad de las Americas is located. I am an academic, and the University would be a great place to work and a wonderful setting to raise a family.

Anonymous said...

Hi Deb,
Just stumbled upon your blog: it's wonderful!!! I'm a writer, and I'm very interested in relocation to Mexico. I've been surfing the web for information. Any suggestions on some of the best sites? And, any recommendations on advisers/coaches/guides? I've run across a couple of sites that seem to offer one-on-one help, but they appear to be tied to selling real estate.
Tons of questions. Where's the best place to go for answers?

Deb said...

Hi Rebecca,

Thanks for your comments. I concur with your observation about website offering assistance. Anything that is linked to real estate should probably be avoided; they're trying to sell you something and you need to explore, and I would strongly suggest renting first, before you buy.

I would start with the books available about living in Mexico. Doug Bower's book is informative and powerfully stated (he feels very strongly that you need to speak Spanish to live in Mexico). Falling in Love with San Miguel will also give you insights to life in that community.

If you look at the blogroll on my site, there is a great site run by David a.k.a. "The Low Rent Correspondent." "Staring at Strangers is another good site. Both writers live in Mexico in different cities, so they could give you the scoop on where they live.

Before you relocated, I suggest that you take a few extended vacations to different places in Mexico to see what you like. In the expat communities you should be able to find rental properties for 2-6 months without any problem. Although most of the expats I've interviewed made quick decisions to move to SMA (and really love it) I really believe you need to know where you're going first. Mexico is a great place, and if you're looking to work, you may find better opportunities in another place.

I've gotten many comments this week, which leads me to believe it's time to start blogging again.

I'll be back early next week, promise!

Theresa said...

We moved to Mexico when my son was 15. After exploring various options, we ended up homeschooling supplemented with private tutors.Homeschooling is not for everyone, and we had a hard time finding a curriculum we liked,so we designed our own,later I heard of some acceptable ones. We found that sending him to a Mexican asesoría (tutoring center)for math and science (calculus, physics and chemistry all in Spanish) where he studied with four other students, combined with private Spanish lessons (that were heavy on grammar and literacy, the goal being achieving an university level of vocabulary and understanding),in addition to his home lessons was the best option.He also took French,guitar and yoga as electives. I could never have afforded these options in California.
If he had been younger, I would have enrolled him in private Mexican school.
I believe that Mexican schools teach fundamentals better than NOB (north of the border), but don't teach critical thinking or give a broad base of experiences at the high school level.I was told that literature isn't even taught until the high school level.
When he turned 18 he chose to return NOB, and is now studying at a Junior College.
In conclusion, while I think he got a great deal out of living here, he speaks beautiful unaccented Spanish and was able to have experiences that he wouldn't of NOB. He is not any more bi-cultural than when he arrived in Mexico. He does however have a good understanding of the culture through friendships and by speaking the language.

Anonymous said...

I have just stumbled across your blog in researching for information on parenting styles and child rearing in Mexico. Any Ideas where I can get info on this subject for a term paper? After reading many post I want to explore SMA even more now. Unfortunately I don't speak Spanish and worry about communication. I am finishing my BA in Fine Art and will retire from my present career in less than 5 years. I just need to choose where to retire, California is getting too expensive to live. I live in the SF area of California, it is great but as with everything it comes with a financial cost. Thanks for your time.

Anonymous said...


We are in the process of choosing whether to move to San Jose Costa Rica or Puebla, Mexico. We are looking at the American School in Puebla. Our kids are being tutored in
Spanish but don't speak the language - they've studied French, since we are Canadian. The attraction of Costa Rica is the European School which is a humanities based IB program, as well as the UNA and Peace University for me. The attraction of Puebla is the culture, Mexico ... we like it better than Costa Rica. Any thoughts?

Deb said...

Hi-- I would suggest Puebla, as it is a great city, has great schools, and UDLA (which has had a few rough years, but still a good university).

Costa Rica is a beautiful place, but it does not have the cultural richness of Mexico. Everyone speaks Spanish, of course, but the indigenous heritage in Mexico is what really makes it an interesting country, and Puebla is at the heart of one of those cultural centers.

Anonymous said...

hello, I just stumble into your blog and found it informative, now my question here is can an american kid study abroad in puebla mex, and what are the requisites for this. my kids will be there to visit but like many , if they want to stay there for a few months I wont mind. an education abroad can be a different and fresh experience if its well supported. and like you said kids do have more options in there too.

Amber said...


I am a mother of a two year old girl, and my husband is from Jalapa. We might move there if he is denied citizenship. I was so relieved to find your blog, and want to thank you for writing so extensively on the topic of educating children. I also think homeschooling is a great idea, but I have to ask if I am right in assuming that it should be easy enough to find resources if your looking hard enough? I have not been to Jalapa, do you have any info about the Jalapa area in general as a place to raise and educate a child? I have this (maybe naive) idea that they will have public libraries there and other things, and I will be determined to get her as good of an education as in the States. Any info or thoughts? thank you so much for this blog! Amber Sterrett

Deb said...

Hi Amber,
You know, what is available will vary from place to place. My advice would be to plan to purchase your materials in the U.S. if you plan to homeschool, as we have a fairly longstanding tradition of homeschooling, and lots of parental support groups (all available on-line), which is not common in Mexico.

Libraries will vary in quality. In general, I have found most Mexican libraries lacking when compared to those in the U.S. It's a matter of funding--books in Spanish are expensive, and funding for libraries and other public resources just aren't comparable to those in the U.S.

Thanks for your comments. I hope to get back to blogging about SMA and immigration again soon. -Deb

Anonymous said...

I have dual citizenship (US and Mexico), come from a very formal, upper class Mexican family and grew up on both California's but went to boarding school in Mexico City and Europe. My parents were citizens of the world and travel was very encouraged so I always felt comfortable every place I went. My husband (and kids) have lived in the US (CA, NV, NY, IL) and Mexico (Puerto Vallarta, Tijuana, Sinaloa, Mexico City, Zacatecas and now Merida) and my kids both went to US and Mexico schools. They are all bi-cultural and bi-lingual.
I have never had a problem "switching" from the US to Mexico and don't miss family or friends since we always create "new families" every place we go. After 3 years in Yucatan we are moving to Puebla (or Tlaxcala or Queretaro) in 2-3 weeks time because the weather doesn't agree with my husband and son. My son is 17 and studies at an Online High School from the US and has attended several Mexican private schools too.
I don't think SMA is a good example of Mexico since it's considered "a gringo place" for the most part and has lost a lot of its essence due to this. Puerto Vallarta has suffered the same fate as other areas where expats become too plentiful. The Americanization of Mexico while initially welcomed gives way to resentments once it's in full bloom. This is also happening here in Merida.
Due to cultural biases or limitations on both sides, expats are never "really" a part of any Mexican city and they will always be "gringos". We are fair and since we speak English, sometimes we are also treated as foreigners, due to not being locals, but we've never been stopped from charging ahead and obtaining our goals. I work, write, socialize, etc. all over the place and make my own opportunities and have thrived in both countries. YOU have to be willing to do it, and while many don't speak a word of Spanish (does help), they still come and try to blend in (which they will never be able to do).... the double standard of everything will always apply too....
If you need family and friends there all the time, stay home. If you will keep comparing life in Mexico to everything NOB (as expats often do), stay home. If you will see the glass as "half empty", stay home. This is NOT the US and doesn't want to be. We don't want to do things US style for them to be "done right". (Mexicans resent this a lot when expats say "why can't they do it right?").... if you can "go with the flow" and adapt, stay home.
Another point, private schools in Mexico are much better than public schools in the US, harder and more disciplined, less violent and kids behave better as a rule. Yes, in some areas we are 30 years behind, but we like it that way. The slower pace, the respect for the old, no age segregation all make a difference. Our crime stats are also a lot lower than in the US (even if you add up the border problems) and our kids don't shoot each other in school either.
You have to be willing to change and adapt in order to find a "good fit", an open and accepting mind and a love of adventure all help. A good dose of respect won't hurt either.

Anonymous said...

I have so many questions, and am glad to have found your site. A family member was told by a lovely young Mexican women that she was having his child. The family member didn't want to hurt her feelings in any way, so just accepted it as so. Since then, we - going through our own very real recession struggles - have been sending baby clothes, supplies and money. The need for more money seems to rarely cease. I've been told this woman has NO family support financially, but I've also been told by a Mexican-American therapist who stated that he works with many families in this type of situation that it is inexpensive to raise a child there. Does anyone know exactly how much is an average cost for a child (now an infant, so may be different now and later)- but a normal range? I know the normal US average in a similar area. Since we've are still determined to help to date, how can we find
a stable monthly average that won't fluctuate so much? We are already very pressed and need to fit a figure into budget to try to deal with this. I pray daily that all will be well. Any and all accurate, thoughtful, and helpful comments or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Deb said...

You know, it's really hard to say how much money a person would need to support a child in Mexico. It's a big country. Living in Mexico City or Guadalajara is much different than living in rural Chiapas (think about the differences of raising a child in NYC vs. rural Mississippi--it would be huge).

I'm sorry I can't be of more help here. I do wish you the best of luck here.

Paula said...

k uou. I appreciate your time. I'm hopeful other readers may comment.

stacy said...

Help me Deb!! I am an American living in a small community on the edge of Mexico City..I moved here my daughter and I are just now learning Spanish although were are learning quickly I dont feel comfortable sending her to school here and I see online that other Americans are Homeschooling their children but I cant find anything or anyone to tell me how to get her signed up for it...I hope you or someone else has answers as school starts in a few more weeks..

stacy said...

im an american living in mexico city...i see online that people post blogs about having homeschooled their children in Mexico and i have read that it is legal here..but the US embassy says they have no clue....school starts in a few weeks and i have to figure out how to get my 10yr old daughter signed up or enrolled in home school....she is learning but doesnt speak spanish we have only been here a month and I just really would like to keep her with me until she is more adjusted to the environment and way of life...I hope someone here can help me!!!! And if i have sent this 2xs i do apologize!

Deb said...

Dear Stacey, thanks for your comment and question. if you want, you can email me privately and I will try to put you in contact with some of the moms I know in Mexico.

Regarding your daughter--I would recommend that you go ahead and enroll her in school now. When I lived in Mexico with my kids, I started in on public school, then moved them to a montessori school later because it was a better fit.

I would not recommend home schooling at first for the following reason: your daughter will learn Spanish sooner and make more friends (and thus adjust more quickly) if she is in school. I will admit, I'm not a big fan of home schooling unless it absolutely necessary. If you don't try the local schools, you'll never know whether or not it will work. Home schooling will always be there as an option.

Regarding the mandatory nature of school--I don't know of a specific national or local law, but I do know that a lot of Mexican kids stop going to school early--sometimes after 2-4 years. If you need to get a definitive answer, can the U.S. Consulate. They should be familiar with local and national laws regarding education.

Best of luck!