Raising a Family in Costa Rica

After living 18 years in Costa Rica and raising a family here, would I do it again?  You bet. 

We live in the small central valley town of Atenas, and like many small towns around the world, everyone is somehow connected to each other and is keenly aware of what everyone else is doing. So when word got out that a red-haired gringa and her Tico husband had moved to town, we were warmly welcomed by everyone and immediately became family.

They opened their homes and hearts to us like a long-lost relatives, even though I didn’t speak a word of Spanish!  I grew up in the small town, Perry, Oklahoma, so this kindness and hospitality felt very familiar, and ultimately helped me avoid ever feeling homesick.

Costa Rica is a country that is very focused on children and families, so pregnant women are treated like goddesses. They get to move to the front of the line at the bank, are offered help with everything, and are relentlessly given advice. I became pregnant shortly after our arrival in Costa Rica, and having come from a 1st world country, and being in my 20’s, I ignored a majority of that advice. I would later discover that much of what I’d been told was accurate and could have really helped me through that time. That’s when I began listening instead of assuming I knew everything. 

I had both of my children in private hospitals at about ¼ of the price of hospitals in the U.S., and the care was fabulous.  I hit the button to ask for a pain killer after my daughter was born, and before I could even think about how I should ask for it in Spanish, the nurse was there offering exactly what I needed.  The nurses immediately assisted me with breastfeeding and when needed, took the baby away for a while so I could get some sleep. Both children slept right beside me at night in their little hospital cribs, and a bed was also provided for my husband! I can’t imagine how my experience could have been any better. 

Costa Ricans really love babies.  My daughter was only 2 weeks old when I had to attend a funeral and a lady came up and took her right out of my arms.  I froze and was ready to panic when the lady next to me, said, “No worries, she is a nurse and is allowing you to have some time in your mourning.”  Waiters would often take my baby and walk around with him/her until I finished eating. Initially, I was a little apprehensive about this, but when I saw how they adoringly held my little munchkin and showed him/her off to the other employees, who would exclaim, “Preciosa!” and “Que guapo!” I knew I had nothing to worry about, and I really appreciated the break!

Children of citizens of other countries who are born in Costa Rica, are granted dual citizenship.  This has helped our children as they’ve travelled around the world, because they can choose which passport to use when they travel, each one with its own benefits. 

Not only are my children bilingual, they are also bi-cultural. They are fully immersed in the Tico (Costa Rican) culture, but being raised by a mom from the U.S., they’ve also inherited lot of their mother’s gringo-isms.  Having a Costa Rican father and family on that side, they eat their share of rice and beans, but get a more international cuisine at my house. 

Costa Rica is a country that is very we” oriented. Ticos (Costa Ricans) are more concerned with the common good, rather than the desires of the individual. One of the first times I witnessed this all-inclusive attitude in our children, was when our five years old daughter stopped in front of the candy section at the checkout counter, staring at all the colorful options. After examining the selection she asked, Mom, can I have five candies?  Baffled, I asked her why she needed five, and she said, So I can give one to each of my friends.”  I don’t think I could have bought them any faster. 

Our son also shares this generous attitude, and instead of selling the soccer cleats he regularly outgrows to help pay for his next pair, he insists on giving them to kids in town who need them.

Our kids don’t understand consumerism. When we visit the U.S., they’re shocked at the the more, more, more attitude and just shake their heads.  However, my son really would have 10 pairs of shoes if I let him, so I suppose a few things truly are genetic!

As I mentioned, the small town we live in is very much like an extended family. I was reminded of this as I led a cultural activity in the central park, and I heard (in Spanish), Matthew, get down out of that tree!”  This might have upset some parents, but all I could think of was how incredible it was to have a whole town watching out for my kids.

When my daughter turned 12 and wanted to hang out with her girlfriends on her own, I knew I didn’t have to worry because they were eating ice cream at the local shop where the owner would keep an eye on them.  I have eyes in every corner of this town.  My kids know that their mom really does know everything they do, and I think that is incredibly cool!

Many people who move to Costa Rica decide to homeschool. In my opinion, I think those people are completely missing the point of raising children in another culture.  Why take children to another country if they aren’t going to play with the locals or learn the language?  But I suppose everyone has their reasons.

I did choose private schools over public schools. Public schools in Costa Rica provide a good education, but children are often sent home if the teacher is out for the day, and as a working mom, that just didn’t work for me. 

My daughter is now in her last year of high school and she is currently taking Physics, Biology, and Chemistry in the same year.  I wouldn’t have been able to take all three sciences at the same time when I was in high school, so yes, I feel the education my children are receiving is excellent. 

Next year, she’ll hopefully get accepted at one of Costa Rica’s five National (public) Universities. Her tuition at the National Universities will be…..yes, wait for it……$300/semester, and that’s without the many scholarships that are available to students! 

The National Universities outrank the country’s private universities in academic rating, because they are so selective about their incoming students. The private universities were established for students who could afford college, but didn’t have the grades to be accepted into a National University.  My fingers are crossed that she will score high enough on her exams to be accepted at a public university next year.

The temperate year-round weather means my kids spend most of their time outside. I often have to ask my son to sit down and play video games for a moment, because his running in and out can drive me crazy! 

He would rather be out playing soccer than doing anything else in the world and my daughter loves to swim. I’m not saying they don’t chat with their friends (that would mean they weren’t teenagers) but they love to be outside. When we’ve visited the U.S. in the winter, they’ve been shocked that the sun could be shining so beautifully and yet it be too cold to get out and enjoy it. They can’t imagine being stuck indoors for days at a time.

One of the downsides being here is that there aren’t many options for organized activities outside of school in this small town.  Fortunately, my son loves soccer, and soccer, karate, swimming, and volleyball are all offered here in Atenas.  However, if someone really wanted their kids to play baseball or other sports, they can be found in the bigger neighboring towns, it would just take a little more work logistically.

Costa Rica isn’t like the U.S. where kids can be involved in four or more after-school activities each week, but maybe that is a good thing.  Enjoying a little free time is part of “Pura Vida”.

Are they missing out on anything else?  I don’t think so. 

Do they have fun?  Yes. 

Are they safe?  Yes. 

Do they have good doctors?  Yes. 

Do they have friends?  Yes. 

Do they have every fast food restaurant?  No, but they can go for homemade food ready at any soda” or small café and get rice, beans, and meat, or hand-made empanadas.  Do they have everything they need in life?  I think so.

When we moved to Costa Rica, we said we would take it two years at a time and see what we thought.  After 18 years, running a community center, having two kids, getting divorced, remarried, and starting  my own business as a real estate agent in Atenas, I can’t imagine raising my kids anywhere else. 

At 17 and 13, my kids have had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the world. I think growing up in Costa Rica, and having travelled around the globe, has made them empathetic, confident, and optimistic global citizens who would be capable of handling almost any situation, and could be content on any continent. 

Being a parent in any country gives you an insight into the culture that you just would never get as a childless adult. You plan field trips, class parties and go to games with other parents. You watch each other’s kids and get to know everyone’s extended family. All of these things give you common ground with the locals. Living in Costa Rica has not only been a great experience for my children, but for me as well. 

I may still be the crazy gringa, but I am also a mother and in Costa Rica, that makes me family.

Tina Newton is a real estate agent and co-owner of Tristan & Newton Real Estate.  She is an entrepreneur and community leader in Atenas.  She was asked to write this article for a new blog page called Penny’s Pura Vida and will be posting more articles in the future.  You can check it out at http://pennyspuravida.com/raising-children-costa-rica/ .  See the FB page or email Tina with any questions you have about real estate in Costa Rica, living in Costa Rica, or helping with activities such as the Swim Campaign for Atenas, the Angel Tree, the Chili Cookoff, or the Chamber of Tourism of Atenas.

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