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6 Reminders for Parents of Third Culture Kids

Healthy Leaders

6 Reminders for Parents of Third Culture Kids

Marilyn GardnerMarilyn Gardner
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The journey of missions and raising children is a journey laced with grace. To communicate that grace to your kids is the biggest gift you will ever give them especially if you are raising your children in a country other than their passport country. You are raising third culture kids. The definition used most often is this one from the late Dave Pollock:

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

I was raised as a third culture kid and then went on to raise third culture kids for 10 years. There is much I don’t know, and much I can’t articulate. But some things I do know and in these next few minutes I offer them. They are not comprehensive and they are not formulaic; there are far better and wiser voices that have documented research on the topic. But these words are offered with humility and a prayer that they will resonate with grace and hope.

Guilt will get you nowhere. If you feel guilty for raising your children overseas, I encourage you to seek counsel. Guilt is an unproductive emotional pitfall that will warp your parenting. Guilt is defined as “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.” Living overseas is not an offense, nor is it a crime. For many it is a high calling, for others it is a career move.

No matter, guilt cuts deeply and helps no one, instead causing stress, undue anxiety, and ultimately destroyed relationships. The guilt felt over raising children overseas is false guilt. No child has a say in what their parents become. My husband’s father is a mechanic. He did not consult my husband and ask him if that would be okay, and rightly so. This overseas life is not about kids agreeing or disagreeing with your life calling. It is about living well and faithfully within that calling. Lose the guilt – take a helium balloon, write the word GUILT in big letters upon it, then release it and watch it go until you see it no more. That’s where guilt belongs – out of sight, leaving your body and your heart free to live faithfully right where you are. Okay – so you live in Somalia or Mumbai and helium balloons are nowhere to be found. A piece of paper will do just as well. Write the words, then light a match and burn them. Watch them burn away through the light of the holy fire of faith.

Your back home is not your children’s back home. You may have grown up in a small town, surrounded by generations of family and friends who are still in the town. That is home and that is what you miss when overseas. You miss the smell of newly mowed grass, the sounds of downtown, the feel of putting on a heavy sweater in the fall as you walk through vibrant colors of red, gold, and orange. Your children don’t miss those things. They never knew them. Their reality is not your reality. Their back home is not your back home. When they go to their passport countries for periodic visits, that’s exactly what those trips are: visits. They are not going home.

Faith can get complicated. Missions work comes with a high calling and a whole lot of baggage. It is hard to discern what’s real and what’s false. Your home churches may be both safe and disturbing for you. In the west we have created an idolatry of ministry and those who live overseas are high on the pedestal. Being able to speak honestly with church leadership about your struggles, your fears, your worries that you will fall from the false pedestal helps everybody. Your kids? They don’t want the pedestal. When they find marijuana behind the churchyard, they don’t want to be the missionary-kids-that-are-struggling. They want to be able to work out their faith in safe spaces, spaces where questions are welcome and struggles are honored. Try and communicate this to those you trust; work toward creating a safe spot for faith questions.

You have the power to create a ‘place’. While holding the mantra “this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through* may be helpful for you, it probably won’t be for your kids. Paul Tournier, a well-known Swiss psychologist, has some profound insights on ‘place’ in his book A Place for You. He says that to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place. He says we are “incarnate beings” and so when those places are taken away, we suffer from a disruption of place. If the disruption goes beyond our ability to adapt it becomes a pathology – Tournier calls this a deprivation of place.

As parents, you can create place; you can create home. Through traditions that are not confined to geographic location, through family memories and jokes, through special items that will always be there – whether they be framed pictures, candle holders, or books – you can create ‘place’. My parents have lived in more homes than I can count, but when I walk into their space, whether it is a four-bedroom home in the woods of New England, or a house with stained glass windows and a 30-foot high ceiling in Pakistan, there are certain things that speak to me of ‘home’, of ‘place’. A small painting of a New England winter, Daily Bread on the side of their table with all their mail, my dad’s desk, filled with books and papers with his characteristic hand-writing – all of this embodies ‘place’, creates a feeling of ‘home’.

Learn how to grieve well; help your children know how to grieve well. Dave Pollock, a pioneer in bringing attention to the third-culture-kid journey, said this: “Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime.” You’ve already experienced the frequent goodbyes, the unknowns, the sometimes inconsistent journey. Know that grief is good, grief is individual, grief is rarely nicely organized, grief is physical and emotional. Because grief is a part of the journey, learning how to grieve well is critical.

Put fun into the journey. The memories of sitting in airports or at sidewalk cafes, riding in rickshaws or horse-drawn carriages, laughing at family jokes, yearly trips to the ocean where everyone was on vacation and phones and computers were left far behind – you will regret none of those. This world is a mansion and you have had the privilege of exploring many rooms with your children, and many airports connecting those rooms – so never doubt the fun of the journey, the privilege of the call.

In closing, this journey is a journey laced with grace. To communicate that grace to your kids is the biggest gift you will ever give them. Much of our past has been put into photo albums, blog posts, and memories of the heart. There is no doubt this life of pilgrimage comes with unique challenges, peculiar pains, unspoken losses – but for all those there is always and ever Grace.

Readers — what would you add to this post? What else would help on this journey of raising third culture kids? 

*Jim Reeves (1995), “This World Is Not My Home”, from We Thank Thee album.
© Marilyn Gardner. All rights reserved. Originally published at Communicating Across Boundaries. Used with permission.