Today’s Third-Culture Kids Are Tomorrow’s Global Citizens

Assignee parents who raise their kids in a foreign country have one major worry: that these tweeners and teenagers may be too homesick to adapt to their new environment. However, there is another side to the story: that the children do not have develop the same close ties to the motherland as their parents, assimilate quickly to the culture of their adopted country, but think of themselves more as a child who appreciates and belongs to a lot of heritage, not just one.

Global mobility managers who want to help their assignees deal with this phenomenon can start by calling it by its popular name:  Third-Culture Kids or TCKs.

Writing for Baby and Child, a British expatriate mother describes these children’s unique perspective and multinational identity very vividly: “As expats, they have a strong handle on cultures. They know the difference between Diwali, Eid and Easter. In a line-up of curries, they could easily pick out a Sri Lankan, an Indian, a Pakistani, a Thai and an Emirati (and probably an English-style chicken tikka masala). They know a good few words in Tagalog and have spent more time with Filipino church communities than British ones.”

Gal-Dem says these kids flourish in freedom because at a very young age, they leveraged on the youthful ability to adapt as their parents moved them into various cities and regions. Not all of them stay in one city or country for the requisite five years. Depending on their parents’ professional status and stature, they can relocate to and shuttle between two to three regions in less than 10 years. Many of them are children of diplomats, business people and expatriate professionals, military personnel, and religious missionaries.

A former assignee’s now grown child makes no apologies for their inclination to see themselves as citizens of the world first. As his article in The Guardian  eloquently captures the TKC’s predicament whenever she is asked about her “true country”:  “Sometimes I’ll go for the quick answer: Finland and Senegal. Other times I’ll tell the whole story: that I was born in Helsinki, moved to Luxembourg, then to Brussels and finally to London. Or I might say that my mum is from Finland and dad from Senegal, but that I really feel like my home is in the UK now.”

Global mobility managers must be sensitive to their assignee’s situation should their children should be turning out to be a TCK. A more conservative, traditional parent who thinks that their son or daughter could be losing their cultural roots would, rightly or wrongly, feel a sense of betrayal.This anxiety could create a rift right at home and affect their performance at work.

Finally, this phenomenon may not be as isolated as they think. The British expatriate mother cited research from United Nations saying that, if all the expatriates and their families were gathered in one country, the total population would reach 250 million. According to Worldometers, that number is equal to ⅔ of the entire population of the Northern United States.

Global mobility managers can give the following pieces of advice to their anxious assignees and save them some unnecessary hand-wringing:

First, instead of bemoaning the child’s seeming nonchalant attitude to their homeland culture, the assignee parents should see the bright side. Their child is not being alienated with the family’s many travels but is in fact becoming stronger for it. He or she is acquiring the kind of global education that professionals twice their age and who are hugering for career advancement would pay good money for.

Second, it behooves the assignee parent to continue immersing the child in their own national culture. Make the celebration of homegrown holidays in their own furnished apartment a tradition as commonplace as Christmas or the Fourth of July; property developers like California Corporate Housing would only be too happy to design the place to add more ethnic touches and exotic accessories.

If regular trips to the home country are not feasible, the assignee parents can bring the whole family to dance festivals, culinary celebrations, and special parades that are being produced and run by their embassy and business communities. Finally, no matter how fluent the child becomes in the use of the adopted country’s foreign language, the entire family can speak their national language or dialect daily at home.

Third, instead of shunning the child’s increasing multicultural identity, the assignee parent should encourage them to use it as an advantage. Building a network of friends is one significant step. Excellence in school because of their extensive knowledge of history, geography, and a foreign language is another advantage. Development of skills such as translation can become an asset once the child, now grown and graduated from university, starts applying for work.

Then finally, given the right education and guidance, the child can think of themselves not just as a global citizen, but as a global leader. Who knows? In a few years’ time, they just might be the next obvious choice for global mobility managers to recruit.