So many of us grew up with parents from the same country, although perhaps from different regions. Parents who very often had different socioeconomic, political, religious and academic backgrounds, and who undoubtedly had very different family cultures and traditions. In the end, each and every family becomes it’s own version of an intercultural union, even when two parents have the same mother tongue and hold passports from the same country. Today, more and more individuals are living abroad and ultimately marrying someone from a country different from their own, and many of those couples have children who they then raise in yet another country. This means that we have more bi-cultural and third culture children than ever before.
What does it mean to be a bi-cultural or third culture kid (TCK), and how does the experience differ from that of children who have two parents from the same country and who are raised in that country?
In simple terms, a bi-cultural child has parents from two different countries of origin, and a TCK is a child being raised in a culture other than his or her parents. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use the term TCK to refer to all bi-cultural or multi-cultural children. These children are usually bi-lingual and often multi-lingual, and learn to move easily within the languages and cultures of their parents. They can switch from one language to another with little or no awareness, and automatically behave in the expected cultural norm of a given circumstance. (With children of “career ex-pat families,” there is even more of a need to adapt and assimilate, as these families often change countries every few years. These children are often learning not only the native language(s) of their parents, but also the language of the host country, even if they attend an international school.)
As humans, we seek a sense of belonging. We want acceptance and understanding. We want to be deeply known. This is true for us all, big and small, whether or not we’re aware of it on a conscious level. While the pursuit of these objectives is a long and winding road for everyone, there can be additional factors for TCK’s that make their journey both richer and, at times, more challenging.
Some of the advantages are that TCK’s are often more accepting of differences in general, having been exposed to diversity in multiple forms right from the start. They understand that there is more than one way to look at the things they see or experience. These children are often more advanced than their mono cultural peers at Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), which is made up of five core competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills and Responsible Decision Making, (Casel.org). TCK’s are culturally adaptable, flexible and have an expanded world view, at times making them seem more mature than their mono cultural peers.
However, a broader exposure to diversity and a more varied life experience also bring challenges. TCK’s often have difficulty with that very sense of belonging we all inherently seek. They might know how to adapt to and accept differences, but they can struggle to feel a sense of oneness with any single nationality or culture. TCK’s often report feeling “out of the loop” when it comes to humor and cultural points of reference, factors that are both extremely important and also hard to explain to someone who doesn’t immediately “get it.” There is a sense of being at home anywhere, and yet a lack of attachment to any one place, culture or group.
What can you do as a parent, teacher, family member or friend of a TCK to help support them? Start by giving them lots of room to talk about their experience of growing up this way, especially if you yourself did not. Help them learn as much as they can (or want to) about their native cultures, if they are living outside one or both of them. Understand that TCK’s often gravitate to each other, finding the greatest sense of belonging with other TCK’s, and that many of those friends might ultimately move away, as is so often the case with international families. Know that these children, as good as they are (or have to be) at adapting, can more easily develop social anxieties and behavioral difficulties, and can sometimes struggle to adjust at school. Having teachers and administrators who understand the unique challenges of TCK’s is crucial to helping them transition smoothly. And sometimes it can really help just to say, “I get it that it can be hard, and I’m amazed how well you’re doing!”