Monocultural Mum and the Third Culture Kids

Girl holding globe ball

I have lived away from home for four years now. Which in some ways is not that long really – equivalent to the length of time it took to do my degree (which included a year in France, not a repeat year…).

However, when I think back to boarding the plane to Bangkok back in February 2013, what really strikes me is that my youngest daughter was in a pushchair, and my eldest was being carried sleepily onto the plane.

These four years are a fraction of my life but, for my kids, they have almost been the whole.

But this isn’t something that I’ve really given a huge amount of thought to. My focus has always been making sure the kids feel settled. Helping them adapt to where we are living. And, you know, all the standard parenting stuff. Some days this extends to crafts and baking, trips to museums and zoos. Others it’s just heaving a sigh of relief when I switch off their bedroom light, grateful that we have all survived another day.

I suppose I have just seen my children as extensions of myself . Which they are, to an extent. But, while we are all experiencing these different countries at the same time, the big difference is that I am an adult (yes, it surprises me too, but there you go). For them, these moves we are making right now are shaping their childhood. My childhood is already formed.

And what different shapes our childhoods are. As a child, I grew up in the same town. We moved house once, when I was seven, and I cried every night for a week. I attended one primary school and one secondary school. Few people left, few people arrived. My extended family lived close by. My schools were predominantly white and British. I don’t remember anyone joining my class from another country…but I do have a really bad memory, so I’m happy to stand corrected! Essentially, my childhood was monocultural. If I had to give it a shape, I would say it was a circle. A happy circle, the circumference of the town in which I lived, where I went to school, made friends, became an adult.

But my kids? Yes, they are British. They speak English at home and at school. We go back to England regularly. However, my youngest has no recollection of living there. If I imagine the shape of their childhood so far…well, it’s more complex than a circle. A series of heart shapes, perhaps: one in the UK, where our family are. One in Bangkok, our first move, and one here in Germany. But these hearts would be connected with lines. And off these heart shapes would be satellites, to where all the people who have been important to them now live. So there’d be an offshoot to the States. Australia. Hong Kong. Indonesia. So really, the shape of their childhood is less a shape and more an enormous pattern….

What started me thinking about all this was when my oldest said to me recently, ‘I just wish I had lived in one country forever’. When I questioned her about it, she said she just wanted to stay where everything was familiar, where she knew her way around. Where she had friends that stayed. A monocultural childhood. Like her Mum.

Of course we talked about all the benefits of having lived in different countries. But it’s sometimes hard to explain these advantages to a child when, for them, it has been the norm.

Third Culture Kids

Now I had heard the term ‘Third Culture Kid’ before. I just didn’t think it applied to my children.A ‘Third Culture Kid’ (TCK) is a child raised in a culture other than their parents for a significant period of their early development. I knew that there were some books about this, and lots of articles written but I just didn’t think about my children in these terms. Perhaps because I didn’t see the value of labelling them as one thing or another.

And then I went to the Families in Global Transition Conference, and there was a great keynote speech by Ann Copeland on Third Culture Kids. It was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me, in that it illuminated the differences between myself and my husband and our daughters. Yes, we are living the experiences now together, but the fact they are experiencing these moves as children is a whole different ball game.

For these kids questions like, ‘Where are you from?’ are challenging. They’re often met with a pause and then a ‘Well…’. As in ‘ Mum’s British, my Dad’s German, I was born in America and grew up in Hong Kong. And Peru. And South Africa’. Just naming your passport country doesn’t quite cover it. But then the worry is that other people, for whom the response would simply be, ‘I’m from England’ won’t quite get it. Because you might look the same as them, but your experience is so different.

Do kids need a label?

Whether we agree on the definition, or the label, or the name itself, I do think it’s helpful to give children something to identify with. I explained the idea behind the term Third Culture Kid to my daughter. I told her that there were tons of other kids, just like her,  who experienced similar feelings. She listened and it made sense to her. I’m not going to rush out and get them ‘TCK’ name tags, but just knowing that her experiences were understood and shared made her feel a bit better.

And then, while I was busy heaving a sigh of relief, she informed me that she’d now decided that Germany‘s her favourite country. And even if we move again, she’s going to move back when she’s grown up and have a family here. And two horses. And seven dogs.

I have got to say that this filled my heart with happiness because it meant that, if nothing else, she’s settled where we are right now and she appreciates living here. And her childhood shape may not be a circle, may not be a ‘shape’ at all, but it’s a pattern that is happy, and one that is full of love.


Diagram explaining TCK
And just in case you weren’t sure…here’s a helpful diagram 🙂


26 Replies to “Monocultural Mum and the Third Culture Kids”

  1. This is beautiful Bec ?

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you Jess <3

  2. One big heart for all of you is right here in Indonesia! Can’t wait to catch up with you…hopefully soon in July ??

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks Rika! Looking forward to seeing you all x

  3. You write so nicely. Love the concept of the shapes. So much that I can relate to from my childhood, now as a mother and for my own children. Loved reading this.

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks Lucy…and I guess your childhood is a big beautiful shape too! xx

  4. I can relate to so much of this. A really interesting insight into the big minds of little people.

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you 🙂

  5. Michaela Barker says: Reply

    Really helpful suggestions Becci, thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thanks Michaela

  6. Beautifully written. My daughter is 21 now and I can relate to this. Product of Saudi Arabia, born in Singapore, lived in NZ, England,Qatar and Saudi Arabia… living in Singapore and can’t wait to set up home somewhere in Australia!

    Sade Hills

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you Sade! Wow, that’s quite a list of countries!! Australia would be one of my top choices of place to settle…if it wasn’t so far from my family in England

  7. I’ve really enjoyed reading this – I particularly enjoyed the childhood pattern analogy. Thanks so much for posting! 🙂

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you so much Jackie! I am glad you enjoyed it…and I appreciate you taking the time to comment 🙂

  8. Loved reading this Rebecca. Being a TCK myself I totally hear what your kids are saying. As an adult I still crave the change and difference living in a different country offers. But I do sometimes wish I had grown up in one country. I personally struggle with understanding childhood friendships that have lasted a lifetime because I’ve never experienced it. Coming from a developmental psychologist background, what I find most interesting is that even though expat life has it pros, it seems that children always crave the familiar. I do think your children will learn to feel proud of this experience and reap the benefits of it. And by the sounds of it, your daughter already is. But they still look at through child eyes… as they should I suppose. You’re doing a fab job just being aware of it all. xx

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you so much for this comment. Always good to hear things from the point of view of a psychologist! I think the point you make about children craving the familiar is so right. For me, the familiar is always the UK…but not for them! And thank you for your words of reassurance…I think sometimes if we are overwhelmed by a move, we forget to see it from the child’s perspective x

  9. Great analogy, really liked the article. I think that equally people have the tendency to think thay grass is greener somewhere else. And so myself as a monocultural kid I always dreamt of travelling and living in other places while other multicultural kids were just craving stability. I agree that just being aware of all that is already a huuuge advantage as it allows you to address any struggles as they appear instead of waiting for a maihem to happen. Stay strong! ?Greetings from London!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you so much Marta! I agree that the grass often appears greener…we have just come back from our couple of weeks visiting family in England. The kids always say they want to live there – it’s hard to explain that life wouldn’t be like that, that we wouldn’t be having family parties every week and doing fun stuff all the time. And that I haven’t lived there in 20 years so it isn’t really home for me now… Totally agree that awareness helps…I much prefer to expect the tough stuff than have it sideblind me! ?

      1. Your children seem to be very receptive for the knowledge and good vibes that you’re passing on to them so fingers crossed for you guys 🙂

  10. Loved reading this. I am a mono-cultural Brit like you but my children grew up with us in the Middle East til they were 18. A lot of people are not familiar with the term TCK so now that we are all back in England I like to say that we (and esp my children) are “very international”. It works and sometimes sounds more positive than explaining what TCK means! Bless you x

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you Sue! And yes, these kids are VERY international…and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Thank you for the lovely comment x

  11. […] Up Among Worlds David Pollack and Ruth Van Reken. This is the ‘classic’ book about TCKs… until recently, I didn’t even know what this […]

  12. So well written and so relatable… my youngest was 5 when we moved from the UK to HK in 2013 and now we are going into our 3rd year in Paris, half her life living abroad. It definitely has its challenges but it has given them (and us) so much enrichment! The world is so small in their eyes, they have friends all over the world and who knows what country they choose to live in when they are grown up. “Where are you from” will never be a straight forward answer for them, but I love that!

    1. makingherehome says: Reply

      Thank you…and I’m glad you could relate! x

  13. Fabulous info Bec, will have to have the conversation with my girls about being ‘Third Culture Kids’ and see what their thoughts are on the subject. My youngest was 18 months when she left the UK. When anyone asks her where she is from, she always says Abu Dhabi, even though as you said she holds a British passport!

    1. Thanks Mellie! My girls hate being asked this! X

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