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The Benefits and Challenges of raising Third Culture Kids

You may have heard the term TCK recently, and thought ‘oh great, another acronym to remember’, but if your kids are growing up outside of your home culture, listen up because this article is for you.

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By Lucille Abendanon

TCK stands for Third Culture Kid. In its simplest form a “TCK is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.”

The term was coined by Dr Ruth Useem in the 1980s, but has recently been refined by David C. Pollack, Ruth Van Reken, and Michael V. Pollack in their book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Amongst Worlds, which is considered to be the ‘bible’ for understanding the challenges and blessings of growing up multi-culturally.

The term ‘TCK’ works fine for children born in the same country as their monocultural parents, but what about kids with more diverse backgrounds? What about kids with multicultural parents? Or kids who have lived in multiple countries and who have more than one or even two nationalities? What about children who share their parent’s passport country (or countries) but were neither born there nor have ever lived there?

And so the term Cross Cultural Kid (CCK) was established so as to cast the net wider and to be as inclusive as an academic term can be.

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What does this mean for you as a parent of a TCK or CCK?

Firstly, it means recognising that your child is unique, and that growing up in different cultures can be a huge benefit.

However, it also means that there will probably be some challenges along the way in terms of your child’s cultural identity, how they feel about their ‘home’ country, and their general place in society as a person who has grown up across cultures. In other words, the impact of growing up globally can be experienced as both benefits and challenges.

Educating ourselves about the unique aspects of what it means to be a TCK/CCK is the first step in ensuring our children are supported.

Processing all of the current research on raising TCKs can be daunting, especially since this is a constantly evolving issue, but the book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Amongst Worlds, is a great place to start as the authors take the readers through the benefits and challenges of growing up globally, the personal characteristics unique to TCK/CCKs and the practical skills your child may develop as a result of growing up abroad.

From a parent’s point of view these insights are vital to understanding what our children may be going through.

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To give you a few examples from the book:
• Children who grow up crossing cultures benefit from an expanded worldview, they often have a deeper understanding of different cultures, and can relate to people from different backgrounds more easily. Difference does not put them off, it encourages them to ask questions. However, a challenge faced by TCKs is that their expanded worldview means they may experience confused loyalties in terms of choosing which country to claim as their ‘own’. They may feel a greater affinity to a country they were not born in or one they lived in for a short time than to their official ‘home’ country.

• TCK/CCKs experience a wonderful cross-cultural enrichment and usually have a sense of ownership and interest in different cultures. Perhaps more important however “is the fact that most TCKs have also gained valuable lessons from the deeper levels. They have lived in other places long enough to learn to appreciate the reasons and understanding behind some of the behavioural differences rather than simply being frustrated with them as visitors tend to be”. However, alongside cross-cultural enrichment comes an ignorance of the home culture. TCKs may have insights into their host culture that is simply missing from their knowledge of their ‘home’ culture, especially if they moved overseas at a young age, or have never lived in their passport country.

• TCKs are often called ‘cultural chameleons’, meaning they “develop some degree of cultural adaptability as a primary tool for surviving the frequent change of cultures”. And that “after spending a little time observing what is going on, they can easily switch language, style of relating, appearance, and cultural practices to take on the characteristics needed to better blend in to the current scene”. A challenge of this however, is a lack of true cultural balance. “Although in the short-term the ability to ‘change colors’ helps them fit in with their peers day-to-day, TCK chameleons may never develop true cultural balance anywhere.” In fact, “some TCKs who flip-flop back and forth between various behavioural patters have trouble figuring out their own value system from the multicultural mix they have been exposed to”.

In terms of practical skills, TCK/CCKs benefit from their international upbringing in a variety of positive ways.  They may possess excellent cross-cultural skills, and have the “ability to be sensitive to the more hidden aspects or deeper levels of culture”. In our globalised world, companies value people who are able to appreciate and understand cultural nuances.

A TCK may have excellent observational skills, developed from being in new surroundings many times throughout their childhood. TCKs often do not merely observe different cultures, but try to understand them. This too, is a great asset to have as an adult.

Your TCK may develop good social skills. This does not simply mean being confident in social situations, indeed a child’s natural personality will have a bearing on how confident they are in general, but it speaks to what your TCK knows to be possible. Or to quote from the book:

“It seems that many TCKs and ATCKs (Adult Third Culture Kids) can also generally approach various changes in their lives with some degree of confidence because past experience has taught them that given enough time, they will make friends and learn the new culture’s ways. This sense that they’ll be able to manage new situations often gives them the security to take risks others might not take.”

Finally, your TCK will have linguistic skills, the benefits of bilingualism or multilingualism are well known.

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Supporting our global children: where to start?

I was fortunate to meet Ruth Van Reken at the recent “Families in Global Transition Conference” held in The Netherlands in March 2018, and her keynote speech really hit home the nuanced nature of raising our children across cultures. This is a topic I will certainly be exploring more in depth as I raise my own cross-cultural multilingual family.

Here are a few resources to start with:

  • Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Amongst Worlds, 2017. (David C. Pollack, Ruth E. Van Reken, and Michael V. Pollack).
  • Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child, 2011. (Julia Simens)

Families In Global Transition Conference

The annual Families in Global Transition Conference is known as a reunion of strangers. You may arrive knowing no one but you are guaranteed to leave having made life-long friends. Professionals and individuals come from all over the world to share research, experience and tools pertaining to living a globally mobile life. The conference runs over three days, and is packed with inspiring keynote speeches, as well as other fascinating sessions ranging from raising TCKs to building a portable business.Visit www.figt.org for more information.