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Parents can help their children embrace third-culture identity

How global nomads can help their children find their identity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 7:17pm

At the 20th anniversary celebrations of my son's soccer club, the head coach delivered a touching farewell to two players he had trained. It was obviously difficult for him to say goodbye to the children in whom he invested not only time but emotion. If it is so hard for a grown man, how hard must it be for children, especially those who have to move every two to three years?

One of the children I worked with recently told me where he would be moving again, but what excited him most was that this relocation would be permanent. His relief was obvious and reminded me of how all these youngsters must feel about the constant moving, without a place to call home.

In Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, authors David Pollock and Ruth Van Reden define a third culture kid (TCKs) as "a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture".

Many organisations have a policy of rotating their expat employees every few years. But individuals who began their nomadic life as adults are different from adult third culture kids because they don't feel as much like global wanderers, they have a sense of where they are from.

Many adult TCKs tend to feel a sense of restlessness after they have been living in a place too long and crave the experience of a new culture. We tend to parent the way we were parented, and the children of adult TCKs tend to become TCKs due to their need to move around.

Unfortunately, although usually from very affluent backgrounds, many TCKs see their values and unusual background as problems instead of blessings. Parents complain that the children lack self-reliance and self-discipline, even as they encourage self-indulgence to compensate for being away from home.

Some TCKs can be luckier than others. If one parent is not working or working part-time, the children are more likely to have immediate family keep them grounded and provide the solace they need. They are more likely to have at least one parent who has time to prepare them for the move, the new education system, and the new culture. A strong emotional connection is needed to help children process the loss of friends, places and memory while helping them accept their different patterns of thinking and search for identity.

Children can flourish even if both parents work, as long as at least one parent is aware of the children's needs and willing to sacrifice, either by taking a lesser position at work or curtailing social life. As parents, we can't have it all. If you want to prepare them to be global citizens of the future, utilising their unique ways of thinking, appreciation of other cultures and fully accepting their differences as strengths, you need to be there for them - now. Don't feel guilty simply because you are working. It is quality, not quantity, that matters when it comes to parenting. I have parents bring their kids to see me every Saturday instead of having a lie-in (I really admire those who bring their children in every Saturday, rain or shine) and come to see me during the week, taking time off from work just because they care.

A word of warning for families moving back to the parents' home country: re-entry might be harder than moving to a new country. This is partly due to expectations from family and friends in the passport country, and partly due to the core parts of the children's identity that have already formed, and their loyalty to their temporary homes.

To help prepare your TCK, the main task is to help them to come to terms with the emotional problems resulting from the loss of friendships, and to help them continue their search for an identity. Creating family rituals is a good way to help your children feel more grounded.

A couple of questions that most ATCKs struggle with are, "Who am I" and "Where do I belong?"

Give your children plenty of time to mentally prepare for the big move. I like using story books with children to get the conversation going about moving, and talking about the excitement, as well as sadness, that goes with the relocation.

My favourite is Sammy's Next Move by Helen Maffini, which is available for Kindle. The tale is especially relevant to TCKs moving away from Hong Kong, as it can lead to conversations about things that they have done, such as trips to Disneyland, the blessings of typhoon season (no school or work), and rides on the Star Ferry.

Lora Lee is a registered psychologist and parenting counsellor working in private practice as an adjunct to her non-profit organisations work at St John Counselling

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