Parents of Third Culture Kids, Failure, and Redefining Success

by Rachel Pieh Jones on May 15, 2016

(revised from the original Who Wants Failure? on Djibouti Jones, written at the end of a year in Minnesota during which my husband worked on his PhD in Education Development)

TCKs and Failure

I opened the letter from my daughter’s first grade teacher and read it.

“Crap.” I wrinkled it into a tight ball, threw it in the garbage, and started crying.

She had tested into the gifted and talented program.

The parents of Third Culture Kids (at least me and at least sometimes) are probably the only parents in the world who want their kids to fail. At least while they are in their passport countries. If they fail here, it will be easier to go back there.

This is why I cried when my First Grade daughter, who should have only been in Kindergarten, easily passed into the Gifted and Talented Program at her American elementary school. It is why I cried when my son won first place trophies in wrestling tournaments and why I cried when my other daughter got her serves over the volleyball net.

There is no gifted and talented program where we live. There is no wresting team. There are no volleyball nets at school. There’s a French school where kids are trained to believe they are stupid, there’s wrestling but only with dad and the punching bag that hangs from the ceiling in the middle of our living room, and there aren’t girls sports, unless you consider dodging goats and donkey carts a sport.

So what do you do…No, how do you feel when these precious TCKs could stay in a country where they would have access to incredible resources and experiences and exposure? Just think what they could accomplish! Just imagine what opportunities they could have! How I could brag on Facebook!

But, in August they are going back to Africa.

Parents feel pain because it hurts to not be able to give good things to the people we love. Until we learn to redefine what those ‘good things’ are.

We feel confusion. Our children ache to go back to that place, the country that seems to steal so much from them, yet gives so much to them that they call it home. They don’t feel these losses because they have eyes to see the gains. They see the sweat, swimming with whale sharks, camping on the beach under the stars, hiking around active volcanoes and scrambling through lava tunnels, playing football (soccer) in the dirt yard with friends, dodging those donkey carts and goats. They love their friends, their school, their routines, and the traditions we have created.

And parents feel hope. Because wrestling trophies, volleyball games, and a certain definition of what makes a quality education aren’t the most important things. Loving people, engaging in the world, experiencing adventure, deep contentment, embracing diversity, and above all, delighting in God…these are the things that matter and these are the things that are happening in the lives of our TCKs.

It’s possible that if we lived in Minnesota, my children could succeed at all the events that make Instagram beautiful. But it is also possible that they wouldn’t. And, it is possible that they might succeed in other things, in other places.

My kids have literally seen a widow give her last two coins to a blind beggar. They have tucked food into the shirt pocket of Mohammed, who has no arms and stands outside the post office. They have prayed for and seen God heal friends with medical issues. They are learning to have courageous faith, to go against a crowd, to cross cultures. They live the reality that the pleasures of this world are not what satisfies.

Oh God! Hold them, keep them. May faith, may delighting in You alone, above all that America or our adoptive country have to offer, be their lifelong legacy of success.

How do you (and your kids) handle the losses and gains of parenting (and being) TCKs?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Maura Cook

    Thank you, I read this as I came home from picking up my daughter from the local school, where she seems to get unhappier every day. Just now I am feeling the pain and confusion, but I’m looking forward to the hope you mention as well. Sometimes I need to remind myself that I mourn more than my children for the education and opportunities of our home country. They actually don’t know all the wonderful things that they’re missing out on, or have already forgotten! I rejoice some days that my children play with their friends next door on their dirt floor in the dark because putting lights on is too expensive, other days I weep that they’ll never be entertained with visiting theatre groups at school or have the chance to play in an orchestra. I loved being reminded there are other parents with no girls sports team to send their daughters, no gifted programmes where their children can expand and delight in their intelligence. Yes, I’ve been taught that giving good things to them looks like art and culture and stimulating bedroom environments. I’m trying to learn that the good things might be spotting sloths in the trees at the park from the dangerously broken swings, cold bucket showers under the stars, and handing cool water to a thirsty beggar at the door. I love your writing, especially about running as I try to keep up my miles in a Central American mountain town where a woman running is obviously the most hilarious thing most people have ever seen.

  • Bryan Avey

    You are spot on…I know my parents had their moments of regrets about dragging me back and forth…Brazil / USA all my life. The skills I’ve acquired by being a TCK far outweigh what could have been if we only stayed in the US. I’ve become a cultural chameleon and speak 5 languages. The connections I make with people are deep and genuine. I have a stronger awareness of reality, people are people not just nameless images on the news…we can be a challenge for parents who aren’t TCK’s themselves. The identity crisis period can be real tough. Great article!!

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