Identity Theft of Third Culture Kids.

This post will have some nodding their heads in agreement and others shaking their fist in frustration. It’s a risk I’m willing to take I’m actually terrified of you people. Others may read this, not being part of the expat or missionary community, and have no idea what I am talking about.

Thank you, in advance, for seeking to understand my perspective on a topic which I am also approaching with a great desire to learn.  Let me share that the concerns I address with our children’s identity is by no means suggesting that we ignore, discount or downplay the deep and residing consequences that living abroad have on children.  I feel the exact opposite.  I am enriched by the great resources now available for adults and children living abroad.  I have learned many valuable truths, which have given me a greater understanding of how to care for my children’s needs before, during, and after living abroad.

Bear with me.  Give me grace.  Allow me to explain…

Our culture is obsessed with labelling.  We love putting labels on others and we are actually pretty fond of labeling ourselves. “I’m an introvert”, “Actually, I’m an extroverted introvert.” “He’s a millennial”, “She’s vegan”, “I’m a Calvinist”.  We tend to choose one main thing and capitalize on it, making it the central focus of our identity.

In the mission’s community we have become particularly fixed on the label “TCK” or “Third Culture Kid”.  The term is used to describe a certain type of child.  This child was raised in a culture different from their passport country.  But, like any label placed on a child, we would be wise to consider its long-term consequences.

I grew up as a pastor’s kid.  It’s the only life I ever knew.  But I never felt that I particularly benefited from being labeled as a “pastor’s kid”.  In fact, it was something that I often wanted to hide away from.  It was typically either used to place me on a pedestal by adults or to get a laugh at my expense with an amusing adage like “those PK’s are always the ones you have to look out for.”  I didn’t like being called a “PK”.  I didn’t like it because it placed me into a very narrow grouping of people. Even as a child, I felt like I was more than that.  I also hated when people asked me what it was like to be a “PK” because, as a child, it’s all I knew.  How could I possibly articulate my experience or make proper comparisons with other kids whose parents had “normal” jobs?

As I look back on my life, born and raised in Ohio, I can see similarities to many experiences my own children have as “TCKs” (third culture kids).  I too had people in and out of my life.  I still mourn the many deep relationships lost simply because people no longer liked my dad or our church.  I still deal with confusion as to how people can “love you so deeply”, commit to a body of believers, and then abandon the church and all its people when there is conflict.  I have called people “aunt and uncle” and had them leave without goodbyes, pretending not to see me in the grocery store.  I have had more friends come and go in my life, simply due to “leaving a church” than I can count.

There are other typical experiences that any children growing up in the ministry could probably find relatable… feeling like you are fighting with other people for your parent’s time; being placed on a pedestal; getting annoying questions; fighting bitterness when your parents spend so much time counseling, loving and pouring into families who then leave them high and dry when there is another, better church in town; not feeling like you have privacy; dealing with people questioning why you have something nice when your dad’s salary comes from the church, etc.  All these things had a part in forming me into the well-rounded super weird person that I am today.  However, labeling myself as a pastor’s kid has never once helped.  Not one single time.

So, how would it be now, at 35 years old, if I were meeting people for the first time and still introducing myself with “Hi there, Steph Boon, Pastor’s Kid”. I can imagine most people would think to themselves, “Get over it, woman. Stop living in the past. Get off that train.”  However, I have met adult “MKs” who still introduce themselves that way.  When do we stop allowing ourselves to be labeled by our childhood and when do we form a new identity? This is the burden that we place on our children when we allow their main identity to be a “TCK”.  We are, in a sense, forcing this to be how they see themselves.  So, when do they transfer to their new self?  College? Upon returning to their passport country?  How long after?  Do they need to find a new label to replace the old one?  If not, will they feel lost…looking to replace what they felt was their main identity?

I am now raising children in a country far different than their passport country.  They don’t completely fit in either place. They struggle with where “home” really is. They grieve the loss of friends every June, when the International community has its annual turn-over.

I am also parenting adopted children, who are currently living in their home country, but with an American family.  Try being a kid and explaining that one to strangers 20 times per day.  I don’t want my adopted children’s sole identity to be “adoptees” just as much as I don’t want my non-adopted children to grow up finding their chief identity as a “TCK”.  Their dad and I want them to be well-rounded people, finding their joy, contentment, and identity in who they are in Christ and then finding freedom within that to celebrate their uniqueness, their somewhat strange upbringing and the impact that many of their experiences have had on their lives.

Do you see the difference?  One is a respectful acknowledgement of the unique and challenging lives that they have lived and the other is a daunting label that can lead them to feel enclosed into a small group of people.

We try to celebrate the many unique things that we know and that we daily discover about each one of our children; their personalities, their emerging abilities and individual talents.  We talk about the tribes that two of our children were born into and how some of their qualities (their height, temperament, love of certain foods, etc.) are part of what their particular tribe is known for. We also talk about our non-adopted children’s unique benefits and challenges faced by living far from their passport country bring. But there is so much more to celebrate and navigate in their little lives than 2 labels, “adoptee” or “TCK”.  Where they were raised and who they were raised by are very important parts of what makes them who they are…but they aren’t the only parts.

Let us learn all we can from the valuable resources that are now available to parents of children who are being raised abroad, but let’s not allow our children to live primarily in that identity.  It’s only one piece of who they are.  It’s a piece of them that brings both beauty and pain…but it is NOT THEM.

This isn’t about splitting hairs; because if I wanted to do that I would blog about why food bloggers now give a life story before you can ever find the actual recipe! Am I right?  Can I just see the corn casserole recipe without reading about your grandma’s broach? There. Hairs have been split.  It’s not about making you feel weird about ever saying “TCK” again.  I’m not suggesting that we reject the term, nor should we judge those who use it or find comfort in identifying with it. I am advocating that we don’t leave our children with that label alone. Let us use it as a tool and then offer them so much more…

Sometimes the very best thing we can do when we see our “TCKs” struggling is to point them away from deep reflection of their upbringing and point them instead to their Creator.  Point them to Jesus and allow them to be in awe of God.  When we behold our Father in His glory, the insecurities and deep longings to belong come to rest and we find deep satisfaction in who we are in Him.  It’s enough.

The truth is that every single childhood has its story.  Children all over the world, including those who are living in their passport country, face unique and sometimes much greater challenges than our “TCK” children; children living with terminal illness, foster children, children who suffer abuse, who are discriminated against because of their color or background, children whose parent’s bad decisions will impact their lives forever, children born with disabilities, refugee children who have been forced to leave their country and never return due to persecution, etc.  Of course, it’s not fair to compare one person’s hurt with another’s (that only builds pride or causes further discouragement).  However, we would be wise to include these in conversations with our children who are being raised abroad, lest they start believing that their experiences are more important, more compelling or more difficult than anyone else’s.  That mentality will create a pride deep within them which will leave its mark on every single one of their relationships. Everyone has a story.  Make sure our children don’t think their foreign upbringing should demand center stage or special rights.

Taking our eyes off of our past, current, or future “identities”, living situations, and experiences and placing them on our Heavenly Father changes us.  It changes us from needing answers and confirmation and a feeling of home to finding our home, our peace, and our comfort in Him alone.  When our foundation is God, the unchanging, all-powerful Creator of the universe, we have our footing wherever we are in this world and however we were raised.  This is a gift we must give our children.  Let us give them voices to address the challenges, blessings, the pain, and the questions that come with living life overseas and then the freedom to release those to the Lord.

Grace and Peace,

Steph, Pastor’s Kid

  1. Having PK’s of my own, your perspective is dead on. I think your Mom and I have felt many of these feeling over the years. You are doing an amazing job. People need to see that your children are no different from theirs. This was a great read Steph. Just keep loving them and let them see Jesus in you. 💜

  2. Thank you! This was so good, and just what I needed!! I love the underlying theme of finding our all in Jesus. It’s really not where we live or have lived in the past… it’s where we put our faith.
    -Krista, TCK 🙂

  3. I’m so enjoying your posts…your perspective…and the way you continually point to Jesus. And, on the splitting hairs topic, I hear ya and only follow cooking blogs that have the “jump to recipe” feature!

  4. Thanks for telling it like it is! I’ve only read a couple of your blogs thus far but what a refreshing perspective and way of writing! Glad you can put all those feelings, struggles, realities…into words for all of us to share.

  5. Yes. Well said. We must always look to Jesus and rest in Him for purpose and significance and identify, recognizing our circumstances are unique, and that is the framework we are to build our lives upon, and model, encourage and train (now that’s the hard part) our kids to do the same.

  6. I appreciate your perspective. I also know what it was like being raised with no connecting point, and no word. I didn’t find the word TCK until I was in my thirties and my identity was well-grounded in Christ – but I still struggled deeply. For some of us, the word made a huge, huge difference.

  7. Wow… thank you. My wife and I were good friends with our pastor and his wife, my older kids (foster sons) were good/best friends with their kids, and my wife and I were also the pastor’s kids youth group leaders, as well as good friends with those kids as well. Bottom line… we knew the pastor’s family and his kids very well. You nailed (of course, you lived it) the life/trials of a PK, and you did a great job equating those trials with those of TCKs. Thanks for helping me to understand PKs a little better, as I can now have true empathy for them. I understand PK/TCK issues because my family (myself, wife and two daughters) then lived and served for the next 20 years in Israel and Jordan, after which we moved last September to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yes, frying pan to the fire, but a truly lovely fire DRC is! All that background/info to say that your words rung true and deep, but sadly, our experience, must to the chagrin of my daughter who still lives in the States, is that no one, not even family or close friends, no matter how many articles/blogs my daughter sends them to read about TCKs, will understand the life/trials of a TCK. Hence, your point was important that our foundation/identity should be in our Heavenly Father, and that “this is a gift we must give our children.” That said, it puts the work of helping the TCK to cope on the shoulders of us, the parents who are in the know, rather than on the TCKs family and friends who are not so in-the-know. Thanks and blessings!

  8. I believe you described well what being a PK is. You don’t like the label. Because of that you think that it is bad for an MK/TCK to identify as that. I believe you are judging from your dislike for the disadvantages of being a PK. You do not understand that many MKs strongly identify with their host country all their lives. If they were young children and lived with the people of that country they have absorbed much from their host country, many even chose to stay there. MKs regardless of age often find great comfort talking to another MK for a very different country. You are asking MKs not to identify as MKs. I believe any person can identify any way they want. Don’t make the mistake of thinking even though you may be a very good parent that you understand your MKs. Let them be MKs and find a tribe in other MKs.

    1. Dear Shary,
      Thank you for the comment. I’m so happy to hear your heart for MK’s shine through your critique. It is obvious that you have a great love and passion for MK’s. How wonderful. Unfortunately, I think you may have missed my point. Of course it is wonderful for MK’s to feel connected and find some amount of identity in their host culture! It would be absurd to assume otherwise. My point was that, as believers, no matter what our background/culture/story/or place in this world, our ultimate identity is found in Christ. This brings great security and peace to their story…it most definitely doesn’t rob them of a story or connection to being an MK. Thanks for taking the time to write and I hope you can see my heart a bit more clearly now than you did when you wrote your initial response. Wish you the very best!
      Grace and Peace,

  9. I loved your article! I spent 3 months overseas in a third culture doing missionary work and I have never seen children so happy as what is termed tck. They are so happy and do not fight like children within their passport country does and that is because they are not exposed to all the influences of the western world. They have the innocence that children should have but, are not hampered by it. It’s beautiful!

  10. By making the identity in Christ you have excluded at least one third of MKs who no longer identify with Christianity. Sadly the way things are going in our world though I am a Jesus follower there are many Christians I do not want to identify with, as they are no longer following Jesus but a lot of man made idea of the right politically. Advocating for killing refugees, encouraging the bombing of Syria. The identity of the MK does not have to include Christianity.

  11. This is beautifully put. I am an MK and a parent of MKs and I want their identity to be found in Christ, not in any other label!

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