Third Culture Kids

March 13, 2023

online tutor heather b

We Chose this International Life

My family and I moved away from the United States back in 2010. At that time, my kids were 2, 4 and 5. Since that move, they’ve never lived in the U.S., but instead, have now lived in three additional countries, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Spain. When people ask them where they’re from, there’s usually a pause to think about the question and what the appropriate response should be. One of them often asks, am I from the U.S. or am I from Singapore (as we lived in Singapore for 8 of the 12 years overseas)? Another will say the U.S. for ease of conversation and moving on, and the other I think still holds onto the U.S. as a sense of permanence and identity, but also knows that 12 years outside of their home country is more than ¾ of their life. My kids are 100% third culture kids. They are amongst many others in their International schools, all trying to figure out who they are, where they are at the time, and where they are from. After all, that’s usually in the top three questions you’re asked when you meet someone new, “where are you from?” Who knew that simple question could bring up so many emotions. Just this past weekend, I had a lovely coffee morning with three other expat moms, and we commented on our kids' abilities to assimilate into new environments easily (or so it appears), and how their college prospects shifted from returning to their home countries, to staying overseas. But what does this all mean for our kiddos who are raised overseas?

online tutor heather b

What is a Third Culture Kid?

Firstly, let's define what a third culture kid is. A TCK is a person who has spent a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents' culture. They have absorbed elements of various cultures, be it language, style, customs, or other aspects, resulting in a unique identity of their own, one that is not wholly that of their home passport country nor the country they are currently residing. They often have a sense of belonging to multiple cultures but can also feel like they don't fully belong in any of them. And if they’re anything like one of my kiddos, they may have a completely unique “accent” of their own, sounding something like a mix of British, South African, Kiwi and Aussie. My kids miss so many aspects of the UAE and Singapore, from smells and traditions, to food and friends. It's not uncommon to hear my daughters singing the UAE's national anthem once in a while, but ask them to sing the USA's anthem and they can't. Maybe that's a fault of ours, or is it? 

According to the definition by the late Ruth Hill Useem, a sociologist who first coined the term "third culture kids," these children "are the products of families that relocate across international boundaries for multiple reasons such as business, missionary, military, or research." In our case, we relocated for work, as I took an International teaching position, thinking we'd return after two years, but those two years have quickly turned into twelve.

What Do Parents Need to Understand?

There are many reasons why it's important for parents to understand what a TCK is, and I was so thankful that I finally had a name for what I was witnessing with my own children. In fact, as a teacher, I took a course called Teaching & Leading Third Culture Kids from a colleague, Leigh Martin, just to learn more and sure that I could do for other parents’ children, what I hoped was being done for mine each time we moved.  One reason it’s important to understand TCKs is they often struggle with a sense of identity and belonging, no matter where they are. They may feel like they don't fully belong in their passport country, but also may not feel fully connected to the culture they are currently living in. I see this a lot in my own kids, and I’ve seen it during certain units of study in my classroom, such as migration units. One year, several years ago, I stumbled across this beautiful story of repatriation that referred to these children as triangles. Since then, I’ve also seen them referred to as waves, because a triangle is just too rigid and fixed, and that’s not really what a TCK is, is it? These kids ebb and flow into and out of their surroundings, friend groups and emotions. They may identify strongly with one country one minute, and it could change the next.

It's important for parents to understand what a TCK is because it can impact their children's development, education, and relationships. TCKs often struggle with a sense of identity and belonging, especially when they move to a new country or school, as I mentioned earlier. They’ll be innocently asked, “where are you from?”, and the reply may cause a bit of anxiety, or as I’ve often seen, a retort of “I don’t know, everywhere it seems.” They may also have a hard time forming long-lasting friendships, and may also struggle with the loss of relationships when they move away. Our first year in Singapore, our school (my kids attended the same school where I taught) had an International Fiesta. Everyone dresses up in their traditional clothing from the country with which they identify, and food from all the countries is served, amongst games and fun. It truly was an amazing cultural event! I remember it was really easy for my kids the first couple of years, they dressed up as if from the USA. But by the 5th-8th years being there, it began to feel strange. We haven't been back to the US, but here we are, dressing up for the USA because it's "expected". 

These kids tend to move countries at least a couple times in their lives, which means our children will either be the ‘leaver’ or the ‘leavee’. My kids have been both, as have I, and neither one seems to be “better” than the other. As the leaver, you go through the ups and downs of saying goodbyes to everyone, trying to find closure for yourself, packing up, perhaps downsizing again which means saying goodbye to personal artifacts, and once again, coming to terms with learning a new culture and finding your place, once again. You also are acutely aware of the fact that you need to find a new tribe, your people, those you're going to connect with and spend time with, and that's hard. As the leavee…there’s a slight sense of comfort, a whisper of “I’m still here” in your head. You cry saying goodbye to your friends leaving, but you have the security of knowing you’re staying with your remaining friends, school, community and belongings…for the time being. See, a lot of leavees know that one day, they’ll most likely be a leaver too. 

We all handle these differently. It's easy to say, "it's not goodbye, it's talk soon or see you later!", but in reality, life moves on, for both the leaver and the leavee. We all have families, careers, other friend groups to maintain, and suddenly, days can turn into weeks which can turn into months before you hear from that person you were so close to. It's no one's fault, but I think there are many more emotions for the leaver as they deal with the impact of the move, adjusting to a new culture (and perhaps language) and find their tribe. There might also be a sense of pride, not wanting to admit you're having a hard time in your new country, or maybe even a feeling like a burden those you reach out to with feeling sad and missing your friends. But what I can say, is thank goodness for platforms like FaceTime and WhatsApp, and in my son's case, Discord. Through these, my kids, and myself, have been able to stay in touch with close friends over the years, no matter where we are. I’m so thankful that this option is available these days, and I’m so impressed by how often they talk, as if no time has passed, whether it be gaming, vlogging or an actual video call. It allows the connection to remain, but it takes work, commitment and the willingness to set aside time for those friendships to remain strong. As I write this, we have our Aussie friends from the UAE coming to stay with us in Spain (they also came to stay with us in Singapore!), my husband's niece is adding us onto to her European trip, and I'm pretty sure I'll be seeing a familiar face from Singapore this week! I have a weekly every other week standing Google Meet with a colleague as well. It's made it a lot easier on us, knowing those people are still there in our corner, and I KNOW it's made a world of difference to my kids as they settle into their new country.

online tutor heather b

TCKs and Education

Education is also impacted by a child's status as a TCK. They may struggle with adjusting to a new educational system, language, and curriculum. It can be difficult for TCKs to stay on track academically when moving from country to country, as they may have gaps in their education or may be ahead of their peers in certain subjects. I see this all the time, and the age ranges in my classroom could be vast. Switching from British to IB to American curriculums, and acknowledging the gaps between each is often a struggle for the TCKs. My own kids have had to switch among systems; one had to repeat a grade due to the age restrictions in one country versus another, and the other was really behind when she moved school, which surprised her new teacher. Even with this last move, my son had to join an online school for his senior year as there were no in school options for him to transfer to due to the IB or A-Levels. It’s not to say this is a bad thing, but we need to be mindful of this, as expats and International educators, making sure we’re providing resources for these kids. 

When it comes to education, parents should look for schools that are aware of the unique needs of TCKs. These schools should provide support for social and emotional learning, as well as academic support for children who may be struggling to adjust to a new educational system or language. I haven’t seen many schools with specific induction type programs which address this issue, but I do know there are plenty of schools who live and breathe social emotional learning as part of their vision and mission, so make sure to inquire. As a parent, you have every right to make sure your school is aware of TCKs and that they can provide you with information on how they will help your child assimilate. These schools should also offer opportunities for TCKs to connect with other children who share similar experiences, which can include extracurricular activities, cultural events, or clubs that focus on internationalism.

online tutor heather b

Supporting Your TCK

In conclusion, understanding what a third culture kid is and how being one can impact your child's development, education, and relationships is crucial. By seeking out schools that offer support for TCKs and connecting with resources and organizations that focus on TCKs, parents can help their children thrive in their unique global identities. There’s absolutely a world of opportunity out there, and I never for one minute regret picking up my kids and moving across the world. There’s so much to see, learn and understand about the world around us. I’m just glad that I now understand some of the effects of being a TCK, what to look out for and how I can help.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on your own TCKs and how you’ve navigated through it all! Comment below!


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Resources that Might Help

The website of the organization Families in Global Transition (FIGT) offers resources, articles, and support for families who are living globally.

The book "Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds" by Ruth E. Van Reken and David C. Pollock is a comprehensive guide to understanding and supporting TCKs.

The website of TCKid, a global community for third culture kids, offers resources and support for TCKs of all ages.