Third Culture Kids

BY Harper's Bazaar Junior / Oct 23 2015 / 14:05 PM

Three buzzwords to familiarise yourself with, and the new-gen way to categorise your children, we explore a fascinating young demographic with the world at its feet…

Third Culture Kids

Barack Obama is thought to be the most powerful example of one in the world today; Meanwhile, there are too many displaced youngsters in tragic circumstances fleeing Syria about to become them; The chances are, if you’re a parent reading this in the UAE, your own child is one. ‘Third Culture Kids’ (TCKs) is a phrase coined by sociologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem in the early ’50s to describe anyone who spends their formative years outside of their parents’ first culture. Fast-forward half a century, and TCKs are undoubtedly on their way to outnumbering those living the same structured paths as their mothers and fathers before them. Deemed the ‘prototype citizen of years to come’ in educational and sociology circles, the behaviour and treatment of new-gen TCKs is an important topic to understand, and then use to your power and realign perspective on the too-often used term ‘expat brat’, nowhere more so than this region.

the concept is powerful from the point of view of both schools and parents

When considering developed countries, it is only the most remote locations in which one could find TCK-free schools. Certainly a near impossible feat in the UAE, where its population is made up of approximately 80 per cent expatriates. One of the region’s most desirable waiting lists is at Kings’ School Dubai, the base of TCKs expert and Executive Primary Headteacher, Alison Turner, who has been working in the UAE with children from all over the world for over 15 years. “My own daughter is a Third Culture Kid, and the concept is powerful from the point of view of both schools and parents; it is fascinating to learn how taking your child away from their home country can change them,” Alison explains. And how does one determine a TCK, when there are so many children living outside their parents’ primary cultural heritage now? “Technically, a TCK is a child who has spent a significant number of their developmental years outside the parents’ home culture: This is the child’s first culture. The second culture refers to the culture in which the family currently resides, which for us is the UAE. The third culture refers to the new culture they create with their friends.”

So to recap; we’re talking a fresh, diverse and multicultural ‘norm’ that belongs to the next generation, a very specific type of upbringing that those living through it will understand better together. Bazaar asks what kind of characteristics this brings to the fore? Is there anything we should be aware of as parents? Alison explains that TCKs tend to be good listeners, flexible, ambitious and high achieving. “These are traits that are generalisations, but backed up by over 50 years of research in the field. They are also geographically-aware and have a good cross-cultural understanding, often drawn to careers associated with service to the community and world.” Which sounds positive to us. Surely there are negatives, though. What’s the downside? “They can feel rootless and restless, as if they don’t quite belong anywhere, and can have issues of unresolved grief if the constant welcomes and departures of friends (and themselves) are not managed well,” Alison explains, which invariably results in children living their third culture gravitating to others like themselves, as they just ‘get it’.

• “Where are you from?” has more than one reasonable answer
• You flew before you could walk
• You have always spoken and written fluently in two languages
• You feel odd being in the ethnic majority
• You know how to pack a suitcase like a pro
• You have the urge to move to a new country every couple of years
• The thought of letting your own children fly alone doesn’t bother you at all
• You can sort your friends by continent
• You understand what a small world it is, after all

A complex theory indeed, and we muse over the specifics required when it comes to nurturing a relatively unchartered demographic. The key is appropriate support. “At Kings, for example, the class teacher and the school understand the importance of themselves as ‘institutions’ for a TCK who has few of the usual, recognisable reference points from home,” Alison says, adding “They rely on these for reassurance.” Alison explains that when children leave the school, something that happens frequently in the Middle East, teachers will make an event of it, and celebrate. “TCKs have to become emotionally resilient, but also to be guided not to bottle up those emotions in a way that might cause damage in later life. Listen to them carefully. Honour their feelings. Respect the fact that change equals a changed person.” Does this mean an extra dose of angst as they enter adolescence and become Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs), then? “Not necessarily, strangely, as research shows that this rebellious phase is often delayed… So be ready for that!”

We ask whether there is one golden rule or piece of advice Alison offers to parents negotiating emigration, or already living second-culture lives themselves – what can we expect? “Can I have two?” she asks. “Firstly, share the process of change. Involve the child in the decisions of any move, about items to take, packing, house searching, colours for new bedroom walls. Secondly, fully embrace the new culture, taking advantage of all the amazing opportunities it offers.” In essence, the future is your responsibility, handle it with care.

This article first appeared in Harper's Bazaar Junior Autumn/Winter 2015