Raising a Third Culture Kid

Last weekend I went to a Foreign Service class for families. I didn't really know what to expect, but I guess I was hoping for some logistical information, or maybe advice on what to do when there are no English-speaking schools at your post. Unfortunately, most of the info was geared toward families with school-aged children, and since several families had their children with them, we spent a lot of time doing "fun" activities like creating a family crest. Don't get me wrong, I love a good art project, but not on a Saturday morning. At some point during the class, the term "third culture kid" came up. This was a term I'd never heard, so I decided to do some investigating.

The history of TCKs is actually pretty interesting. You can read about it on Wikipedia if you like. But I'll give a quick recap: basically, a TCK is a child who grows up abroad, whether through the Foreign Service or the military or because their parents just like to move a lot. The "third culture" is the combination of the culture of their "passport country" (ie home) and the cultures of places they've lived during their childhood. In other words, these kids don't really have a culture the way the rest of us think of it, because they're not "from" anywhere. As I did my research, I started to wonder what the hell I'd gotten poor Jackie into.

The statistical info is mixed. Ninety percent feel out of sync with their peers (but then, so did I), and a significant number experience depression (but then, so did I). They are highly linguistically adept, are four times more likely to earn a bachelor's degree, and forty percent earn an advanced degree. They can also feel isolated and have a hard time adjusting to their passport country. Basically, it's a mixed bag. And isn't that what life is for all of us?

Still, it's a big decision to make on behalf of someone else. A woman who was assisting with the class said that one of her children loves the lifestyle and adapts very well. The other likes to tell her that she's ruining his life. No one can predict what their child's temperament will be, if they'll be outgoing and adaptable or introverted and shy. But when one of the little girls in the class spoke up when her father announced they were moving to Mauritania - "Nuh-uh, Dad! We're moving to Africa!" - I laughed to myself and thought, What an amazing adventure that little girl is going to have. She will have the opportunity to experience a culture she probably would have never known about otherwise, to make friends with people halfway across the globe, to try strange foods, to see exotic animals, to learn a new language... How could I not want those things for my own child?

Is it possible one day my own third culture kid will tell me I'm ruining his life? Of course. But I figure the odds of that are pretty high for the next twenty years or so anyway.


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