A few years ago, I had never heard the term 'third culture kid' and now it seems we are raising them. Basically, it refers to a child who is from one culture (ie that of their parents), but is brought up in another culture (ie the country they work in) but in fact never really feels they belong to either. The term is more often used for those who spend large portions of their childhood in a particular culture; for us, it is slightly different as we move around quite a lot. But there are some important considerations. A couple of years back, I read this helpful book by David Pollack and Ruth van Reken - I'd recommend it if you want to know more about the topic, because it was easy to read, frank, accessible and written from two slightly different backgrounds (one of the authors is Christian). I remember recognising traits in friends who were 'missionary kids' and feeling I understood them a little more. But also, I wondered whether as Christians, if we are truly raising our offspring to 'be in the world and not of the world' as Jesus describes in John Chapter 17, then in fact all Christian children will be 'third culture' to an extent - living in a world that is not ever going to be truly home. And maybe especially the case for those who are home educating; our children form a slightly different 'culture' to those who are used to being surrounded by large groups of children of the same age as themselves. So some of the things I describe will be due to trips overseas, some due to seeking to raise the boys Biblically, and some will be due to home educating. But the challenges remain. Right now, I'm really tired so will probably describe what I've noticed (the potential problem) but not go on to discuss the ideal solution in detail.
We've just returned from a month in East Africa. Short, but in the eyes of a four year old or a two year old, this was easily long enough to settle, to feel at home, to establish rhythms and routines, to adapt to the climate and the diet, and to start to thrive. On return, things seem unsettling and strange. They are a little young to be able to articulate what they might be feeling, but some things we have noticed are:
1) They do not realise that it is quite unusual to have lived in five countries in the first four years of your life. They don't realise that most people do not fly long haul very often, and that many of the experiences they have known are things that others might only dream of. As parents, we don't want to hammer home the 'you don't realise how privileged you are' line, because it isn't all that helpful (I remember hating being told that as a child too!). But at the same time, we want them to recognise that not everybody they speak to will be able to relate to everything they go on to say.
2) That we LIVE in these places, and so it is quite different to having just visited. For example, somebody who has been to East Africa for a week long safari will have had a very different experience to what it is like to live and work in a bustling and noisy city.
3) That to an extent, many people don't really want to hear the details and descriptions. We find that hard as adults (I've read some helpful books about 'reverse culture shock' that remind you of this, and other challenges that can be faced).
4) Their love for the outdoors has flourished. As with many home educating families, we choose to spend many hours out of doors, exploring the world around us, learning about nature, seasons, geography and generally being active; in the UK, most children we know who are not home educated prefer to spend time indoors, watching television or playing other games. Its notable coming back - the past few mornings (and we are enjoying a beautiful, although cold, spring with sunshine, blossoms, buds, birdsong and clear fresh air) we have been out in nearby parks and barely seen a soul. Sometimes we invite friends to join us, but they will tell us it is too far to walk, too cold, that the child has a runny nose, or various other things. Whilst I encourage their love of the outdoors and of nature, it makes us a bit different and that can be lonely.
5) Their love of insects.... Again, makes them just a bit different. I love the fact they can tell me in detail about different types of cockroaches, and what makes each so especially beautiful. But not everybody enjoys this!
6) Climate. They are freezing cold. It's funny when their friends are in T shirts and they are bundled up for winter.
7) Changes in length of day. We were on the equator. It got light at 7am and got dark at 7pm. Here, it gets light early and they have to go to bed when the sun is still shining. That takes a lot of getting used to!
8) Attitudes towards children. I think the world can be divided into those who see children as people, and talk to them as individuals and listen to them, and those who see them as an inconvenience, or certainly unable to articulate their own views. The proportions of the two types seems to vary according to culture. Or perhaps it is that we are exposed to more of those who are genuinely interested in children when overseas. It is hard when people ask them about Africa, and they start to speak and the person doesn't listen.
9) Having seen real poverty and then returning to a materialistic culture. This year was the first Christmas in the UK that they could remember (previous ones having been in rural Gambia (mission hospital) or in Malawi, where gifts (if any) were home made and simple, festivities did not start until Christmas Eve, and the emphasis was on the birth of the Son of God). Christmas raised a lot of questions. But now it is Easter and the same has occurred. We went to a church event today where there were a lot of crafts, chocolate etc. The boys were unsettled and asked to leave after about half an hour. One of them told me he had wanted to do 'Easter craft' and none of the things they did today were in the Bible. This is a four year old speaking, but he saw the inconsistency. What does eating too much chocolate have to do with the risen Saviour? And there are things like that all the time. I once heard African and European cultures broadly contrasted in the terms that 'they value people more than things' or 'they value relationships and spirituality more'. I would agree with that generalisation. And returning home right before Easter has brought its challenges. At the same time, I must confess it has brought me encouragement to see how they boys question what is happening around them. But it was sad to see them in a church building, overwhelmed by the activities that surrounded them, not really able to relate to the other children who were there, and asking to come home so they can read about Jesus dying on the cross.
10) The recognition that life brings pain. Again, not all of this is a 'third culture' thing. Our first child died in infancy, and the boys have been brought up to know all about her, to consider her as part of the family, to know that death is a fact of life and that heaven is real. Our good friends also had a daughter die more recently. In Africa we have seen children and young adults who look sick. We have seen mothers die in childbirth, and have known infants be thrown away into rubbish tips or otherwise abandoned because their parents or surviving relatives have been unable to cope. For us, these issues often come up in conversation; I've noticed other adults look uncomfortable at the questions that the boys can raise. But because we move around and they see things differently and ask many questions, we seek to answer them as simply and truthfully as we can. Perhaps they have understood things that many adults in more stable environments spend much of their lives running away from. But it makes you a bit different from other four year olds, and they don't always understand that.
With these challenges, there are blessings and encouragements, and as always home education enables us to work through and address some of these things at the time that they arise. So, rather than discussing in detail a biblical perspective, or summarising what other authors have written, I'll finish will a few encouragements:
1) Awareness of eternity
2) Thankfulness for our daily bread, our home, our clothes - having seen those without
3) A questioning attitude towards things they do not understand
4) A growing love of nature
5) Understanding of biology - I've been astonished by the descriptions of insects, plants and birds
6) Geography - they love drawing flight paths onto maps of the world and know all the continents, many countries and major cities - none of this is something we have sought to teach
7) A desire to explore and discover new things, new foods, new routes to familiar places
8) An unawareness of race, culture or nationality when they meet others
9) A Biblical perspective with regard to Christmas and Easter - being able to see what is Biblical and what is added on more clearly than many adults
10) That we can explore all of this together as a family
If you find yourself raising 'third culture kids' through geography or through choices your family has made, be encouraged. God can use these challenges as opportunities, and I think the greatest is that clear understanding of God and eternity. I pray that our children will overcome obstacles and flourish with the opportunities given. And I pray that as parents we can understand our children and guide them as they learn.
- I am a Christian mother of five, and our highest goal as a family is to serve God in every aspect of our lives. Jesus promised His disciples 'life in all its abundance' (John 10:10) - that has been our story, a rich life, not devoid of challenges, but certainly abundant. Previously writing at www.homeeducationnovice.blogspot.com, we have come to realise that education is just one area where our faith shapes our choices and direction in life. This blog seeks to share our adventure.