The adult Third Culture Kid parent: when history does NOT repeat

by | Nov 10, 2020 | Blog | 2 comments

Ok. So this blog post about the Third Culture Kid parent is one I’ve been sitting on for ages. When I reflect about why I’ve not gotten around to writing it, I lean towards explaining how big the topic is, how hard to get it right, etc. Basically though it feels vulnerable.

There is nothing like becoming a parent to make us realise that we really are making this up as we go along. Sure, there are books and courses and theories and approaches – and they all help construct a kind of framework to which we cling. But when our children are struggling in friendships, or we are struggling with their routine hysteria to do with flies and bees, we realise the books haven’t met our child.

What’s more, Third Culture Kid parents have not lived the lives of their children. Now, this is the case for any parent, right? The world is always a different place for our children than it was for us. As my own child informs me when I suggest she find something to do without a screen, “It was okay for you, Mummy – you were USED to being bored. You didn’t have screens like I do”.

Yet the general trajectory for parenting throughout the ages is that we learn from the model of our own experiences of being parented. We keep elements of that experience we appreciated (even if only with hindsight!) and we discard or replace those elements that we consciously didn’t enjoy. And many of us (dare I say most?) nevertheless find ourselves perpetuating these models we experienced, despite conscious attempts to deviate. The brain has learnt how parenting ‘should’ look and we often easily replicate it.

Fundamentally, there are two kinds of TCK parent; the parents who are raising TCKs and the parents who are raising non-TCKs.

The adult Third Culture Kid parent raising TCKs has both advantages and disadvantages to their experience. They have a ‘heads up’ about the experiences of their TCK children and are better equipped to communicate understanding and empathy to them. But they also have the challenge of consciously noticing that despite the TCK connection, their children will have a different TCK experience from their own. And if memories of my own teenage years serve me well, no child wants to be understood TOO well. We don’t want to feel ourselves collapsing into our parents’ identities and stories. We are trying to carve our own – leaving our own unique set of fingerprints all over its pages. We want our parents to recognise ideas and concepts in our stories, but to help us name our experiences more clearly rather than to leave us with a sense of having only a second hand set of chapters to repeat.

The adult TCK raising TCKs gets to support their children in unique ways, sharing a unique set of experiences with them. And yet we must remember that our children’s stories are themselves unique.

And then there is the second category of TCK parent – the adult Third Culture Kid who is raising non-TCKs. My sense is that the experiences of this group are less discussed. We tend to focus more on how parents in general can support their TCK children (“How parents and teachers can support young global nomads“) And I wonder how much it is because our tendency is to focus on the special needs of the TCK child; a non-TCK child’s childhood must be so much more straightforward, right? In many ways, yes – I think it is. But it doesn’t follow that it’s more straightforward for a TCK adult to parent a non-TCK childen. After all, it is this kind of childhood that is less known to us.

This non-TCK childhood is full of play dates with children… that stay. It involves friendship conflicts that have time to resolve, evolve, transform slowly over time. This childhood has place/space-based traditions that can feel like they take on a life of their own. This childhood might involve less social, racial or linguistic diversity than some of us would consider ideal. This childhood involves a child that is perhaps much more impacted by the constant presence of their peer group than we ever were.

We relive our own childhoods when we become parents. It is common for us to revisit difficult memories and experiences especially when our children hit the same age or developmental milestones we were at when traumatic events occurred to us. But non-TCK children are living such a different life that our very unfamiliarity of their experience can be a trigger into a sense of incompetence or fear of ‘getting it wrong’ that is so prevalent for many of us.

I only spent two years of my primary school education in England, and those two years were not consecutive. My daughter now has 5 years (plus pre-school) under her belt. I spent my years confused and disorientated, with a minimal sense of friendship. My daughter, though preoccupied with the waxing and waning of her friendships, has a sense of understanding of her school life that is unfamiliar to me. How do I navigate her through waters I have not sailed through myself? It is a peculiar challenge.

Some of us gravitate towards challenge. After all, it’s simply another culture to learn. And we have our own little guides to learn from. For others of us, this might feel like one unknown culture too many. Our little guide needs more of our leadership than we feel able to offer and the disorientation is real.

Parenting as an adult TCK is not without complication. And we are complicated people. And who knew how complicated our little ones were going to be either?!

Understanding leads to compassion. Compassion leads to nurture. Nurture walks us into growth.

If you are finding parenting as an adult Third Culture Kid hard, I’d invite you to seek understanding in what is especially hard for you. Then be kind to the you that is finding it hard. That kindness will nudge you towards finding creative solutions.

And then, as our children grow, we grow too.



  1. Brian Stell

    Hi Dr R:

    My wife and I didn’t have any kids [not without trying…a lot!😅]

    I felt this in your narrative: “And then there is the second category of TCK parent – the adult Third Culture Kid who is raising non-TCKs.” As I told you, we didn’t have children.

    But I have universal friends who asked us to help with the above: hence I’m Godfather to many Kids that know they can call me and talk about anything…in the US, Ireland, and mostly Taiwan. Now they’re getting older so I hope my advice helped [but I WOULD not make their Father buy them a puppy 🐶]!!!

    Cheers! Brian

    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thanks for reading, Brian – as always! Raising children is a task for a village, as they say – and it sounds like you are an important member of that village for many.


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