Parents of Third Culture Kids, Failure, and Redefining Success

(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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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter

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