Third culture kids

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I never knew I was a “third culture kid” (or “TCK”) until I was raising a few myself. As the daughter of an American diplomat, I followed my parents on nine international moves. Our lifestyle was recognised as “strange” only when we were “home” and everything we said took a lot of explaining. Since marrying my husband, who himself became a US diplomat, I have lived in five foreign countries while raising three children. Somewhere along the way, the concept of third culture kids or “global nomads” emerged.

Today, many studies have been conducted and books have been written on the subject, each offering us advice on how to raise these children. I know my parents never read a book about it, and we four turned out pretty well. Despite that, it’s good to have the benefit of some guidance and acknowledgment that raising children in this lifestyle requires some special considerations.

Who are third culture kids?

There is much to say in identifying and understanding common traits – both positive and negative – in those of us who Norma McCaig, founder of Global Nomads International and a pioneer in the field, defined as “anyone who has ever lived abroad before adulthood because of a parent’s occupational choice,” and for whom, as David C. Pollock puts it, “the sense of belonging is related to those of like experience rather than the traditional ways of defining cultural belonging.” In other words, you probably find your comfort zone in those who have had a similar upbringing rather than in a place.

When they become adults, global nomads are known to be observant, flexible, adaptable, tolerant people – individuals who celebrate diversity and for whom difference in thoughts and beliefs is a kind of fascinating beauty rather than a threat. All in all, we are, as sociologist Ted Ward said in 1984, “the prototype citizens of the future” – a pretty amazing set of people who refrain from ethnocentric views in favour of attempting to see things from a multi-dimensional world view. OK, so we’re also generally rootless and restless, often have commitment issues and (supposedly) problems with long-term relationships. We feel different: we are chameleons, but question who we really are and where we really fit in.

What does it mean for parents?

Once I “discovered” I was a global nomad, I began to consider what this meant to me now in terms of raising my own children abroad. Unlike parents for whom moving around was not a childhood experience, I, at least, have a keen empathy for what my children go through when we move and hope that this perspective can benefit me as a parent. But my past by no means serves as a Global Parent’s Manual; as we all know, our families all have unique characteristics and needs. In her book Raising Global Nomads, journalist Robin Pascoe offers two key points for parents to keep in mind: the first is that nobody’s perfect, and the second is that your children are watching. I like this system of checks and balances. We’re all trying to do our best given the circumstances and the unique souls of our children, and while we will make mistakes, we can never stop striving to do better by them – or they’ll call us on the carpet.

If you struggle with having left a job or some other kind of self-identifying infrastructure behind, maybe it will bring some solace in your decision to stay at home to know that, overseas, your child needs you more than ever. I came to terms with not having a full-time job because no matter how much household help was available, I wanted to be there, to offer my children continuity in parenting (defective though it may be) if nothing else. Pascoe’s advice is never to leave the job of parenting to others if you are living abroad. If both parents do work full- or part-time, she recommends having one “front-line parent” who will keep in touch with school and friends, who will be available in case of emergencies, who is aware of all the various aspects of your child’s daily routine. She also recommends frequent, organised family time and trips.

In Raising Global Nomads, Pascoe entreats us to make these our family challenges: to continue to enjoy each other’s company, to support each other, to become active members of the new community, to seek out and appreciate all that life abroad has to offer. To me, that means we should attempt to live fully as individuals, reaching out into the new culture and life, getting involved, each in our own way, but then bringing our experiences home and sharing them with the family. Pascoe says each sibling may respond differently to a move, and home should be “where you don’t need to explain yourself.” There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter kid, so revel in the diversity of your children.

How can we ease the trauma?

Moving is traumatic. During a move, children need constant affirmation of their parents’ love. Parents must be sensitive to their needs and should encourage them to express their feelings. A parent can’t fast forward through the difficult times, but can provide a safe haven until the days when the new place becomes the home, when new friendships solidify, when the child has mourned the old place sufficiently to let go and reach out to the new. But it takes time – it has to – because if it didn’t, then it would be disloyal to the past and imply a shallowness of the new life. TCKs must allow a period of transition (often up to an entire year) during which the last home is honoured and maybe even lauded. “Until TCKs can acknowledge that proper mourning for the inevitable losses in their lives is an affirmation of the richness of the past rather than a negation of the present, they will continue to deny any grief they have felt,” say Third Culture Kids authors David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken. There is not one place I have lived that I don’t treasure as a wonderful experience. Change is difficult, sure, but also incredibly enriching.

When we were growing up, my brothers and I used to regale our parents with daily reports when we first started a new school in a new country. It was almost as though there was a competition for who could recount the most awkward moment or most embarrassing situation. It was cathartic after a day of intense estrangement to be able to laugh in the bosom of our family. My mother had a rule; we rolled our eyes at it but I now see its intrinsic worth: The first six months we were in a new place, we could only criticise if we offered a compliment after the complaint. And if we moaned about how something was better in the last country, we had to add something we found better in the new. We came up with silly, flippant retorts, but, nevertheless, it forced a positive outlook and made us laugh. Laughter feels good. So does crying, sometimes. (My mother, during one stressful move, fell sobbing to the floor after lightly bumping her head, much to the horror of my little brother and me as we hovered over her slumped body. She finally managed to utter between sobs, “It just feels good to cry!” This became a mantra in our household.) Sharing emotions can benefit others in the family, too.

Is it a good thing?

Children of world-transient families are privileged and it’s our job as parents to prove why. How we best accomplish this may be impossible to know. But how does any parent ever know she’s really doing the right thing? The simile-adroit journalist Thomas Friedman wrote, “It was like working in a dark cave with the aid of a single candle. Just when you thought you had spotted the white light of Truth, you would chase it only to discover that it was someone else, also holding a candle, also looking for the light,” (From Beirut to Jerusalem, 1989). The passage struck a chord with me. His simile was not meant for the perpetual quest for confirmation of good parenting, but rather for a journalist trying to interpret the facts in war-torn Beirut. Nevertheless, it struck me as befitting, especially for parents of global nomads. In some ways, perhaps, it suits the plight of the global nomad child, too: just when she gets comfortable, it’s time to move again.

Ultimately, the same instincts hold true for parents anywhere. Things aren’t so different just because the venue changes. Unconditional love and providing that bedrock of support; finding a healthy balance between letting your kids explore and shielding them from harm; and maintaining a positive spin on life whatever befalls us; if we can do all of this, it will be a job well done. And if problems arise (of course, they will), well, try not to blame the place.

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Additional resources for raising kids overseas

As our planet figuratively grows ever smaller and more families move to foreign lands, many books and resources are emerging to make the transition smoother, less traumatic and more rewarding. Here are a few (but by no means all) particularly helpful resources available to parents raising global children:

Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, by David C. Pollack and Ruth Van Reken, is known to be the first book to give TCKs a real voice, to fully identify and develop the concept of these children who grow up internationally nomadic.

Culture Shock! Successful Living Abroad: A Parent’s Guide, by Robin Pascoe, written in 1993, deals with the preparations in readying the family for a move overseas. It includes checking out schools and coping with the pressures of dealing with a foreign language, learning disabilities and children’s emotions and anxieties from the packing stage through to early resettlement.

Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World was written by Robin Pascoe in 2006 with that many more years of experience under her belt and a nod to a post-9/11 world acknowledging security issues and cautions. She has sage advice, natural savvy and a great sense of humour, adding some of her own trials and errors of motherhood.

The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman, is recommended especially for trailing spouses and families with children, even by veteran expats who have had several overseas experiences. The book guides you on a plethora of topics from gathering information and planning a move, to handling pets and teens, to adapting to a new place.

Parenting Abroad, by Ngaire Jehle-Caitcheon, a mother with 26 years of expatriate experience, offers a guide with practical, useful insights into the many complex issues that challenge parents raising children in a foreign country.

Notes from a Traveling Childhood, edited by Karen C. McCluskey, is an anthology of accounts by parents, children, researchers and mental health professionals about the effects of international moves on children. The book “tries to present the emotions, the difficulties, and the joys of parenting internationally” through the words of those who have been there.

The Art of Crossing Cultures, by Craig Storti, may not address parenting directly, but is a helpful, funny, anecdotal book the whole family can read to create a healthy mindset when approaching a new culture.

Where in the World Are You Going? is an entertaining book with activities and pictures, written by Judith M. Blohm, to engage children aged five to ten to help explain cultural differences and make an international move easier.

Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global, by Faith Eidse and Nina Sichel, presents 20 stirring memoirs of childhoods spent packing, written by both world-famous and first-time authors, making the story of growing up displaced feel universal.

Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering is an anthology of essays collected and edited by Suzanne Kamata. Mothers from around the world ask and answer questions such as, “What happens when your child doesn’t speak your native language?” “How do you maintain cultural traditions while living outside your native country?” And, “How can you raise a child with two cultures without fracturing his/her identity?”

Robin Pascoe’s website, www.expatexpert.com, has links to articles on parenting, chat rooms and blogs (including her own).

www.expatexchange.com contains articles written and submitted by expats on subjects from having a baby abroad to bullying in overseas schools.

www.talesmag.com, the website for Tales From a Small Planet, has fiction and nonfiction stories, poetry, practical tips and information from those who are “there”, “Real Post Reports” on different countries, book reviews and links to information on schools. Fun for adults and children, this is a useful and entertaining site.

www.expatwomen.com is a website for women who are living overseas. It includes a page for mothers with links to many pertinent articles on raising children overseas, country-specific links, information on books, a monthly newsletter and lots of interviews with women living abroad.

www.tckid.com, a forum for both children who are now TCKs and adults who were raised as TCKs, has chat rooms, stories, games and information on organisations, and blogs, counsellors, meeting announcements and more.

www.familylifeabroad.com is another website with articles submitted by expats and anecdotes of funny, unusual experiences abroad. This is a fun place to while away some hours you should be spending out creating adventures of your own!

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