A culture all of their own

For some children, the toughest question to answer is: “Where do you come from?”

The term ‘third culture kids’ was first used by sociologists in the 1950s to refer to children who moved from country to country with their parents: at the time, most of them were children of diplomats or ‘army brats’, but as times change, they are now equally likely to be the offspring of academics, engineers, scientists or other specialists.

Because of the nature of their transitory lifestyles, most parents of third culture kids (or TCKs for short) opt to place them in international schools – this makes moving on again easier, as the curriculum and language of international schools remains standard across countries. Denmark works very hard to retain its international specialist workforce, however, and with so many reasons to keep families here, this is often the final destination for many TCKs.

Some will go to international schools, others to public schools. Adjustment issues for TCKs are minimal at international schools, not only due to there being other kids who they can relate to, but also because of the counsellors there to help the entire family through the process.

One such counsellor is Amy Friedman, who works with sixth to eighth graders at Copenhagen International School. Her job, “helping children to find success academically, socially and emotionally”, entails not only working with teachers to put all the support in place to ensure kids thrive, but also providing non-academic support in the form of regular meetings with parents.

Friedman has many years’ experience with TCKs – both as a mother and from working in the international school system for the past nine years. “Kids often have a different perception of their identity than their parents,” she said.

“TCKs often have a difficult time answering the question: ‘Where are you from?’ Despite being able to provide interesting answers and fond references to all the places they have lived, as well as their parents’ cultures, they usually end up answering the question by justifying why the place they have chosen as ‘home’ fits them.”

This kind of conversation is common at an international school, and the kids seem to understand each other because most of them have gone through something similar. However, as Friedman points out, “there are some students who find living between two (or sometimes many) different cultures stressful. At times, they feel that their parents don’t really understand what they are going through or what they have gone through as a TCK.”

And that’s where Friedman comes in, helping students and their families through the transitions of moving, both to and from Denmark.

One of Friedman’s middle-grade students is Elizabeth Walton, who has spent the last two years living in Denmark after being born in Washington DC. Her father is American-Irish, her mother Greek-Romanian. When asked to state where she is from, Walton generally answers that she’s from the States (as she has lived there for much of her childhood) and adds that she’s Greek-Romanian, as this part of her cultural identity is important to her.

When asked how she relates to the term ‘third culture’, Walton explained: “I feel that I don’t really have a place or country that I really feel is like my ‘home’ even though I have longings to visit Greece, the States and Romania – but I never feel I could stay in one place for a long period of time because I would need a change of scenery from time to time.”

For Walton’s classmate Hinrik Veturlidason, despite only moving to Denmark last summer, cultural issues with Denmark are lessened by the fact that his Icelandic heritage remains fairly close to Denmark’s. Veturlidason was born in Reykjavik to Icelandic parents and lived there until 2008, when he did a four year stint in Switzerland.

To go to a public school means identifying far more with Danish society than mum and dad ever will – and yet often, that feeling of being ‘outside’ remains. Kids born in Denmark to non-Danes continue to be asked where they are from. It is a question that must surely be frustrating to a child with few actual ties to the birth country of their parents.

Yet, according to Friedman, TCKs appear to be stronger, worldlier, more open to new ideas and cultures and more adaptable to change. TCKs generally reach adulthood as confident, well-rounded individuals ready to take on a global society.

“Yes, moving and transitioning are big concerns,” she said. “But I find that kids are adaptable and learn essential life skills through the process. These life skills help their self-esteem, sense of responsibility and build compassion and acceptance of others. These kids learn first-hand how to get along with each others’ differences and, hopefully, how to embrace new cultures.”

This is part three of a series. The first instalment was concerned with children of mixed marriages and how they experienced growing up with two different cultures. The second instalment looked at what it’s like to be a parent in an international relationship raising half-Danish children.