It’s often said that Third Culture Kids can fit in anywhere, but belong nowhere. Many children of cross-cultural mission workers do not feel fully at home in either their parent’s native culture or the host culture where they’re growing up.
Latin Link’s Hannah and Tim Flatman think about this a lot. Their two young children have crossed cultures several times. Now Hannah has written a book to help Third Culture Kids flourish through the challenge of transitioning to a new place. Hannah explains…
My kids won’t have the childhood I had. My experience of growing up in a small village in the
English countryside, celebrating birthdays together with the same family and friends each year, isn’t theirs. They transitioned between continents several times in their early years, said difficult goodbyes and went through culture shock and reverse culture shock, again and again. I had a wonderful childhood… and so do they! But also a challenging one. They are Missionary Kids.
A Wonderful but Challenging Childhood
Like other Third Culture Kids (TCKs), many Missionary Kids live a part of their childhood between two or more worlds. They may not know or feel they belong to the country of their parents or their passport. A significant chunk of their formative years has been lived outside of it.
My kids’ experiences as TCKs have made them more emotionally mature, independent, big-hearted, concerned about global issues and politics (aged 4!), and they will soon be fully bilingual. Our girl made visits from our home in North-East Brazil to Guatemala, South Sudan, Kenya and the UK before she was two. Our boy was born in rural Brazil and calls me mamãe rather than mum.
However, alongside the incredible and exciting experiences there are challenges. One of the
biggest is transition. Saying goodbye without knowing when they will see friends and family
again; grieving ‘what could have been’ each time they leave somewhere.
An increasing number of young adult TCKs are now realising the impact, both positive and negative, that those years continue to have on them. They may get restless after being in the same place for more than a few years, have difficulty maintaining deep, long-lasting relationships, or are only later processing traumas and losses from those early years.
I have been reading Lauren Wells’ Raising up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids together with other Latin Link parents. It’s been helpful to share our experiences and also think about preventative care together. We know that the way we as parents and caregivers help guide our children is carried forward into their adult lives.
Why I wrote a Fish out of Water
A couple of years ago I wrote our little girl a short story to help prepare her for a visit to the UK. It
would be another significant cross-cultural move to a new place – the UK is not her home.
A Fish out of Water is about a little fish called Bia, who struggles to make a new place feel like home. With the help of a new friend she talks about culture shock and moving and understands that her home is ultimately with our Creator God.
Having been thinking and talking about the experiences of TCKs, we decided we wanted to share the story with others. After some work, it’s happening! A Fish out of Water is now available to buy on Amazon – so caregivers all over the world can use it as a conversation starter with young children going through these cross-cultural transitions.
A friend recently shared with me the delight of some Ecuadorian missionary children in Scotland as they read A Fish out of Water again and again.
In many ways those kids have more in common with my children than with the peers around them.
They share the ‘third culture’ of a culture-crossing childhood. Indeed, Third Culture Kids often find it easiest to relate to one another, wherever in the world they’ve grown up.
Anchors and Sails
As parents, we want our little ones to value connection and learn how to anchor themselves to a place through deep relationships, traditions, and a sense of belonging. We teach them this even though we know that the more rooted they feel, the harder the goodbyes are – because it’s better to have genuine, healthy relationships than to harden your heart and distance yourself from others to avoid painful partings.
At the same time, we increasingly give them sails: opportunities to grow in independence, and the confidence to go out into the world and try new things. Anchors and sails; roots and wings. Transitions are neither positive or negative in themselves. It is what we make of them, and how we navigate our children through them, that helps them grow strong and resilient.
I hope that A Fish out of Water will do just that: be a useful tool to help families with young children going through cross-cultural transitions to have conversations together, growing anchors and sails. I hope it will be a blessing to the missions community. And I hope it will be read snuggled up together after a long day unpacking or language learning; a moment of refuge in the midst of the stresses of moving.