5 things that parents of third culture kids should understand

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The world gets smaller everyday so the likelihood of hearing a variety of different accents in random parts of the world is quite high. This, of course, means that the number of so-called third culture kids (TCKs) has increased dramatically over the last half a century or so. I touched on this briefly in a previous post. According to Dr. Ruth Useem, who coined the term in the 1950s, third culture kids are children and adults (adult TCKs) who are/were raised in a different culture or cultures to their parent culture during the developmental stages of their lives. Consequently, they develop and adopt a third, hybrid culture which is effectively a combination of these constituent cultures.

Extensive research has been done into how such an upbringing impacts on a child psychologically, spiritually and even economically as they transition into adulthood. The pros of growing up a TCK generally outweigh the cons but, in terms of linguistic and cultural identity, the experience can be perplexing and challenging for TCKs and their parents. In some cases, it can be somewhat depressing. As an adult TCK myself, I can strongly identify with the tensions that sometimes arise between TCKs and their parents with regards to issues of identity.

For some parents, feelings of guilt or sadness are common because they lament moving their children all over the world and long for them to appreciate their home culture. On the other hand, there are some parents of TCKs who would prefer to forget their culture completely. Whatever the case may be, there are a few things parents should bear in mind when it comes to raising their TCKs and helping them forge a sense of identity.

  • Home for you cannot be home for us

Some people may still possess strong feelings of loyalty and devotion to their home country when they emigrate. That’s a wonderful thing but it isn’t something that their TCKs can relate to. TCKs spend most of their lives living outside the countries where their parents were raised and may only ever visit briefly for the occasional weddings, funerals, Christmases and holidays. In some cases, family trips back ‘home’ may grow tiresome and feel like a chore due to vast differences in culture and perspective. Despite TCKs being treated like locals by friends and family in their countries of origin many still feel like outsiders. Our parent culture is foreign to us and it’s therefore difficult for us to accept it outright as our own. So as much as our parents would like us to be – or believe us to be – patriots of their home country, the reality is, we’re not. Parents shouldn’t feel hurt or offended if their children do not consider their passport country to be home. One can hardly return to a place that was never really home to begin with.

  • It’s important to know our heritage – even if it doesn’t mean much to you anymore

This is for the parents who would prefer to forget their home country. Knowing where one comes from is essential in shaping one’s identity going forward. Although negative experiences of their home country may be something some immigrant parents wish to share with their trans-culture kids, they should share the positives as well. It’s essential to instil a sense of pride in our heritage without forcibly imposing it on us. It’s quite disheartening to sometimes feel like you don’t really belong anywhere. In contrast to friends who have grown up surrounded by extended family and childhood friends, TCKs do not always have the same experience of intimately knowing grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles or retaining long-term friendships. Learning more about our parents’ origins is a good way for TCKs to better understand our parents and their beliefs and feel more attached to the family.

Since the Apple iOS9 software update, which includes the flags of all the countries of the world in its emoji keyboard, I have seen several social media account bios and Whatsapp display names proudly sporting the flags of the users’ countries of origin. In the case of my fellow TCKs, two or three flags have been put on display at a time. This just goes to show that many of us are quite proud to make known that we are cultural chameleons and take pride in the constituents of our cultural identity.

  • Don’t feel bad about raising us in another country. We often admire you for it and are grateful to you in the long run

TCKs spend a significant amount of time away from extended family and are constantly leaving friends behind. We feel closest to our immediate family with whom we share many momentous life experiences in different locations. It’s something many of us are grateful for because it has made us more open-minded and willing to embrace many people of different backgrounds. The example our parents have set for us by stepping out of their comfort zones and travelling abroad for work or study has instilled in us a thirst to know more about, and explore, the world.

We’ve had to give up friends, family, schools and childhood homes as we’ve followed you across the globe but it’s been the most amazing learning experience. As much as being the new kid at school sucks, you’ve helped us get through it all.

  • We’re not in a hurry to assimilate to our ancestral culture

We’ve grown accustomed to either a nomadic lifestyle or an entirely different culture to your own. TCKs may sometimes regard their parents’ views, cultural practices and traditions as antiquated, irrational or unnecessary so we may find it difficult to accept their culture. We may also feel no desire to settle in our country of origin. This is the case for a number of reasons.

First, we’re not often given a proper opportunity to learn much about our parent culture in the time when we’re trying to assimilate to a new one. Learning more about the parent culture takes a back seat to the need to fit in and feel like a part of the society we actually live in.

Second, learning a language also comes with its own challenges and issues. In an article I read last year, the author documented his experiences of trying to teach Hebrew (his mother’s language) to his young daughter. Through this exercise, he came to realise his daughter showed very little interest in learning the language because he only ever spoke to her in Hebrew when he was giving her commands or scolding her. She thus came to associate the language with discipline and negative emotions. A number of TCKs have had the experience of our parents reprimanding us while speaking their mother tongue. That, amongst other things, can cause us to drift further away from our parent culture. Plus, when you’re learning a language that doesn’t have a bearing on making new friends or your future career plans, it doesn’t seem worthwhile.

Last, many parents expect their children to readily accept their cultural practices without question simply because that’s what their people do. It is essential that parents endeavour to explain these practices and traditions as much as possible. With a few competing cultures to deal with, a TCK’s third culture takes precedence and if a parent of a TCK has any hope of their child accepting theirs, they need to properly explain why things are the way they are. A TCK is very unlikely to want to take these on and preserve their ancestral culture without understanding the purpose of these practices.

  • Our peers may not always understand our unique circumstances. We don’t need that from our parents as well.

For a lot of trans-culture kids, identity cannot necessarily be linked to one specific geographical location. TCKs may feel we don’t belong to our parent culture because we seem to be on a completely different wavelength. But, at the same time, we also feel misunderstood by our peers. I’ve always been most comfortable around my fellow TCKs with whom I share the same quirky traits and experiences.  Parents should be prepared for their TCKs to, at times, be very different to how they might have hoped. They should also try as much as possible to accept their children for who they are in spite of the fact that they may not speak their mother tongue or feel compelled to observe the traditions of their ancestral culture. That’s not to say that parents should totally give up on helping their children familiarise themselves with the many great aspects of their culture. On the contrary, this is encouraged. However, we also need to feel heard. It can’t be easy for a parent to have something they care about so deeply being lost on their children but parents should be wary of forcing this upon their TCKs.

I’m not a parent and I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to raise a child but being an adult third culture kid, I have an acute understanding of the struggles a lot of TCKs go through in forging an identity. While this is difficult for a child to have deal with, it can be just as challenging for their parent who has also given up friends, family and some aspects of their own cultural identity while adapting to life outside their native country. It is thus essential for parents and their TCKs to find common ground. TCKs need parental guidance and support in order to figure out exactly where they belong in today’s world, especially when it seems that no one understands them.


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