FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Raising Third Culture Kids in the Foreign Service:
Parents and University Students
- Background and each person’s posts & ages of kids
VIRGINIA BLASER (TCK Parent): I’ve been in the Foreign Service for 34 years. All four of my children were born in different overseas postings. My postings included Madrid, Brussels, and back-to-back postings in London, El Salvador, Mauritius and the Seychelles, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa. My children are aged 27, my first daughter born at my first posting in Madrid, Spain; 23, my son born in Brussels; 21, my daughter born in London; and my youngest daughter 12, born in Mauritius.
STEPHANIE SEXTON (TCK Parent): We’ve been in the Foreign Service for ten years. Our first posting was in Beijing, China, and our kids at that time were six and under. I have four boys, and they’re all about two years apart. We went to Beijing with a six-year-old, four-year-old, two-year-old and a six-month-old. We spent two and a half years in Beijing, and then we were posted to São Paulo, Brazil, where we spent another two and a half years followed by Pretoria, South Africa, where we had three years. In August 2022, we came back to DC.
LAURIE REED: We left the U.S. in 1990 and didn’t return until 2013. We did six back-to-back tours; my husband holds the record for the most consecutive tours for Diplomatic Security. My daughters are now 31, 32, and 27, and they spent all their lives overseas. We were posted in Germany in 1990. Then we went to West Africa, Haiti, Jamaica, London, Moscow, London, and my husband did two unaccompanied assignments in Iraq. Following Baghdad, he was Consul General in Pakistan, another unaccompanied post.
JENNIE LINTON: When my husband joined the Foreign Service, we had one daughter who was three years old, and I was actually eight and a half months pregnant when we arrived to start the A-100 course. I had our second baby the first day my husband started Chinese. While we lived in Beijing, our third daughter was born. Then we moved to Mexico City for a couple of years. Then we moved to Kailua, Hawaii, and my husband was the POL/MIL [Political/Military] advisor there, and our fourth daughter was born in Hawaii. Then we moved to Taipei, Taiwan, and then Shanghai, China. During our tour in Shanghai, COVID broke out, and we were evacuated back to Washington, DC. We have been in DC for about a year, and we’re headed to Jakarta, Indonesia this summer (2022). Now my four daughters are age fifteen, twelve, ten, and six.
ISABELLA LOZANO (TCK): I’m a 19-year-old college student in The Netherlands currently, but I come from all over the place. I was born in the Philippines and lived there for 14 years. And then when I was 14 years old, I moved overseas to be with my stepdad and my mother, who were working for the Foreign Service at the embassies. My first post was Beijing, China, where I stayed for my sophomore year of high school. And after that, we moved to Brussels, Belgium, where we lived for two years. I graduated from high school there, and now I’m in The Netherlands.
LAYLA MURPHY (TCK): I was born in Tucson, Arizona, in 2002, because my dad was stationed in Nogales, Mexico, on the other side of the border. My parents really liked Tucson, and they wanted me to be born in the States. After that, we moved to my first international post, Kuwait, from when I was an infant until about two, from 2002 to 2004. But we were evacuated in 2003 to Brasilia, which is where my mom’s parents were living at the time. My brother, my mom and I were in Brasilia for a few months while my dad stayed behind in Kuwait. The next 10 years after that we spent in Latin America. We moved from Kuwait to Chile from 2004 to 2007, then to Cuba from 2007 to 2009, and then to Mexico City from 2009 to 2011. We were in El Salvador from 2011 to 2013. We were supposed to be in El Salvador for three years, but we ended up only staying there for only two. We suddenly got sent back to DC for a year, which was a really strange experience for all of us. Then, in 2014, we moved to Egypt from 2014 to 2017. Then my dad got posted to Saudi Arabia from 2017 to 2020. In 2017 when we got news that we were moving to Saudi Arabia, I refused to go. I don’t know what it was about this move that was so different, whether it was just my age, but I felt like I particularly needed the sense of community we had built in Egypt. So, both my parents and I had a better sense of why staying in one place for high school might be good. And so my dad went to Saudi Arabia by himself, and my mom and I moved out of our beautiful embassy home into a tiny apartment, and I finished out high school in Cairo. My mom moved back to join my dad in Saudi Arabia after I graduated, finished out that post, and now they’ve been in Abu Dhabi since 2020. I actually spent a good deal of time in both Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi; I would visit my dad on the weekends when I was in high school. My mom works as a doctor in Tucson, Arizona, so she’s gone for a little less than half the year every year. So, when she was gone, I would often go and see my dad. And then I spent a good deal of time in Abu Dhabi because of the pandemic. I took time off from college, so I moved home and lived there for about four or five months. And now I am at University of Pennsylvania.
- When choosing foreign posts, how did you keep the needs of your kids in mind? What criteria were you considering?
BLASER: My kids’ needs came at the top of my decisions on all the posts, especially as they got older. Once they hit school age, I really needed to make sure that they had school environments that were going to be a good fit for them. Many times, my children did not attend the traditional American school; they attended a local school. And they attended the British school in some of the countries like El Salvador and went to a local school in London. So, I would review all the school options. They did go to the American school so far in the country we served in for high school in order to graduate. They went to both AP and IB high schools, so, I’ve had kids in both systems. All three of my older children graduated from an overseas school and went to university in the United States. I gave the children a lot of choice or input on where we would go. Even as young as five or six, I would give my list to my children, and I would let them do their own research on the internet. The fact that they were part of it really built their confidence and their feeling that it was an inclusive process for them and that their opinion mattered. Picking posts that put my children first was a really big part of my career. I took professional back steps in order to be able to do that. I chose places where there was household help available, because as a working mom with four kids, I couldn’t do it all, and I’m very grateful to those people who supported me so that I could be a mom the minute I was off of work versus having to do the laundry and go grocery shopping and do this and do that. So those were choices that I built into an environment where, as a mom of four little kids working incredibly long hours and managing official visitors that eat up all of your free time, wherever I could be home and be with my kids was my priority.
SEXTON: Thankfully, all of the posts that my husband has been assigned to are big cities. Our primary concern when we were choosing postings was always schools. Would the schools be a good match for our children? How long would they be on the bus? Would they have to transition between elementary and middle school while we were at a post?.
REED: One of the things that was most important when they were little was if there was a Regional Medical Officer at post, especially in West Africa. Sometimes you don’t have a choice with postings and schools, and at some posts, the choice of schools was nonexistent. When we were going from Jamaica to London, I flew to London to see the two different schools that we were considering because the girls had been in small schools, and I really wanted something else for them.
LINTON: I think it’s changed in different phases of our family life. When my children were younger, some of the things that were really important were parks, the cost of pre-school, the type of housing, the availability of playgroups. I was a stay-at-home mom when my children were young, so having a community of other EFM young mothers was really important for me. As my kids have gotten older, our focus for the kids is much more about the schools: the academics, the diversity. In some of the schools that we have been in, it is 90% locals. That creates a very different dynamic for children in school than it does when you have an international community. Less diverse schools can lead to more bullying and exclusion. We also look at the expat community and the embassy community. Is it compound living? Are you in apartments or single-family homes? Will there be friends for our kids? What is the transportation like? One of our big concerns for our teens was transportation. How will our kids get around? Is it safe for young girls? Other things we look at include health care, our church communities, and then also time zones and distance from the U.S.
- How did you prepare your children for their new home?
BLASER: One way was feeling confidence that their voice genuinely mattered in the process of selecting a post. Anytime I could get my hands on photos, maps, or on some information where they could visualize themselves in a post and what their day would be like, asking colleagues to have their kids reach out to mine, and vice versa. Having the sense that there are friends waiting for them is really comforting for children at all ages. At one post, I asked six teens who were interning at the embassy, “What did your parents do that made this life better for you, or that made it a comfortable lifestyle for you?” One of them said, “I am so proud that I’m the only child of all my friends whose parents let me paint my bedroom any color I want.” He was so proud to put his identity in that room. Another teen said, “My mom has this box that she takes out for every crazy holiday. And it’s the same tchotchkes that go on the table in the kitchen. Everywhere we are, those same little things come out at all the same holidays.” And it was such a small gesture, but to this child, it was that continuity, that safeness, the idea that no matter where we are, our home is about the smaller things, not about the big things. And those were lessons that I tried to incorporate as I was making my children more comfortable about the posts where they lived. Whom I was replacing or whom I might know at my next post was really a variable over how much information I had on my housing or the things I could share with my children. I’m so grateful for my colleagues; and some of them who went out of their way to create videos or provide more information for my family. So, we have a big obligation to each other to create the spirit of understanding and cooperation and support and care to help people feel welcome. As a longtime DCM (Deputy Chief of Mission)—I was a DCM or Principal Officer for four tours for 15 years—I will tell you that housing means a lot to many people. We need to do everything we can to respect that, especially for families with kids who are really looking for their space and their identity and that safety and surety they can get if we put our effort into it as a community. It is not just the parents, it’s the whole community—GSO (General Service Officer), management, the DCM, your sponsors. I really think we can do a lot to help our families and our newcomers settle and be more prepared.
SEXTON: It’s been a learning process, and each time, we get a little bit better with preparing them. But we always talk to them a lot, usually at the dinner table or in the car, trying to include everybody’s questions and concerns. We always look at Google and take a look specifically at where on the map we’re going to be. And then we try to learn things about that region that are exciting or interesting and match our kids’ interests. And that often generates a lot of excitement, maybe a little bit of anxiety, as to be expected, but a lot of excitement. They’ve always, especially as they’ve gotten older, taken it upon themselves to find things that they’re going to want to explore.
REED: The girls knew that this was Dad’s job, and we were going to live in this place for a little while, and then we will be moving to someplace new. So, it was kind of like an adventure, and they were very adventurous kids. It was easier when the kids were little. As they got older, it was a little bit more difficult. I think one of the most important things for them was they always had a sense of home, which was at my parents’ house in Massachusetts.
LINTON: This really is a family career, so first of all, we included the children in the bidding process. We let them share their feelings and ideas as we looked at options and bid on jobs. Another thing we did was help them get excited about the new assignment. When my husband got his most recent assignment to Indonesia, we had a party with Indonesian food and the flag, and we watched the video, which gets them excited. Throughout the year before we move, we have “World Wednesday” at dinner once a week. We learn things about the country, look at videos of the school or housing or fun places to travel. Sometimes my husband teaches us Indonesian words. That kind of thing really increases their excitement, which often minimizes the anxiety for kids. We try to include our kids in the process of packing and saying good-bye. We make a bucket list of what they want to do before we leave. Something that we’ve learned from the book, Third Culture Kids, is how important it is to resolve issues before moving. If there have been issues with a teacher or a friend or an adult, resolving those so they don’t hang over the child. We also try to give them as much control as possible; we allow them to choose what they bring with toys and in their backpacks. Sometimes what they choose is completely impractical and the opposite of what I would choose, but it gives them control. The other thing is just asking a lot of questions like, “How are you feeling about moving? What are you looking forward to? What are you worried about?” Then, just listening and holding space for that rather than trying to correct it immediately.
LOZANO: My parents mostly encouraged us to learn the local language and read up and watch a lot of videos about where we were moving, just to learn how to navigate this new country. So. it’s just gathering as much information as we can so that when we move, we’re actually more prepared. At least in my experience, one thing that’s more specific was that, prior to moving to a new post, I always got to see my family wherever it was. Mostly it was the Philippines, but I also got to travel and see a little bit as well, like the U.S., prior to moving to these new places.
MURPHY: For our family, we didn’t know a life where we weren’t moving every two years, so there wasn’t as much of a burden on my parents to prepare us because it wasn’t a strange thing to have to move. We always expected that when we got somewhere that we’d be leaving pretty soon. I’m still working through the psychological implications of that. My parents were always like, “This is so exciting; this is the place we’re going; this is where you’re going to go to school!” and trying to make as many choices for us as possible. So, wherever we wanted to go to school, of the options that are approved by the embassy, we would talk it through as a family. The same with our living situation. They’d say, “This is the house we’re going to be in, and it’s going to be lovely, and you’re going to have the same room as you have here–it’s just going to be there.” And another thing also that I’ve really benefited from was the way that we set up our house would always be exactly the same. The art on my walls that makes me feel like I’m home, not the place. I can recognize the paintings, the same ones that I’ve seen since I was two years old. And we would paint the walls the same colors. So, I think that sense of stability in the home, at least in our family, was really helpful for us. Otherwise, it was just about trying to spin it into an exciting adventure. And there was always a sense that our family was going on adventures together. I think we got really close as a result of that, closer than a lot of families I know, which is a pretty logical consequence of having only each other when you move around so much.
- How did you deal with changing schools and activities at each post?
BLASER: Friends mean so much to children, particularly teenagers—finding friends, keeping friends, having to say goodbye to your friends because they are only on a tour with you for a few years. And I that has been extremely hard on them, made much easier as my kids got older and social media allowing them to stay in touch with their friends over the years. When my kids were little and at different phases, they hated being Foreign Service kids. They would say, “Why do we have to move?” But as young adults, my older three all have come back to me saying “I’m so glad I was raised as a Foreign Service kid. I’m so glad that I had all these experiences. I recognize that was hard on you during some of it, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
SEXTON: Especially with the last transition to DC, with all of my kids, and with most of the Third Culture Kids that I’ve met, these kids are amazingly adaptable and resilient. They are globally minded, conscientious young people. My children have always looked for the best, most positive opportunities that they’re going to be headed to. They approach most things with a positive attitude, looking forward to the future. The incredible flexibility that I see from them is really impressive.
REED: When they were little, I tried to maintain what they were doing from post to post, like ballet and piano. My oldest daughter was a rower when we were in London, but when we were moved to Moscow, she couldn’t row, and she was really upset. There are many welcoming activities and opportunities for sports and clubs. She couldn’t row, but she could play tennis, soccer, or a multitude of other sports. The students are so inclusive. They know what it’s like to be the new kid. I was always mindful of getting my daughters set up with activities, so they didn’t have a big space of time to linger and perseverate that, “Here we go, we’re moving again.” The international schools are so attuned to the students who are all transient and do such a great job with welcoming new students, and so do the students themselves, because they know what it’s like to be new. We spent the whole summer with my parents in Massachusetts, and then we would go to a new post early before school started, just for the activities. One of the reasons that we went to Moscow and didn’t come back to the States is that one of my daughters would have never made it in a public school or even in a private school in the U.S., because those kids had been together their whole lives. So, breaking into that social scene would have never happened, and it would have crushed her. We went to Russia instead, and it worked out great. It would have been hard for her to make that transition back to the U.S.
LINTON: I think some of it overlaps with the general culture shock cycle. It’s always exciting at first; it’s a new place and there are new opportunities. But I think there is always a slump after a few months. They’ve met people but they don’t have close friends yet. Disappointment about the new place and longing for the past school often surface. They say things like: “I miss my friends. This is so hard here.” Then I find by about nine months to a year, they’ve settled in. When my kids understand that culture shock cycle, it helps them deal with the difficult parts, because they know this isn’t the permanent situation for this post, and it’s going to get better. My littlest one was in preschool in Shanghai, and she had a hard time because everybody was Chinese, and she couldn’t communicate with anybody. So, it was hard to make friends, and she would say, “I have no friends.” And so that language barrier and culture barrier can be challenging.
LOZANO: Each school had its own different culture. For example, when I was studying in the Philippines, I went to a private school there, not an international school. So, there was a little bit of a culture shock in the way that the teachers would teach or the small nuances that you would have in school. For example, I used to wear uniforms for 14 years, and suddenly I got to wear whatever I wanted; it was a big adjustment. Many choices! Suddenly, I had to get a new wardrobe. One very specific example that I remember was that I did theater once I moved to China. And the school that I went to was actually a very artsy school. But when I moved to Belgium, that school was more academic-oriented, so they didn’t really have as big of a drama department, so there was a disparity between those two programs, and a little bit frustrating as well. But I think what really helped was just trying to build upon other areas of life, such as learning a language, sports, volunteering, making friends. So even though you have to put away some of those hobbies, you can always pick it up at a later point.
MURPHY: Our schooling experience was interesting because Foreign Service families tend to go to American schools in other countries, but we had by chance fallen into the British system. So, we were in the American system for the first chunk of childhood, and then we switched to the British system, so we were really familiar with IGCSEs [International General Certificate of Secondary Education] and IB [International Baccalaureate]. Changing schools is hard. It’s not something that every 10-year-old wants to be doing. Also, we were fortunate because we were bright kids, so it was easy for us to just take on whatever the level of the school or the type of academics or anything, and we were pretty quick to adapt to that sort of thing. And I think that if a family has kids with more intense academic needs, that it would probably have been harder for them. As for activities, I mirrored what my brother did; he would do Model United Nations, so I would do Model United Nations, and that was something that we did across multiple schools. And I always did theater and got involved with music and things like that. So, there was relative consistency. But it depends a lot on what the school has to offer. My high school didn’t have a robust theater program, for example.
- What about maintaining friendships: Is this just via the internet? Or visits? How did your children have these lifelong friendships?
BLASER: Most of it was via the internet over the years. We have occasionally gotten lucky where someone that they were friends with came back to a nearby post and would come and visit us, and we would visit them. That’s a beautiful part of the Foreign Service when you can connect again or be in the same region with people you’ve served with before, especially for the kids to see friends again. On the other hand, this kind of environment created in all my children, even the ones that are on the shyer side, a resiliency, an ability to create friends quite deliberately, to appreciate when they had good friends. There’s a real ability for them to go out in the world and engage with people that there wouldn’t have been a natural, instinctive role for them in terms of creating friendships, but that they developed because of the Foreign Service lifestyle we live in.
SEXTON: I think that social media has made that a lot more accessible. My oldest son, who is fifteen now, has a phone. He has group chats with his friends from South Africa, with his friends from Brazil, and not so much from China because he wasn’t as connected then. The friendships of my younger kids and our earlier posts are mostly maintained through me or my husband. And whenever they reach out and say, “Oh, I wonder whatever happened to so-and-so from China,” we spend some time as a family trying to reconnect with them. That’s the amazing thing about the Foreign Service community, that these connections, even if they were left off six years ago, could almost be picked up without skipping a beat any time, which is so wonderful.
LOZANO: The internet is also a very, very powerful tool for a TCK. I find that I get really busy in the first few months of adjusting to a new post, so I never really found the time to keep up with my old friends from the previous post or my family back in the Philippines. But it’s always nice to schedule a call, a Google Meet, put it down in your calendar, even if it’s just for 30 minutes, to tell your friends and your family that, “Hey, although I’m busy, and I’m far away, we still have a connection, and I want you to know that I’m thinking of you.”
MURPHY: The one thing about being uprooted all the time is that you don’t build the long-term relationships with teachers that you might have elsewhere. You’re not building many lasting relationships with anyone because you’re moving so much. And not having the opportunity to build our academics over time and be able to say, “I’ve been in this club for this many years,” or “I have consistently won this award for this many years in a row,” or that kind of thing. You’re never going to be on the same level as somebody who’s been there for five more years than you who’s had time to build more of a rapport with academics at the school, which isn’t the biggest deal, because we always did fine. And I think sometimes there were other Foreign Service kids around to make that feel more normal. But that was something that we had trouble with, for sure. Obviously, social media has made it a lot easier to maintain friendships as we were moving around. I’m still in touch with people that I lived with in Cuba 15-17 years ago. I think DC and the northern Virginia area is an interesting phenomenon because it’s like a group of people who are consistently getting left behind in a really different way than what we’re used to. We’re really used to leaving things behind, but not to getting left behind. And I think it has similar applications for kids in terms of their friendships and development. It contributes to this thing where it’s like, “Well, I don’t want to get too close to this person because I know that they’re going to be gone soon.” But by and large, I keep in really good contact with everybody that I went to high school with, and I am in decent contact with people from DC. Everyone before that, I still follow just to keep tabs on them and remember they were in my life. It is a little like, diminishing returns with time, it’s harder to stay close to people from a longer time ago, but I have better contact with people in recent memory.
- What is your advice about helping children with special needs as they move from post to post?
BLASER: You know your children best, and if you need to do extra things, pay for extra things the Department doesn’t pay for; if you’d do it in the States, do it overseas. My advice would be that each parent should know those rules themselves. Don’t trust the management officer or a CLO [Community Liaison Officer] to tell you what benefits you’re entitled to. Nobody is a better advocate for your children than you. And you should take the time to learn every possible rule that impacts the safety, welfare, and education of your children, because if it’s allowed, you and your children are entitled to those allowances that help make Foreign Service life better for you and your family.
SEXTON: As a special education teacher, I think the parents have to take on a role that they might be a little bit uncomfortable with. I know a parent is always their child’s best advocate, but as far as learning about support services in the Foreign Service, it’s critical that Individualized Education Plans [IEPs] and individualized family support plans are written very specifically to the child’s needs. But also, we have to consider continuity of care when we’re transitioning from school to school, because not every school and not every country will implement services in the same way. So, my advice to parents of kids with special education needs is to find someone who can teach you advocacy, specific to the laws around special education, and really become your child’s loudest, fiercest advocate, because things can be lost in translation. I think the Department of State does a good job with the Child and Family Program. The Foreign Service Youth Foundation and our trailing spouse community are all wonderful resources. And whenever I’ve had a question about my own children’s special needs or school services while posted in different countries, the community has rallied around and provided very valuable insight into what I can expect in different programs.
LINTON: One thing that has been really useful for our family is to have a consistent medical care provider. In our first couple posts, we found people locally, but we found that having a consistent psychiatrist who can do telehealth anywhere in the world has been so helpful because they watch our children grow. They see our kids consistently, so they know what’s normal and what isn’t. Also, the RMOPs [Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrists] we’ve worked with have been amazing. I do work with clients who have children with special needs. Many families have found help through the Foreign Service Facebook Group for families of kids with special needs; it helps identify schools, transportation, household helpers and learn about other resources that would be important for supporting a child with special needs. Being in the Foreign Service and having a child with special needs has challenges and benefits. Finding posts that are friendly to special needs can be challenging, and sometimes families feel limited in their options.
- Did your children learn any of the languages of your foreign postings?
BLASER: They have learned languages at different levels. My oldest learned Spanish when she was in El Salvador. That was really our only Spanish-speaking tour, but she kept it, and even in Uganda, she was the only student to get a bilingual Spanish diploma out of an IB high school. My son picked up Swahili—how good it was, I don’t know. He has Arabic now. He’s down in Argentina, getting a Master’s in human rights, doing it in Spanish.
SEXTON: When we went to China, my youngest son was six or seven months old, and we were able to have domestic help, which was the first time I had ever experienced that. We hired a woman who has become like family to us now. She knew well enough that learning Chinese would be a huge benefit to our son, so she only spoke with him in Mandarin. Within that two and a half years, he was able to converse with anybody (as much as a two-year-old can). As an educator, I know that what was happening in his brain when exposed to a second language was a scenario we could never replicate, and his brain developed uniquely as a result of exposure to multi-lingual contexts. When we went to São Paulo, Brazil, we made the choice to send our kids to a local school. They were at a school that was instructed half of the day in Portuguese and the other half of the day in English. When they enrolled, they were the only native English speakers there, so they all became biliterate in Portuguese.
REED: In Haiti, my children did the classes in the morning in English and then in the afternoon in French. The kids were not allowed to speak Creole, the official language, in class, but they did on the playground. My oldest daughter’s French was fabulous, and her Creole was pretty good. My other two daughters haven’t kept it because they haven’t had to use it.
LINTON: One specific challenge that comes to mind was moving to Mexico City. We put our daughter in a school that was supposed to be bilingual, but it was mostly Spanish. She was in kindergarten, and she has a very anxious temperament. She would say, “Mom, they don’t understand when I say I need to go to the bathroom in English.” But it was really cool to see as we worked through that, and she was able to become quite fluent in Spanish by the end of our time there and very proud of her language. My four daughters have all studied Chinese for several years and are great little speakers.
LOZANO: I learned Chinese, but I lost it because it was only one year. But afterwards, when I moved to Brussels, I really took it upon myself to learn French, and I found that that was very useful in getting around and learning this whole different world.
MURPHY: I grew up speaking Spanish and English equally. I was put into a fully Spanish preschool when we were in Chile, so I came out of it fluent. Once we moved to Cairo, my brother and I both took some Arabic classes, and he ended up doing a really intensive Arabic program in his gap year, so he got very formal instruction in it. I always say that I only got playground instruction. And it was just from hearing my friends speak all the time and being immersed in it that I picked up enough to manage, but I’ve definitely lost it since coming to college, which is a shame because there was a time when I was pretty proficient, like I could hold a decent conversation. So, it’s really context dependent, and I have no occasion to speak it here in the U.S. I grew up taking French in school. When we lived in El Salvador, instruction was 50% English, 30% Spanish, and then the rest was French classes. I spoke French well all through my schooling, but I’ve also lost it a little bit coming to college. I speak Farsi semi-fluently because of my mom. And I’ve taken that as my language at Penn for the past few years.
- How did you deal with any hardships or dangers at post for your kids?
BLASER: We spent the majority of our last 15 years in posts that were fifteen percent or higher differential. Salvador, Uganda, Tanzania, those were fifteen, twenty, twenty five percent differential. So, we did go to differential posts by choice, but I would always pick them carefully, particularly differential posts that had schools that I thought had good academics and infrastructure.
REED: The kids were well protected. I was their driver, but they went out with their friends who had drivers in Moscow. But I think the hardest thing for me was the cultural differences between other international families, like what’s acceptable behavior to them is not necessarily acceptable behavior to me. Like drinking in the UK is commonplace, and kids at 16 can drink. So, finding that balance of what’s acceptable and what’s not was difficult.
LINTON: COVID broke out in Wuhan, China, and we were in Shanghai As it spread through the country, China locked everything down. There was a lot of concern about isolation and that parents and children might be separated in quarantine. We weren’t sure if there was going to be enough food. The school had been shut down. We went from authorized departure to ordered departure in about two days, and it was hard for my children and for all of us. Our life was completely halted. One of my daughters was planning to go to Germany on this amazing World War Two trip, and one was in a play, and one was in this big book competition. They had wonderful friends and plans. All of a sudden, it was just cut off immediately. We told them, “We’re going to have to go to the United States.” They were so disappointed about everything they would miss. They had so many questions: Are we going to get sick on the airplane? Are we going to be able to come back here? What’s going to happen with school? Where are we going? What housing are we going to live in? I took a whiteboard and said, “Tell me all the things that are making you feel scared and sad.” And we just listed them on the board. And there were a lot of them. And we just recognized that there was a loss here. We were all disappointed. I took another whiteboard, and I said, “Okay, tell me all the things you’re looking forward to about this evacuation.” The kids listed things like spending time together as a family, feeling less stress, going to Chick-Fil-A and others. And at the end, I said, “Let’s go back and look at some of these things that are hard for you.” And some of them were just hard, but with some of them, we were able to find ways that we could make them less difficult. Like they were going to miss their play, but maybe we could go see a play on Broadway, because we’re right by New York. We’re going to be inside, but we can do some of these fun things as a family. Maybe we can have a bake-off.” We tried to find ways to make it palatable and exciting and give them control. We talked through some of their fears about COVID. Finding housing at the last minute was very stressful. We went through a residence housing company and got a two-bedroom apartment for six people that was very tiny. My husband was working from home, and we had four kids in different distance learning, and I was trying to work where I could. We found ways to do fun breaks and have opportunities as a family. We ended up having a really nice time together. My husband was asked to return to China after about four months, so we were separated, but then we were finally able to return to China. I think our family learned a lot through the experience.
LOZANO: Looking back at my own TCK experience, I was really being pushed, especially by my parents, to be very independent and try and figure out how to take the metro or a taxi, especially in a place where there’s a huge language barrier. In China, for example, I had to go around speaking broken Chinese just for them to understand me. So, I’d say that would be sort of a hardship. But at the same time, we also made sure that, as a family, we would always have our mobile data on and have a GPS and just always send a call just in case. Having situational awareness, basically, just always looking around and going like, “Okay, am I safe here?”
MURPHY: Dangerous can mean a couple of things. When we lived in Cuba, it was politically dangerous, and my parents were sometimes worried that I was going to say something problematic. And I remember there being weird rules about what they wanted me to be talking about, like a six-year-old. We had food shortages all the time, so we would grow some of our own produce. My mom had this group chat with some of the other spouses, so if somebody went to the grocery store and there were tomatoes or milk, they would send a text in this chat, and everybody would flock to the grocery store and buy the milk because there’s never milk. El Salvador was a little bit more so because there was a lot of gang violence. I wasn’t allowed to walk alone, so, it was dangerous there for sure. Then Mexico City is a big metropolitan area, so there’s as much danger as you’d expect from a similar place in the United States. And then in Egypt, I never felt in danger other than there was a lot of sexual harassment. Both my mom and I and virtually everybody that I knew had experiences with that. I remember taking Arabic classes and them telling me don’t ever take a cab by yourself, don’t ever walk outside by yourself, don’t make eye contact with any man that you don’t know, ever. It was dangerous, but it was also just about learning street smarts. It was also an immense amount of stress to be under. Having to think about those things at age 12 was definitely challenging. In Saudi Arabia, there’s all this stuff happening with Yemen, and there are missile attacks all the time. I don’t even think of that as a danger now; it’s a reality and just another part of life. Danger gets pretty normalized. We always took hardship posts; we never were anywhere warm and cushy.
- Did the FS member of your family serve in unaccompanied postings? How did you decide where the rest of the family would live? Do you have any advice about how to handle the challenges of being separated and the FSO being in a dangerous post?
REED: We were in London when the war broke out in Iraq, and my husband was part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team. The girls and I got to stay in London, which was one of the first times that the State Department ever did that. My husband was such a hands-on parent, having him gone was a huge adjustment. Our oldest daughter who rowed had a pretty intense schedule which Bob assumed full responsibility for. When he was gone, I had to really manage time, especially when one daughter had to be at one practice and the other someplace else. Luckily, I had a wonderful woman who helped us out, but it was tough managing time because my husband did a lot with the kids. And it was hard for him too, coming back after being away for so long. Some advice that someone had given him through the State Department was when you come home on R&R, don’t go home; instead, take your family on leave, because it’s hard for the employee to come back and to be the parent when you miss so much. But luckily, we could talk often. And then there was a news broadcast that Bob’s car was hit by a suicide bomber early in his unaccompanied post in Peshawar. I had to call my kids and forewarn them, “Please don’t worry, Dad’s fine” But that shook them to their core that this was a possibility that their father would not make it home. He finished a year there, but he was sleeping in his office because he couldn’t go back to his residence. He was pretty good about checking in with the girls and letting them know that he was fine and that he didn’t travel outside as much. That was the most difficult thing for them, knowing that he was potentially a target. I was in London living the dream; he was dodging incoming rockets.
LINTON: My husband was in China for a part of the time that we were in the United States during the evacuation. I noticed a couple of things. One is it’s easy to get into patterns that are comfortable without your spouse, so when you get back together, family patterns can feel disrupted. Finding ways to keep the parent who is away involved consistently is important. In our modern world, we have FaceTime, video chat, and all of that. My husband would call once a day, and he would ask the kids, “What’s your rose and thorn for the day?” It was almost like he was there at dinner with us. We’d have the kids play their piano pieces for him; we’d have him help the girls with Chinese homework; we would watch a movie on WatchParty together, or we would have family prayer together. We sent him with a big box of things that he could open on holidays, and we’d have holiday celebrations together. He was in a place we were really worried about because it was during COVID. He was in quarantine for the first few weeks, which is pretty intense in China, and so you cannot even put your head out of the hotel room without an alarm going off. So, we used a lot of humor, which helped take the anxiety out of some of the danger.
LOZANO: My stepfather was posted to Afghanistan for a year while my sister, my mom, and I were living in China. So, it was more of a practical consideration as to why we decided just to stay in China as opposed to moving someplace else. To give some advice to people, aside from setting up times to call, one thing I specifically remember was we had a digital picture frame with an app that you can send photos to, and the photos show up within that frame. So, it created a sense of connection, and at least knowing what my stepdad was up to, despite the distance.
MURPHY: My family is a unique case because my mom, who’s a trailing spouse, was always doing that. Her schedule was that every two months she would leave for three weeks. She’s a doctor, a Pediatric Hospitalist in Tucson, and she crams all of her shifts into a really short period of time. She started doing that when we lived in Cuba when I was five, so that was a constant throughout my life. I think the reason that being away from my dad was particularly hard is because when we were living in Cairo and she left, there were no parents there for me. But we were really lucky to have made so many wonderful and trustworthy and deep connections with people in Egypt that we felt like it was fine for me to be there by myself. And people were very generous and welcoming. And by and large people in the community understood that demands like this arise for certain families sometimes. Saudi Arabia was not an unaccompanied post; my mom and I could have gone, but we just didn’t. It was a really unique circumstance. Having seen my brother struggle and feel incredible frustration with having to move around so much in high school, my parents were more willing to accommodate me, even though it was really hard for our family, especially because of my mom’s job. So, it was a tough experience, but I’m so grateful. I spent five years in Egypt, which was inconceivable to me that I could ever be anywhere for that long.
- What are the challenges of FS life for kids? Describe any issues with childcare for young children.
BLASER: My kids never had cousins there for their birthdays or people there for big events. We were lucky when a big event happened like a school graduation, if even one grandparent or family member could come. So, I felt that that the nuclear family that we built and that we protected from a sense of being together was really elemental to my children being successful.
SEXTON: I think the biggest challenge is the transition, the actual picking up of your life, closing the chapter on it, and then opening a new story wherever you land. When I think about that from the perspective of an adult, it’s incredible that our kids do that and that they are able to pick up and move and adapt and embrace so many different cultures and experiences. And when discussing, transition, you have to talk about loss, and as a result, grieving. Supporting our kids through the feelings of loss and the cycle of grief is so important. I’ve heard other Foreign Service community members say that leaving well is such an important part of our lifestyle and learning how to leave well is critical. And a child’s age does matter. When I was doing my research for my dissertation, I identified two elements of the Foreign Service lifestyle that potentially altered the natural progression of identity development. Those two elements were high mobility and multiple culturally immersive experiences. Moving when you’re younger is easier. You’re so focused on the family, but as the child develops and their individualized identity becomes more and more prominent and the “circle of influence” becomes wider, then changing that “circle of influence” is more problematic or can be more challenging.
REED: You don’t know what you don’t know. The Post reports are always informative, but you just you don’t know exactly is available until you hit the ground. The Marine Corps had their own set of post reports, and those are a little bit more graphic, like the one for Bamako that says, “The first thing you’ll notice is the smell.” We often reached out to people who were posted in the same places that we were going, which was helpful. It’s tough because you’re trying to get yourself ready for a completely different culture, weather, and availability of common goods. You’ve got to move and pack and airfreight and storage and the kids. But you do it and get through it! When we got to London, we had been in warm weather for 10 years, and the girls had worn uniforms. They didn’t in London, and I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, I have to actually outfit them? And buy coats and shoes?” And in Moscow heavy coats. It was cold and icy and dark.
LINTON: There are challenges with domestic help. In my work with mothers and children, I’ve found it’s very easy for moms to almost disconnect and feel like they don’t have to be as present as a mom because someone else is there. This can be so damaging to children. They need your emotional presence. Household help is so useful for allowing moms to be healthy and not be as overwhelmed. Household help can bring in a wonderful nurturing presence and help us learn about the local culture. But it’s so important for parents to stay connected with their children. Household help also comes with cultural biases and cultural values that may be different from your family’s values. And in some ways that may be really wonderful; your children are getting a totally different set of values. But in other ways, their parenting is going to be very different. I have clients whose household help was totally fine leaving a child in a diaper all day long. And pajamas, or letting their child eat candy all day. I had a household helper, and I have a child who is very sensitive and needed to cry for a minute when I put her down to fall asleep. But the household helper didn’t agree that a child should ever cry, so she would go and hold the baby. And it was so frustrating, because I just wanted my daughter to sleep; she would get so tired. With household help, you can have intercultural parenting issues. It’s really important to make sure you have a clear vision of what is important to your family and then navigate that with household help. Also, I think bullying at school has also been a big issue for my kids. Just being a minority in places where there are majority locals has made it difficult for my kids.
- What are the advantages of FS life for kids?
BLASER: The advantages I’ve seen for my children is the exposure to the world and the understanding of the broader globe. We sit around the table and talk about politics. There were opportunities to meet leaders of other countries because of the positions that I had. Their exposure to foreign languages and the ability to have an ear for other languages, to have an understanding of the world in a way that’s really a global focus has been a real asset for my children, particularly as they’ve gotten older. They’re building up confidence. Our children can maneuver through international airports and train stations and the confidence of being able to find your way and never be lost and work out problems has really been a bonus for Foreign Service life.
SEXTON: The advantages are immeasurable. This lifestyle, for sure, is not for everyone, not for the faint of heart. Someone said to me early on, “We are literally keeping our show on the road” as the trailing spouse, and that can be quite a challenge. For our first three tours, this was a conversation my husband and I had every day. Were the challenges worth it to continue in this lifestyle? And ultimately for us, they were, because we were creating situations for our children that could never be replicated. There was nothing that we could give them to substitute for living a life in a foreign country to experience the culture and the beauty of appreciating something different than your own. The appreciation that seemed to be developing within our kids for other cultures was ultimately what we always hoped would happen for them.
REED: It’s an experience that you can’t even explain. People who knew me when I left the U.S. said, “I can’t believe you’re the same person.” And you see so many things, and the opportunities are boundless. Both my middle and my youngest daughters did an internship in South Africa and got to see apartheid upfront. They went to Robben Island and saw things that you would never be able to see in your lifetime. My daughters did a community service project in South Africa with the Amy Biehl Foundation. Amy Biehl was a woman who was working in the township and was murdered, and the fellow who murdered her now works for the Amy Biehl Foundation, and her parents have forgiven him. Working there left an indelible mark on both of my daughters. School trips were amazing. One daughter went to Siberia. Another went sand sailing on Normandy Beach. And they all have a sense of adventure, too.
LINTON: My kids have learned languages. They have gained so much competence about making friends and doing hard things. They can just walk into any situation and feel comfortable. They’ve learned a lot about being compassionate to people who are not feeling comfortable. In several of her schools, my middle daughter has been so sweet about reaching out to children who don’t speak English, being thoughtful of them, and including them, or helping them at school, even though they can’t communicate.
LOZANO: Living overseas is an incredible privilege, and you will constantly be exposed to all forms of information. And while moving in all these countries, one thing that really stuck with me was theater. I remember my international school gave us the opportunity to travel for theater, and all of these experiences, learning different types of theater when it ranges from Chinese theater or going to London to see plays. Even in that one aspect of life, you already grow so much as an individual. And you really learn how to navigate all of these spaces and present yourself in these spaces and always have to prove yourself.
MURPHY: My family had domestic workers my whole life, as many Foreign Service families do. And they feel like family and a part of making your life in a different place feel more stable, especially for families with kids. I think it was the only reason that we did so well, because we had great nannies everywhere we went. We were protected, supported, and immersed in language and culture by them. I think they were a really important part of our family. These are people that we are still in contact with, that we visit and think of. I will be inviting them all to my wedding.
- In my interviews with Foreign Service parents for ADST’s Partners in Diplomacy podcasts, it was suggested that it’s useful to try to bring kids back to the U.S. for vacation every summer to give them a sense of home and being American. Do you agree?
BLASER: We spent all of our time overseas. And there were times, because of travel, or lately COVID, that we didn’t go home for two or three years back to United States. That did feel like a long time. I do think there were moments that my children maybe felt less American and more something else. I think the bottom line is that it’s probably a good idea to go back regularly to the U.S., particularly if you can go back to the same people and have some of those same customs.
SEXTON: I think it very much depends on the ages of the kids and the family. We had heard that advice, and we did that. Our kids developed this love for America that was very strong. But on the other hand, it was kind of a false representation of America. Home leave is a 12-week holiday. When we are actually posted in the U.S., we’re going to school, to the doctor, to the dentist. Regular life, it wouldn’t be the extended vacation. So, I would certainly do it again; I would travel back because I think being American wasn’t as prominent for us, but the connections to family were, and to not give the kids the opportunity to have experience with their grandparents and their extended family and friends would have been the real drawback. I think our kids are American by passport and identify as American, but they are also their own personalities that have evolved because of their experiences in other countries and cultures that give them a unique perspective towards the world.
REED: If you have family, I think that’s an important to have a home base, especially for the kids, because life can be chaotic. You’re uprooting them every couple of years. If you can, keeping a home base in the States and family is important. I was lucky enough to have that with my family in Massachusetts. We went back right after the school year ended for the whole summer. We went home for Christmas because Christmas for us is huge. My family was fabulous. After my parents passed away and our family home was sold, my sister built her new home with two extra bedrooms for us so we would have a place to call home. So, we were very blessed. I know a lot of people don’t have that base; they don’t have a place to stay. When you do home leave for 20 days, you’re in a hotel. We were very lucky. I had a car, I had a place to stay, and my family was there.
LINTON: I think an important question to ask when you answer a question like this is, “Why are you bringing your children back to the U.S.?” Is it to see family? Is it to feel American? Is it to have a break from overseas life? Is it so they don’t feel different from their peers and have a difficult time readjusting to American life? Bringing kids back to the U.S. will be really useful for some of these motives. It will be less useful for others. We’ve found it is useful for kids to come back to the U.S. to see family and maintain strong relationships with grandparents and extended family and friends. With regard to feeling American by coming back, our experience has been that they acquire a very skewed view of the United States when they come back. It’s vacation. It’s fun. We’re doing travel and activities. When we move back to the U.S. to live, it’s not as exciting. We’re not going to Chick-Fil-A and Cafe Rio every day. We’re not doing exciting activities. We actually go to school, and we have the same challenges and problems as living anywhere else in the world. An interesting aspect of our modern world is that borders are very blurred with our digital exposure. Whereas in the past there may have been limited American exposure living abroad, now with Netflix, Instagram, YouTube etc., we can have a lot of U.S. culture as part of our everyday lives no matter we live—if we want it. I don’t believe that visiting the U.S. each summer helps a child feel “American” or form a strong American identity. I think it may help, but I don’t think a child will feel American by coming back each year. What actually matters even more than an American identity is feeling a strong sense of personal and family identity.
MURPHY: We had a home base in Tucson where I was born, and we still do. And it has been really helpful, especially during the pandemic, to have somewhere to go back to that’s closer, because international travel during the pandemic has been difficult. And I did come back every summer, but I don’t know how useful it was. I went to a couple of summer camps, so there are people that I know for a month out of twelve every year. I don’t know how much those connections are lasting or meaningful and how much they’re offsetting the effect of being away for the other eleven months. In fact, when I lived in Egypt, I always felt like I was missing out on stuff when I would leave for the summer because Egypt in the summer is fantastic. You spend all your time at the beach and there’s no school, and you’re with all your friends. I’m grateful that we have the Tucson house because I think especially now being in college, having somewhere that’s relatively close by is great. And my grandparents live there; we moved them there from Iran after we decided to make it our home base. We have a couple of friends that we’ve made over the years. So having Tucson has been helpful, but I wouldn’t say it has grounded me in America.
- How did you manage re-entry to Washington DC? Was it difficult for your kids who look and sound American but who didn’t have recent prior experience living in the U.S.?
SEXTON: I think we’re still kind of settling into life in America, but it has been an incredibly seamless transition. Our priority, again, was schools. We picked a neighborhood where our kids could walk to school or access public transportation easily. And all four of them have not missed a beat; they have joined into their school community really seamlessly. I was probably most worried about my son going into high school when transitioning to DC. But he researched charter programs on his own and applied, auditioned, and was accepted into a smaller charter school that has welcomed him in with open arms. I think his experience at the neighborhood public high school would have also been very good. But I have to credit him, he researched that too, and he found himself a summer bridge program, and he tried out for the soccer team. For him, it was important to have community before he entered into that school. When we lived overseas, you always step into your home that’s furnished, you have your sponsor, you have embassy activities. You have this built-in community that you don’t necessarily have when you move to a foreign state. That seemed important for my kids to establish and certainly seemed to help their transition back into U.S. culture.
- Did your children go to college in the U.S. after spending their high school years abroad? How was their adjustment?
BLASER: A couple of my kids, especially their freshman or sophomore year, were much more inclined to hang out with foreign students than they were with other American students. Eventually, all of them have found a group that includes mostly American kids that they have become friends with at their university. One thing I did as a parent that gave me a lot of peace of mind—because I was 9,000 miles away from them and in no position to be helpful if something happened—one, was to make sure that they always had access to banks, bank accounts, money, and quite a lot of latitude. Another was that they had access to whoever was the closest relative, depending on which university they went to. And third was, with their permission, I had a “find my friends” app, and I would know where they were. The agreement was I would not pester them, I would not call them. But if I woke up, as mothers do, in the middle of night, and thought, “I need to know where my kids are,” with their permission, I could look up and see where my kids were and take comfort that I knew that I had access to that. And they could do the same for me; they could see “where is Mom, can I call her, is she home?” because that time difference could be seven, eight, nine time zones away.
SEXTON: What I found out in my research was this is an incredibly difficult transition. For all purposes, they are American. But having the supports, the built-in community, often smaller schools, to come into these university programs and be just a part of the larger American community poses significant challenges because the connectivity just isn’t there for many of the kids. When they start talking about their childhood in Africa or Europe or wherever, most college peers can’t relate. And their peers become disinterested. That was a challenge that I heard over and over again. There’s very little research on TCKs [Third Culture Kids] specifically transitioning to higher education. But research suggests that kids who don’t connect within their first year of university are much more likely to go to another school or drop out. Academic performance is lower. It really is an important element to consider for our Foreign Service families when they’re preparing their young adults to go to higher education. And the biggest takeaway that I’ve shared is connectivity. Make sure your kids are connected to their past friends and international group communities at university because most universities probably don’t even know what a Third Culture Kid is. There are no specified support groups for them, but there are often international student groups where many of the kids I interviewed found some support and global-minded thinking.
REED: I think one of the biggest things for them was the fact that they didn’t drive when they came back for college because in London, I didn’t teach them to drive, it was on the opposite side. And in Russia, the traffic is so bad you wouldn’t put anybody in a car. And they felt that the American kids in college were immature and not worldly and not as able to navigate in unfamiliar situations as they were.
LINTON: Launching a child from abroad can be difficult. I have some clients who had to launch their children during a pandemic, where they couldn’t even travel with their children to drop them off at college for the first time! Common characteristics of kids who are successful transitioning to college in the U.S, include: confidence, a support system, independent living skills, creativity, and emotional health. Adjusting to life in the U.S. after living abroad is a big change, not to mention adjusting to living on your own. Confidence is such an important indicator of success. When a student is secure in who they are and has the confidence that they can learn new things, it goes a long way. Having a support system set up for them, whether that’s family members or whether that’s a local church community or whatever is a safety net, is important. Some types of schools even have TCK programs that help kids adjust. Some kids find that living in the international student dorms can be really helpful as their experience may be more similar to international students than other American students. Many kids assume that it will be easy to adjust. It can be useful to talk to kids about expectations and the experience of repatriating so they know what to expect. Finally, as parents, we often want to fix our kids’ problems. But especially as kids launch, it’s most important to hold space for them—just allowing them to express their feelings and just acknowledging them. Our TCKs are smart and capable, but they need a safe place to process.
LOZANO: I did adapt more into American culture before moving to the U.S. So even though I haven’t lived in the U.S., my peers here in The Netherlands would say, “Wow, you sound super American.” But whenever I come back to the U.S., I’ve never felt out of place, because especially given my own immigration background, everyone in the U.S. comes from everywhere, which means a lot to me. There’s this sense that we’re all just in the same boat. I actually feel most at home in the U.S., even though I’ve never lived there. The biggest difficulty was just learning how to do all of these bureaucratic things that I’ve never done before, such as filing taxes for the first time. And I’m just like, “Okay, this is so different from what I’m used to.” But yeah. I’m very proud to call myself American.
MURPHY: I was sampling different pockets of Penn that I could have maybe fit into, and I ended up somewhere that was not where I would have expected the beginning. I was considered an international student, so I was put into international student orientation, and I was introduced to all of the international affiliation groups. I’m in the Latinos at Penn group chat because I was introduced to that crowd at international student orientation. How am I not going to feel kinship toward other Latinos, when we lived in the same place, we speak the same language? I probably feel more Latin American than American. And it’s just not something that I can really claim here because the culture of being Latino here is completely different. These people are close to what might be a group that I could fit into, but not quite. And that ‘not quite’ ends up being a barrier to entry in lots of cases. I’m in Penn Persian Society; I’m in Penn Egyptians; I’m in Penn Latinos. So, it was a lot of ducking my head into different groups. In the end, I have had to deny some of the culture that I had when I came here in order to fit in, which is a shame. And it’s really sad, but I’m grateful for how things ended up. It was more about creating my own identity, it was about making up someone here that would fit better. I’m being true to my interests and true to my values. I think there’s some extent to which you have to mourn 18 years of a different person. And it’s part of why I’m itching to leave, because I love it here, and I’m really happy with the friends that I’ve made and the connections that I’ve made, but it’s really not who I was in the most formative time of my life. So, this is another person that I’m going to add into my belt that I can turn on when I need to, but it’s not who I used to be at all.
- My daughter spent her high school years in suburban Washington DC. It was still challenging for her when she went away to college while we were posted abroad, even though she spent school breaks with close family friends. Do you have any ideas of how to help college students whose parents live many time zones away?
SEXTON: That was definitely a piece of this experience that exacerbated the transition. For a third of the families of the young adults I interviewed, families coordinated to stay in the U.S. at least for the first two years of college. Those who couldn’t do that were adamant about finding family, trying to go to a university that had family contacts or friends close by. I see all the time on the Foreign Service platforms and websites that, “My son or daughter is going here____. Does anybody else have a son or daughter going here that we can connect them to?” Giving them that connection and support structure as much as we can supply them with is so important. Or, better yet, teach them how to supply themselves with that support structure when families and known connections are far away. One thing that I’ve heard more and more of is that many families are considering higher education experiences outside of the United States. I hear two primary reasons for that. One is cost, and the second is that the family continues to live abroad. So, the young adult can still be attending higher education but potentially be closer to their family or at least on the same continent. The opportunity is incredible, especially for the kids who have gone through high school with the International Baccalaureate program. They are ready to step into the European program, and I’ve seen a lot of kids do quite well in those circumstances.
REED: When my daughters came back to the States for school, I was in London, and they came to school in Virginia. The saving grace for that was we had a good friend who was like their second mom, and if anything ever happened, she would have been right there to take care of them without me getting on a plane and flying back to the U.S. She was incredible. Not that anything happened, but just my sense that the kids are okay and somebody can get to them quickly. Somebody being on the ground here made it all the difference in the world, and they knew that.
LINTON: One important thing that families can do from afar is to support by having regular times to connect. Also, knowing that the student will fly to be with the family at the holiday season can be like an island of relief amid the stress of adjusting.
LOZANO: I can definitely relate to this question, because being in Europe, I’m six time zones away from Washington, DC, but I’m also six time zones away from the Philippines. So, I had to memorize which parts of the day I can call my family in the U.S. and the parts of the day that I can call some of my other family in the Philippines. So, what I do is I set a specific time in the week to call my parents. Saturdays are when I’m going to call my family in the Philippines, and then Sundays for an hour or two I’d be calling my family in Washington.
- Tell us about any enriching experiences or opportunities your children have had as TCKs that they would not have had if they had been raised in the U.S.
BLASER: I think it really came out for them in university and the idea that they had been exposed to so much in the world that many of the kids who grew up only in America didn’t know or understand.
SEXTON: One summer four or five years ago, we decided to take our kids to Disney. That was important to us to have this American experience, and we went all out. On the second day of getting ready to go to the park, the kids started talking, and they were saying, “Is it okay if we don’t go into the park today?” We said, “No, no, we’ve paid for this day; we’re going to the park.” And they started talking about their experiences: “Do you remember when we were sailing in Thailand, in Phuket? We were surfing, and our surfboard turned over and we got stuck.” And then that segued into, “What about when we were canoeing in Mongolia, and our canoe overturned?” They were also talking about our experiences in China, when we went to a piece of the Great Wall that met the water, and they were able to go swimming on there. I was so happy to hear that these experiences were really a part of their life and their childhood memories, and it made me take a step back and say, “Maybe I don’t have to create these American experiences for them.”
LINTON: Exposure to a broader world. We’ve had a lot of experiences to travel and to study other cultures. My oldest is just fascinated by the news and loves the world and has done Model United Nations and has so much broader of an experience of the world than I did at her age.
MURPHY: I graduated high school in front of the Pyramids of Giza. That’s something that never would have happened, graduating on this pedestal of amazingness and magnificence! Of course, I never would have spoken another language as well as I did. I never would have been that immersed in Spanish; I never would have learned Arabic.
- What are the most important resources and sources of support in raising TCKs? [See TCK Resource List]
BLASER: I tried to find communities in the posts where I served. We were unusual in that we often did not have our kids in the “American school,” so I didn’t always have that specific school community around my kids.
SEXTON: As I did my research for my dissertation specifically on Third Culture Kids transitioning within this lifestyle, I found an incredible wealth of resources that aren’t well known. Many of them are tied with our agencies and services, Foreign Service Youth Foundation, the Transition Center, and our community. But one thing that was surprising that I found within my research was that schools internationally don’t have comprehensive. embedded programming to support populations of kids incoming and outgoing — so that means a lot of our Foreign Service population. One resource that I’ve been trying to work on is individual transition planning — putting information out there for parents about what the transition cycle looks like. There are many small organizations that aren’t very well known. And I think Third Culture Kid groups are actually one thing that I’ve found that TCKs around the world sign up for, and they just share their stories. Within the State Department, Foreign Service Youth Foundation is an excellent resource, and they offer summer programs and support throughout the year and also resources for Third Culture Kids transitioning to higher education. And with social media being such an important piece of communication, the groups that kids create on their own, their school friendship groups on WhatsApp or Messenger are also vitally important to continuity and support. There are also several organizations outside of Foreign Service life that can offer valuable advice when living overseas. I have been very impressed with: Families in Global Transition (FIGT), Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN), and Special Education Network and Inclusion Association (SENIA), to name a few.
LINTON: One is a book that came out recently by Lauren Wells called Raising Up a Healthy Generation of Third Culture Kids. This book builds on that classic Foreign Service TCK Bible (Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds) by David Pollack; it gives really practical ways to support children in their mental and emotional health. I feel like emotional health is at the foundation of raising healthy TCKs. They have found in recent studies that 70% of TCKs will experience depression or anxiety later in their life due to living abroad if they don’t have protective factors in place. Wells also offers some classes and debriefing seminars for families. I love a book by John Gottman called Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children. It goes through how to emotion coach your children. It’s not written for expats particularly, but it is one of the most essential skills Foreign Service parents can have to raise healthy TCKs. I host a podcast called The Expat Mom, where I talk about salient issues to expat mothers and share tools about how to raise healthy expat children. We cover everything from helping anxious kids abroad, to finding your purpose as a trailing spouse, to helping kids navigate repatriation and so much more. I’m also part of a collective of EFM coaches called The Big Purple Blog. We host a weekly podcast and offer seminars to various posts on topics salient to the Foreign Service community. In our podcast, we cover everything related to the Foreign Service lifestyle: topics from keeping your marriage strong during TDY or as a tandem couple to medical evacuations and moving mindset.
LOZANO: There’s really a growing online presence in TCK communities, especially in social media, that I’ve noticed a lot, following different pages specifically focused on being a TCK. More workshops, more conferences are centered on navigating and being a cross-cultural family and also learning how to navigate identity-building. My favorite one is this page on Instagram called TCK Global; they have all sorts of different resources there: books, posts, online seminars, even socials, free ways to connect with other TCKs.
MURPHY: We always had the TCK book on our bookshelf. I think that having a strong home support system was really important for us. So, all the people that have helped us out at home, like nannies, etc., have been really important in making family life be stable. For me, specifically, it was having my brother be in the same circumstances as me. And it was really important to speak the language of the places that I was living. And again, our family got really close through all of this. And I think having a strong sense of community in your family, because you’re going to be the only people that you see consistently. Having consistent memories and traditions with family over decades is probably the most important thing. The embassy community was relatively helpful as well, and the CLO [Community Liaison Office] activities are always great. And my mom’s spouse organizations and things like that were really helpful for her, for sure.
- From your own experience or from talking with other parents, do you have any other advice to share with parents of Foreign Service kids?
BLASER: One of the things I didn’t do early enough with some of my older kids, but I learned my lesson later, was paid tutors. If the schools were not as strong in one category or another, we would hire tutors to help on those things that either I didn’t have time to tutor or maybe wasn’t my academic forte. Trying to teach math to your own children is a hair-raising experience for most parents, so bringing in someone that could teach them those things that would not create conflict between us was really important. So I said, particularly with my kids, “If it was a problem that I could spend $10 and not have, it wasn’t a problem.” So, my money, my time, my effort went into picking those posts where I would have those kinds of resources in raising my Third Country Kids and that I could afford to get help and support if I needed it. I would also say to keep a sense of humor, cultivate a sense of adventure, enjoy crazy problems, which in the moment feel terrible, but in retrospect will be your favorite family stories. The adventures that you have in this life will be the stories that maybe your friends back home won’t understand, but they will be part of your family history and story and texture and culture that you, as your nuclear family, will share and your kids will share with each other the rest of your days. My other advice is: Please, as we have colleagues joining the Foreign Service with or without kids, look out for each other, care about each other. Think about how you would feel if you were in their shoes and go out of your way to be kind. Our service needs more kindness in it than it has today. So, I would just beg everybody who reads this to absorb that and embody kindness to others in our service. We need to look out for each other more and better and more proactively.
SEXTON: The most important thing that I would share and that people have told me is just to give yourself a lot of grace and to be gentle. Moving every three to four years is not easy. And I try to always be mindful of the present. For example, the house we’re living in now in DC needs a lot of work, and it really could be overwhelming. It’s going to be a process to get the work done. And throughout that process, I can’t be miserable because I’m going to miss these years of my life and my kids’ lives and these incredibly valuable experiences. It probably sounds very cliché, but I always try to remember to embrace the moment and the chaos and find the good within that. Another piece of advice that someone gave me early on and has been very meaningful is that when you are in the U.S., you have a figurative backpack where you can access services like police, fire, ambulance, services that work and are incredibly reliable. Sometimes when you go into some countries that are still developing, you take that backpack off. You have to learn other ways to cope and manage and figure out what you’re going to do in an emergency situation. That was helpful to me to internalize and understand another layer of challenge when you live in a foreign country. The process of leaving and transition is probably the most profound element of this lifestyle that needs to be supported. The takeaways that I’ve heard and experienced when I’m trying to leave well are giving myself a lot of grace, my family a lot of grace, and also the people around me a lot of grace. Because while I’m the one wrapped up in leaving and making sure my family is okay, we’re also leaving behind a group of people, and they deserve to be taken care of also. Together as a community, we can come up with ways to support each other, and also to get the word out about what these support services are.
LOZANO: One thing that I really recommend to other TCKs is just to keep an open mind to all experiences. The life of living overseas, especially as someone in the Foreign Service, is an immense privilege. There will always be new things that you’re going to be learning every day. Whether you’re at school or at your parents’ work in the embassies or whether just walking on the street, you’re always going to learn something new. So, keeping an open mind and perspective towards approaching all of these things is important, because one of these days, those very things will make great stories. In this unique international space, your kids will soak up many different cultural perspectives and languages, which is going to be outside of your controlled home environment. For example, they may learn a very different approach to a situation or even learn a different way of communication. It’s not going to be an easy journey, especially when it’s compounded with the normal motions of growing up. Puberty, friendships, trying to fit in; it will get messy. But that’s actually what will make great memories and great stories. So, let your kids make the most of it, and allow them to be exposed to these meaningful experiences. The key is open communication, knowing exactly how your child is feeling, how you’re feeling about a different situation, then negotiating what works best for you as a family.
MURPHY: Put them in therapy early. And I mean that. Put them in therapy and have another kid. Commitment problems are probably the most common and most predictable thing that can happen to kids that were raised like us. Commitment to anything is hard. A sense of community and a sense of belonging is really important for any kid, and so building that as much as possible within your family unit or building traditions that apply the same no matter where you are. I think my parents did a really good job of having our home be sacred and impermeable to whatever changes were happening on the outside. So, cultivating the sense of uniformity inside your house and inside your family is really important. That was one of the saving graces of the whole experience, that I would be playing with the same toys, that my walls would be the same color, that we would always do Saturday mornings the same way. And it was those sorts of things that made it a little bit more bearable to be uprooted all the time. And I do think it’s really helpful that people specialize in regions where the kids are able to learn language, because being able to speak Spanish and being able to feel that at least in some way that I could relate to people who lived where I was living, through speaking the same language as them, was really valuable to me. So, I would say, if you can, if you have control over picking a region and staying there, that can be really helpful as well.
- Anything I haven’t asked? Other pertinent questions?
BLASER; Being a Foreign Service parent is patience, getting the information you need yourself and being confident in it. And, for me, it was including my kids in the decisions that affected their lives to the degree that I possibly could. Transparency, honesty, recognizing we all make mistakes. Whether you’re a Foreign Service parent or parent of a Third Country Kid or not, raising kids can be hard. So, a little patience for yourself and for your spouse and partner.
SEXTON: I’m so glad you’re doing this. And I love celebrating and meeting other Foreign Service and global citizens and just sharing and hearing about their experiences.
LOZANO: Thank you so much, Bonnie, for hosting this interview. I loved it. It was an absolute pleasure to have conducted this interview with you and also AAFSW in general. It is important that TCK and identities get addressed. I’m really interested in these sorts of projects, so please do not hesitate to contact me for future projects.
MURPHY: One of my passions and things that I would love to work on in the future is having more resources available like the project you’re working on. To hear that somebody else had a similar experience, to be able to connect to other people about this lifestyle that is sometimes really isolating, that’s really important. I would just encourage people to seek out others who’ve had similar experiences.
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