Children caught between two cultures have a third way

The children of expatriates are always saying goodbye to their friends, but this can help them develop resilience.

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My daughter continued waving goodbye even after her best friend disappeared beyond passport control. "You're going to miss her aren't you?" I asked consolingly.

"Yes baba, but I'm used to it, all my friends leave." Her reply was punctuated with a nonchalant shrug that only half masked her true grief. It was at that moment that I guessed my daughter had become a "third culture kid".

The idea of third culture kids (TCKs) was born in the 1950s, when two social scientists, John and Ruth Hill Useem, were studying expatriate communities in India. These communities appeared to develop lifestyles that differed from both their home and host cultures, hence the "third" designation. Subsequent research has confirmed the observation, noting that the consequences can be particularly profound for youngsters who are still forming their personalities.

David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, authors of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Amongst Worlds, suggest there are two hallmarks of the TCK experience: cross-cultural transitions and high mobility. Both are common for expatriate children in the UAE, who develop amid various cultures.

The culture of the parents, the Arab-Islamic host environment and in many cases the school provide additional dimensions. For example, you may get a British child attending an American school. My own daughter refers to her mother as mama, mum or mom depending on the cultural context.

Added to this, many children spend significant amounts of time with a nanny from another county, and may spend the summer back in their home country. These transitions can leave TCKs feeling like rootless, restless impostors, not truly at home anywhere. It is hardly surprising that some studies find them to be less emotionally stable than their counterparts.

Some children move every few years, following a father in pursuit of international construction booms, for example. The high mobility of friends and family can also be a huge issue, as friendships and other types of peer-to-peer relationships tend to be short lived.

My own children make and lose best friend after best friend as a consequence of this endless ebb and flow. As a psychologist, I suspect such experiences will have a detrimental impact in some cases, contributing to insecure adult relationship styles. There are studies suggesting TCKs have difficulty in establishing deep enduring relationships.

However, on the positive side there is evidence that TCKs have more global awareness, and can better adapt to new situations. There is also evidence that many become more socially adept, able to quickly assess and evaluate social situations. Perhaps this is a consequence of always having to make new "friends".

Studies exploring these children's personalities have found them to be more "open-minded"; openness is a personality trait associated with creativity and innovativeness.

Similarly, in an age of globalisation many leading organisations are particularly keen to recruit individuals who can approach assignments with well-developed skills applicable to international settings. These children also tick the boxes when it comes to an appetite for a mobile lifestyle.

I recently delivered a number of "emotional intelligence" workshops at the British School al-Khubiarat in Abu Dhabi. The majority of students there could be classified as TCKs. My impression was that these young adults are the blueprint for global citizens of the future: highly flexible, globally aware, socially and culturally sensitive, and able to move quickly and effectively between worlds.

I believe these are the kinds of individuals who will be best able to contribute to our increasingly globalised world where high mobility and cultural diversity are rapidly becoming the norm.

However, we do need to be aware of the special challenges that are faced by our TCKs, and we should develop programmes aimed at optimising the benefits of the third culture experience, and strengthening the resilience of the children to mitigate possible negative effects. If we can get this right, I strongly suspect the UAE is a hothouse for the global leaders of the future.

Justin Thomas is an assistant professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi