Some Thoughts from Adult TCKs to Those Who Raise Them

A few weeks ago I sent messages to many Adult Third Culture Kids. The question I posed was this “So you’re all third culture kids from different countries at various stages of life. If you could tell people who are living overseas and raising their kids 2 things what would they be? 

The answers came in sentences and paragraphs. Most responded with “Only 2?!” There was a lot these adults had to say. They were from various countries and within the TCK world come from diplomatic, business and missionary backgrounds. Some have lived in as many as 8 countries, others have lived in 2 countries. I’ve compiled just a few of these into today’s post. As you read this it’s important to remember that we are not one story. As Chimamanda Adichie would say There is a danger of a single story.” We are not one-dimensional – we are complex beings. This post is not designed to cause angst or discomfort, rather it is to give voice to these adult TCKs because there is wisdom in their earned fact.

set of books with quote

Live fully in the moment. yes there may be frustrating things, yes you may live far from family but experience the country where you are fully and pass on the excitement of travel to your kids, the adventure of exploring a new place as a family.”

“Make use of social media and technology to keep in touch with family as much as possible. You may not be able to get to see them as much as you like but there are some great ways of connecting kids to grandparents and cousins and they make it better.”

The first thing that I would point out is that being an MK or TCK does not put you in a cookie cutter category.  Every child is unique, with different needs and personalities.  I often felt that I was in some sort of religious box that I did not choose.  I had to present and perform according to what was expected.”

“If you send your kids to boarding school, give them an “out” so that they can change their mind and come home. There is always an adjustment period but extended home-sickness is damaging.”

“No matter what your occupation, your kids need to know they are your first priority.”

Growing up overseas is an incredible privilege – I wish I could communicate this to parents. They miss their suburban homes and white picket fences but I think it’s safe to say that their kids don’t. So parents don’t focus on the ‘things’, focus on being okay with your child’s grief, really listening to your child, understanding that each kid may process differently. Also recognize the strength of family and of your family story. Knowing we are a part of a larger family story is critical to our identity.

“I am not bitter at all but knowing myself now, would have chosen a different path for myself as a child. I also had extenuating circumstances such as my dad’s death, which added to my sense of homelessness and loss.  Being a mom, also, has shaped my perspectives. My kids both have individual needs (what people term special needs) and I know that their lives would be hell if they were in an environment like I was.”

“I’m tired of parents saying they feel ‘guilty’ raising their kids overseas. If there’s any guilt it should be that there is an unspoken assumption that we will come back to our passport countries. I’ve talked to other TCKs and we wonder why this is. Nothing has prepared us for actually living in our passport countries, yet that is what is expected.”

“No matter how often a child has returned to their passport country for visits to extended family, or even for a school year or two, nothing has prepared the child for re-entry, the point when they return “home” permanently. If the family returns together, at least there is a family structure to fall back on. If the time of re-entry is college, it is actually one of the most dangerous points in a TCK’s life, and whatever can be done to help provide some structure for emotional support should be done. This could be as simple as searching out a group of other TCKs for your young adult to socialize with, calling on family, friends, or relatives in the extended family to check in with your child more than once or twice and asking them to just listen with a supportive ear. It is difficult to describe the complex layers of emotion and experience of being dropped off at a campus and being expected to fit in while learning that no matter how well the TCK thought they knew their passport country, it is foreign to them. The experience can be so intense it can lead to depression, despair, and thoughts of suicide, never mind that the person feels they shouldn’t have a right to feel those emotions since their upbringing has been so rich and full of experiences most people never have the opportunity to have in a lifetime. We are complex creatures with the same need to belong as any other human, and when we find we don’t belong in our “home” country, it adds another layer to the complexity.”

Give your child time and permission to mourn for the losses they have with each move. For example, instead of saying, “be a big boy (or girl) and don’t cry,” say, “I know it hurts. I am sad too.” I lived in so many different houses growing up, but have no clear recollection what the interiors were like, what my bedroom looked like. Take some time to record these critical reminders of old homes. A photo can be a source of comfort years later in our complex search for “home” and identity. I cannot remember my Ayah’s face, but I remember her name and that she spoke with me in her own language. It may not mean so much now while your TCK child is young and looking forward to the next move, but in mid-life, these losses can manifest in complex ways.”

Are you an adult TCK? What would you add? Are you a parent raising TCKs – what are your thoughts? Are you someone who has spent a lot of time as a cultural broker with immigrants, refugees or global nomads? What is the wisdom you can offer? This space is for us to learn and grow so I look forward to hearing from you.

*picture from http://pixabay.com/en/age-ancient-antique-book-brown-16841/  quote from Communicating Across Boundaries.

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40 thoughts on “Some Thoughts from Adult TCKs to Those Who Raise Them

  1. Hi Marilyn! I’m excited to have found your blog! I am really interested in the concept of “story” and how this relates to building an identity as a TCK. Nomads have always been storytellers and seeing our own lives as stories seems to be especially important to TCKs. Great post!

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      1. Story has definitely helped me process my own upbringing as a military brat and TCK…I actually wrote a Young Adult novel about this lifestyle and it was amazing how the writing process gave me a stronger sense of identity and “home,” which often feels like a missing piece for those of us who grow up rootless. I think that learning to tell our stories is one way TCKs can “grow roots.”

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  2. Thank you very much for this meaningful post! The quote on the ‘unspoken assumption’ that we will return/re-establish ourselves into our passport country has validated/verbalized something I’ve felt keenly, but haven’t been able to verbalize…thank you!

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  3. Thank you so much for this insight!
    I’m not a TCK but I’d like to teach them one day (I’m still at Uni) and hopefully raise some of my own– I think about how vital it was my freshman year to be able to call my mom anytime or to have her visit anytime… It would have been 10x harder without that support and it breaks my heart to think I may not be able to be there in that way for my future kids– but this blog and the comments helped me continue to learn how to best live out the life God has called me to eventually lead

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  4. As a TCK in the 60s and 70s I only lived in my passport country for half my life by the time I was 18. That country was quite isolated and the onyl way I could communicate with my TCK friends was through letter writing. As someone has already pointed out this could involve a 2 to 3 week delay.
    For most of my adult life I felt, and this was reinforced by others, that there was something wrong in me, that I was not moving on with my life. Although my home(s) were very real to me I couldn’t speak about them as the listeners wold get the glazed eye expression.
    It took until 2009 at a reunion of my old high school in Malaysia for me to learn that others had experienced the very same thing. It hit me like an express train. The whole TCK concept was completely unknown to me. It was like the sun breaking through the clouds, to know it wasn’t just me.

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    1. I love that you came by and shared a brief fraction of your story. You have articulated so well what so many of us go through. Questioning our feelings, thinking we are the only ones. It’s like you can breathe again when you realize others, from completely different countries, share our experiences. The description of the sun breaking through the clouds is a perfect description. Thank you.

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      1. Exactly Marilyn. It was like being validated as not being strange, well not strange as I thought at least. Haha.
        Reading books like Growing Up Among Worlds was like reading about myself. so glad now there is so much consciousness about it. Even some moving companies include some literature about it to alert those moving overseas about the affects.

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    2. Yeah! I tell people they didn’t have a name for us for a long time – we were just expected to pull up our collective, foreign-made boot straps and get on with life. I too am glad that there are more resources and am incredibly grateful to Ruth Van Reken and Dave Pollock for navigating new waters and making it so much easier for future kids.

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    3. So you’ve actually identified something that I find really irritating with some parents raising TCKs. They don’t want to hear from Adult TCKs. They would rather hear from each other. It is often hard to see what they are worried about, what they think is important and not be able to say anything. That’s painting broad strokes of a brush I know, because there are those that you can get into great conversations with, but those that want to reinvent the wheel will end up not having the right resources for their kids.

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      1. Very true. If the parents have not experienced it themselves in their growing up, they will still be very much in the deniers camp.
        If I give Growing Up Among Worlds to someone who has never experienced it, they still don’t get it. It is a hard concept for someone who lived all their life one country to grasp. They see the adventurous places you have lived and possibly more luxurious lifestyle for some and look at you like. You’ve done all this and you are complaining about what?

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  5. I agree with a lot of what was already said here. I think the most important thing for me is to let the TCK experience things on their own terms without imposing the parents’ views on them about different cultures and places. For me it was extremely disorienting to move to my passport country only to find out that I did not find it nearly as amazing as my parents did. Conversely, the place where I grew up was a location where my parents experienced a lot of heartache and so we rarely share memories of it. My parents did a lot of things right in raising TCKs, but it would have been so helpful if I had felt the freedom to legitimately disagree with them on what felt like home and what felt foreign, especially in my early adult years.

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    1. This is such good and wise advice. Our parents hurts are not our hurts, just as where they feel most at home will not necessarily be where we feel most at home. And giving legitimacy to a kids feelings is huge. Thanks so much for joining the conversation.

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  6. I think the two paragraphs that talked about TCK re-entry were the ones that struck me the most — they are also the ones that concern me the most. THAT is where most of my fears are concentrated. I feel fairly well equipped to “do family” overseas, it’s when the family starts launching kids out that I get nervous, thinking neither I nor my children will be equipped for that! So I guess I would say that THAT is what I want to know more about, should you follow up this post in the future. Nothing useful to add, just a request for more :)

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    1. Our experience was a long time ago, no social media, and international calls were very hard to do, really used only for emergencies. Letters took anywhere from a week to two or three. We did a lot of praying. But they needed people who could understand them. Missionaries they knew who were on furlough or who had left Pakistan reached out to them. Family was great, but didn’t understand in the same way. When Marilyn graduated from nursing school, we weren’t able to be there. A former missionary colleague had a party for her. I am tearing up just thinking of what a gift that was to this Mom. When we were in the USA, friends of our kids came to us after spending Christmas with relatives. You have good reason to be concerned, but my experience with our TCKs was that God often sent people into their lives who could just be there when we couldn’t. I often had to remind myself that God loves my kids (and now my Grands and the Greats) far more than I do! Blessings on you – it’s not easy and my heart goes out to you.

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  7. I finished raising our TCKs a long time ago, and was not a TCK myself. I think we did some things well, and others I would do differently. In our frequent moves both in Pakistan and to and from the states, I got rid of too much stuff, and encouraged the kids to do the same. When they outgrew the Childcraft books we loved so much and the train set, we gave them away to Pakistani friends. I suggested that Marilyn give her dolls away to younger Pakistani girls who didn’t have nice dolls. She had outgrown playing with dolls. Later when grandchildren began to come, I was sorry I didn’t have those things to pass down to them. Each child when they were small had a “treasure box” to keep as much as would fit in that box, and it really wasn’t that big! If I had it to do over again, I think I would try to save a lot more. I did save all their letters from boarding school. It’s hard for me to realize that we really sent them away at six and a half or seven, not to see them for three months. A number of years ago I compiled the letters into an album supplemented with pictures as a birthday gift that year for each of them. (No social media back then, so we wrote real letters on real paper!) It was a trip back in time for me and good for them to have. One of the boys, can’t remember which, said to his wife, “Look here, I had a life before I met you!” Blessings on all of you who are raising your own TCKs. May the Lord give you and them great grace! It’s really a wonderful life even with all the heartaches and hurts.

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    1. Dear Marilyn’s Mom, first of all you did a great job with Marilyn, she is so wonderful and such an inspiration to me. But your comments about giving away too much stuff, that really hit me. As we were preparing to move our family of 6 to Cambodia, I was struggling with what to keep in storage and what to get rid of. The year before, a lot of our stuff had been ruined in a flood, so we didn’t even have the opportunity to decide on that. I am not super sentimental, but I told my mom about this little thing I just didn’t want to part with, but couldn’t see any rational reason to keep. She told me to just keep it. She said that when they got out of the military there were things she got rid of, that she regretted later, so to always err on the side of keeping sentimental things. I so appreciated what she said, it really gave me freedom, but it also made me sad, because I wish she could still have those things her heart longs after. So thank you for recommending the same, to keep the things that are important to you and to your children, if at all possible. ~Elizabeth

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      1. I so appreciated this as well. I have a really sad story about a small doll house that we got rid of in Cairo. We had purchased a much larger one that we took but this small one was just that much too big for our luggage allowance. I’ll write about it in a blog some day but the moral of the story is “keep the doll house!!”

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    2. That album is one of my favorite possessions!! And my kids have loved looking through it. Plus, so much easier to move around then stuff would have been. I still remember the treasure box– how we had to go through it periodically and take out things so that other things could fit in. I loved that treasure box. Thank you

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    1. This is good to hear! I am already planning a second one with some more of the advice. I really appreciated people’s responses. I think what I want is more voices from men adult TCKs. Who you hear from is women but a lot of men have contacted me through email and I need to go back and look through.

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  8. I second the taking pictures comment! I just wrote a blog a few days ago about seeing some pictures of old places, and wishing there were more. :) I remember learning to tie my shoes in England but I can’t remember the colour of the sheds and gates leading to the back alleyways. I remember a fence in one house where we lived that was rainbow coloured, and one house had rainbow wallpaper. Remembering what something looks like is strangely comforting when remembering.

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    1. Oh your story of learning to tie your shoes in England feels so poignant to me. Now it is so much easier to capture the moments but I fear that they are not being recorded and that as computers die and are replaced by newer models so die the pictures. Thanks for sharing this.

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  9. Thank you so much for sharing this with those of us wanting to do right by our kids. There are some points in this that are very pertinent to my own teen-aged TCK’s right now, and although my thoughts have been along the lines of some of what I just read, actually hearing it from the mouth of a fellow traveler somehow gives me permission to accept and act on it. Great post!

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    1. Christie– so glad to hear from you and that the timing is right. That doesn’t always happen and I go scrambling trying to look for a piece that I dismissed a few years ago. Thinking of you on this important journey.

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  10. Thank you so much for this! We moved to Ukraine 6 months ago with our four kiddos and articles like this help me so much in navigating this process with our children. I need all the help I can get! :)

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    1. Thank you for coming by. And the Ukraine has had such hard upheaval these past months that it can’t have been an easy road. Thinking of you and praying grace on the journey.

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  11. Marilyn, there are some great quotes here, and thank you for sharing mine. :)

    I love the advice to live fully in the moment. That is something we all need to do a lot more of!

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  12. Thank you for this very insightful article! I’m an ATCK raising TCKs and I think that living fully in the moment surely helps us all, independently if we are ATCKs, TCKs etc. I think many parents who were not TCKs themselves, underestimate the relocation of their children when going to University or boarding school. The reverse culture shock can be so devastating. Knowing about this beforehand and being prepared is the key of successfully (re)-enter into the passport country. Many TCKs have never lived in their passport country if not during holidays or short stays.
    Being the top priority is essential for TCKs because family is their world, their “village” (as in “it takes a village to grow a child”: the village is the family for a TCK – and some very good friends who share the same experience!)
    “Home” is something different for parents of a TCK and the TCK. In some internationally living families, every family member has another place or feeling they call “home”. The sooner parents accept and recognize this, the sooner they will be able to help their children and support them during the most challenging periods of their lives.

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    1. I’m so glad you weighed in on this! You have much to add to the conversation! Interesting that you bring up the village – I’ve been corresponding with a TCK blogger in Italy about this and she is reworking a piece for A Life Overseas. It’s a great reminder to get out and grow the village.

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