If you’re a fan of our website, you know that it’s primarily a blog about teaching and learning overseas. Stephanie and I were both trained and certified as teachers in the United States, and soon after took our first international teaching jobs at an elementary school in Vietnam (Check out our video cruising around the traffic of Ho Chi Minh City).
This blog’s not normally about parenting, and we’re not parents. Although, because we recognize the research that student factors (home atmosphere, learned intelligence, background knowledge, and motivation) often exert more influence on student achievement than teacher factors (Larson & Lockee, 2013), we’ve naturally dipped our toes into the topic of parenting from time to time, such as in the posts: Internet Safety: If You Don’t Teach it, Who Will?, Teacher Gets Through Week of Fidget Spinners Alive, A Letter to My Student About Goal Setting, Body Image, and Healthy Living and A Different Kind of Student-Led Conference.
We recently had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Tanya Crossman (@TanyaTck), the author of “Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century”, that focused specifically on the experiences of “Third Culture Kids” or TCKs. It made us think deeply about the challenges and growing pains that are common among the students that we teach. By partnering with Tanya, we hope that this post will be useful to international teachers and expat parents alike when you consider raising children overseas. Enjoy!
What are the main challenges of a TCK’s experience?
The students we work with seem to have pretty amazing lives. They have great after school activities every day provided by the school such as horse riding, robotics, tennis and cooking. They have an opportunity to travel internationally on school trips for Week Without Walls or for international sports competitions. Not to mention, they travel often with their families and are exposed to many different cultures. A few years ago, Stephanie witnessed a conversation between her students comparing their different religions and how what they could eat was similar and different. It was heartwarming to see them find more similarities than differences between Ethiopian Christian students giving up all animal products during fasting, Muslim students not being able to eat pork and the Hindu student not eating meat.
In addition to these increased cultural understandings, though, the TCK lifestyle brings challenges as well. As Tanya Crossman explains, “Living with multiple cultural influences creates a broader worldview and develops empathy. The corresponding challenge is that of identity. It can be difficult for a TCK who feels connections to multiple places to work out the answers to questions like “where am I from?” and “where is home?” They must work out who they are as a person “in between” rather than as someone connected solely to one place or people.”
We have also both had a number of students struggle when moving to our school, because they desperately miss their old friends, or have trouble making new friends when their best friends move away. Tanya found this was a common issue for TCKs. She says, “Another experience that goes with international life is transience – either the child moves, or their friends move away. The constant string of goodbyes (and hellos) can be emotionally tiring, and takes a toll. This is true for all internationals, but for TCKs, goodbyes become a formative childhood experience. For most TCKs, this results in a lot of unresolved grief which must be addressed over time.”
The wildest thing about this, to me, is that many kids are desperately missing where they consider to be home, when, because their friends are also transient, the home that they remember is actually not the same place anymore.
Tanya also told us about another commonality among TCKs that we haven’t experienced yet as we teach the younger grades and that is the pressure to excel. She explains that “Many TCKs absorb the idea that they are expected to be perfect and that personal failures have very wide ranging implications. Sometimes these sentiments are expressed to TCKs directly, but often it is a message they conclude and apply internally, regardless of what is actually said. Many grow up in elite environments, in which their parents and other adults in their lives are quite successful in terms of education and career. Implicit expectations for themselves (and their peers) are quite high. This is not a bad thing, but does mean that they tend to have a skewed sense of what is ‘normal’ and what it is to excel. Many also live as representatives of some sort. They know that when people see them they see a certain country, company, or religion; what they say and do reflects on others.”
What are the main ways that parents of TCKs can help their children to overcome these challenges?
We both have at least one student every year whose parents ask us for advice on how to help their child transition to their new location. Tanya says, “The biggest thing expat parents can do to help their TCKs is provide space and tools to work through the emotional impact of international life. One aspect of this is taking time to learn and understand how international life shapes a child’s worldview – to understand that your child sees and feels about the world differently than you do. Instead of working hard to make a child fit the norms of the culture you grew up in, create space for them to express their multiple connections. Even though they must follow specific cultural rules everywhere else, home can be the one place where they can be truly themselves – embracing different languages and cultural preferences.
“An important set of tools for TCKs is that surrounding goodbyes, transitions, and grief. It is important for parents to model for children what it looks like to say goodbye well, to feel the impact of losing a friend, or to just be sad about something. Often this goes against our natural instinct – we don’t want to cause more pain, or burden children with our own grief. But children living international lives do lose people and places – this is something we can’t fix. What we can do help them move through these losses well. Part of that is showing them how to do that. That doesn’t mean I process my grief with a child, but that I allow them to see that I feel sad sometimes, and demonstrate for them the language I can use to express that sadness. I can ask children how they feel about certain changes, and let them know it’s okay to express their feelings – both negative and positive, even at the same time. Modelling is so important – it’s a way that we can demonstrate to children different options in life, different ways to act and be.
“Failure is another thing we can model for TCKs – tell stories of things mistakes made, and how we learned from them. Help them see that the path to success isn’t about never failing, but about how we handle our mistakes once they’ve been made. Knowing there are lots of ways to make a life takes the pressure off them to succeed in one particular way – although research shows that knowing this doesn’t mean they slack off. Rather, they can relax more and work hard in a direction that they care about.”
Knowing what you know about the TCK experience, would you recommend teachers raising children overseas?
Now for the big question. Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of being raise overseas? According to Tanya, “there are many advantages to the experience of growing up overseas, and I think it’s overall a positive experience. Most TCKs agree. I surveyed 750 TCKs for my book; over 80% said they were glad to be TCKs, and 90% said they were thankful for their international experiences. Yes, there are challenges to being an international family, but with awareness these challenged can be addressed and managed. I definitely think the journey is worth it, especially where parents are committed to providing their children with emotional resources and tools – not just material ones.”
Any thoughts about the specific experiences of teachers’ children?
Now for the question most applicable to teachers. Tanya tells us, “I interviewed and surveyed a lot of teachers’ children for Misunderstood. In most areas the statistics weren’t markedly different to other groups, but they were more likely than other TCKs to resonate with a sense of “missing out” (37% compared to 26%). This seems to be connected to the social position of teachers within schools. In some international schools, a majority of students are upper class locals, and in these schools teachers’ kids know they have far fewer financial (and even social) resources than many/most of their classmates. Something similar can happen in schools with a high concentration of business executives or other elite families.”
This confirms what we’ve seen from the teachers’ children in the international schools that we’ve worked at. Children of non-teachers live in huge, ten bedroom houses, and the teachers’ kid lives in a house with two or three. Even on the trip we took with our swim team to Dubai the difference was striking; While most parents gave their children a reasonable allowance to use during the weekend trip, the range for the group spanned from $25.00 to a whopping $700.00.
Despite these large differences, Tanya finished our correspondence on a positive note: “Generally speaking, the children of international educators I interviewed were quite pragmatic and positive about these experiences. Many made connections with different kinds of TCKs, and found this helpful. In Misunderstood I reference one teachers’ kid who said she “often preferred to spend time socialising with MKs [Missionary Kids], as they spent less money than her international school classmates… Teachers are often in a position to mix in a wide circle with people of different backgrounds and experiences, which can be enriching for their children.”
We hope you enjoyed this post that explored the experiences of Third Culture Kids.
If you have kids or are thinking of having kids aboard, we highly recommend getting Tanya Crossman’s book, Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, and connecting with her on Facebook or Twitter.
For more information on teachers’ kids, Tanya recommends Dr Ettie Zilber’s book, “The Children of Educators in International Schools” (2009).