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Third Culture Kids: Tips on Belonging & Identity for Expat Children

ExpertsPost Category - ExpertsExpertsLearnPost Category - LearnLearnParentingPost Category - ParentingParenting

“Where are you from?”  This question may be easy for you to answer, but what about your kids growing up abroad?

I’m from Newcastle in the North East of England where I was born and brought up. Every time I see a familiar landmark, I think of home and my memories connected to that particular place. My family and friends are still there. I have a British passport and lived in the UK until I moved to Singapore in my late twenties. Even after years of living in Singapore, I am still from Newcastle and proud to be a Geordie!

Now what if your children are asked, “Where are you from?” No doubt you’ll get a confused look, a shrug or maybe a ton of information from them as they try to work out their reply. Answering that question is much trickier for children growing up outside of their passport country.

When I was a teacher in an international school, children would often tell me they simply did not know how to answer that question. Should their answer be based on their passport? But what if they have two passports? Ok, what about the country where they were born? Or where their parents were born? Perhaps the place where they lived the longest or the country where they currently live? There are so many options that children and young people can feel quite overwhelmed.

In my work as a coach and consultant for globally mobile families, people often come to me and ask for advice on how they should answer this. Well, guess what? There is no one right answer which works for everyone! That said, today I’ll share two different approaches you can take with your children that will hopefully lead to less confusion when they are asked THAT awkward question.

Before we begin, let’s create a hypothetical globally mobile family to demonstrate. James was born in Hong Kong to an English father and a (Sassy) American mama. The family has since moved to Singapore, where James is about to start a new school. Because he is new, James knows that he is going to be asked, “Where are you from?”

Our first approach comes from Chris O’Shaughnessy, a renowned speaker on Third Culture Kids. He suggests that your children might like to prepare two possible answers to this question: one short answer and one longer answer. The short answer is fairly simple, referring to one or two places. So James would say “I’m from Hong Kong!” The short answer is ideal as a first response, particularly when you don’t know the other person very well.

On the other hand, the longer answer is perfect for people who are keen to hear more about you. It allows children to provide more detail and share the complexity of their background with someone who is genuinely interested. For a longer answer, James might say “I was born in Hong Kong but we moved to Singapore for my dad’s work. I’m not really from either of those places, as my dad is English and my mom is American. If I had to pick one place, I would probably say I’m from England, because we spend every summer there.”

The second tactic—which I developed—is based on the influence of different places. I like this approach as it reflects the complexity of a unique globally mobile upbringing. This approach begins by children considering each place they have lived and the places which influence them. Influences could include their passport culture, where their extended family lives and their current or previous country of residence. Ask your child to spend some time reflecting on the impact of these places, then choose the biggest influence on them at this point in time. When they’re asked where they are from, they can give their top place as an answer.

Taking this approach is an interesting conversation for parents, as they might be surprised by their children’s responses. Children can be strongly influenced by different places and cultures outside of where they live. James might consider England to be “home” because that’s where he spent most of his summers growing up around his extended family, giving him a strong feeling of belonging. As a parent, you might find that siblings identify with different places to one another and to you. This is perfectly normal!

Try chatting to your children about their influences: it will help them be prepared for when they are next asked, “Where are you from?” Regardless of which approach you take – the short/long answer or the influence of places answer – preparing these responses ahead of time helps your children to be ready to answer in the moment. This stops them from feeling stressed or confused, giving them more clarity and confidence when it comes to answering THAT question.

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