By Lauren Wells
When you become a parent, you quickly realize that there are a plethora of strong opinions about just about anything regarding the rearing of your children. When you are parenting TCKs, the voices are even louder. TCKs often have unique challenges that make parenting far from straightforward, and this is particularly true when you enter into parenting teenage TCKs and university is on the horizon.
Do you go back with your TCK for the first part (or all) of their college/university years? Perhaps at least the first semester of their freshman year? Or is it time to hang up the overseas missionary hat all together and settle back into your passport country?
Again, strong opinions abound. Some say, “No matter what, make sure you accompany your TCK for their incoming freshman year for at least the first semester or as long as you can spare.”
Others stress the importance of giving your TCK the opportunity to independently “find themselves” without the peering eyes and pressure of their parents. Perhaps allowing them the freedom of not being “on stage” for the first time in their lives.
I’m going to add yet another opinion. One that will split the difference and hopefully allow you, parents, to let out a collective sigh of relief.
There is not one right answer. There are so many factors that go into this decision, and thus there cannot be a “one-size-fits-all answer,” though many well-intended individuals and organizations try to create one. Instead, the parents, together with their TCK, should strategically make the decision with specific factors in mind.
1. How independent and mature is your TCK?
Is your TCK itching to jump out of the nest, or will he or she need a little extra push? I am personally very independent by nature, so when it came time to leave Tanzania for university in the USA, I was ready to leap headfirst. I dove into college life and loved the chance to be independent. Though I did struggle with some stereotypical TCK issues and did have a difficult freshman year, being able to work through those challenges on my own, apart from my parents, was a positive growing experience for me. After feeling like I had been living in a fish bowl for many years, as many missionary kids do, it was healthy for me to live outside of the gazing eyes of supporters, churches, and organizations.
However, my parents knew that my brother would not have the same experience that I did, and would benefit greatly from having a bit more parental support as he navigated his first year of college. They chose to move to the US for his freshman year, and he was able to live with them and commute to school. This gave them the ability to teach him how to drive, set up and wisely use a bank account, apply for jobs, etc. Having my parents as a “home-base” for him significantly contributed to his success that year and the years after.
God has uniquely wired your TCKs and thus, your decision may (and dare I say, should) change based on the individual TCK. You may have one child that needs autonomy and independence and another that needs more direct support. It is crucial that you make your decision based on the specific child instead of having a blanket policy that applies to them all.
2. Is there a good option for a “home-base”?
If you choose not to follow your TCK to university, it is important that they have a safe “home-base” nearby. This can be a relative’s house, a family friend, even a supporting church. If you are still living overseas while your TCK is in college, it is imperative that they have a getaway nearby and people who will reach out to them. University can be stressful, especially when working through common TCK challenges, and it is important that your TCKs have a place that feels “homey” to escape to for the weekend, someone with whom they can process the challenges they are dealing with, and someone whom they can call if they need last-minute help moving out of their dorm.
Communication with the “home-base” is also a critical factor. I know parents who assumed that a family member or friend would be more attentive to the TCK during their college years, but when college began they hardly ever reached out. It is important that you have multiple conversations with the family member, friend, or church to talk about your expectations of the “home-base” role. If they feel they are unable to be that support system for your TCK, you may need to consider reaching out to someone else, looking at a different school if location is the issue, or returning with your TCK to be that home-base for them.
3. Be Actively Involved
Whether or not you choose to return with your TCK for university, ensure that you are still actively involved in their experience. There are wonderful online resources that you can take advantage of to keep in touch if you choose not to accompany your TCK to college. You can video chat frequently, ask about friends and events, send care packages, ask for a virtual tour of their newly rearranged dorm, “meet” their friends via the internet, etc. Thanks to today’s technology, you can still be actively involved in your college-student’s life while living on the other side of the world. If you do choose to return with your TCK for some or all of their college years, attempt to find a good balance of being involved while also giving your TCK the space explore their independence.
4. Acknowledge the Challenges
Whether or not you live near your children during their college years, you can expect that they will struggle with new challenges unique to their TCK upbringing. Though you may not have seen many of the typical “TCK issues” in your children up to this point, that does not mean that they will not surface during the college years. In fact, the college years are the most common stage of life for many TCK challenges to arise. Expect that this will be the case for your TCK, acknowledge it especially if they subtly express their struggles to you, and help them to find the support and help that they need.
I highly recommend that TCKs seek counseling during their college years so that they can actively process the transitions and corresponding challenges that they may be facing. A counselor with experience working with the TCK population is ideal, but if that is not possible, meeting with any professional counselor can still be beneficial. Many colleges offer these services free of charge, so gently encourage your TCK to take advantage of them.
Unfortunately, I have heard far too many stories from TCKs who told their parents that they weren’t doing well and needed help, only to be brushed off by the parent saying “The first year of college is hard for everyone. Just hang in there!” Whether we like to admit it or not, growing up overseas does create many unique challenges for TCKs as they grow into adults and it is absolutely critical that these issues are taken seriously, addressed, and are not shrugged off as a typical college-student experience.
5. Consider a “Gap Year”
Many expatriate families choose to allow for a “gap year” between high school graduation and the start of college or university. This year can be used in a variety of ways and can be a great solution to the question at hand. If you are not planning to leave the mission field, your TCK may benefit from using the gap year to work or volunteer in your host country. This allows time and space to learn independence while still remaining on the same continent, and may leave them more prepared to attend university alone the following year.
The gap year can also be used as a family’s furlough year. This time in the passport country can be used to teach your TCK practical life skills like how to drive and how to navigate the post office, as well as allowing your TCK time to acclimate to the passport culture before beginning school. This can also be a good time to decide upon and establish a “home-base,” and then universities can be visited and applied to within a drivable radius of that location. By spending time in your passport country, your TCK will become more familiar with the culture and physical area and thus, more comfortable remaining behind when you return to your host country.
I have seen the “gap year” used for travel for either the whole family or the TCK alone, a combination of time in the host country and in the passport country, a year of working or volunteering, an official gap year program such as this one, and a variety of other great options. The gap year can be a great compromise for families who are unsure, or have conflicting opinions, about whether or not to return with their TCKs for college.
While it may be difficult, it is important to drown out the multitude of opinions as you deliberate this complex decision as a family. Again, there are many options that resounding voices say you “should” choose. These voices may come from relatives back home, your sending organization, even experienced older missionaries who have successfully navigated the college-years with their TCKs.
While advice can be helpful when weighing your options, remember that every TCK is different and what worked for someone else’s child may not work for yours. I am so grateful that no one persuaded my parents to return home while I was in university, because that would not have been a positive experience for me. However, I also never tell parents to follow the same path with their TCKs, because what was best for me may not be best for another TCK. Again, it goes back to knowing your TCK and deciding based on his or her unique needs and personality.
So, should TCKs take their parents to college with them? The answer: it depends. Consider your TCK’s unique personality, maturity level, unique needs, and whether or not there is good “home-base” option. Most importantly, remember that there is not a “right” way to do it and that there are a number of good options that may work for your family and your beautifully unique TCK.
Lauren Wells is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and Missionary Kid (MK) who grew up in Tanzania, East Africa where she developed an affinity for mandazis (African doughnuts) and Chai tea. Her experience as a TCK fuels her passion for working with globally mobile families. Lauren is the Children’s Program Director for Worldview Institute for International Christian Communication in Portland, Oregon. In her role at WorldView, she developed and now runs a program for children that equips them with the skills they need to learn new languages and embrace new cultures when they move overseas with their family. She blogs regularly at tcktraining.com.