Parenting third culture kids

Parenting is hard enough at the best of times, and each developmental stage that our youngsters embark on stretch us a little further. Add into the mix the development of inter cultural, cross-cultural and international children, also called third culture kids and you find the challenges rise.

shutterstock_174107933Paradoxically, when you have moved internationally with your young global nomads, they often need you more at a time when there is so much less of you; a time when you’re trying to get to grips with all the practical matters, a new job, running the household, and facing your own culture shock. However, as Expat guru Robin Pascoe writes in her book Raising Global Nomads, we owe it to our international children to be there for them more, rather than less.

At the same time, the challenges of an international childhood are often highly exaggerated. Considering that Barack Obama, Christiane Amanpour, and Reese Witherspoon, all so called Third Culture Kids, have done very well for themselves indicates that with good and aware parenting, our youngsters can get the very best from the experience.

So what do we need to look out for?

Home is in your heart

One of the two main issues faced by Global Nomads is linked to their (cultural) identity. One of the hazards of international parenting is that we sometimes feel we need to ‘push’ our own mono-cultural identity on our children, either because one day we will all go ‘home’, or because we feel a sense of competition with the host country. Sometimes we compete with the other nationality in our marriage. Our son is biologically half Dutch and half Swedish but sociologically more Anglo-Saxon. There was a time when, not being quite as happy with Sweden as I wanted to be, I used to share my negative experiences with him. Many years later he told me ‘you almost drove a wedge between me and my experience of (also) being Swedish’. While I wasn’t pushing a specifically Dutch agenda, I was most certainly pushing a non-Swedish one.

Our inter cultural kids and global nomads create a sense of belonging to a culture that has been termed a ‘third culture’ by sociologists. The name indicates a non-nationality specific, parallel culture that embraces all, yet is defined by none. We help them by learning to handle the inevitable question of ‘where is home?’ by helping them to understand that there doesn’t have to be a geographically specific answer. Geography often equals labels and stereotypes, and our sons and daughters are learning to live outside of a national stereotype. Let them tell you who or what they are, and support them in being home to themselves, belonging to a culture of non-belonging. “But what of their cultural heritage, what is they lose the link to their roots”, I hear you shout. Ask any TCK whether it was more helpful to be plugged into a nationality specific identity or to be free to make it up as they go along, and they will answer the latter. As parents we always need to be mindful whose need we are meeting with our concerns, our own, or theirs?
Making it up from the inside out is much, much harder, and actually involves some serious internal soul searching, but in the long run it is also more robust than having an identity imposed from the outside in.

Sit on your guilt and allow them to grieve

Children who move from country to country have many goodbyes to say, not only to their friends, but also to their bedrooms, their school projects, their ‘special places’ in the gardens or in the woods. Grief becomes an intrinsic part of their life experience. At the same time, as parents we see their pain and consequently may experience a sense of guilt for what we are ‘putting them through’, despite the move being ‘for all the right reasons.’ Our own grief is usually already disavowed. International nomads need to be allowed to express their feelings of grief and anger, be they big or small. As parents we need to sit on or guilt, our need to ‘make it all ok’, to ‘talk up’ the experience, and instead allow our youngsters to say how hard it is for them, how much they hate their new school, friends, etc. Once expressed, feelings go away much more quickly than when they have to be hidden. Children are resilient, and what they hate today, they may love tomorrow, but not because we tell them to, but because we allowed them to say the ‘worst’.

Remember, listening is not the same as having to act on what they say. When my son was three he came up with the wildest schemes to explore space. I listened to him, attentively; despite knowing that what he wanted was impossible. It taught him that what he said was important and it taught me to sit with the helplessness that is also part of being a parent.

So make time to listen to your global nomads, be aware of any subtle underlying need to promote, (or rubbish) certain cultures, allow them to express their feelings of grief, and put in the extra work that allows them to build an identity from the inside out. That way they will gain the most from their experience.

Lysanne Sizoo is the mental health contributor for Your Living City, where this article appeared earlier.

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