Dealing with your Third Culture Kid

Published on 2019-08-13 at 13:24 by Maria Iotova
Work, curiosity, quality of life (or all of these combined) are excellent reasons to move to a new country. But expatriating with a child brings some legit, culture-related points to the equation of the expat life. How does raising a child in an environment that is unfamiliar even to you as a parent impacts their upbringing and cultural identity? Read through to find out ways to help your child navigate through the culture of your host country, and make the most of being a Third Culture Kid.

What is a Third Culture Kid?

The term Third Culture Kid was first introduced by the American sociologist Dr. Ruth Hill Useem in the 1960s. Reflecting on her family's expat experience in India, Dr. Useem used the term “third culture” to express the integration of a child's birth culture (first) into the host's country culture (second), resulting in a unique lifestyle (third) — characterised by new beliefs and values.   

In 2001, the contribution of authors Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock brought greater clarity to the notion of Third Culture Kid (TCK). Today, it is from their best-selling book “Third Culture Kids: Growing UP Among Worlds” that we take the definition of this phenomenon. Thus, a TCK is someone “who has spent a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents' culture.” 

Third Culture Kids don't hold on to their parents' culture, nor are assimilated by the culture of their host country. Instead, they build up their exclusive set of ethics and behaviours, and somehow relate to many cultures, without having full ownership of any. 

How are Third Culture Kids different 

A lot of research has been done before social scientists concluded the characteristics that distinguish TCKs. First, TCKs have strong cross-cultural skills, meaning that they build meaningful relationships with people from other cultures. They respect diversity and see it as a catalyst for creativity and growth rather than a hurdle. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that later in their lives, TCKs are among the most flexible employees, tend to remain calm in stressful situations, and apply critical thinking before making important decisions.   

Third Culture Kids are avid observers of their environment, and curious to learn about the world. They are attracted to anything different. TCKs are keeping an open mind towards personalities and situations before jumping to conclusions. At the same time, being so used to change, TCKs have built a strong sense of confidence and self-reliance. One moment, TCKs can be outgoing team players, and the next they are introverted personalities figuring out their new environment on their own.  

Katina from Brisbane, Australia is a mother to Alex, who has lived for most of his five years in Kigali, Rwanda. When asked about the benefits of raising a TCK in Rwanda, Katina said: “Here, Alex is introduced to different norms and traditions. From a health perspective, he is exposed to germs that build up his immunity. He learns to communicate in different languages and interacts with people, respecting diversity from a very young age. Growing without an extended family teaches him to be flexible and independent. At the same time, he learns to be friendly and trusting. Also, in Rwanda, there isn't over-consumerism, and Alex knows how to be happy with simple things.” 

Challenges of raising a Third Culture Kid

Of course, there are downsides too in the upbringing of TCKs, as psychologists find feelings of rootlessness and restlessness to be common among TCKs. Precisely, they may feel that they don't belong anywhere; their identity is at stake, and that it's unfair or even unmanageable to have to go through farewells and “losses.” The losses can be anything from materials to routines, and people to whom they have to say goodbye. 

Is Katina concerned about Alex's rootlessness and restlessness? “I come from a Greek background where our family has lived in the same house for 40 years and are very sentimental about their possessions. Here, I am very attuned to the fact that we are solo — Alex, myself, and my husband. So, it's me who is struggling with rootlessness. For Alex, home is wherever mom and dad are. However, I believe he will be a restless adventurer.” 

As a parent, it is crucial to understand that expatriating with your child is very likely to form their personality differently. So, you must be ready to support your child through the process of expatriation, as well as help it deal with the consequences of third culture. 

Even though TCKs appear to be resilient due to the changes they go through and the exposure to different circumstances, parents should maintain ongoing communication with their child. Often, according to experts, TCKs are prone to bottling up emotions, and parents find it hard to pinpoint the causes of their troubles at a later stage of their lives. Talk with your child about the changes and their experiences of them. Also, when they are a bit older, make sure to involve them in your expat plans such as the selection of the expat destination, packing, house searching, and schooling.  

Rudi from Johannesburg, South Africa is a father of three (five, three, and one and a half years old). A few months ago, he moved with his family to Kigali, Rwanda for work. What are his thoughts about the struggles of TCKs? “We are friends with several TCKs, and my wife grew up in France for the first eight years of her life, so we see that the 'rootlessness' and 'restlessness' is certainly not something that all TCKs struggle with, but mostly those that did not have a strong family dynamic. TCKs who have a strong family dynamic have developed a sense of 'home' that is more attached to meaningful relationships than a location or cultural circumstances. So we are not worried, but we are very aware of the importance of making sure our family dynamic is strong, loving, and secure because the environment is not necessarily so.” 

“Are you worried about the time your children will have to say goodbye to Rwanda?”. Rudi explained: “Not really. We have been more concerned about making sure they have a great first few months. But we have been consistent in telling them that Rwanda is a place where we will make our home for a while, not for always. So we will probably approach it the way we did when we left South Africa — by showing them pictures and telling them stories about the next place, reading books, and looking at videos of the place, and getting them excited about the move even before announcing it.”