Questions, Challenges and Blessings {The Grove: Mothering TCKs}

Talking about mothering Third Culture Kids is a bit like talking about the water in a river: it’s always in motion and no two rivers (or even two kids in the same family) are the same.

So lets throw some of the variables on the table: where you deliver, where you live, how isolated you are, how many kids you have, how close together in age they are, their personalities, how much you click with each kid, how much you butt heads with this one or that one, how old they were when you came to the field, have they known any other life but this, their own unique challenges and giftings, schooling options and needs, trauma they have experienced or been exposed to, and how much you enjoy being a mom at this phase of life.

Need to take a break? Us too! This can be overwhelming. But Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” That’s what Jesus wants for you in your mothering, rest. In your relationship with your kids, rest. In your relationship with him regarding mothering, rest. Rest, rest, rest. Today we’re going to come as body and offer our collective cries, hopes, and wisdom to one another as an act of resting together. We don’t have to carry this one all alone. The topic of mothering TCKs is big, so lets break it down and look at questions, challenges and blessings in these stages: newborn to two, 3-6, 7-13, 13-18, college age, early adulthood.

Questions, challenges, and blessings in the newborn to two-year-old stage

  • If you are becoming a first time mom on the field, it’s so hard to know what “normal” is. There are many parenting camps or philosophies out there and it’s important to realize none of them are perfect. And if these philosophies (books, parenting blogs, etc.) were written by your home culture, it’s not taking into account the cultural issues you’re facing. If you’re searching for a parenting guide, read (with a grain of salt) some of all the parenting philosophies. Then think hard about you, your spouse, and your child’s personalities, beliefs, and environment. What fits YOU? What works for who you are as a family? Go with that. Drop all comparisons. Glean from others along the way, but also learn to trust your own Holy Spirit gut when it comes to your child.
  • Some of the things your local host culture does with young children may seem crazy to you (and it may be). But remember that they have been raising children in their environment for generations. You may be surprised to find there is often a very good and practical reason for what they do.
  • The blessing of this stage is that home is wherever mom and dad are. Yes, plane rides and jetlag are brutal, but your child’s heart is actually highly transportable right now.

Questions, challenges, and blessings in the 3 to 6-year-old stage

  • People often think this age group is easily adaptable as well. But don’t underestimate the grief that transition can cause these little ones. Give them the freedom to be sad without rushing them on to the next exciting thing. Teach them the language of paradox, and help them understand what it means to be “green” (finger painting, anyone?).
  • Facilitate healthy goodbyes for them. StoryKit app is a quick, simple, and free way to make your own “Goodbye book” with pictures and words to help kids visually process what is happening in their lives.
  • Even at this age, kids can be either a pre or post-griever. Identifying that in ALL ages is invaluable.
  • Questions of schooling come up in this age, what’s available, what’s best for your family, what’s realistic with your assignment, what’s realistic with local schools.
  • Deciphering the cause of worrisome behaviors can be a challenge. Is this a developmental stage, a reaction to transition stress, something else? Find mentor moms–and don’t hesitate to consult with a professional.
  • The blessings of this stage include your kids being able to participate in your host culture in their own ways, able to talk with you more about culture and themselves, and still have a strong sense that where mom and dad are is home.

Questions, challenges, and blessings in the 7 to 13-year-old stage

  • Realize that what is important to them may be different than what you think is important to them. Let them help make choices in packing.
  • Having connections with peers becomes more and more important as your kids age. It is during these years that questions of social media and privacy are beginning to be raised. What has helped you navigate these decisions?
  • Schooling discussions are still in play, as what worked when they were younger may need to be revisited (or what worked for one kid may not work for another).
  • Challenges involve questions of how much freedom to allow based on your context and helping your child know how the difference between safe and unsafe situations and people.
  • Blessings at this stage involve seeing how your child’s gifting are unfolding and being used. The potential for discussion on subjects of importance continue to deepen as your child matures. 

Questions, challenges, and blessings in the 13 to 18-year-old stage

  • The need to connect with peers continues to grow. Time and finances may need to be invested in facilitating connections in person. If it is available in your context, you may find yourself traveling to a fall or spring retreats in your country or region.
  • All of the above (schooling, grieving, social media) are still in play, with growing theological questions of suffering, racism, environmentalism and other areas of life that tug on your TCKs heart.
  • Questions of college or “what’s after high school” are common in this phase with home assignments or furloughs spending some time exploring college options. The later part of this phase involves helping your child to finish well in their host country and for the double transition from your home and host country. This article is a starting point for transitioning to college.
  • Blessings include an increased ability to enjoy who your child will be as an adult. Your role evolves from being on the front line of active parenting (oh my, you’re still active, but it looks very different from the early years), to more of a cheerleader/coaching role.

Questions, challenges and blessings in the college age stage

  • As the above link states so powerfully, acknowledge with your adult child that growing up as a TCK brings beauty AND scars, and that both should be embraced.
  • Questions of and a sense of home begin to be in flux in ways it hasn’t been for years.
  • And oh, that first goodbye for you as you return to your country of service without your TCK, repeating over and over “this is good and this is right”, learning to trust our Father in a whole new way with your children’s well-being.
  • The challenge is you might be doing this from the other side of the world. Times when your child is free to video chat might not be at the most convenient times. You might experience times of feeling helpless as you hear a little something in his or her voice and long to know how your TCK is really And times of deep longing as your TCK wins the lead in the play, receives an award, kicks the winning goal, or gets their first speeding ticket, has a fall-out with a roommate, fails a test – and you aren’t there. Set aside funds to make an extra trip back or bring your TCK “home” on a break.
  • Challenges also involve watching the developmentally natural (but hard to watch) disintegration of what they thought they knew about the world and God; trusting he will reintegrate it for them. This often hits around their sophomore year.
  • What a blessing when you can see your child (hopefully) at holiday times! It’s also a blessing to see the one who you’ve loved from when they were little launched.

Questions, challenges and blessings in the early adulthood stage

  • Depending how long you have been on the field, your child may need help navigating parts of your home culture you haven’t navigated yourself (or when you did it looked very different).
  • Your child may have values, boyfriends/girlfriends, other friends, and make choices you don’t agree with or like. These are not subjects that can be widely written about because of choosing relationship with your child over sharing what a struggle it is for you. Know that you are not alone, other mothers walk this path too.
  • If your adult TCK has the opportunity to revisit the culture(s) of his or her childhood, offer support in processing the joys and sorrows that will rise to the surface and may take him or her by surprise.
  • By this point, they are more settled in their home culture and deciding what they want next steps of life to be. You will most likely be attending weddings of your children and their friends during this season. And it’s wild how quickly life goes because then you find …

Questions, challenges and blessings when you’re a grandma to TCKs

  • You can still have a very close and special relationship with your grandchild! Grandmothering will look very different than you probably hoped or envisioned. But it can still be rich and wonderful.
  • Having a grandchild is a “game changer” for many women. Give yourself permission to rethink the frequency and length of your times back in your home country to support your children and grandchildren.
  • Learn all you can about what it means to be a TCK, so you understand the heart of your third-culture grandchild.
  • Check out these tips on long distance grand parenting from The Culture Blend: part 1 and part 2.

“There is no way to be a perfect mother, and a million ways to be a good one.” -Jill Churchill 

We are not aiming for perfection, for only one is Perfect. We are aiming for a safe place to bring questions, offer stories and ideas, a be remaindered there are million ways to mother.

What questions, challenges, or blessings are you experiencing?


This is what we call The Grove.  It’s where we all gather to share our thoughts, our words, and our art on our weekly prompt.  So join us in the comments.  Show us your art work by adding an image. And link up your own blog posts on this week’s prompt.  Click here for details and instructions


  1. Phyllis August 21, 2015

    Questions, or just what I’ve been thinking about lately related to this: our kids were all born over here, speak Russian first (before English) and consider themselves Russian/Ukrainian. I have not seen any TCKness (new word?) in them. But… a few years ago we moved to a new city, the first where we’ve ever had North American friends. Those friends all moved over after their children were born, and I definitely see those other kids as TCKs. I wonder about how much timing is part of the equation? It seems to me like kids born into and immersed in a culture different from their parents’ might not turn out as TCKs?

    1. Annalisa August 22, 2015

      Phyllis, this has been on my heart too as we start planning to have kids.  My husband is a local, and I’m kind of thinking that our kids might not be THIRD culture kids.  I’m the one with the blended culture, and as a result, they’ll be slightly different.  (I am NOT serving cereal with warm milk to our kids despite that it’s the way that the culture here does it.  Corn Flakes get all soggy!  Gross!  I mean, if some day they decide they want them that way, that’s up to them.)  I’m thinking they’ll be more of 1.25CKs…i.e. normal with quirks.

      1. Amy Young August 22, 2015

        1.25 … normal with quirks! Love it.

    2. Amy Young August 22, 2015

      I am no expert 🙂 … so these are just my own thoughts. I can see that TCKness can exist on a continuum with kids like yours having, maybe a toe or two in TCKness. I think time and the culture you’re in and each family are probably the three main criteria. In some cultures, TCKs can physically blend in, while in others, they don’t. Also it depends on how “open” the culture is to “outsiders.” China, for example, are wonderful “hosts” and a great place to live, but they are very clear you will always be an “outsider” — it is virtually impossible to immigrate (even if one parent IS Chinese). But I could see in Russia/Ukraine, it being possible for kids to have a very different experience.

      A term like “TCK” doesn’t mean just one thing, does it :)!

      1. Phyllis August 23, 2015

        Yes, physically being able to fit in or not and cultural openness would make big differences. Also, language? Russian is our family language, and maybe that makes as much of a difference as birthplace and timing of the family’s move(s).

      2. Elizabeth August 23, 2015

        I completely agree, Amy, it does depend on the culture you’re in. Cambodia is the same as China — we will ALWAYS be outsiders. We have Caucasian friends who actually have Cambodian passports, signed by the king (or is it the prime minister? can’t remember), but when they go through customs they are always told they are “foreigners,” that it’s a foreigner passport, and are not treated as nationals. It doesn’t matter how long you live here or how well you speak the language, you will never be Cambodian. So I think it’s a whole lot harder to integrate into Asia with white skin than to integrate into Europe.

        Of course all that really means is that our cross-cultural experiences across the globe are different from each other! And, I just might add, I’m super happy for Phyllis’s family who DOES feel so at home in their host culture. I’m sure that feels good 🙂

    3. Elizabeth August 23, 2015

      Hi Phyllis, just wanted to chime in here and say that from what I understand, yes, your children are TCKs (or the more all-encompassing Cross Cultural Kids). 🙂 Sounds like their third culture upbringing will be very different from, say, my kids’. They might feel more like immigrants or even locals. From the TCK definitions though, I think they still fit in that description and may very well have to confront some of the identity and belonging questions that TCKs generally face.

      Of course, it’s going to look different because we are all different 🙂 But an awareness of the issues TCKs face will still be really helpful for them if and when they face them personally (especially if they ever return to live in their passport country — which perhaps they won’t, I don’t know your situation, I’m just mentioning it). If they don’t have “TCK issues,” that’s great, it’s not a problem! No need to force something that’s not there. It’s just good to be prepared for the possibility 🙂

  2. Annalisa August 22, 2015

    I’ve been married almost 6 months, and we’re thinking about growing our family next year.  I’m really glad you wrote this post now.  It helps me think and plan for the future.  I’m married to a local; so I think I’m going to start asking my mother-in-law for child rearing suggestions.  (No, I didn’t read any of this post after I got through the 6-year section; that covered the bulk of my current thoughts.)

    1. Amy Young August 22, 2015

      I’d be curious to hear what your mother-in-law says :)!

      1. Annalisa August 22, 2015

        My husband says he is going to invite her to stay with me for a while because he doesn’t like that I’m alone so much, and that’s fine because I have a great relationship with my MIL.  (I want to call her “mama” like he does, but I haven’t worked up the courage to ask her if that’s okay yet.)  I also don’t want to ask too many questions because she’ll start wondering if we’re pregnant!  (And we’re not.)  My MIL is a midwife; so between that and the potential of another grandbaby, she might jump to conclusions. 😀  At any rate, it strikes me more as a conversation we might have here at our house in private rather than in the family home with all the extended family; I don’t want everyone jumping to conclusions.  If I do get the chance to ask her, I’ll definitely share Guatemalan child rearing customs with the Velvet Ashes community!  (I don’t blog a lot about my personal life, but if I word it right, I might be able to pull it off in which case I’ll just share the blog with you all.)

        1. Phyllis August 23, 2015

          You know, if you just ask her about Guatemalan child raising customs, she might not be able to explain them to you. I find that as I mother, I don’t even think about or know that what I’m doing is “American” or “Russian,” until I see it contrasted with another culture’s way of doing things. Until someone says that I’m weird! 🙂 Really, it’s just the way you do it, most of the time. So, you might have to be prepared with more specific questions, and even then, you might not know what to ask until you see things in action. I would be fascinated to hear what you learn, though.

          1. Annalisa August 23, 2015

            I  would probably word it something like “What do I do with a baby?  How does it eat?  How does it sleep?  I have no clue what I’m supposed to do if we ever have one!” OR “Tell me how you raised such an excellent son.  I want a son like him.”  (Because a. flattery gets you everywhere, and b. I don’t think I would have married him if I didn’t think he was the cream of the crop.  I mean, I didn’t marry anyone else, so…)

            About a year ago I started asking my own mother what some of the decisions were that she made when raising my brother and I, and it was some interesting stuff.  I’ve asked her to keep jotting stuff down as she thinks of it.  I think leaving it open-ended like that lets her process it better.  Like you said, you can’t really know what belongs to a culture until you can really contrast it.  And, quite frankly, contrasting my childhood to that of my Stateside peers, my mother did a weird (but good, in my opinion) job of child rearing.  So, I can’t even take what she did and say “This is how the American culture does things.”  So, even if I do find out what my MIL did, I guess I couldn’t classify it as “This is how the Guatemalans do things,” only “This is how my Guatemalan MIL did things.”  However, I do get to observe the families I work with in a distinct area of the country and my neighbors in yet another area of the country; so maybe I’ll end up with some sort of list.

            I love this idea.  It makes me think of that PhD. in Anthropology I decided not to get.

          2. Phyllis August 24, 2015

            I would be very interested to know what kinds of responses you’d get. I tend to think that maybe even those kinds of questions wouldn’t be specific enough, but maybe that’s just me. If you asked me what to do with a baby, I’d probably say something like “you feed him, change him, hold him, see that he sleeps…” but when babushki watched me do those things at first I did them all WRONG, and now when Americans watch they think I’m crazy.


            I would never have thought to ask, “Is it okay to hold a baby upright? Or in a sitting position?” but that is VITAL in Russian/Ukrainian baby-raising culture! “How do you hold a baby?” Oh, yes, theoretically you just pick him up, but when you actually do it… no NOT LIKE THAT!!!! 🙂

          3. Elizabeth August 24, 2015

            Your story about baby-care cracked me up Phyllis. Here babies have to be held with a pillow under their neck — but that’s not why I laughed. I laughed because I remember our first year here watering our plants like an American. Only we didn’t know we watered like Americans until our neighbor said, “Jonny, do you know how to water plants??”

            “Uh, apparently not,” thought my husband. She then proceeded to show him the proper way to water plants (it involves splashing water on the leaves instead of spraying the hose at the soil, like we were accustomed to). I still laugh at that, because in our new culture, we didn’t even know how to water plants!

  3. Denise August 22, 2015

    I thought this was one of the best posts for parents yet! There are so many resources for all stages of parenting. Thanks Velvet Ashes Team!

    Personally the 13-18, college age, young adult, and Grandparenting sections were very encouraging. Yes I have a wide range of ages between my kids! (14-33 yrs.)

    Keep up the good work!


    1. Amy Young August 22, 2015

      Denise, coming from you and all the experience you have, this is warmly received. Thank you 🙂

  4. Annalisa August 23, 2015

    I went back and read this in its entirety, and now I have a question: In the grandparent role, the grandkids aren’t actually TCKs, are they?  (Provided that their parents/your children didn’t feel a call to the field.)  Or does the blended TCKness of the one parent with the singular culture of the other parent result in a different sort of TCKness even if the grandchild never leaves the [potential] passport culture?  (And if two TCKs have children together, would the grandbaby be a F[ifth]CK as the two parents seek some sort of normalcy integrating the best parts of all the cultures?  Okay, this last question was pretty much an attempt at humor, but I was serious about the earlier ones.)

    1. Elizabeth August 24, 2015

      This is actually a serious question, Annalisa — and a good one! I think there are actually  a few situations going on here. You could be a parent of an overseas worker, which means any children they have (your grandchildren) will be TCKs. OR You could be the worker overseas, while your children and their children (again, your grandchildren) are back in your passport country (making them not TCKs, even though their parents might be TCKs, depending on when you went overseas). OR you could be working overseas, while your adult children are also working overseas, meaning no one is back in the passport country. All can be difficult situations being far from family, but I think they will each play out differently.

      And all that confusion is why I really like the new term that the TCK “experts” Ruth Van Reken and Lois Bushong use: Cross Cultural Kid. This encompasses so much more than TCK, and it’s really helpful to have more flexible definitions, because the issues are very similar, and I don’t like to exclude people! They even use the term Third Culture Adult to describe someone whose first exposure to another culture came in adulthood, because those interactions make a big impact on our lives as well, and a TCA will identify with some issues of TCKs but feel like they don’t belong in that group. I like to make it as inclusive as possible so as many people as possible get answers to the reasons they feel the way they feel, so they don’t feel like they’re crazy, and so their feelings are normalized.

      Of course not every CCK is going to feel everything in the literature, because we are all different people with different experiences, but it just provides such a helpful framework. The two books most helpful to me are Ruth Van Reken’s Third Culture Kids and Lois Bushong’s Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere.

      Anyway, back to my original point, there are so many, many different flavors of TCKs, parents of TCKs, and grandparents of TCKs. 🙂

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