When we discuss the topic of raising a third culture child (that is, a child of two different cultures), we usually view this topic from our perspective – which is the perspective of an adult. And since we have our children's best interests at heart, we have no doubts that we're taking the best possible choices for our children. But because children have their perspective, they might not only misunderstand our intentions but even feel like we're acting against them! To help you avoid this nightmare scenario, I decided to write this short article on mistakes intercultural couples should avoid when raising their third culture child.
I was born in Poland to a Polish mother and an Italian father. My parents' relationship ended soon, and I, being born and raised in Poland, had little to no contact with the Italian language or culture. Everything turned around when I was eight. My mom met my step-father, who was an Italian doing business in Poland. When I was nine, my mom and I moved to Italy for a year, and after that, we visited Poland every year for the holidays. Although my experiences as a third culture child were mostly positive, here is a list of 10 small mistakes which my mom and step-father have made, that could have been avoided:
Mistake #1: Making language learning a negative experience
My mom was busy working, and so she couldn't teach me Italian. For this reason, my teacher was an Italian nun working in Poland. The nun didn't speak any Polish and was always very serious. I was afraid of a language misunderstanding. I quickly grew to dislike our classes, and with them, the Italian language.
How to avoid it: make language learning fun for your child. Choose a teacher with whom your kid is going to feel at ease. And if you want to encourage them to study more, make language learning a game. Name objects in the room, tell inside jokes and exciting stories.
What eventually inspired me to study Italian, was the W.I.T.C.H. comic. I was a fan of it in Poland. When I discovered that it was published in Italy, too, I became motivated to learn Italian. This way, I could continue following the adventures of my favourite element guardians.
Mistake #2: Not explaining the main goal of learning a second language
When my mom and step-father began dating, and we moved to Italy, learning Italian got a purpose. Before, I couldn't see why knowing it would matter. I lived in Poland, and my father and I called each other seldom. There wasn’t a reason to take learning Italian so seriously.
Unfortunately, this mindset is more common among children than you can imagine. I knew a half-Polish half-Chinese girl brought up in Poland. She had a great relationship with her Polish dad, but a poor relationship with her Chinese mom – simply because the mom wasn’t with her regularly.
If you raise your child alone, be prepared for a protest against the language of your partner. A child might not understand why learning the language of an absent parent matters, especially if you aren't visiting their country soon.
How to avoid it: make clear to the child why you want them to learn the language. Show your perspective to the child so that they understand why you're asking them to study.
Mistake #3: Not telling the child you're planning to move permanently to the other country
When I first went to Italy, I didn’t know we would move there for a year – after all, we had only one suitcase. I suppose, my mom wanted to spare me the shock - but this solution ended up backfiring. Instead of accepting the new reality, I lived, waiting for the day when we would return to Poland.
How to avoid it: be honest with your child. If you are planning to move out permanently, tell them the truth. If you aren't sure, for how long you might stay in the second country, explain to them that it depends on many factors (e.g. your career or relationship). Don't assume that your child won't be able to understand it.
Mistake #4: Not visiting the homeland often enough and reduced contact with relatives and friends left behind.
When I moved to Italy, it was 2005. At that time, international calls were somewhat costly. I didn't have a computer, and video-calling was out of the question, as the internet was slow. We didn’t use social media, either; at that time, nobody heard about Facebook. I missed my grandpa and my school friends.
How to avoid it: a lot changed since 2005, but still, make sure your elderly relatives are familiar with technology, so that you can communicate without problems. Ask your child to collect their friends’ emails and social media handles before they leave school. Schedule a weekly time for video calling and communication.
Mistake #5: Forcing a child to adapt to the second country's culture
When my mom and I went to Italy, she expected I'd change totally, and behave like other Italian kids: that is, speak Italian at home, do well at an Italian school, and so on. I was upset about this and rebelled all the time, which was quite stressful for my mom.
How to avoid it: tell your child that it’s ok to be who they are. Let them know that speaking another language won't change their identity – instead, that it will help them function better in a new reality. At the same time, let your child be who they want to be at home – let them speak their preferred language, and to celebrate traditions from your homeland (even if you dislike them).
Mistake #6: Failing to explain that it’s ok to love two cultures
My elementary school in Poland made sure we all learned patriotic values. By moving to Italy and changing my primary language, I felt like I had forsaken my country. I never dared to call myself “una Italiana” (an Italian person) for fear of being accused of “trying not to be Polish”.
How to avoid it: tell your child that it’s one hundred per cent ok to love both cultures and to be proud of them. Although at one point, your child will have to choose where they want to be, they don't need to make this decision now.
Mistake #7: Not explaining what the advantages of the second country are
My mom dislikes long, Polish winters. Actually, me neither. We both love the sea instead. In Poland, you have to travel for many hours to reach the shore, while Italy is almost completely surrounded by water!
But before going there, I had no idea how much I’d enjoy the sunny days on the beach. And the same is for your child – if you don’t tell them what's so great in the other country, they won’t know!
How to avoid it: tell your child what the good things about the country you’re going to live in. If you don't tell them these things, who will?
Mistake #8: Leaving your child alone for long periods when abroad
My mom and step-father were always busy working. When we first moved to Italy, I was home alone a lot. Obviously, there wasn't anything fun to do. I was incredibly bored and felt lonely. Eventually, I started journaling to cope better.
How to avoid it: whenever possible, let your child accompany you. If you can’t take them to work or a business meeting, hire a caregiver or at least leave your child at a trusted friends’ home.
Mistake #9: Don’t vent on your child if they bring bad grades from a new school
I won't lie; my first two months in an elementary school in Italy were tough. I had knowledge but lacked the language to express it, and hence, I got terrible grades.
I was angry, and my mom, even more.
How to avoid it: My mom eventually solved the problem by helping me with homework and making sure I’ve overprepared for classes. Initially, I learned all the texts by heart. It was incredibly difficult; up to this day, I have no idea how I made it. But if you live in a foreign country, your brain quickly learns the language.
Mistake #10: Constantly moving around the second country
Business affairs made my step-father travel a lot. He always moved between different Italian cities – and my mom and I did so together with him.
For this reason, I spent each summer in Italy in a different place. Although I got to see many beautiful towns, I believe that this experience was somewhat destabilizing. When I grew up, I realized, my teenage years were really chaotic.
How to avoid it: If you can’t rent a flat long term because of work, try to establish a base in one city, and do your best to return there regularly.
It’s everything for today - I hope that reading about these experiences will help you avoid the mistakes my family did, and ease the process of raising a happy third culture child!