Home Third Culture Kids; Can Expat Life Shape your Child’s Future?

Third Culture Kids; Can Expat Life Shape your Child’s Future?

Posted by on October 13th, 2016.

Third Culture Kid

Many people move abroad with their families. Growing up overseas as an expatriate has many benefits, but also challenges. You may have thought about issues such as how being surrounded by a foreign language and having to leave all their friends might impact your children. But have you considered how it could change their identity?

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) or Third Culture Child (TCC) is a person who grew up in a country foreign to both of their parent’s homes. They often have multiracial parents who have indulged their wanderlust, although many families from the same country move abroad, creating TCKs in the process.

Ruth E Van Reken, co-author of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds explains;

‘When Ruth Hill Useem, a sociologist, first coined this term in the 1950s, she spent a year researching expatriates in India. She discovered that folks who came from their home (or first) culture and moved to a host (or second) culture, had, in reality, formed a culture, or lifestyle, different from either the first or second cultures. She called this the third culture and the children who grew up in this lifestyle third culture kids.’

What does it mean to be a Third Culture Child?

Growing up in one country offers stability and consistency, but it also limits experiences and can encourage children to long for the familiarity of their comfort zone. Expat life is all about embracing new opportunities and living abroad can see your children develop an attitude that benefits them in all aspects of their adult lives.

For instance, being a Third Culture Child makes you more adaptive, claims mother of two TCKs, Maria Foley;

‘Because they must master a new set of behavioural norms every time they move to a new country, TCKs are keen observers of human nature. Since they understand that there’s a reason driving every attitude and behaviour – no matter how strange it may seem – they tend to be accepting of different perspectives.’

Being a TCK means you have a strong sense of family, as you will learn to rely and depend upon them more than you would if you had lifelong friends and less nuclear family members in your life.

According to Bryn Martinez, who was born in the Philippines and has throughout her life lived in Seattle, Athens and Montreal, writing for Denizen magazine;

‘…there are the advantageous traits we obtain and master–adaptability, resilience, open-mindedness, and cultural acceptance. TCKs usually maintain strong and close family bonds, since the immediate family is a source of stability for us. Living with my younger brother, I can attest to how important it is to have someone that understands what you are going through.’

Third Culture Kids often show good problem-solving skills, as well as being adept at mediating conflicts. Growing up abroad gives them confidence, allowing them to be adaptable and flexible, even under complex circumstances.

Prospects for Third Culture Kids

The skillset that can be attained from growing up as an expat child could prove to be highly beneficial to your children later in life. According to one study, people who spent at least one year outside of their home country as an expatriate during childhood were four times more likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree.

Half of TCKs who earned a bachelor’s also went on the study for a postgraduate degree. Although the study was self-reported and living abroad may suggest the higher level of financial freedom necessary to attend higher education, the respondents credited their achievements partly to the quality of education available overseas.

It is not only how they study that sets TCKs apart; what they choose to study often shows a strong link to their globetrotting upbringing. A quarter of survey respondents choose to study a subject with an international slant, with topics cited including international relations and foreign languages. A quarter also studied abroad before they graduated, while a number reported choosing a subject that would open up career opportunities for working abroad.

In terms of career prospects, a quarter of TCKs surveyed were involved in some kind of educational field, with professionals and the self-employed coming second and third as the most frequent occupations. 33% of TCKs had established their own companies, reflecting the character traits often present in people who have grown up abroad; creativity, independence, flexibility and less aversion to risk. While few worked in government or the corporate sector, the roles they inhabited still reflected their upbringing, having a strong overseas focus.

The Challenges of Being an Third Culture Adult

As TCKs grow into adulthood they might begin to find themselves questioning their identity due to the complex nature of their upbringing. The rich tapestry of cultures and experiences can make it hard for a person to pin down their ‘origins’. Questions that seem simple to people who have spent their whole lives in one place or country can provoke significant introspection amongst Third Culture Adults.

Rasha Rushdy noticed how being a Third Culture Kid had affected her when she returned home to her birth country, Egypt;

‘It started with the gentlemen at the hotel reception who were trying to rectify an error with our booking. And then the waitress at breakfast. The cashier at the supermarket. People that crossed my path who, before deciding to speak to me in English instead of Arabic, hesitated for a moment because they couldn’t quite ascertain whether or not I was Egyptian. After all, I spoke to my German-born, Australian-raised husband, and our daughter, in English. I didn’t naturally or confidently initiate a fluent conversation in Arabic. I hesitated, too. I didn’t know which part of my identity I was supposed to tap into.’

However, while Ndéla Faye, born in Helsinki and grew up in Luxembourg, Brussels and London, also ponders the issue of identity crisis, she concludes that;

‘I love being able to choose to be whoever I want, wherever I go. My many masks are a storyboard of all that I am. I’ve gradually built myself an identity that is a collection of pieces, each of which I’ve handpicked; choosing the best bits in order to create a whole. I’ve realised that those pieces are not mutually exclusive, but that they are all dependent on each other. Being rootless doesn’t mean I don’t belong to any one place; it means I choose to belong to many.’

Making the Most of Expat Life

Whether or not children thrive abroad comes down to the same factors governing whether or not they thrive in their country of origin. Moving overseas provides plenty of new and exciting opportunities and with plenty of encouragement your children can get a great deal out of expat life.

Many parents feel guilty for moving abroad with their children, taking them away from familiarity, friends and family. However, as Third Culture Kids often show, the experience can be an incredible one. Yes, there are some downsides, but that’s true of staying at home. Moving abroad is exciting, character building and can set them up to succeed later in life. It provides your child with a rich background and life story; one they will continue to draw upon as they grow up and become Third Culture Adults.

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