Moving To Panama With Kids And The Unexpected Results

Growing Up In Panama—Why Panama Is A Top Choice For Raising A Family

My son Jackson was born in Ireland. When he was 4 years old, our family moved from Waterford to Paris, where Jackson started school at the maternelle (kindergarten) down the street from our apartment. He finished first through third grades in Paris… then, when he was 8, we moved to Panama.

Jackson is 17 this month. He has now lived half his life in Panama City.

How did that happen, I wonder…

Lief and I did not set out to raise our son in Panama. We came to this country to start a business and intended to return to Paris before Jackson was in high school. We thought we’d spend three or four years in Panama City full time, establish the Live and Invest Overseas operation, then return to Paris to open a satellite office.

We imagined ourselves traveling back and forth between the two cities every six weeks or so.

At the end of four years of effort, however, the LIOS infrastructure wasn’t stable enough for Lief and me to leave it for extended periods.

By the time the business was strong enough to carry on without Lief and me in full-time residence and we told Jackson that we were ready to re-adjust our home base back to Paris, Jackson surprised us by saying he didn’t want to go.

Jackson asked if he could stay and finish high school in Panama City.

While we weren’t paying attention, our son had put down Panamanian roots. While, if you ask, he’ll tell you that Paris is his favorite place to be, when given the chance two years ago to return there, he passed.

As his mother, I have to admit I was not only gratified but also a little relieved to find out how happy Jackson is with his Panama life.

Panama City isn’t Paris. All these years in Panama I’ve wondered if we weren’t letting Jackson down by basing him, during his most formative years, in the Hub of the Americas after he’d had a taste of the City of Light.

When I decided I wanted to start the Live and Invest Overseas business, Lief and I knew that meant leaving France.

“But where to?” I asked Lief that afternoon in Paris when I first told him I wanted to go into business for myself.

“Panama” was his immediate response.

However, before we committed to Panama, we confirmed something we’d heard some years before—that Panama City is home to a French school.

I don’t mean a school where French is taught… or where classes are in French… but a school administered by the French Ministry of Education.

France exports its education system. It’s a unique model that includes more than 480 primary and secondary schools in 130 countries. These schools could all be in France. They follow the same curriculum and calendar as French schools and are staffed by French teachers. Textbooks, exams, field trips, extracurricular options, and grading are all just the same as in France.

For Lief and me, it was important that Jackson retain his French fluency and that he be educated as part of a global program.

In addition, again, when we came to Panama, our plan was to be here full time three or four years. By attending a French school in Panama City, we figured, Jackson’s transition back to Paris for high school would be transparent.

Our plan didn’t work out as originally conceived. Still, we are happy today with our school choice. Jackson will graduate this year with a French baccalaureate from a French lycée that just happens to be located in Panama.

In addition to the Paul Gauguin Lycée Français, Panama City is home to 13 international schools. A parent moving to this city today has many good choices for where and how to educate his (or her) child.

Educational options are the priority starting point when considering relocating to a new country with school-aged children. The next question for us was to do with lifestyle.

What would Jackson’s life be like in Panama City, Lief and I wondered nine years ago when we first considered the idea.

Back then we imagined that the answer to that question would have a lot to do with beach escapes and jungle adventures, and, these past eight-and-a-half years, Jackson has enjoyed both. He has zip-lined through the Panamanian jungle canopy, seen alligators up close, journeyed through the Panama Canal on a friend’s family’s private boat, learned to surf, fished for marlin, and camped among the indigenous Guna on the white sand of San Blas Islands.

However, Jackson’s life in Panama has evolved to become more cosmopolitan than outdoorsman. As Jackson has grown up these past eight-plus years, so has Panama City. Always the only real city in Central America, Panama City today is more of a real city than ever. Our day-to-day life here with 17-year-old Jackson looks a lot like our day-to-day life might look with 17-year-old Jackson living in a comparably sized city anywhere.

Jackson and I are up by 6 a.m. each morning. He walks his dog while I make his lunch. He showers, packs his backpack, and heads down to the lobby of our apartment building to wait for his bus… along with dozens of other kids in our building doing likewise.

The bus returns Jackson to our place by 4 p.m. each afternoon. Two days a week he changes and heads back out the door for a fencing lesson. Otherwise, it’s homework, video games, dinner with his dad and me, and bed.

Weekends he goes to parties, movies, and dinner dates. Some of his friends have gotten Panama driver’s licenses… and he’s nagging for his. I’m resisting because I think Panama City is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be behind the wheel of a car. For now and as long as I can continue to resist his nagging, Jackson Ubers.

In addition to fencing lessons, over the past eight years, Jackson has also taken martial arts, swimming, surfing, horse riding, tennis, guitar, and piano classes. He has played in a basketball league and, when he was younger, Pokémon tournaments.

My point is that a kid in Panama City can engage in any of the activities a kid might want to engage in anywhere in the world.

One thing a child reared in Panama City could be said to miss out on is culture of the kind you find in a city like, say, Paris. We have tried to compensate for this by filling Jackson’s summers with do-it-ourselves Grand Tour family holidays in Europe.

And we try to round it all out by making sure Jackson visits our family in the States at least once a year.

I’ve been recommending Panama as a top retirement haven for the past 20 years. Today my endorsement is broader.

Today I add that Panama can also be one of the best places in the world to raise a family.

Kathleen Peddicord