the learning house

where everyone (especially me!) is learning . . .

Raising Third Culture Kids

on November 17, 2012

This week we took a break from homeschool so I thought that in lieu of my usual “letter of the week” post, I would share something more personal. I have been reflecting lately on the impact that living abroad and being raised here in Mongolia has on our children . . . the advantages and disadvantages . . . things gained versus lost . . . long-term effects . . . etc. The term “Third Culture Kid” or TCK is often used to describe missionary kids. American Sociologist David C. Pollock describes Third Culture Kids this way:

A 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 the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. . . the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

I wanted to share this because I think that folks back home don’t always realize that America isn’t home to our children the way that is to George & me. Even though I knew this in theory, it hit me hard a few months ago when in a conversation with our daughter I mentioned moving to America some day . . . she got upset. “But mommy, we live here!” was her response. Our children (3 & 5 yrs old) have never spent more than a few weeks at a time in North America, visiting family there. Mongolia is what they know. Mongolia is where their bed and toys, school and church, teachers and friends are. One time while visiting my family in Canada, Grandpa (teasing of course) tried to convince Jorja to stay with him but she kept on insisting that she lives in “the yellow house in Mongolia.” She knew where she belonged – where her home is.

Jorja & Joseph outside our “yellow house”

Some day we will move back to America and although George and I will be returning home, our children will be leaving the only home they’ve ever known and in a sense, moving to a foreign country.

And this is where the Third Culture Kid comes in . . . although Mongolia is their home, they are very aware how different they are . . . One night after a devotion about how God made each of us special, I asked Jorja what’s special about her and this was her response (verbatim), Well, I’m just the oddest kid in my class because of my gold hair.

Jorja (front right) with her Mongolian class

Joseph in his preschool class

We made the decision to enroll our children in Mongolian preschool & kindergarten so that they would learn to speak Mongolian and to provide them with an opportunity to socialize and interact with other kids their age. (We homeschool in the afternoon.)

I know people back home who think it’s wrong or unfair for us to raise our children so far from home, in a Third World country no less . . . just think of all they are missing out on. Well, I have to admit that I hate not spending holidays with family and I regret that my kids miss their cousins’ birthday parties and such.  But other than being far from family, I don’t think our kids are missing out on much. Sure if we lived in America they could be playing T-ball and taking dance lessons or music lessons, there’s swimming and ice skating, the list goes on . . . but where it really matters – when it comes to a home and love and security and self-esteem and values and morals and quality time with family – my children lack nothing.

In fact, there are several advantages to living here. For one, our kids are not over-scheduled and hyper-busy. We have ample free time as a family to sit around the dinner table together or laugh and play and read stories without worrying about being late for the next ‘thing’. Secondly, our children are sheltered from American consumerism. They are content with so little – they delight in simple pleasures. Just last week we received a care package that the sender had padded with cotton balls, so that’s all  you could see when we opened it . . . Jorja started jumping up and down, They sent us new cotton balls!!! she exclaimed. I love it. A 5 yr old totally excited over new cotton balls (you can only imagine the thrill of discovering the new markers, crayons, glue, socks, and fruit snacks beneath). And finally, I believe our kids are enriched by the experience of living in a different culture, learning a second language and traveling to parts of the world that they would never have seen otherwise.

Naturally, I still wonder what if . . . what if we lived in America? . . . would they be happier in an English school? . . . are they missing out on opportunities . . . is Mongolian school too traumatic for them because they can’t always stand up for themselves or express themselves as easily? etc. etc. But one thing I have to remember is that while I’m comparing my chidren’s experience here to life in America or my own childhood or the childhood of my friends’ children, my children are not making these comparisons. This is all they know and they are perfectly content. *sigh* Maybe they will be OK after all.

On the lighter side . . .

Top Indicators That My Children were not raised in America

  1. They don’t know what PopTarts, Twinkies, or Rice Krispie Treats are.
  2. They would choose Mongolian food over McDonald’s any day (over my cooking as well for that matter!).
  3.  When I announce, “Bath time!” they ask if it’s a “big bath” or a “blue bucket bath” night.

Joseph having a “blue bucket bath”

Are you raising Third Culture Kids? What fears, doubts, or challenges do you face? Been there, done that? What advice do you have for others?


24 responses to “Raising Third Culture Kids

  1. labolony says:

    Hey, thanks for stopping by my blog….I like yours too! Right now we are in the States, but I too have experienced those fears and doubts about raising my kids overseas. My fears are for my kids when they are old enough to leave home and go to college. I worry about them being able to relate to others and do well in such a different environment.

  2. Becca B says:

    HI Terri,
    Great thoughts here. I remember having the same thoughts and fears.
    I really love that my kids can play with an old cup, sticks and dirt and have a great summer day! 🙂 It’s great that they understand a world outside their culture.
    One day someone was watching Weston and they said, “Oh I’m too poor to have an ipad.” Weston looked at them and said, “You are NOT poor.” He went on to explain his thoughts and was very articulate. He has an understanding that no one else his age has.
    I think family time is the best part of living overseas. I think that kids are at home when with their family, especially at a young age. I think that strong family bond makes it easier for TCK to cope when arriving somewhere new.
    You’re kids will be very well adjusted in our shrinking world where interaction with other cultures is an important skill. Even here in rural Iowa there are 40 languages represented because there is work for immigrants here. What we have all learned in Mongolia, has not been lost.
    You are an awesome mom and I know you will lead your children how each of them needs. I will pray for just that now. 🙂
    Have a great day my friend. Thanks for blogging.

  3. jennifermaki says:

    I love this and your blog! Having lived abroad I so understand your perspective here. And we have often thought of up and moving from Canada to another country with our boys at one point. This was a terrific read and I look forward to more. Thank you as well for stopping by at LifeSchool Inc. So wonderful to share the remarkable journey! jennifer

  4. godmadeknown says:

    What a rich experience for all of you. I had to laugh when I saw your son in the bucket. We have similar pictures of all our boys at various times taking a “blue-bucket bath” since we were without a proper tub for most of their lives. What ever works!

  5. Lynda says:

    Dear Terri:

    Your children know they are loved and cared for and know that their Mom, Dad and their faith are always there to comfort and guide them in good and bad times. Trust your heart Terri you and George are doing a wonderful job of raising your children … is us who is missing out on what they have learned and continue to learn.

    Love to you All

    Aunt Lynda

  6. krekker says:

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this Terri. I believe that God will use every opportunity that your kids have growing up as TCK’s. In fact, you can pray into this and already thank God that He will use your kids in a special way when they are older b/c of their experiences! As a Cdn living in a consumerist culture that celebrates materialism, I see the impact it already has on my young children. We try our best but I am amazed at how they pick up the “vibes” of the surrounding culture. I long for what you talk about in your life there: ample time to enjoy life as a family, without having to get to the next thing. Our dear friends moved country to go to school and that is one benefit that they have seen as well. They have no obligations beyond school, and therefore, find that they have much more time as a family. I don’t think that your kids are missing out on much! Bless you in your ministry there.

    • Barb p says:

      Our friends raised 5 kids in Nairobi and they’ve all turned out to be wonderful adults and strong men and women if faith. Parents are now back in Nairobi and kids all living in the states right now. All love Africa and make frequent trips “home.”. It’s really their parents home now as they don’t plan to move back. Maybe God plans for you to stay? With so much emphasis now on diversity, you’re kids are getting the best education of all.

    • Thank you. I believe that your own values and attitude toward materialism and consumerism will have a greater impact on your children in the long run that those of the surrounding culture – sounds like you are doing a great job by simply being aware and then being able to counter those beliefs with Biblical truths and values. After writing this post, upon further reflection, I realized that living here is not some magical immunization against materialism – Mongolian children are just as prone to being spoiled little brats as North American children, even though many live in poverty. It boils down to what we desire, long for, and are or are not content with and where we are storing up treasures. I need this reminder as much as the next person. I appreciate your encouragement. Blessings 🙂

  7. Aunt Sandra says:

    Terri, Eric and Erin, your second cousins, as you well know were raised in Argentina and when Christmas time came and they had 10 little presents to open, they thought they were so blessed and as a grandma I was sad that they had so little but I can tell you today that they are better for that as they are still not into consumerism and they are 23 and 25…it is true that they are TCK and will always be but God is working in each of their lifes each and everyday…your post made me cry remembering my grandchildren being so far away but another thing I can say is that we are very close to these 2 young people today because when we did get to spend time with them it was very concentrated. Love you guys and keep on keeping on for the Lord!!! Aunt Sandra

    • Thanks! Yes, I’ve heard nothing but good things about the way they turned out – you must be so proud. And I’m glad to hear what a close relationship you managed to have even though they grew up so far away.

  8. tksmum says:

    Blue Bucket bath made me laugh. I have the same. It’s either “bath time’ or ‘tub time’ and out comes the big orange wash tub. I’m raising my 13month in Jamaica, it’s all he’s ever known whereas I’ve only been in Jamaica for 4 years , born and raised in London, England.
    (We are not part of any ex-pat community)

    I sometime have the same wandering thoughts, would he be better off in London for all the same reasons you mention, and then I see him trying to sweep the yard of fallen mango leaves with his grandad, or playing with the pebbles at the beach and I smile. In a few years we will make the move to the UK but for now, he’s all beach, sun, mangoes and real spring water.

  9. Wow, what a great post! We are in the US and are trying to simplify in many areas of our lives. I hate the consumerism and how so many people have this sense of entitlement. It is proving to be a challenge to simplify when stuff is everywhere and you’re surrounded by people who don’t have a problem with materialism. The busyness of life is splintering families, and yet many people (here) thinks all these things are normal. Anyway, I loved reading this. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Terri, bless your heart!! I was so encouraged when you left a post on my new blog. When I read a bit of your journey I’m truly humbled!! We have friends with children close to the age of yours, home from the mission field abroad. This post helps me better pray for them. Love the oddity of golden hair. Precious!!

    • Thanks for visiting my blog too! I hadn’t even realized that you just started your blog – it’s really great . . . you have to be patient but you will get lots of hits and followers I’m sure! And I want you to know that today I picked up some notebooks for my kids and we started our Question books 🙂 I wasn’t sure whether or not to at first but then my 3 yr old asked me what beavers eat and my 4 yr old asked me why people who don’t love God don’t go to heaven and I was like, hmmmm sounds like we need some question books! Only problem is I can’t seem to find an “Answer Book” LOL.

  11. Shannon says:

    I thought I commented on this weeks ago, but checked again and realized that I never pushed ‘post comment’. Oh well…. maybe it is better for all of us that I shorten my comment!!! Ha ha! My husband and I live on our farm in the house he grew up in and neither of us have ever lived more than 2 hours from here! I could NEVER relate to the practical, day-to-day life in Outer Mongolia, BUT…we always remind our children that our citizenship is in heaven! Phil 3:20. We are Christians and not much else matters! Of course, here, where we have Pop-tarts a plenty, I guess that’s easier for me to say! 🙂 But, like you, we choose to spend time together as a family, schooling at home and to spend our time on the eternal rather than rushing to activities, etc.
    You are real heroes! Thank you so much for sharing this glimpse of your life with us! If your children ever want pen pals…. 🙂
    Love your blog & look forward to reading each week!

    • Aww, thank you so much! To be honest, I can’t really relate to living on a farm! (Or living in one place my whole life!). We lived in a log cabin for two years (with no indoor plumbing) just on the outskirts of our town and that was enought to make me feel SO isolated. lol. But like you said, we are aliens wherever we live, waiting to go HOME. So glad to hear you make family time a priority. I think that most people, sooner or later, realize that “busy” does not equal “fulfilled”. When we move back to the States I’ll have to be so purposeful and intentional about time and priorities. I know it won’t be easy with so much pressure . . . Thank you for the offer for pen pals – that is so sweet of you. If you email me your info (address & names/ages of kiddos) we’ll send them some postcards from Mongolia 🙂 -Blessings, Terri

  12. Lana says:

    LOVE this post! Glad you are putting your kids in a local school. I think this gives them a different experience then most TCK, and they won’t grow up feeling as distant. Going back and living in a western world, after spending your life in Asia, might be difficult. But the world is changing. Its moving online, so who knows, your kids might just be digital nomads!

  13. mummyshymz says:

    Love this post. The fact that you enrolled your children in a local school shows your open-mindedness and willingness to embrace a different culture. I’m sure that your children have nothing to lose and everything to gain from this experience 🙂

  14. Wow! I loved reading what you shared here, especially the part about your kids having all the love and security they need right there at home with you. And enjoying life together as a family in a slower paced and less consumeristic way sounds wonderful. Blessings on you and your family.

    • Thank you! You have a really great blog, too. I can really identify with your “organizing urges” – I get those too! Good luck with the paper purge – that’s never fun, but such a good feeling when it’s done!

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