Painting Pictures: Embracing the Uniqueness of Third Culture Kids

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Painting Pictures: Embracing the Uniqueness of Third Culture Kids


I can’t remember how Richelle Wright and I found each other on opposite ends of the African continent but she has been a special gift of encouragement and wisdom and perspective this year. Strange, how someone you have never met in person becomes someone you can spill the ugly truth to about a hard day, or someone you can rejoice with over a small victory. Richelle exudes that kind of trust and hospitality, even online. She is raising eight (eight) third culture kids in Niger and so she clearly has something to add to this Painting Pictures series.


It was one of those moments  — absolutely impossible to replicate… ever.

And yet it was so beautifully simple.

Leaving the recreation center (where we sometimes retreat for pool time or a couple of hours hanging out watching satellite TV in an air conditioned room), we noticed a huge gathering of black kites hunting something, gliding and drifting, plunging then lifting – over the softball field. Instantly mesmerized, the entire family stopped and watched, our eyes glued to the sky and the movement of those graceful birds, hoping to determine what was the cause of this large gathering of birds of prey.

Then I allowed my eyes to drift back toward the green grass of the infield.

My littlest one had wandered out, wearing nothing but her swimsuit in several hues of neon, and there she stood. Or, more accurately, there she slowly turned, round and round, head tilted back, eyes skyward, totally absorbed and totally fearless, immersed in the drama taking place just above her. At least fifteen birds, many with wingspans nearly twice her height swooped and dove all around her. Two, in fact, literally collided only feet above her head. The birds pursued recently hatched termites, oblivious to their audience.

For some reason, that moment, more so than any other right now, seems to encapsulate my life as a mama to many third culture kids (TCKs). I’m passionate about TCKs… for obvious reasons. I have eight of them living in my house, day in and day out. I also teach (math and coordinating the special education department) at an international school where most of the students are from expat families. A large part of life and ministry for me is TCK centered and focused. We love our life living and working overseas, traveling, learning languages and cultures, making friends from all corners of the globe, becoming a part of our local Nigerien community and integrating into the international expat community as well. Our kids also miss their grandparents, cousins, four seasons each year and the myth of McDonalds… Since our oldest was not even yet a year when we began this journey, our children don’t really know anything different.

One of my fears when first began praying about bringing our family to Africa that my kids would end up different…

That has happened.

I was just thinking the other day about all the ways my kids are different.

Football means soccer. They aren’t quite sure what to call that seasonal game their mama starts talking about every September where big guys wear tight pants and chase, in spurts,  a strange shaped ball up and down a big field.

Church means at least three different languages, head coverings for my girls, and kids up front, men on the right with women on the left. Often only men receive one of a limited number of song books, youth group is for college-aged students and when communion is offered, you stand to signal your intent to participate. Most Communion Sundays, they are the only children standing.

Their classmates have names like God’s Goodness, God’s Comfort and God’s Favour, Blessing and Happiness, or Mohamadou and Fatima; English or French might slide off the tongue in no specific order as you hear them chatter. Occasionally a Zarma or Hausa word finds its way into the mix as well. Homework by candlelight is a weekly, if not more often, occurrence. Assignments requiring internet research are a necessary bane of all.

Favorite movies and music depend on who has brought what most recently from their passport country, while fashion is an odd mix of t-shirts from the west paired with bright, bold cotton African fabric tailored into baggy pants or tied on like a long wrap around skirt. Henna tattoos are the birthday party rage and most kids don’t learn to tie shoelaces until 3rd grade or later. After all, who needs to when flip flops are the shoe of choice and are available on literally every corner? Of course, they can’t remember whether they should call them flip flops or thongs. They have a similar problem with the non-writing tip of a pencil: is it a rubber or an eraser?

Details like these might be quaint, unique and interesting to home country friends when the family heads back to passport lands. But what about when the newness wears off?

How do I best help my kids… and the other kids with whom I work… get ready for those sorts of changes and transitions? How can I educate and prepare them so that they are willing to see the fun and the intrigue and the wonder of their “home”land, yet still be themselves – TCKs who’ve mostly grown up in Africa? I want to see and hear them laughing at and accepting their eccentricities while still feeling good in their own skin. I want them to appreciate their passport country but never lose their love for this place and this expat community… that will probably always feel more comfortable, at least on some level.

Or, as Ruth so eloquently phrased it: how do I aid in the process of “…normalizing… experiences and then the empowering… TCKs and ATCKs to live life to the fullest potential.”wrights0

My husband and I, although intentional about discipling our children in this area, don’t have a formula approach. We aren’t professionals with tons of education and experience behind us. We aren’t good at some of those different activities detailed in TCK transition seminars or read about in the literature by all those experts on TCKs. We do have a huge transition imminently looming and our oldest TCK is just now beginning that leaving the nest process. We’ve got no “proof” that what we’re doing is successful. We are, however, committed to parenting our children and making the best decisions and choices we can.

Our strategy can be summed up in five words: time, tailoring, listening, praying and grace. We talk, a lot. We ask questions and then we listen. Hopefully, lot more than we speak. We let them share about their dreams for the future… as well as their nightmares. We hear about what they love, what they hate and what they are looking forward to. We discover what they remember and what they treasure, from everywhere we’ve ever been. We let them take the lead in defining home, but we also encourage them to consider any place where their heart feels safe a potential home. Then, we disciple them in that process of learning to construct or find those heart safe places. We take time to enjoy those once in a lifetime moments like black kites hunting freshly emerged termites – they are a lot more common than I used to think. We’ve created our own family culture with bits and pieces of the places we’ve lived and the people we’ve known… and we invite others to join in and participate, regardless of where we are. I pray more than I ever thought was possible. And we try to re-member grace – for our children, for those our children meet, and for ourselves… especially during the more trying seasons. It is interesting to think about that word, written in that way: re-member – a conscious choice, again and again, to recognize that everyone belongs to that group who needs grace, again and again…

We also strive to live and to teach our children to live daily Job’s refrain: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away… Blessed be the name of the Lord!” We’ve found that when we acknowledge our losses, each one is often linked directly to a later gift or gain that would have never been possible without the first loss. It doesn’t stop the pain of the loss or negate its reality. But it does help us to look at life as a complete picture.

And perhaps that is the one way that my TCKs can embrace their uniqueness while feeling a part of any world and any culture: gain and loss, change and transition – they are universal. They are a part of life for everyone, everywhere. In at least that one detail, my TCKs can be just like everyone else. Maybe that can be the bridge to help them look outside their life and their story to see that everyone around them has one, too… and that it is worth the effort to get to know those other stories.

If I succeed at helping my children even begin to learn this, then maybe they can also be the ones to help remind me when I forget.

How can TCKs be encouraged to embrace their uniqueness and encouraged to feel part of any world or culture?

Read more from Richelle at her blog, Our “Wright”-ing Pad or on A Life Overseas.

By |June 11th, 2013|Categories: Uncategorized|15 Comments


  1. Hope June 11, 2013 at 10:09 am - Reply

    My sweet friend, this is one of the best things I think you’ve ever written. That black kite story is breath taking. Especially because I know your small girl and can imagine her twirling with golden, messy locks hanging from her head and piercing blue eyes heavenward. I have to argue your point about having no proof of success. Our stories are hardly ever finished, except possibly by death. Your children will continue to be eight living examples (testimonies) to all that you and Mr. T pour into your family. What you’re doing IS working. Your oldest is proof of that. As are all the Wrightlings. The way you help each other, the way you look to the needs of others, the way each of you becomes a safe place for so many- this is the reason that so many of us run to you for wisdom, comfort and friendship. THANK YOU, thank you for your willingness to share what has worked for you and what hasn’t. I honor you and feel so blessed to have spent a little time in your daily life, my Mama Mentor. xo

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones June 11, 2013 at 2:32 pm - Reply

      I love this personal testimony to what I suspected was true, thanks Hope!

    • richelle @ "our wright"-ing pad June 11, 2013 at 8:30 pm - Reply

      hope… humbled, but thank you for sweet and encouraging words that mean the world to me. love you, girl!

  2. barb dodge June 11, 2013 at 11:28 am - Reply

    love this

  3. Leandra Shangraw June 11, 2013 at 4:57 pm - Reply

    This is beautiful. I feel so blessed to have been able to share some of life with you and your family. And I must agree with Hope… your children are living examples, and you are doing a wonderful job with them! Thank you. You and your family are a blessing to my heart.

  4. Marilyn June 11, 2013 at 11:31 pm - Reply

    Beautiful post – One I think you and others will go back to through the years. I love this “Our strategy can be summed up in five words: time, tailoring, listening, praying and grace” – so beautifully put. As an adult TCK I think the image of TCK’s as unique bridge builders is wonderful. In our world that is increasingly connected and yet culturally divided this I believe is a critical role to play and can be played anywhere. Thanks for this piece.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones June 12, 2013 at 4:43 am - Reply


    • richelle @ "our wright"-ing pad June 12, 2013 at 5:53 am - Reply

      thanks, Marilyn ~ we’re traveling around the scottish highlands right now – and it is fun to watch our kids do just that, even right now – and they don’t even recognize that is what they are doing.

      your words encourage me that these kiddos won’t “just survive” either…

  5. Susannah June 12, 2013 at 5:34 am - Reply

    All we parents can ever do for our children is give them security in developing an identity, the mental and emotional tools to solve problems, and provide an accurate model of God’s grace in action. It sounds as if you have done just that, Richelle. Beautiful post. 🙂

    • richelle @ "our wright"-ing pad June 12, 2013 at 5:56 am - Reply

      100% agreed. can say that this past year, in our part of the world, security has been hard for me – so many more guns, police checks, etc. – but listening to the kids talk? they feel less safe without such a very visible presence and all those externals of protection that have become minutely normal in their world.

      all that to say, we may find giving them a place/feeling of security, at least in a physical sense, may be more of a challenge in our passport country.

  6. […] you for giving me the courage to speak out what I have kept silent for many years and for making me feel okay for being different. You’re not too shabby, mate. Not too […]

  7. […] it is like hitting a brick wall.  Growing up as a third culture kid, living a nomadic life, I have learned that life is not simply black and white. People dress differently, eat differently, parent differently, and basically live differently.  […]

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