Third Culture Parenting

Most everyone is familiar with the term “third culture kid” or TCK.  Third culture kids are children who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside the parents’ culture. They are frequently described as “building relationships to all cultures, but not having full ownership of any”.

Our children are most definitely TCKs at this point. Noah left the United States at age 4, Sophie at age 2, and Stella-well, she’s never lived in the U.S. for more than two months at a time. There’s a laundry list of characteristics of TCKs found here, and while most of them are overwhelmingly positive, I think all of us raising our children outside the States recognize the specific challenges of raising our children overseas. We do our best, like all parents, to navigate the obstacles and dodge potential land mines along the way. There are books and books about TCKs. There are seminars. There are chat boards. There are blogs. But for those of that are TCPs (third culture parents) there isn’t much out there.

My children were little when we left. I was barely a parent-I didn’t know what it meant to raise children, let alone American children or international children. For most of Noah, Sophie and Stella’s lives they’ve been the recipients of third culture parenting-a hybrid mix of the parenting Paul and I grew up with, the cultures we’ve lived in (Brazil and India), and the socially accepted norms of our peers (mostly American, Australian, and Canadian). It is overwhelming to make the seemingly unending small daily decisions of parenting in one culture, let alone when these decisions are so brightly colored by a myriad of cultures.

A few months ago I was looking at a friend’s Facebook status-she had a friend coming to visit her in Brazil-and she had posted a picture of a scantily clad Carnaval dancer (is there any other kind?) living it up with older gentlemen. She was teasing her friend about what was waiting for him when he arrived in Brazil. I commented on the photo, saying “I sure hope this isn’t a school event!” attempting to make a joke. After I posted the comment something struck me and I looked closer at the photo. Sure enough, in the background was Paul holding a two year old Sophie just inches away from the dancer’s you-know-what. There was nothing that screamed “OMG” on either of their faces. Just the pleasant look of a father and daughter enjoying a school picnic. Five years later as I was quickly scrolling through Facebook that photo stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s amazing how your perspective changes depending on the culture you live in.

In Brazil our girls ran around the pool in only bathing suit bottoms, sunning themselves in the spirit of their Brazilian and Argentine counterparts. They dashed around restaurants (even the ones with long meat skewers being passed around) and drank Coke at birthday parties. They stayed up later and received giant chocolate eggs at Easter time. Noah wore a sunga (speedo) at the beach. Stella had her ears pierced at three weeks of age. Because that’s what was done in Brazil.


Don’t let the one piece fool you. This may have been the only time she ever wore one in Brazil.



Noah in his sunga. Do not let him know this picture is available for public consumption.



Stella rocking the earrings at the ripe old age of six weeks.

Now that we are in India, I usually buy the girls one pieces as they can’t wear two pieces at school and it’s a little closer to the customary swim costumes found around these parts. I pack chipatis (with Nutella) for the kids’ school snacks and frequently remind them to make sure the trash gets “in the dustbin”. Fireworks and festivals occur late into the night, but that doesn’t change their bedtimes. The kids can’t color on their hands, but when it’s Holi you can bet they are covered in every color under the sun. Stella recognizes Ganesha and Buddha like other preschoolers identify Elmo (she knows him too). Because that’s what’s done in India.



Celebrating Holi


Then there are those fill in the blank experiences that are wholly American and I feel our kids MUST have if I am going to do my best to keep them out of therapy. They play soccer on Saturdays. We go camping in the summer. We go swimming on the weekend and they run around on a patch of grass at the Hyatt. They attend a phenomenal school. They have after school activities like art class, ballet, and basketball. We watch American football and see American movies. The majority of their clothes come from the Gap. And from time to time I’ll even spring for an $11 box of Lucky Charms. Because that’s what an American childhood is.


Don’t forget we took you camping Noah. You had fun.


And to a baseball game or twenty.



They get sports trophies like all other American children. Theirs just come from the Hyatt.

And so, just like my kids, I find myself trying to make sense of the cross-cultural influences on my life. To give my kids the best of the culture we live in and the best of our “home” culture at the same time, but still not entirely sure what that means. 



3 thoughts on “Third Culture Parenting

  1. While I’m looking forward to the day you guys live a little closer, those are all some pretty amazing experiences for the kids… Just keep in mind that at some point in Noah’s life I may have to give him a hard time for wearing a Speedo 🙂
    – Ryan

  2. It sounds to me like you and Paul are doing everything right, Abby! Having lived and traveled all over the world while growing up, I struggle with the fact that my kids will likely live in America for most of their childhoods (or at least until Tony’s on sabbatical)…and I worry that they’re missing out. I’m glad that we can travel with them and expose them to new countries and cultures, but there’s nothing compared to living abroad. You’re so smart to be making the most of your opportunities overseas and, trust me, your kids will thank you one day!

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