Parenting a Third Culture Kid

Puget Sound is home to thousands of Third Culture Kids (TCKs), children growing up between two or more cultures—what does it take to parent them?

TCK boy holding globe

My 6-year-old son, Lucas, has an accent, but it’s hard to place. Maybe that’s because he went to preschool in France, moved to the United States when he was 4, speaks German with me (I’m from Munich), and the Queen’s English with his Great Britain-born dad. Come to dinner at our house on any given night and you’ll be hit with a babble of foreign languages and lingo, a menu of foods that most American kids wouldn’t even lick, and possibly a flying noodle or two, courtesy of my son Daniel, who despite having more stamps on his passport than many Americans collect in their entire lives, likes food fights as much as the next 4-year-old.

With a few exceptions, like the international flights where I was “that mom” — you know, the one drinking straight from the mini-bottle because she can’t get her baby to stop crying or her toddler to quit kicking the seat back — and the downside of having kids who can get fresh with me in three different languages, parenting across continents has been as satisfying as it is exciting. Still, the task of shepherding two little global nomads into adulthood is daunting. I can’t help wondering: How do you raise children who feel at home in the world when no-one in your house knows exactly where “home” is?

One reassuring thing is that my family is not alone, especially not around here. According to U.S. Census data available on, Washington’s foreign-born population shot up by 48 percent between 2000 and 2011. This trend is particularly apparent in greater Seattle, a boomtown that’s attracting foreign tech workers from all corners of the globe. Seattle, which was the fastest growing city in the U.S. in 2014, now has over 110,000 foreign-born citizens, and across Lake Washington, Bellevue really takes the diversity cake, with 36 percent of its residents born in other countries.

Not surprisingly given the numbers, the task of raising your kids in someone else’s culture is beginning to garner widespread attention. The phenomenon even has a name. In the 1950s American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coined the term Third Culture Kids (TCKs) to describe children who don’t identify with a single culture, but have a more complicated identity forged from their experiences as global citizens.

Third Culture Kids (TCKs): Children who don’t identify with a single culture, but have a more complicated identity forged from their experiences as global citizens.

In 1999 came a book, part survival guide, part manifesto, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, which is still considered the seminal text and gives us the most accepted definition of a TCK: “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.” Then, with the presidential election of 2008, TCKs got a poster child: Barack Obama, who spent four formative years in Indonesia and had a Kenyan father.

Not every TCK will grow up to be president, but as technology and global finance shrink the world, the advantages of a multicultural childhood are increasingly clear. TCKs are more likely to speak multiple languages, and one University of Michigan study found that the average TCK will grow up to achieve a higher level of educational and professional success than their domestic peers. What’s more, a childhood spent code-switching between cultures equips TCKs with a level of sensitivity and sophistication that can’t be taught in school.

“All my kids feel very comfortable when we have visitors from other countries. They are curious and ask lots of questions. It's great to see that they feel at ease with other cultures,” says Carla Johnson, a native South African whose two older children were born in Germany and attended school there before the family moved to Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood.

“TCKs have a heightened awareness of cultural subtleties and can easily adapt to different situations,” agrees Thomas Speckhardt, Executive Director of YouthCompass International, a Seattle-based non-profit that specializes in supporting TCKs. “They are natural bridge-builders and have the ability to understand and operate in different cultures. They are perfectly situated for international business and politics.” 

The future may look bright, but in the meantime being the Kid in the TCK isn’t always easy. Parents shouldn’t underestimate the stress an international move can cause for a child. Trying to adjust to a new school system that may have entirely different expectations from the old one can send a child’s academics into a tailspin, and without a consistent community of peers to rely on, it’s common for TCKs to feel isolated and misunderstood. For TCKs who have trouble engaging in their new culture, social media can provide an additional barrier to assimilation. “Instead of making new friends,” says Speckhardt, “they spend all day Skyping and texting friends in their previous country.”

Even for TCKs already fluent in English (and the NFL and Minecraft), coming home after school can feel like stepping into a cultural tug-of-war. Parents feel a real sense of urgency to pass on their cultural identities to their children, but friction can result. Boundaries and norms may feel restrictive or arbitrary when compared to the freedom a typical American child enjoys. Kids who are sent to a parent’s home country for long stretches of time over the summer holidays may begin to resent the separation from their friends. Languages, too, are fraught with emotion. To parents, their mother tongue is no less than a lifeline to grandparents, friends, and an entire precious culture, but to a TCK already burdened with homework, studying a second or third language may simply feel like a tiresome chore.

“For my younger son,” says Carla Johnson, “it is very important to fit in. He wants to be like his American friends. It has always been difficult for us to convince him to keep up his second language.” The push-back got so bad that Johnson ended up withdrawing her son from his after-school German language program, choosing instead to travel with him to Germany over the summer.

Nobody said raising a TCK would be simple, but Thomas Speckhardt believes that parents should see their children’s multicultural upbringing as a positive thing. “It’s nothing that needs to be fixed or cured,” he says. “When parents and caregivers are aware of the phenomenon and educated about it they can enable their TCKs to make the most of the experience.”

When it comes to parenting TCKs, Speckhardt says empathy is key. “Parents should put themselves in their kids’ shoes and try to look at the situation from their perspective.” Of equal importance is keeping the communication channels open. “Adults often think, ‘Oh, kids are flexible. They’ll be fine,’” says Speckhardt, “but it pays to look a bit more closely at what’s going on underneath. Keeping an open dialogue with your kids is crucial, which means accepting that their experience and their feelings may be completely different from your own.”

Speckhardt suggests parents arm themselves with as much information as possible, drawing on the many excellent books, articles and websites dedicated to the TCK experience (see our sidebar for his go-to list). He also recommends getting involved with the international community in order to swap parenting advice with others in a similar situation, while allowing your kids to bond with fellow TCKs. How easily you find other expatriates depends on where you live and work, but you can always check your child’s school to see if they have an international group or club (and if they don’t, talk to them about starting one), explore expat groups such as InterNations, or start a Meetup group for parents of TCKs. YouthCompass also offers a variety of seminars for groups interested in exploring the TCK universe.

Maybe the best TCK parenting advice comes from TCKs who are now grown up with children of their own.

As a child arriving in the United States from Austria, Briton Kolber remembers kids making fun of his accent, causing him to become socially cautious. Now a therapist, Kolber says, “My advice to parents raising TCKs is to spend time with them where they feel seen, heard or valued, and do it as consistently as gravity. After your kids feel like they matter somewhere, lots of potential problems related to their TCK identity will take care of themselves.”

Grace Weigel, a British citizen who lived in Morocco between the ages of four and fifteen and later studied in Egypt and France, remembers feeling as if no one understood her. In the end, Weigel found a sense of belonging, not in any particular place, but with particular people — other TCKs she met at a series of International Schools. Her recommendation that parents of TCKs seek community with other multicultural families who celebrate and support each other’s differences springs from that experience.

“I like the idea of bringing the TCK culture together to support our kids and make sure they value and appreciate the fact that their lives are very rich and full of different experiences,” says Weigel. “Being surrounded by other TCKs gives support and a feeling of belonging.”

In the end, maybe our most important job as parents of TCKs isn’t to help them find a spot on the map to call home, but rather to help them embrace their membership in a nation of vibrant global nomads, who all belong to each other.

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