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Third Culture Kids: how do we care for them?

In this interview with Cami Vlasin, cross-cultural missionary with Barnabas International and licensed family psychotherapist, we explore what it means to be a parent of cross-cultural kids. Cami is a TCK mum and has vast experience working with families in the diaspora.

Welcome, Cami, Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

My name is Cami Vlasin. I am married to Alex, who is one of the most extraordinary men there are and obviously the most wonderful husband. I was born in Romania, and together with my husband we have done quite a lot of travelling throughout the world.

I initially trained as a high school teacher and after a few years, the Lord directed both my husband and I to ministry, particularly to cross cultural missions. We left Romania for a time of studies and my husband did a PhD in Mission Education while I trained as a family and marriage counsellor. While we were there, our second child was born.

We have two children and they are both TCKs. Throughout the past 20 years we have ministered to missionary families as well as the MKs that we were able to meet.

Can we go through these acronyms that you’re referring to: TCK, ATCK, CCK, MK. Could you explain what they stand for?

The first person to coin the term ‘third culture kids’ (TCKs) was Ruth Hill Useem. She was a sociologist and an anthropologist in the US. Through her studies she realised that this group of people grow up in two worlds and form a third world. She was the first one to look into this and then there were quite a few people who became interested in this area, the most notable being David Pollock and Ruth van Reken. They concluded that there is an umbrella group of ‘cross cultural kids’ (CCKs).

Under this umbrella there are quite a number of categories of children that have the same traits. For instance, under this umbrella are the domestic CCKs, who are children of parents who have moved between various subcultures within the same country. For example, they may have lived in the village, and they chose to move to a city. They moved from the subculture of the village to the subculture of the city, and they had to adapt and understand how they can function in a different environment.

There are also bi-cultural or multi-cultural kids: children born to parents of at least two cultures or races. Then there are the children of immigrants, also known as children from the diaspora, where the parents moved permanently to another country. This is often the case with Romanians or Polish. Their children become CCKs or children from the diaspora.

There are also TCKs, who spend a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture. So, what happens with these children is that they take elements from their parents’ culture, and they also take elements from the culture where they grow up and they amalgamate those two cultures into a third culture. This is why they are called third culture kids.

We also have adult third culture kids (ATCK) – third culture kids who grow to become third culture adults. And then there are other categories under this umbrella of CCKs, like children of refugees – children whose parents fled their native country due to war, violence or natural disasters or other difficult circumstances. There are also international adoptees or children of minorities, so there are quite a number of categories under this umbrella of CCKs.

In light of these definitions, what is similar and what is different for these subcategories?

There are quite a lot of similarities between these children. One of the many names they have been given is “chameleon”, meaning that they are so adaptable, and able to take on the ‘colour’ or the aspect of the various cultures where they have to move through or live in.

There are many challenges but also strength in these kids. One of their strengths is that they have a broad worldview. They accept anything in this world as being good. Culturally speaking, anything is good. But on the other hand, the challenge is that they have confused loyalties. They had to live in various places, and various cultures, they don’t know to whom or where they belong. If you ask a TCK, for example, someone who moved from Romania to Ethiopia, “are you Romanian or are you Ethiopian?” they will probably tell you that they are Romanian on the outside, but Ethiopian on the inside. They find it difficult to identify with one culture. This is something that they need to work through as they grow up.

They are also very ‘rich’ children because they have so much knowledge, they are mature and they have very high emotional intelligence. If you take a monocultural 10-year-old and compare them with a 10-year-old TCK, in many ways the TCKs will be perceived as much more mature than their age, simply because they have been exposed to more than just one culture, more than just one way of doing things. To more than just one way of thinking about the same thing. They have a broader understanding of the culture. They have the ability to amalgamate these cultural differences and make peace within them within themselves.

At the same time, they have a limited understanding of their own culture. So, while they are very rich in understanding various cultures, if you were to focus and ask them about particular aspects of each of the cultures, they probably won’t be able to give you as many details simply because they haven’t been fully immersed in either one of the two or more cultures, as their parents may have been.

There are many challenges but also strength in these kids. One of their strengths is that they have a broad worldview.

Cami Vlasin

That is when parents really need to know and be aware about these things about their children, because this will be very different two generations. Sometimes this may be a conflict point between kids and their parents, but parents are aware that their kids won’t be thinking in the same way, even though their passports are from the same country.

That’s right. I think this is one of the difficulties of parents of TCKs – to accept that their children are not like them. To accept that my experience of growing up as a child born and raised in the same culture is completely different than my child’s experience. That can be very hard for parents to accept, especially if they don’t know that they are raising TCKs or if they are not aware of this term. It is very important for parents to accept that their children’s’ childhood cannot and will not be the same as their own.

I think this is one of the difficulties of parents of TCKs – to accept that their children are not like them. To accept that my experience of growing up as a child born and raised in the same culture is completely different than my child’s experience.

Cami Vlasin

Have you come across parents who find out along the way and is this news to them? Do you have an example?

I have been involved in a lot of diaspora church work with my husband in a number of Western countries. We are visiting Romanian churches where parents either come with their children who are born in Romania or they came as young people who started a family in their new country. Their children are obviously TCKs. We have done a lot of awareness workshops, to help them understand they are raising TCKs and that is very different to how their parents have raised them.

One example comes to mind from Spain, where we visited a Sunday school in a church. They decided to teach the classes in Romanian because they rightfully wanted to preserve the culture. The only problem was that those children were much more fluent in Spanish than Romanian. Over a few years we have been in conversation with the parents who were very determined to help their children preserve their Romanian culture, the language and the customs. We tried to explain to them that their kids’ heart language is Spanish. They only use Romanian when they want to speak to their grandparents or cousins or to their parents. But they identify much more with the Spanish people, culture and the language than with the Romanian language.

It was hard for them to understand this reality, but a couple of years went by, and we had some feedback from one of the fathers from this community. He said, “I took my son to an outreach event in Spain, which was done in Spanish. After this event, our teenage son, who has been raised in our church said to me, ‘Dad, I finally heard the Gospel! I finally understood the gospel!’” The father was puzzled saying this is what you have been taught all these years in Sunday school. What did his son mean, he just heard it? But because it was all in Romanian the son could not fully understand what they meant. You see how important it is to find out who our children are, what their heart language is… and I could go on with many more examples like this!

It must be hard for parents to accept this, that their kids might never speak as well in their ‘mother tongue’, which is a funny term, when you are talking about CCKs. It can be a sore point for parents but so important for the children, that their parents understand. What would you say to a parent who just found out all this?

What I would tell the parents is that it’s ok. It’s ok for your children to be very different from you. It’s ok for you to be monocultural. I am a monocultural person, born and raised in the same culture, but my children are not. It is a big loss for the parents, when your kids don’t speak your heart language. But this is not all about us. We are called to be stewards, wise stewards of our children. We are called by God to be wise in how we raise our children. Yes, we need to talk our loss through with maybe other parents of TCKs, if you go to church, or live in a missionary community or expat colleagues and teammates, who are experiencing the same kind of loss.

At the same time, we need to accept that our children are very different, and the reason why is not their doing. It is our doing. It was us as parents who decided to move to a different country. They have had to adapt because of that. It is not their responsibility that we have taken them out of our familiar cultural context. And at the end of the day, they are children. We are responsible for their wellbeing. We need to know where they are at.

We also need to teach them and give them tools to understand that they are TCKs. They don’t know who they are. They need to find out who they are. If kids grow up without any of this knowledge, they could grow up and become adults and have a sense of never belonging anywhere, being very different form everyone.

If we don’t teach them, we might be unconsciously sewing a seed in them that there is something wrong with them. But if they find out they are TCKs, and that not only is it okay to be a TCK, but it’s also wonderful to be a TCK. Yes, there are lots of challenges in the lives of TCKs but because of those challenges there is also a lot of good throughout their entire lives. They will be adaptable, resilient, mature. They will be people who know how to go about very difficult circumstances compared to a monocultural person.

So, while there are challenges to being a TCK there are any advantages. I would say to parents: be kind to yourself, be kind to your children, and teach them that they are different and beautiful children.

To listen to this interview on the @TCK.mama podcast, tune in here.

Do you work in member care, staff care and wellbeing, the wider human resources sector, in a church context with pastoral oversight or have responsibility for sending and supporting cross-cultural workers? Find out more here.

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