Identity

If Change Were a Person

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  The word "change" used to make me cringe. In counseling when I was 14 years old, I remember completing a form and that word filled in nearly every blank.

What is your biggest fear? Change. 

What do you dislike the most? Change. 

What has been the hardest experience in your life thus far? Change. 

What makes you feel angry? Change. 

What makes you feel sad? Change. 

If Change were a person, I'd almost feel bad for it. Poor thing took the blame for all of my struggles.  But, when you frequently change continents, schools, friends, houses, and just about everything else, it becomes almost essential to find something to blame for the gut-wrenching achiness that seems to always be looming. Change seemed to be a reasonable thing to pin it on. Better than blaming my parents, their work, or God.

I remember my teenage-self telling someone that my ideal life would be one that stayed the same forever. One house, one city, kids who attend one school their whole lives. Maybe if change were absent, life would hurt less. 

Turns out, that's not really how it works.

Turns out, many TCKs grow to need change, to crave change, to even subconsciously yearn for change. I never, ever thought that would be me. Turns out, I was wrong.

In adulthood, my greatest enemy became my friend. My comfort zone. Now, my answers on that form would look more like this:

What is your biggest fear? Being stuck in one place for forever.  

What do you dislike the most? Going months without traveling.

What has been the hardest experience in your life thus far? Learning to settle into one place. 

Funny how life works.

It is because of Change that I grew into the person that I am; that I had so many incredible experiences. It is because of Change that I desire for my kids to experience the abundant, hard, wonderful, challenging, confusing, incredible life of being a TCK. It is because of Change that I am learning the art of being able to move and adapt and also to settle in one place for a while. 

So, if Change were a person, we would shake hands and exchange a small, knowing smile- one mixed with apology and gratefulness. Mine silently saying, "I'm sorry I blamed you for everything. You really are one of the best things that ever happened to me" and Change's saying, "I'm sorry it had to hurt so bad. I'm glad you see now the good that I knew would come from it."

Change did not make my life easy. In fact, I was certain it was bound and determined to ruin my life. Turns out, God used Change to direct my life, to give me an abundant life, to shape and mold my life, and now to influence my family's life. Turns out, Change, you aren't so bad after all. I'm glad we're friends.

My Deepest TCK Fear

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  I first heard the term Third Culture Kid or "TCK" in high school, and simultaneously found out that I was one. While many reject being labeled, I personally found much solace in finally feeling like something explained the rootlessness and lack of belonging that I felt. I have always worn the TCK label proudly and have, for better or for worse, lived up to the typical TCK expectations- moving often, having difficulty developing deep friendships, feeling restless, not wanting to settle down. However, three years ago, my husband and I moved to Portland, Oregon. This three year stretch has been the longest period of time that I have lived in one place since elementary school, and the scariest part? We have no intention of leaving anytime soon.

I write a lot about TCKs and settling. I have said that, "The healthy TCK realizes that they have a need for change and knows that they are more comfortable with the adapting process than with the settled life. However, they have learned how to control the need for change instead of letting it control them. They are willing to be somewhat uncomfortable so that they can live a settled life in the necessary areas. "

In the past three years, I have learned to "settle in the necessary areas." I believe that this has made me a healthier and happier individual, but, it has also brought a deep, unknown fear to light- the fear of becoming less of a TCK. 

This fear surfaced when we bought our house about a year ago. While I knew it was the best decision for us, in the back of my mind I kept thinking, "But TCKs don't do this!" I would remind myself that we were calling it a "5 year house" and could go anywhere in the world after that (even though 5 years still seemed like a ridiculously long time). Part of me felt like the purchase of our house signaled the death of part of my TCK identity.

Shortly after buying our house, my husband and I were at a craft fair and found this little wooden sign that said "Home" with the "O" in the shape of Oregon. Something inside me said, "You need to buy this. You are learning to settle." So we purchased the sign and it now sits on a shelf in our living room. Every time I look at it, I feel a slight pang of guilt. "TCKs don't have a home. Especially not one in America. I am loosing my TCK-self."

I recently came across a quote from David Pollock and Ruth Van Rekken that says, "While parents may change careers and become former international business people, former missionaries, former military personnel, or former foreign service, no one is ever a former Third Culture Kid. TCKs simply grow into being adult Third Culture Kids because their roots grow out of the lives planted in and watered by the third culture experience."

I think that perhaps, for many adult TCKs, the fear of settling doesn't just stem from the uncomfortableness of wading into that uncharted water, but also from the fear of loosing part of their TCK identity. We subconsciously think, "If I can see myself happily staying in one place (especially in my passport country) for a long period of time, I must not be a TCK anymore." Thankfully, I have found that this is not entirely true.

My life overseas shaped me in countless ways, many of which are similar to the tendencies of other TCKs. Those experiences will always impact my life, but as I am learning to settle, I am learning that I need to let go of some of my TCK identity. The part that says, "You will always be rootless", "You will never have a home", "You will never have deep friendships with non-TCKs." In the past three years, those beliefs have begun to be chiseled away at bit by bit. Allowing myself to settle here in Oregon is not betraying my TCK-self, nor does it make me less of a TCK. In fact, as I look around my house, I can see fingerprints of my overseas upbringing in so many places- my world map on the wall, my cupboards full of African foods and Indian spices, my African-themed guest room, the shuka (Masaai fabric) that I take as a play-mat/picnic blanket/towel/blanket for nearly every outdoor activity, African carvings and books in Swahili all around my living room. My third culture experience has played a role in shaping the way that I think, the things that I enjoy, the areas that I am passionate about, and what want to spend my life pursuing.

Settling and adapting does not undo my TCK identity, it just allows it to show up in different ways. In many ways, it surfaces in healthier, less destructive patterns. I am learning to let go of my fear of being less TCK, and learning to let the ways that my TCK-self comes out change and shift as I grow and learn to adapt and to settle.

When Your TCK Isn't Patriotic

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  A family is back in the United States on furlough for a year. The 6 year old girl and her parents attend her school's beginning of the school year assembly. The assembly starts and everyone stands up to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The girl looks up at her parents and asks, "Mommy, what are we doing?"  Her mom's heart sinks.

A TCK returns to America for college after spending the majority of her life overseas. She attends a football game and before the game starts, someone walks onto the field and begins to sing a song. "This is strange," she thinks.  Stranger still, it appears as though everyone around her knows the words. Then she notices that everyone has their right hand over their hearts. She quickly follows suit and realizes the song is the National Anthem. "I really should know the words to this," she thinks.

When a child becomes a TCK, they become a global citizen. This is an amazing attribute, but it can leave many parents and family members a bit frustrated and disappointed, as this viewpoint often comes across as a lack of patriotism for the child's passport country. Unlike their parents who grew up in one country, TCKs don't have ties to a singular country, and if they do, it may not be to their parents' country. This apparent lack of patriotism can create rocky ground for both the TCK and their parents.

So, what do you do when your child doesn't appear to feel patriotic toward their passport country; toward your country? 

It can be tricky for parents to understand that, while they have been living overseas just as long as their children have, the impact will be profoundly different for their children than it is for them. The parent who was born and raised in one country may have a difficult time when their TCK does not feel as connected to their passport country. Here are some things for you to keep in mind as you navigate this challenge:

1.  Teach your children about their heritage not their home. I use the word "heritage" because for the TCK, your passport country may not feel like their home. By talking about your native country as "home", you may inadvertently cause your TCK to tune out. Make it a point to teach your children about where you (the parents) are from. Teach them about things like traditions, culture, history, food, and holidays, but approach the topic from a heritage perspective. Your children may learn to appreciate that place more if they don't feel like you are trying to convince them that your native country should feel like home.

2.  Don't expect them to be comfortable. When you visit your passport country, remember that while it may be your home it may not be your child's home. I have talked with many TCKs who had a hard time when they visited their passport country because their parents seemed to expect them to feel comfortable and jump right back into their passport culture.  Your children may not be aware of cultural norms and social expectations,  which can make them feel very out of place. Be mindful of this and patiently give your TCKs space while they (re)adjust to their passport culture.

3.  Don't make them choose a favorite. Often, TCKs feel like they have an expected loyalty to their passport country and that given the choice they should choose that country over any other. A TCK I know once told me, "One of the worst things I can imagine is my passport country going to war with my host country. I have no idea which country I would side with, and worse, it probably wouldn't be the country my parents would side with."  Intentionally reiterate to your TCKs that they can love different places for what each place uniquely has to offer. They don't have to choose a favorite.

4.  Encourage their global patriotism. I have said before that I think it would be to the world's advantage to have more TCKs in political offices and the primary reason is this:  TCKs have an appreciation for the world as a whole more than possibly any other single people group. They aren't typically loyal to one place and thus, they can love and appreciate many places without being influenced by stigmas, stereotypes, and prejudices that develop when you have an "us vs. them" mentality. Often, this lack of "us vs. them" mentality is mistaken for a lack of patriotism. TCKs are good at looking at all of the world from an "us" perspective and this is an attribute that you should praise in your TCK.

When TCKs don't feel like they have to choose an allegiance toward a certain country, they can openly celebrate all of the countries that they have ties to and this is absolutely beautiful. Parents have the wonderful opportunity and responsibility to be instrumental in shaping how their children view different cultures and people groups. Encourage your children's appreciation of all places, advocate for their global patriotism, and remind them that while every culture has its weaknesses, they also all have something wonderful to offer.

Why We Shouldn't Call them "Little Missionaries"

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Missionary kids are often referred to as “little missionaries.”  The term makes me cringe and here’s why:

1.We need to let kids be kids. Missionary kids are often held on a pedestal. They are presented to the world on the stages of churches and in monthly newsletters. They know that their job is to look and act the part of the good missionary kid so that people support their parent's ministry. There is immense pressure on missionary parents to have perfect kids and immense pressure on the kids to play that role. We need to give them permission to just be kids. Yes, let’s encourage them to share the gospel, but let’s not make sharing the gospel part of the requirement of playing the “perfect missionary kid” role.

2. Sharing the gospel should be more than an occupation. We learned in Sunday School before we could walk that we need to “preach the gospel to all of creation” (Mark 16:15) and I absolutely believe that this is true. However, missionary kids are at risk for seeing Christianity as an occupation. When you refer to them as “little missionaries” or ask, “Are you going to be a missionary when you grow up, too?” it is kind of like calling the lawyer’s kids, “little lawyers” and asking, “Are you going to be a lawyer when you grow up?” Sharing the gospel can be done in the jungles of South America or as a bus driver in California or any other occupation anywhere else.

I was (and still am) often asked if I am going to be a missionary like my parents. For a long time, this question made me stutter and break out in a sweat because I felt like if I said “no,” I would be seen as less Christian. When I did answer, “no,” I felt obligated to go on to explain all of the ways I was involved in ministry here in the US and add on that maybe one day I would be a missionary overseas if God called me to that.

God may call some missionary kids to live as missionaries overseas when they grow up, but He may also call them to a different occupation and neither option should affect their validity or confidence in sharing the gospel.

3. Allow autonomy. Allow missionary kids to choose to follow Jesus Christ for themselves. It is hard as parents to give our children autonomy in this area, and especially so when you are missionaries and have so many eyes watching you and your children. But, when children feel like Christianity is a requirement, they are more prone to rejecting it, especially in teenage years. This is particularly true for missionary kids and other kids whose parents work in ministry. If children grow up being pigeonholed into the “little missionary” role, they are likely to resent that role and unfortunately may resent the Christian label that comes with it. We absolutely should “train up our children in the way they should go”(Proverbs 22:6) and instill Christian values and beliefs, but we need to be careful to not make Christianity a requirement rather than a choice. Our hope and prayer as parents is that our children will choose to follow the Lord and desire to share the gospel; not to do either out of obligation.

4. No one should be a “little” missionary. God has given us all the ability to share the gospel no matter what age we are. Sometimes children can minister even more effectively than adults can. The term “little missionary” can come across as a bit demeaning and condescending. While I’m sure no one means it that way, it can sound like they are telling the child that they are not old enough to qualify as a “real” missionary. No one, even children, like to feel like they’re not taken seriously and we want to be very careful that we don’t imply that, especially in the context of sharing the gospel.

Calling them “little missionaries” is a quick way to close the door on conversation,  so here is better way to get to know missionary kids:

If you genuinely want to know what the child wants to be when they grow up, ask them. Don’t imply that “missionary” is the correct answer.

If you want to know if they have been able to share the gospel with anyone, ask them. They may have some amazing stories!

If you want to know about their relationship with Jesus Christ, ask them.

Take them seriously, ask questions, don’t assume, and please don’t call them “little missionaries.”

Nurturing the Identity of Your TCK

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“Who are YOU?” The question was asked during a mom’s group I attended last week. The speaker went on, “Not, “what roles do you play?” Not, “who do people say you are?” But, who are YOU? If all those roles were stripped away, who would YOU be?” The question sank in and my mind started racing.

I’ve been better these days about processing through my feelings instead of just shrugging them off. Sitting in that room, my baby girl asleep on my chest, I realized something. I have been really good at adapting my identity to the situation, role, and culture I am a part of. I am pretty stellar at mirroring what people think or say I should be, and I think that this may be the peril of many TCKs.

See, TCKs are phenomenal adapters. We’ve become very skilled at sliding into any culture and blending in like we’re native to that place. We have subconsciously learned to notice the subtleties and nuances of the world around us so that we are able to fit in in ways that non-TCKs simply can’t. This is a precious quality and it has countless benefits. However, I’m realizing that it also can create a bit of an identity crisis.

TCKs become so skilled at morphing into who we need to be to fit into the given situation, that we are at risk of loosing grip on who we actually ARE. Who am I? What really drives me? Not, what have I been told I am or what my roles and location require me to be, but what is just ME?

The speaker sent us home with a brilliant "values" exercise, similar to this one. A list of 50 values are given from which you choose the 20 that are most important to you. Then you narrow your list down to 10, then to 5. Those 5 are your core values. The other values are still important to you, but those core 5 are what drive you in your pursuit of the other values. This simple exercise clarified so many things for me and helped me begin to weed through the adapting “me” to the core of who I am and what drives me.

If you are parenting young TCKs, be intentional about nurturing your child’s identity. Your child’s adapting nature is an incredible asset, but it is critical that they also keep in mind who they are underneath the TCK role. Talk about the things that are important to them, the things that they enjoy doing, the things that drive them. Not what anyone else says they should be or do or enjoy, but who God has uniquely created them to be. Their ever-changing environment, shifting roles, and TCK identity will absolutely play into who they become as adults. Those factors have undoubtedly shaped who I am and help to explain why my core values are what they are. But, it is critical that they know who they are at the core so they can separate their foundational-self from their ever-adapting-self. Nurture your TCKs identity so that their core remains anchored even while the rest of them plays the role of the master adaptor.