Third Culture Kids
March 13, 2023
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?
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?
TCKs and Education
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!