Who are Third Culture Kids?
- How do you know that your children are third culture kids?
- They speak five languages fluently but can barely spell in one.
I first heard this joke in the expat community in Georgia, the fourth country we moved to in six years. My younger son Michal flew from Poland to the US before he could walk. My older son Pawel got an essay award in English before he knew the Polish alphabet. In the US, the boys spoke Polish and English; in Kosovo, they added Serbian and a bit of Albanian; in Georgia, they learned Russian and a bit of Georgian. By the time they were eight and fifteen, they were fluent in at least three languages but could only read and write in one that was not their native.
“A third culture kid is an individual who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years in a culture other than that of the parents, resulting in integration of elements from both the host culture and parental culture into a third culture.”
Since 1999, when David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken first published their famous book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, numbers of expats worldwide have grown to tens of millions. By the time you finish reading this post, at least five people will have moved abroad for the first time. In the globalized world of today, it is no longer unthinkable to move with your children, no matter how small, from one country to the next.
Being a parent on the move
But when my children were little, I heard many times that it would be irresponsible of me, a single mother of two, to follow my passion and take my kids to post-conflict places or countries in a permanent state of transition. And there were, indeed, some tough moments. I remember a winter in Kosovo when our city was without electricity for days, and the house we lived in grew so cold that one morning we found a bottle of cooking oil frozen solid in the kitchen. After we moved into our first place in Georgia, I found a stray bullet on the stove where I cooked dinner the night before – someone celebrating the New Year accidentally shot it through our kitchen window.
Still, such extreme situations were rare. I always believed that I could make it work, and I learned how to make it work for myself and for the boys. Even though every time we moved, we had to start from zero, with each move it became easier to make practical arrangements that would give my children a sense of a stable “home”, wherever we were.
I found decent schools, reliable childcare and trusted doctors in places where social services were crap. Rented good yet affordable places to live, safe for the kids and a reasonable distance from school and from my workplace. Hired reliable drivers for school pick-ups in countries where using child seats or seatbelts was considered shameful, but dangerous driving was a primary cause of death. Figured out which locally available food my kids would like and where to get it. Located entertainment options and places where I could buy things for children. Made childcare plans when I had to go on work trips. Arranged Christmas celebrations in countries that had very different traditions. Planned vacations when I did not have enough leave days to cover the entire duration of kids’ school breaks.
As complicated as it sounds, these are just logistics, and logistics are manageable if you plan in advance and ask for help when you need it.
Where do your kids belong?
Then comes the psychological and social part. When you live a nomadic life, where do you belong? For me and many people I meet, a seemingly simple question “where is home?” evokes a moment of confused silence, usually followed by “you know, it’s complicated.” How do you give your children a sense of belonging when no-one in your house knows exactly where “home” is?
Pollock and Van Reken write that moving kids around from one place to another, one social group to the next can make them rootless, struggling with personal identity and loyalty. But they also talk about advantages that, I believe, outweigh the challenges. As my kids were growing up, I quickly saw that they were very different than their peers who never left the city where they were born. Being multilingual and knowing various cultures, my boys were less judgmental of people from different backgrounds. They found it easier to connect with people they didn’t know, and understood that there was more than one way to look at situations they experienced. They were more able to register social norms around them and adapt to changing situations.
Today, I see their inner strength and resilience as a reflection of that nomadic lifestyle. They both went to live abroad as young adults – whatever “abroad” means for a perpetual nomad. They never feared the move and were excited about the novelty of a place. They are, each in his own way, flexible when it comes to emotions, people and situations, and better able to cope with change. When meeting new people, they are at ease and curious, ask questions and listen actively. They are proud to be open-minded, having experienced different cultures and understanding them.
Looking at my two young men, I think that perhaps the most important responsibility of a third culture kids’ parent is not to help them find a place on the map to call home, but rather to help them embrace their identity as global citizens.
- Tanya Crossman, the the author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, and her informative recommended reading list
- A review of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by Pollock and Van Reken
- A nice short overview of key points from the book
- TCK World – The Official Home of Third Culture Kids, a bottomless mine of useful resources for TCKs and their parents
- TCKid, an active global community of TCK adults and youth across geographical boundaries
- The Instagram page of my TCK son Pawel and his artistic photography
- The post about our first moves – to the US and to Kosovo