22 March 2016

Third Culture Kids

I spent a lovely morning with new and old friends, hearing stories and discussing raising third culture kids.

Definition: A third culture kid is a child who does not live in their ‘passport’ or ‘home’ country. They take their parents culture and combine it with the culture of the country they are living in. This melds two cultures into one, creating a unique third culture that the child grows up in.

This is an obvious side-effect of our decision to live overseas… I have four third culture kids!

This is not a new topic for me. I’ve thought about this for years, I’ve read the book on this topic, and Mike and I have always asked many questions of families that have gone before us to learn from their experience. But it was good this morning to hear from some new friends… one  who was a third culture kid fifty years ago, one a young woman who is a third culture kid but now living back in her passport nation, another a mother who raised three third culture kids, and others like me, who are in the throws of raising a small swarm of third culture kids in their homes as I type!

However in the past my own experience with third culture kids was more connected to things like my kids being shocked that there are metal boxes in the store that stream out cold and clean drinking water for anyone to drink from, trying to learn to throw toilet paper in the toilet after throwing it in the trash can for many years, and being scared from automatically opening doors at the supermarket. (These were some of my children’s challenges as we moved back to the U.S. after many years in our previous African country).

But now my kids are older and things are getting more real up in here.

Reading a book is one thing. Hearing stories, listening to experiences and asking questions is infinitely more valuable. Here are some of my takeaways (I think I’m really just processing here today..)

1. It’s important to be intentional with my children. On this topic and on so many others. I would like to spur more conversation around this topic as God brings opportunities to help the children process their experience, which is different from many other children in their school and in their life.

2. Watch my tongue. My kids are forming ideas about culture (our own and our host culture and even other nationalities) all the time. And I better BELIEVE they are listening to how Mike and I talk about cultures and people from all nationalities. I need to WATCH. MY. TONGUE. They are learning from me.

3. There is no silver bullet. Some kids turn out great, others struggle. There is no perfect formula and there are no guarantees. However, as my Dutch friend reminded me… there are no guarantees for young people NO MATTER WHERE  they live or how you raise them. This is not an isolated challenge of raising third culture kids... this is just life. We parents try our best and must trust the rest to God. This is true around the world in any possible scenario.

4. There are many good things about being raised overseas. There are also many challenges. I cannot live life seeing all the things I think my kids are ‘missing’ out on in America. Yes, they are missing out on some things, but they are also very enriched in other areas. I must step back to see that perspective. A great antidote for this is modeling gratefulness in all things.

5. I would like to pray more. I also might like to put together some sort of short material that I could share with others who would like to specifically pray for my (or anyone’s) third culture kids. It’s a unique challenge and I feel that some certain and specific prayers for them would be so very valuable. It can be heart wrenching to watch my children hurt and struggle because of the life decisions Mike and I have made. A strong prayer covering for them might take away some of my guilt! *gulp*

6. Focus more on biblical worldview in kid language (I have no actual idea how to do this). Different cultures have different values and beliefs. But the Bible is our standard around the world and is the perfect lens to view all cultures and make value-based decisions.

7. Try to understand, at a child’s level, what it means to live in a place where the painful realities of this world are not necessarily far removed. Riots, police barricades, helicopters flying overhead, child beggars, etc are not odd sights or unusual topics of conversation for our family (although I assure we are very safe!). But my children don’t live a super cushioned life. This isn’t good or bad, it’s just different and it might require some careful conversations.


I’ll just list here the beauty vs. challenge topics that we discussed today with an example that I’ll make up. I found this helpful…


Beauty: Expanded worldview (Celebrating Christmas in January as the Coptic Christians do, instead of on Dec 25 as we do in America… people do things in different ways!)

Challenge: Confused loyalties (Which is the ‘right’ day to celebrate Christmas?)


Beauty: 3D reality of the world (Seeing the pyramids for real!)

Challenge: Painful awareness of reality (Blockades around the pyramids for protection, many beggars hanging around)


Beauty: Cross-Cultural Enrichment (Becoming comfortable greeting friends in Arabic and kissing cheeks upon seeing a friend)

Challenge: Ignorance of Home culture (Getting confused on the appropriate way to greet a friend back in America, and then feeling embarrassed about it.)


Beauty: Adaptability (Learning to accept that others arrive late, and becoming comfortable arriving late yourself in the Arab culture.)

Challenge: Lack of balance or true value system (Find that in America its not acceptable to be be two hours late… so the child wonders “Is it right or wrong to be late?” “Should I or should I not be late to this or that?” “Who is right and who is wrong?”)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing these 7 points. I grew up in Africa, as a third culture kid (my parents are Dutch :). I think your 7th point is very important, it's also good to realize that children are forming their identity, adults have formed their identity and that is the big difference between children and adults living abroad. Try to understand what it is like for the children, try to understand what it is like for them. Teach them that they are "third culture kids" it will help them at some stage to find their crowd, to understand their identity and their life story.
    Tell your kids stories, lots of stories: about their passport country, about their grandparents, about your own youth, it will help them be resilient.
    Create as many constants, family rituals which can be the same where ever you are as a family. last but not least enjoy the adventure together. On my blog I write about my experience and about kids growing up in other cultures.


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