Third Culture Kids: The Challenges and Rewards Of Living Abroad

I could probably go on for ever about this topic, as it’s so close to my heart. I’m the mother of four third culture kids, and it’s an ever-learning, ever-growing, ever-surrendering journey for me. I was not raised as a third culture kid, so the learning curve is steep. I was raised on a beautiful country road in farm country Ohio, in a house my dad built, which is just on the other side of the small valley from his parents’ farm, as well as his grandparents’ farm. Four generations growing up in the same fields, running through the same paths in the woods, exploring the same streams and passing down familiar family stories. It’s a strong heritage of loving the land and soaking up the beauty of God’s creation with your loved ones nearby. For you never know when you might need help foaling a calf or repairing the corn picker. It’s a magical life, really; not without its share of heartaches and troubles, but I had quite the carefree, comfortable childhood.

third culture kids


Now, here I am, a mother of four raising them on the complete other side of the world in a place that holds hardly a single similarity to the land my family so closely tends. There’s so many firsts, so many new experiences that force me into places of complete trust and surrender. There’s countless times they experience something from a child’s perspective that I cannot relate to at all. I’m forcing things on them that I was never forced to experience. It’s new, deep waters for this family. In case you didn’t know or haven’t figured it out yet, I’ll get an official definition for you.

What exactly is a third culture kid?


Merriam Webster says a third culture kid is, “a child who grows up in a culture different from the one in which his or her parents grew up; The “third culture” is influenced both by their parents’ culture and the culture in which they are raised.” In other words, an entirely new culture is created (the third culture) by mixing their parents culture (first culture) and the culture that they are living in (second culture), thus creating a unique culture that only they can understand.


Author Nick Voci explained it this way, “Third culture kids have a unique place in any society to which they belong. Theirs is a confusing and quite often debilitative condition. They are confronted with cultural walls or pitfalls at every turn. Unable to completely relate to their parent’s culture and yet at the same time labelled as “different” from the mainstream culture they are encouraged to belong to, they are basically cut adrift and left to float in a sort of “twilight zone” state. They form a cultural hybrid, a blend of cultures that can be interesting, but also confusing and frustrating to them.”

While raising third culture kids can be extremely difficult (and scary!) there are a lot of wonderful rewards as well. I’m going to try my best to explain both the challenges and rewards for third culture kids, and while I think every family has to determine where God wants them to live and serve, I hope I can reassure those of you who are contemplating a call that would take your kids into an entirely new culture that the rewards really are well worth the challenges. Let me also first clarify that the perspective from which I’m writing is from a family who is called by God to love and serve a people on the other side of the world; to share his good news. There is no other reason for which my husband or I would move our kids here. We love our families and so badly long for our kids to be near their cousins and grandparents. For us, the only cost worth that separation is for the name of our Savior.

The place where we live currently is not nice. It’s
crammed, inner city, cement living that’s ridiculously hot and pollution-filled. It’s noisy and filthy. Our kids are by no means on some grand, beautiful sight-seeing adventure here. But even still, the rewards are oh so sweet.

I want to begin with the challenges of raising third culture kids. (Reminder: I am not a TCK so maybe when our kids are grown they can validate (or shoot down) these thoughts.) Because although I meant it when I said the rewards are sweet, the challenges are bitter. I won’t sugar-coat it for you.


CHALLENGE #1: Separation from Grandparents

This is the hardest one for us. Both my husband and I come from close-knit,
extended families, and we have parents who adore our children. It nearly rips my heart out when I dwell too long on the fact that our parents are missing so many milestones and personality quirks of our kids. Like most parents, we think our kids are the bees knees, and we want them to be known by their grandparents. And it goes both ways; in the months leading up to our departure a few years back, I mostly just thought about how hard this was going to be on us and our kids. But as the time to leave drew painstakingly close, I realized that the greater pain we were experiencing was the pain we were causing our parents by taking their grandchildren so far away from them. It’s hard. Just plain hard. There’s no nice way around it; no one can truly replace a grandparents’ role. Facetime and 21st century advancements can ease the pain, but it’s still there, and it doesn’t go away.


CHALLENGE #2: Separation from Aunts, Uncles & Cousins


This one is painfully similar to the first challenge. Once again I will say that my husband and I come from families where our aunts and uncles were our role models and our cousins our very best friends. We have so many sweet memories with our own cousins and the fact that our kids are missing out on a lot of those memories is awful. And the older they get, the more they realize it, too. Our son asks to Facetime with his cousins all of the time and at least every other day our girls make cards for all of their girl cousins back in Ohio. Often at bedtime they ask me when they’ll get to go see their friends again. And by friends, they mean cousins. Because shouldn’t cousins be your first and closest friends? I think so. They miss them a lot, and I miss that they’re missing out on the memory making. This pain doesn’t go away either.


CHALLENGE #3: Where do I belong?

You can’t escape this one. You’ll feel it in your kids, especially when you make visits back home and then return to your foreign home. You’ll catch glimpses through their eyes and small comments that make you realize they feel caught between two worlds. We’re very intentional about including our kids on this journey here with us, and they are passionate about that. They pray with fervency for their friends here to know Jesus and for the poor and vulnerable to be taken care of. They try to learn the language and embrace the culture, but they don’t ever fully fit. But then you go for a visit home, and while it’s basically a nonstop overdrive of fun and luxury and excitement, it’s still not home. You move them from house to house, without a place to anchor. Things are strange to them there (I’ll never forget the first time we went home our son saw a drinking fountain in the airport and didn’t know what it was! Lol). They’ll be loving life, but they’re also missing there bed, their toys, their friends, their familiar surroundings. It just doesn’t feel quite right. They don’t want to leave, and yet they don’t quite belong. This one also gets worse with age.

CHALLENGE #4: Language


If you’re going to a place with limited English, this will undoubtedly be a struggle for your kids, at least at the start. Not knowing the language creates an immediate barrier in relationships. Our son is now nearly fluent in the local language and our girls are progressing, but not too long ago our son would have chosen to play with boys who he knows are not nice to play with, simply because they knew English. The ease that comes with sharing a language trumped the value of the relationship. Until they learn the language, they will often feel afraid and out of place. They won’t have confidence to make friends and immerse in the culture, which will leave them feeling more isolated. (Helpful hint: make your kids’ language learning a priority; it will be life changing! One great way to do this is by allowing local kids who don’t know English into your home to play with your kids. They’ll pick it up)


CHALLENGE #5: The non-luxurious Life


I put this one as the last challenge because only when I find myself in a bad state of mind, typically inward, selfish thinking, does this become a major challenge. If I keep my mind focused upwardly and outwardly, this challenge is not so difficult. (In fact, you can even come to view it as a reward!) But when the hard thoughts creep in, this challenge is real. And you shouldn’t ignore it. When I watch my kids take a bath in a bucket; or be covered head to toe in intense sweat and filth; or be woken up in the middle of the night with obnoxious drumming; or be bitten by the 32nd mosquito of the night; or catch another awful infection; or have chores like hanging laundry and washing dishes that machines in the west take care of; or a host of other reasons, I can sometimes feel heartbroken (or resentful) that because of our choices for our family, which they had no say in, they are living a more difficult life; one that requires sacrifice.

Back home in the western world, they had electric riding toys which they loved (and ask for all the time); here they don’t. Back home in the western world, they had massive grassy hills and lawns to run around in; here they don’t. Back home we had a trampoline to burn energy and induce endless giggles; here we don’t. Back home we had a minivan that could quickly take us wherever we wanted; here we don’t. We had an air- conditioned, well stocked with comfort food, clean grocery store; not an overcrowded, hot, dirty, full of strange foods market. They had fruit snacks and goldfish and marshmallows. They had big bathtubs, even jacuzzi ones, and access to swimming pools. There were clean and kid-friendly play spaces and parks.

Here, well nothing is clean, really. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Life here is just plain harder, and your kids don’t get to avoid that. These challenges are real. They aren’t exaggerated or made up; they are felt every week, if not every day. And the first three can’t hardly be remedied; for as long as you live abroad (and even after for challenge #3), you’ll wake up to these challenges nearly every day. That can seem quite depressing, which seems strange since I said the rewards outweigh the challenges. The rewards must be pretty great, then; yes, yes they are…

REWARD #1: FAMILY CLOSENESS

I intentionally put this one first, because it’s oh, so sweet! Although the separation from extended family is incredibly difficult, one of the positive side effects of that is the drawing in of the immediate family. Life in a foreign place typically means you spend more time together, and you experience new challenges and excitements together. Going through the massive ups and downs of adjusting to life abroad brings a closeness that can only be understood with those who’ve gone through it with you. Third culture kids are drawn close to their parents as they don’t have the option of going to a grandparent, aunt or uncle; and siblings become best friends because they are the only options to play with, especially at the beginning. This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s actually really special to have to lean into each other. The immediate family unit blossoms and because tight. We need each other. It’s been incredible to watch my children’s relationships with each other grow fiercely strong; it is only with each other that there is shared understanding of their new third culture.

REWARD #2: LANGUAGE LEARNING

While language is undoubtedly a challenge, it also can be a reward that is such a gift to give your kids. Being from rural America, if we wouldn’t have moved to a foreign place there is an incredibly high chance our kids would have grown up only knowing English. Listening to our son rattle off in the local language to his friends and our neighbors is one of the coolest sounds to our ears. And our girls are learning too. Watching them struggle through it, eager to learn, shows their desire to want to relate to those around them. People who are different from them. It is also incredibly helpful to brain development.

One children’s education foundation explains, “Research shows that learning a second language boosts problem- solving, critical-thinking, and listening skills, in addition to improving memory, concentration, and the ability to multitask. Children proficient in other languages also show
signs of enhanced creativity and mental flexibility.” See, a gift.


REWARD #3: SOCIAL SKILLS


Before having third culture kids of my own, I had noticed on multiple occasions when speaking with children who live in a foreign place that they had social skills beyond their age, especially when communicating with adults. I have now had the privilege to witness this in my own children. Typically the nature of living abroad means your children will have more interactions with adults than they normally would have otherwise. They will spend more time with you while you’re around other adults. In the comfort of one’s home culture, children will often run off with other children and ignore the adults. Because you do so much more of life together, they will interact with the adults that you interact with. They will constantly be asked questions and will have to learn to reply. Eventually, adult interactions become less scary and they become skilled at engaging with them. This is another skill that will take them far in life, as good social skills have massive implications on careers and leadership opportunities, as well as just making it easier to make new friends.

REWARD #4: RESILIANCY

Third culture kids are known to be resilient. And that is another incredible gift to give your children. Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. Children who live in a foreign place, who are constantly adjusting and readjusting, become mentally tough. This toughness allows them to bounce back from difficult situations more easily. Their life is most likely less cushioned than it would be had they stayed back in a comfortable place of familiarity, and because of this they learn to handle life’s difficulties with resiliency. A third culture kid’s resiliency is also built by the lack of living a luxurious life. This is tied to the comment I made in the final challenge, when I mentioned that sometimes this can be a reward. When your children experience sacrifice and hardship, it builds character. It builds resiliency. And that’s a gift that will carry them far in their adulthood.

REWARD #5: BROADER WORLDVIEW

While the first reward I listed is my favorite for myself personally, this reward is my favorite for my children. I can’t hardly thing of a greater gift to give our children than a broadened worldview. When you never leave the small town you were raised in, it becomes immensely more difficult to understand and relate to people who are vastly different than you. You can
easily become set in your ways, thinking anyone who does something different than you must be wrong.

I am not proposing that they learn to accept everything (I am actually very much against that mindset), but they can approach differences without being nervous or scared and they can engage in them with grace. Learning to understand a culture that is vastly different than your culture of heritage is a grueling process that results in incredible personal growth. And my favorite part is that it develops a great sense of empathy, which is something that typically comes later for kids (if it comes at all). When you take the time to see things through another person’s eyes your ability to empathize increases. I desperately want my children to be empathetic people. To be bent towards showing grace because they have the ability to understand the feelings of another. Scripture is straightforward with the command to live a life marked by these things:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.  Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:15-18)

Third culture kids are given the incredible gift of a depth of understanding people and their world.

I could continue to delve into both more challenges and more rewards for third culture kids, but I think I’ll leave you with those main points. I’m definitely not here to tell you that it will be easy. There will be many trying times and times of doubt, but I do believe that after some time, you’ll start to notice the rewards and realize they really are worth the challenges.

Yes, your kids will miss out on things. That’s without question. Things that are nostalgic to you as an adult thinking back on your own childhood. These things will break your heart when you think about your kids missing out on them, but that’s when you dwell on the fact that they are creating entirely new memories and experiences that will someday by nostalgic for them.
And, most likely, these experiences are shaping them into individuals who have a deep connection with their siblings; who have the benefits of knowing multiple languages; who have deep social skills; and who are resilient individuals with a broadened worldview that makes them loving and graceful people in this world. And there’s no question, this world
could use more of that.

Third culture kids are something special.

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