Cross-cultural education: advice for parents

In a previous post I wrote an overview of the cross-cultural education experience, and said there would be more posts to come. In the meantime, I wrote a post for China Source about the impact of school culture, and the cross-cultural experience this can be. I’ve received a lot of feedback from teachers, parents and educational consultants. It’s nice to hear that so many others also feel this is a significant and important topic, although it also reminds me how few families are well resourced in how to cope with the impact of school culture on their family.

This post covers some key advice I give to parents about coping with the stresses associated with cross-cultural education. It’s turned into a long post, but I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface! At any rate, I hope you will find these suggestions thought-provoking, encouraging, and interesting.


1) Your child is learning two cultures and languages at once

Your child may seem a bit behind in some ways: lacking language skills or cultural awareness, on either side – or both! But keep in mind, this is because they are learning more than one language, more than one cultural system. They’re actually ahead! The places they lack something are reminders of all they’ve gained, in a different language or cultural system.

Related to this, as they grow, keep in mind that they are neither completely one nor completely the other. Remember that it’s both-and: they have two (or more) languages and cultures that they draw upon to develop their sense of self.

“I feel like a different person when speaking Finnish than when speaking English. Maybe because my Finnish is not sophisticated enough to allow me to express myself to the same level as I can in English. I feel frustrated when I’m away with friends, say for a week, and don’t get any chances to speak Finnish. Even though I am limited by my Finnish, I feel constricted when I don’t get to be my ‘Finnish self’.”

Elisa, age 19, as quoted in Misunderstood, page 265

2) Always assume the best about your child

When you and your child clash, and especially when you feel your child is disrespecting you, or your culture, try to assume the best about your child. Assume that their intentions toward you are good. Assume they are trying their best. Assume that there is a misunderstanding between you, and not ill-intent. From this assumption, try to ask questions – perhaps just to yourself about the situation, or sometimes you may actually want to ask your child.

Ask why the child is acting this way (after starting by assuming the child is not trying to be difficult), and in particular, if they are acting from a set of values they have learned at school. Would their behaviour make sense in the classroom or schoolyard setting? Are they working from connection to and affection for more than one country, culture, or language?

Ask what might be confusing or frustrating your child – is there language or cultural understanding they are missing, and need help with? Are your own expectations as a parent not clear? Might these be confusing for a child living with different expectations during the school day? Ask what extra information, support, love, attention, or skills you might be able to provide to your child, to help them relax and grow as they walk through two cultures and languages at once.

Also, keep in mind the impact of grief on TCKs, and whether this might be part of the equation.

3) You may need space to deal with your own grief

Speaking of grief, give yourself space as a parent to experience and express grief associated with what a cross-cultural education means your child does NOT have – and does not share with you.

You may need space to feel the weight of what you’re dealing with. That you as a family are navigating two cultures and languages. That this journey means your child is having a very different childhood than you did – and therefore, is becoming a very different person. Over time, you may see these differences leading your child down a different path, and you may feel upset about them being less like you. And sometimes, those gaps in your experiences may make you feel sad – as you see the things you don’t share with your child. It is okay – even healthy – to leave yourself space to feel those feelings.

Letting yourself feel that sadness, finding a safe space to express it, will help you not put this on your child. If you do not recognise and face any grief you experience, it will twist its way into your parenting unconsciously. You will be more likely to place heavy expectations on your child to conform to your own cultural norms. You will be more likely to require them to be like you in order to feel accepted by you.

4) Cross-cultural education was YOUR choice – not your child’s

This is a difficult lesson for some, but it is very important. Your child did not choose to be in this situation, and to have this cross-cultural educational experience. This happened due to your choices as a parent. Even when children are involved in decisions around family relocations and schooling choices, the buck stops with the parent.

Whether you are at the start of this journey, or years down the track, it’s important to keep in mind that this is the only experience your child has. They have nothing to compare it to. They may not know what makes them different. They may not know what they don’t know. When those differences and lacks become apparent to you, remember: you are the one who chose this.

This also means it’s unfair to place heavy expectations on your child to be like you, and to share your sense of home. You may not even realise you’re doing it – especially if you haven’t made space to explore your own grief – but your child will, and it can place huge barriers in your relationship.

“My family would take me to Syria every summer, but I never truly immersed myself in the Syrian culture. I never made real friends, I couldn’t speak the language…I feel a continuous frustration with my parents for their feeling of entitlement to their children’s sense of home. They just didn’t get that there would be a permanent gap between their perspective of Syria and mine. And that separation would never be closed.”

Dialla, 18, as quoted in Misunderstood, page 262-263

This is a really emotional topic for a lot of parents. When I talk about these things in seminars, I almost always look out to see tears. Often there is relief, that they aren’t the only one, or that they have an explanation for something, or that their child is “normal”. Sometimes it’s sadness, at finally understanding some of the dynamics in their relationship with their child, and wishing they could have done things differently earlier. Sometimes it’s gratitude, at finally knowing what to do, or feeling validated that they had made some good parenting choices already.


If you are feeling emotional after reading this, please give yourself a little time and space to sit with those feelings, whether now or later. You might like to comment on this post, ask a question or share a story. You might want to send it to a friend so you can discuss it together. Perhaps sitting down with a journal, or writing your own blog post in response, is more your speed. Reflection is an important tool, and one worth making time for, especially if this has struck a chord with you.

The Impact of School Culture

An updated version of this post has been published on


I recently started writing more about cross-cultural education, and in particular, how this affect family dynamics. This week I have a post on China Source talking more about this.

“In School A, the child was trained that the way to succeed at school is to ask questions of the teacher during class. When this child moved to School B, acting in this way resulted in the child being labelled a rebellious troublemaker. While asking questions is a sign of independent thought prized in School A, in School B it is a sign of questioning the teacher’s authority — which will not be tolerated! This is bewildering and discouraging for the student. It is baffling and infuriating for the parents — if they even discover the root of the problem. What is considered normal and acceptable discipline is different in different cultures. The character qualities prized in students differs. Children learn to adapt, but these cultural misunderstandings and conflicts can leave a lasting impression.”

I also give a few general tips for parents who are dealing with the impact of cross-cultural schooling. Mostly this centres on values – knowing your values as a family, and the values of the school your child attends, and learning how to recognise potential value clashes, and deal with them using a values-based approach.

“Whatever the situation, try to focus on values: what values are the school/teacher operating out of? What values of your own are being infringed on? Keeping a values-focus will help you build understanding instead of grudges — a big temptation when your child’s welfare is involved!”

This is something I plan to write more about in the future, particularly the importance of understanding values.

You can read the full post, titled The Impact of School Culture, on China Source.

I’d love to hear about your own experiences with cross-cultural education. What lessons did you learn, and what tips would you offer? What questions do you have, or what support are you looking for?

The hidden currents of cross cultural education

An updated version of this post has been published on


Cross cultural schooling happens when a child’s education is conducted in a language their parent is not a native speaker of, or is based in a culture their parent did not grow up in.

There are several ways that this can happen. A family (whether local or expatriate) may enrol their child in an international school that follows the curriculum of a different country, or conducts classes in a language the parents are not familiar with.

When local families enrol in international schools, they create Educational CCKs (EdCCKs). EdCCKs live in their passport country but attend a school of a different language/culture. Educational CCKs cross cultures every day. They operate in one culture at home, and a different culture at school.

Alternatively, an expatriate family may enrol their child in a local school, in the local culture and language. (This was my experience as an Australian teenager in the US.)

22% of the 750 TCKs I surveyed for Misunderstood were educated in a language they did not speak natively; 7% were educated in a language their parents did not speak. Those figures double, to 40% and 15%, for TCKs who attended local schools.*

“I attended local school at a young age, and adapted well. Studies were more difficult compared to local students as my parents didn’t know the language – homework took longer etc. I did essentially keep up with the class for the two and a half years I was there.”
– Jeremy, as quoted in Misunderstood

There can certainly be linguistics difficulties when it comes to cross cultural schooling. Some families (and schools) do a better job than others at supporting students with this. Language is an aspect of cross-cultural education that is more obvious on the outside – but it is only part of the equation.

Adaptation to school culture

Schools teach more than academic information – they teach values and worldview. In a cross cultural educational setting the teachers and/or school administration may hold very different educational values than students or parents.

At the start, a new student must pick up a new school culture. In a cross cultural school, both obvious and hidden cultural expectations may be very different from the CCK’s last school. Over time, however, the child adapts to the school’s cultural expectations. And since the child spends more time in the school, and in its worldview, than the parents – a gap may begin to develop between parent and child.

The student may have to translate school expectations according to a parent’s different cultural expectations – even if they speak the school’s language.

Parents may be surprised by a child’s changing attitude, as they absorb elements of the school culture.

But these changes are natural, and perhaps inevitable. Cross cultural schooling means your child is being trained to see the world differently than you do.

Impact of cross cultural schooling on families

Many parents enrol their children in cross cultural schools for practical reasons. Perhaps there are no good school options in the family’s language/culture. Perhaps the family shares the schools values, even if they are not in line with norms of the family’s native culture. Perhaps the parents see the school as a pathway toward better educational and vocational options for their child. Whatever the reason, few parents are prepared for the long term impact cross cultural schooling will have on their family life.

Values are not always taught in obvious ways; often we simply absorb them as what is “normal”. Children in cross cultural education are absorbing more than academics when they are at school – they are absorbing values. Most children spend more waking hours in school than with their parents. In addition, if an expat they may not be exposed to their home culture at all in daily life outside the home. It’s possible that the school’s cultural values may become what feels most “natural” to the child.

Down the track, this can result in conflict between parent and child. Each judges the other according to their cultural values – and when the child has absorbed the cultural values of the school, this leads to a culture gap.

A child may perceive their parent’s expectations as unreasonable.
A parent may perceive their child’s actions as rebellious.
A child may perceive their parent as uncaring about their education – or too involved.
A parent may perceive their child as lacking in scholarly ambition – or outside interests.

These misunderstandings can lead to much heartache – both for parents and for their children. They stem from a parent judging the child by the parent’s cultural values – not knowing the child has been trained to see a different value system as the “norm”. This can be extremely frustrating for a child, who is only doing what their school has taught them to do in order to succeed.

So what next? I’m planning to write a series of posts considering different aspects of cross cultural schooling experiences. There is so much to consider! So stay tuned for more thoughts – and please, share your own, too.

Click here to read my advice to parents dealing with cross-cultural education

Recommended reading: August 13th, 2018

This week’s recommended reading has an education focus. School is a huge part of any child’s life – and no less so for Third Culture Kids. Moving around the world into a new school – a new school system, with different expectations and perhaps even a different language – is a big challenge to overcome! It’s really important for those of us supporting and caring for TCKs (and their parents) to think about how education plays out in the lives of international families. This is a loose collection of recent articles discussing different elements of education – transition, language, culture, and alternative ways of learning.

Bilingualism and Homework, part 2
Expats since birth
This fantastic post was written by Ute Limacher-Riebold, who always has great tips for international families. She discusses something that comes up in a lot of international families: what to do when your children attend school in a language you aren’t fluent in? What is most valuable about this post, however, is the range of really great practical advice for parents in this situation. In particular, how to learn the language of study and exams, for both parents and students.
“What for a native speaker is “common sense” might not be for someone who speaks this language only at school (or at work for that matter…). Here are some sites where you can find an overview of recurrent terms that are used in English exams…”

How to cope with sending your child to a school that isn’t diverse
Multicultural Kid Blogs
This one isn’t about expat kids necessarily, but about parenting a child who is a minority in their school – something that can happen whether at home or abroad. There is great practical advice for parents here, on how to support a child through an experience that has the potential to be stressful.
When your kids are in school, one of the most important things you can do every day is to talk to them. Sometimes simply asking how their day went is not enough. When your child is attending a school that isn’t diverse, it’s important to make sure they are having a good experience.

4 Tips for a Stellar Start for International Children Starting a New School
Multicultural Kid Blogs
And now, by their powers combin: a post by Ute, published on Multicultural Kids! This piece has solid advice on ways to help kids transition into a new school in a new location. Includes a lot of reference links to additional material, too.
If we have been through this kind of change before, we tend to assume that they [children] will all be fine (in time). I strongly advise not to do that. . .what was easy before might be an issue now. During a transition, our children tend not to make us worry and would do anything to see us happy.

A Parents Guide to Changing Schools
Mixed Up Mama
This is about changing schools generally, but I found there was a lot in here that is valuable for international moves, too. From acknowledging the emotional difficulty for parents watching a child struggle with adjustment, to logistics. I particularly appreciated this piece of advice: “Consult with your children but don’t let them decide.” I talk to parents about this a lot in regards to the decision to move. It is great to consult your kids, but don’t pretend they’re really making the decision – you will decide whether to move or not, even if that decision is impacted by your child’s opinions. Be the parent, make the decision, and acknowledge to your child that that is the situation.
Some of the reasons we couldn’t always share with her as they were about things she may not have always understood- long term vision, bigger picture as a family etc. Children think in terms of the short term and their immediate situation. We did share with her slowly some of the reasons but left it open for her to see some of the advantages herself as well. We talked with her at every step of the process getting her ready but ultimately it was our decision as parents.

Why teachers shouldn’t be afraid of other languages being spoken in the classroom
The Conversation
Clare Cunningham discusses her research on alternative lanugages in the classroom, from the perspective of English-language education in the UK. She brings up several interesting points (and links to her research) about reasons teachers may prefer a monolingual classroom. One teacher “spoke about what she called “the inappropriateness of language” – claiming that children only use other languages when they want to be rude or exclude others.” This has certainly been an argument in some schools I’ve known who maintain an “English-only” school environment. A related argument is that allowing other languages excludes children who cannot participate in that language. Clare also notes promising changes as schools and teachers are “striving to overcome their worries about multilingual spaces and making excellent use of online resources for curriculum based work in a range of languages – as well as providing tailored teaching materials for children that need them.

Supporting Education From The Outside In
This fantastic article links the power of art and storytelling to fostering emotional wellness in cross-cultural children. This is something I wrote about in Misunderstood, and is something others have tackled as well. Author Michelle is Board President for Cultured Kid, an organisation working on curriculum that uses art and storytelling to support CCKs in their identity struggles while simultaneously developing greater cultural undestanding and empathy in their mono-cultural peers. I am really excited by this concept and hope to hear more about it in the future!
For the past year Cultured Kids has been working alongside education professionals, consultants, and students in public health and child development to tackle this single complex question: Is it possible to create a curriculum for schools that could support academic achievement in conjunction with promoting individual social emotional wellness within this sea of cultural complexity? We believe there is.

Why Worldschooling?
The Black Expat
Interesting perspective on alternative schooling. Worldschooling uses the world around us to direct amd encourage learning. Author Karen and her partner are both trained teachers, and have used their experience along with a worldschooling mindset to educate their son while travelling abroad.

What is worldschooling?
World School Family Summit
With my interest piqued, I went and found this recent article describing worldschooling a little more, including descriptions of different ways this works for different families. In this post, TCKs are considered worldschoolers even when they attend traditional schools (international or local) as they are still outside their ‘home’ culture and its educational system.

Expat education and separated parents
Expat Child
This is a short article, more of an overview, and is based in the UK system. That said, it raising several really important questions regarding co-parenting an education, especially when an international move is part of the equation. For example:
When a child attends school in another country there can be many decisions requiring a parent’s consent which can be difficult to obtain when the parents are abroad and more so if communications between separated parents are difficult.