Parallel Lives: TCKs, Parents, and the Culture Gap

by Editor on August 15, 2016

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Something I’ve heard a lot of expat parents say is that their whole family is “in it together” or that they are “called” together. The basic assumption is that all members of the family go abroad and live overseas together – they are bonded by the same experience. When I hear this, however, I think two things:

First, I am so glad you and your kids are on the same team!

But, are you aware that you aren’t sharing the same experience?

To explain what I mean, I need to define some confusingly similar acronyms: TCK, ATCK, and TCA.

TCK stands for Third Culture Kid – a young person who has spent a significant part of childhood outside her passport country.

ATCK is Adult Third Culture Kid – an adult who had a TCK childhood.

TCA is Third Culture Adult – an adult who has lived outside his passport country, but only as an adult.

An important thing to grasp is that TCKs (who become ATCKs) begin their expat journey as children, while TCAs do not live abroad until adulthood.

It might sound subtle, but the difference is actually very significant. The children of expat families are TCKs – but the parents are usually TCAs. They are living in the same country, but while parents experience and process the challenge of cross-cultural living as adults, TCKs grow up and form identity in the middle of it.

Expat parents have parallel experiences to their children – in the same places, but qualitatively different.

You live in the same countries.

But it affects you differently.

Overseas life is different for TCAs/TCKs in a few ways. These differences do not mean the TCK has a better (or worse) experience. If these differences go unnoticed, however, they lead to misunderstandings between parents and children. This leaves many parents feeling frustrated and many children feeling unheard.

I’ve worked with TCKs for 11 years (I lived in China for most of that time). And I’ve spent the last three and a half years working on a book that explains the TCK experience of life to those who care about them. I interviewed nearly 300 TCKs about their experiences (and surveyed 750 TCKs). Most were aware that they experienced their host countries and passport countries differently to their parents; many felt their parents were far less aware of the differences. In fact, one third of the 750 TCKs I surveyed said they felt misunderstood by their parents.

I am going to outline three of the differences between what a TCA and a TCK experience overseas: connection, identity, and choice.

 

Connection

A TCA moves abroad having experienced comprehensive connection to one country as a child. A TCA has deep emotional connections to her passport country because a large percentage of her life was spent there. These emotional connections are experiential – memories of lived life there.

A TCK, however, experiences multiple countries/cultures during childhood. Two-thirds of the TCKs I surveyed first moved abroad before age five, 58% spent more than half their childhoods abroad, and a 30% spent less than three years in their passport countries. Most TCKs have more time in their host countries than in their passport countries, so that is where most of their emotional connections are made.

Why does this matter?

Your TCK children will not have the same emotional connection to the people, places and activities of your country (and your childhood) that you do. Things that mean the world to you may not mean much to them. They may dislike your comfort foods, find your favourite sport boring, or be unmoved by things which bring you to tears. They may intellectually understand that these things are supposed to matter, but not feel a connection to them. If they fear disapproval, they may learn to “fake it”. Giving your TCKs space to feel differently, even if it is sad or disappointing to you, is vital to maintaining open communication and strong understanding between you.

 

Identity

A TCA comes abroad with a fully formed sense of self, connected to a particular country – the place that is “home”. A TCK grows up caught between two places that are both “home”. Most TCKs develop personal identity against a backdrop of frequent change. TCKs are not just experiencing life overseas, they are trying to make sense of the world (and themselves) while doing so.

The events of international life certainly affect TCAs, but they affect TCKs much more deeply – becoming part of the bedrock of their emotional worlds. For example, many TCKs I interviewed spoke of learning that “everyone leaves”. Watching friends leave, or moving on themselves, affected how they saw the world. Woven into their sense of self was the knowledge that nothing is permanent.

Why does this matter?

TCKs are individuals, and they deal with international life differently. But regardless of how they process the experience, living overseas will impact how they see the world, and the people in it – leading to what may be very different worldview to your own. When your child’s view clashes with your own, take time to understand why they think what they do, rather than trying to “correct” their perspective.

 

Choice

Being an adult, a TCA has far more control over the decision to live abroad. No one becomes a TCK by choice. Not that it’s a bad thing (quite the opposite – 92% of MKs surveyed were thankful for their experience) but it happens because a decision has been made on the child’s behalf. Even when a child (especially an older child) is consulted about moving abroad, it is still the parent who has the power to actually make the decision.

While a few MKs I interviewed said they felt they as children were missionaries alongside their parents, that living abroad was their own “calling” as well as their parents, most did not share this feeling. A few expressed strong resentment that these choices were made on their behalf (12% of MKs surveyed felt resentment about their childhoods).

Why does this matter?

All parents make decisions on behalf of their children, but the decision to take a child overseas means giving them a very different childhood. It is important for parents to understand their choices have created a culture gap. That gap is not evidence of a bad decision – it is a natural consequence of a different cultural upbringing. Denying it or trying to “fix” it does not change the situation. What does make a difference is recognising the gap and taking steps to listen to the child’s point of view.

You live abroad together.

But the impact of that life is different.

 

My book is called Misunderstood because that is how many young TCKs feel. Having spent years helping expat parents understand their children, I wrote a book to do what I do – give insights into the perspective of TCKs.

When parents (and other adults) recognise the difference between an adult’s experience of life overseas and a child’s experience, it is a huge step toward the sort of understanding that encourages and comforts TCKs.

You are on the same team.

You do experience life abroad differently.

But with awareness and care, you can still understand each other deeply.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

TC_headshot-sqTanya Crossman went to China to study for a year and ended up there 11 years, working for international churches and mentoring Third Culture Kids (her book about TCKs releases this week). She currently lives in Australia studying toward a Master of Divinity degree at SMBC. She enjoys stories, sunshine, Chinese food and Australian chocolate. |www.misunderstood-book.com | facebook: misunderstoodTCK | twitter: tanyaTCK

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  • Wow, this is great stuff!

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    Thanks for this great post, Tanya!

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    So good. Thank you from a TCA raising three TCKs!

    • Thanks, Rachel! I’ve read a lot of your writing over the past several years. Actually, one time an aside in one of your posts prompted an extra line of inquiry for me early in my book-writing process.

  • Very interesting, from an ATCk with an ATCK mother, TCA father, TCA husband and raising two TCK’s!

    • Generations of cross-cultural navigation! There must be a lot of stories and accumulated wisdom in your family tree 🙂

  • Adrian M. Thomas

    Any TCK can tell you vividly that their memories of their experience on the mission field are very different than their parent’s memories. Yes, there is some overlap, but, like any child, whether a TCK or someone who grows up in their home country, your growing up memories will be significantly different than your parents experience in the same time frame. This is not unique to a TCK. I am grateful, though, that my parents strategically worked hard to create memories for their children (shared as a family, or with their friends) that were outside of a ministry context. As a TCK who has now served overseas as a missionary for almost 15 years, I have adopted this same practice with our children (TCKS). We do our best to create memories (shared as a family, or with their friends) that are outside of a ministry context. I believe, it is very important to make sure that any parent serving overseas does their best to create significant memories for their children outside of a ministry context.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      I think so too, Adrian — thank you for saying this and sharing your thoughts. I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that every important or significant memory was tied to our work in Haiti — I want there to be “normal” family activities and vacations and things that did not revolve around the work abroad.

    • That’s a really great practice! Thank you for honouring their childhood with such obvious and deliberate care.

  • Rachel Hicks

    I appreciate this post, Tanya. It will be good reading for my husband, who is a TCA. I am a second-generation ATCK, and my kids are TCKs, and we experienced “re-entry” to our passport country three years ago. The way my kids and I process it all is sometimes the same, and sometimes different and more intense, than the way my husband does. He’s a trooper, though, at listening and doing his best to understand how much more baggage the three of us have!

    • Sounds like you all have a lot of love and respect going on – always great to hear!

  • Anna Wegner

    I had to go over and buy the book before I could comment. 🙂 I can’t wait to read it! I’m a TCA, raising TCKs. The first time I recognized the significant differences was at Christmas time, either our 2nd or 3rd overseas. I realized that my Christmas memories & associations were very different from my kids. It was always going to be different for them than my childhood memories of Christmas.

  • John Barclay

    I am a TCK/ MK; I have 3 of my own TCKs (they didn’t choose to become TCKs, my wife and I created them) and my wife and i have worked closely with hundreds of TCKs (and TCAs) from over 40 nationalities over the past 20 years. Your article is spot-on, excellent. I’ve just ordered your book and look forward to reading it.
    John Barclay

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