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How the church can care for their third-culture kids

When my husband and I set off with our children on an adventure to move overseas, we knew they would make an adjustment to a new culture, make new friends, learn a new language, and call another place on the globe their home. All of this was to be expected. Even with the challenges, we felt ready to accept these cultural adaptations.

What I didn’t know was that cultural adaptation would mean more than just accepting what was around them. It also meant transforming them too. Hence, the cross-cultural name, third-culture kid (or TCK for short). The name signifies the blending of a home culture with a host culture, and how kids who blend two “homes” uniquely identify with the world around them. Missionary kids, military kids, and any child whose parents have relocated across the globe can be TCKs. Being a TCK is a gift that I am thankful my children have received.  

But what does the reality of TCKs mean for family members, friends, and church communities back home who send families across continents and want to care for them even at a distance? How will churches that send missionaries receive TCKs back when they come for visits, or if they make a more permanent move back to their home country? 

As the child has adjusted and changed to adapt to a new culture, do those who care for them need to adjust and change as well? The answer is yes, and quite honestly, this experience is not unlike all relationships where we must continually adapt, adjust, and be diligent students, observers, and respecters of one another. 

To talk about good examples of care, I’ve interviewed my daughter and son, Megan and Parker. I’ll let them speak their own wisdom and personal experience

What are some ways that you felt cared for as a TCK? 

Parker: At a younger age, I would say that I remember feeling loved through gifts. Though we don’t want to make material objects the things that bring us the greatest happiness, it was meaningful and tangible that someone on the other end of the ocean cared enough to send you money or that new toy. 

As I grew older in Germany, I was able to connect and build relationships with kids and adults in our home churches. I began to see the continual and transformative work of the gospel in the world. I saw the world as a mission field, and, as I learned about God’s grace, it inspired me to live out my identity in Christ with open arms for those in need around us. The act of giving one church can do for a TCK is one of the things that inspires young missionaries to go outside of their doors and give to the nations.

Megan: Like Parker said, I felt cared for by the gifts churches would bring or send to us, especially at the beginning. Culture shock was still setting in, and I remember not having the words to express what I was feeling or even what I was missing. When churches sent boxes of macaroni and cheese or peanut butter cups, it struck a deeper chord. Those items represented something bigger that I was missing, and they gave me a sense of comfort and grounding in a time when I had lost my usual bearings. As I got older, I remember feeling cared for in the relationships I found within the church. Upon each return we were welcomed with warmth and generosity. I made supportive, lasting friendships with peers and mentors within the church. Relationships like these gave me a deep sense of care. 

Susan: One of the most meaningful acts of care my children received was before we even made it overseas. We had planned to arrive in October 2001, but the events of September 11 delayed all international visas. We had already sold our house, car, and belongings, and all we had were our suitcases—with nowhere to land while we waited.  Our home church provided us a house, a car, and our children a place in their school during the wait. When we arrived at the home provided for us, there were backpacks, school supplies, lunch boxes, a stocked fridge, and sweet notes to our family waiting for us. They went above and beyond with these provisions, and it had a huge impact on our family—giving us a sense of security and belonging in the midst of an uncertain time. The church continued to care for us through our years overseas in ways that spoke of availability, understanding, and compassion. It was just never a question that they were there for us.

Were there some ways you were cared for that might not have been as helpful?

Parker: One thing that caregivers want to avoid is making assumptions. When I think of difficult care situations, I think of things that were done or said that made me feel misunderstood. For example, someone might say, “Isn’t it great to be home!” or “Aren’t you lucky to be able to live in such an amazing place!” Those statements assume the TCKs feelings based upon the caregiver’s own perceptions of their life. The TCK might instead be thinking, “You don’t live away from your friends and family, so you don’t understand,” or “You don’t know what it’s like to feel so different.” In reality, everyone does feel this way sometimes. So, it’s important to think about times you’ve felt different and consider your words, or choose to ask good questions about someone’s perspective, instead of speaking your own view of their life over them. Asking thoughtful questions is a way of providing care and understanding.

Megan: I remember feeling pressured at times. Sometimes this looked like a church wanting me to share experiences from “the field” in front of my youth group or at a Bible study, and that always made me feel uncomfortable. I believe there was an intention to show support by listening, but it always made me feel singled out and pressured to share impressive stories that I simply didn’t have. The language used during these interactions also perpetuated my sense of confusion between “home country” and “the field.” These interactions were difficult for me in processing “home” and “other,” as there were clear lines being drawn from the church’s perspective, but I did not follow those same boundaries. 

Susan: Families returning to their home culture are thankful to connect with their sending church or churches to thank them for support, share updates on their ministry endeavors, and to be in community with them. This provides a much needed rest, spiritual salve for the weary souls, and encouragement. It’s a lifeline they provide. It is natural for the church to want to celebrate this family in special ways and to give them an opportunity to share their stories in various settings. In doing so, we have a tendency to bring children into these moments of sharing in front of groups, whether formally asking them to speak during worship or at a youth event or conference, or informally in a small group setting or with friends.  

This pressure to speak about one’s life can be a bit overwhelming for a TCK. It can cause some isolation if they just want to blend in as they adapt to being back in their home culture. It may create anxiety if they haven’t been in such a setting before, or at least in a long time. The social norms of American culture may be very different from their host culture—the noise level, social distance, ways of conflict resolution, and humor. It is important to be sensitive to the child’s comfort level when finding ways to celebrate them. Listen to them, and ask what they might enjoy doing as they integrate into this new-to-them and new-again social setting.  

Looking back, do you have ideas or advice to share with churches, family and friends as they care for their TCKs?  

Parker: Focus on community. Find a way to get TCKs together with other TCKs, whether it be through an annual conference, a weekend getaway, or through a virtual connection. TCKs need to understand that someone in another country is feeling the same way they are. It’s one of the only sources of empathy that makes sense to a kid—that is a true connection. Invest and devote thought, planning, money, and time to getting TCKs together. 

Megan:  I agree with Parker, connection was so important. I mentioned earlier the tension I felt when there was pressure or a sense that I needed to perform to gain connection. What was more helpful was the church’s ability to foster natural spaces for connection. Going out for ice cream felt much more supportive to me than being placed in front of the same group of kids and being asked questions about my experience as a TCK. I imagine there are many creative ways to do this now virtually that didn’t exist when I was younger. I also think it’s important to be cognizant of the “developmental stage” of the TCK—not in regard to their actual age, but their development in understanding these particular intersections of identity. For example, you might provide support to a 15-year-old who has just moved within the past year in a very different way than to a 7-year-old who was born overseas. Their needs are going to be vastly different, so I would warn against lumping all TCK care together. 

Susan: Acceptance of where a person is in their journey encourages connection even when we are quite different from one another. The posture of listening, the invitation to join, the patience when joining, is hard. The presence of just being together with no explanations needed, and the offering of space as they adjust are all acts of care toward TCKs and their parents too. 

Thank you, Megan and Parker, for being a voice for TCKs as you draw from your own experiences and give insight into what caring for TCKs can look like. My family is grateful for the care we have received in many and varied ways from those who sent us, loved us, and cared for us as we made our life transitions cross-culturally. It’s amazing to me how these 20 years later, I can look back and mark the moments where someone in our home culture reached out to us in a way that touched our hearts and welcomed us in. From big events of bringing groups to serve alongside us overseas to small, simple moments of bringing my child a school jersey so they could wear it to the school sports event like their peers—these are the moments, big and small, that accumulate over the years and across the miles to make us feel connected. Care simply says, “You matter.” And that is all that is needed. It makes a world of difference.



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