Third Culture Kids – The Hard Realities

I think as parents, it’s our natural inclination to protect our kids from some of the harsh realities of life. In North America that’s more or less easy to do in the sense that we can monitor what our kids watch on tv, what they listen to, what they do online. We can’t always protect them from the things people say to them, but we can do damage control afterwards. Life is fairly safe.

Now, I realize that your definition of safe and mine might be two different things. My definition of that word has changed a fair bit over the last 8 years, and I can tell you that the things that used to be difficult for me here on any given day aren’t any more. Other things are though.

As we raise our kids here in Haiti we’re coming to terms with the fact that they will grow up with a very different reality than we did, and that there are some things we will have to be deliberate about teaching them so that they can interact with their passport country (our home country) effectively when we’re there as a family, and when they get older and go to college or university.

Some of these things strike me as funny and catch me off guard, like the time a few years ago when Olivia was working on a pre-school book. The page she was on was focusing on the color red, and she had four images at the bottom of the page. The instructions said to color all the things that were red. The pictures were of an apple, a strawberry, a sun and a wagon. She sat there looking at it confused. She knew what an apple was, as well as a strawberry, and that the sun was supposed to be yellow. When she pointed at the wagon and asked me what it was I realized that not only had she not seen a wagon before, she had no idea that they were typically red.

We have to teach the differences in personal space because Haitians have or expect very little, while us North Americans have a 2 foot radius as a minimum. People often wonder why Olivia isn’t sensitive to those boundaries. The truth is, outside of our home those boundaries don’t exist. It’s more foreign for her to give space than not. We have lots of conversations about what is appropriate when we “go to Canada”.

We have conversations about nudity, and how we can’t just walk around in very little clothing. Try explaining that when it’s typical for kids to be wearing little clothing, or to be driving down the road and see people bathing communally right on the side of the highway because there’s water coming out of the stand pipe. It’s not abnormal to see an almost naked fisherman go by on his boat right past our beach. I’ve learned that nudity is a cultural things, and yes, there are lines of appropriateness and what not, but it’s just different.

Most of these lessons make me want to giggle, or catch me and I think to myself, “I would never have thought that I would need to teach this.” I didn’t realize how much we absorb from our home culture, until I wasn’t in it and my kids weren’t being raised in it. So many things need to be explained!

Todays lesson though, broke my heart.

On Sunday friends of ours came to the missionary meeting that we go to every two weeks with a new baby. They run a children’s home, and Jenny was their newest addition. She was 8 months old and so severely malnourished that she weighed little more than about 5 pounds.

In the days when I did Medika Manba we would see kids like this come in to the clinic and it killed me. Olivia was about 18 months old at the time and I would think of her and compare her heath to the lack of in so many of the kids we worked with. Many days I would fight back tears as we’d do new intakes. The great part of the program though was when the kids would get about half way through and we’d see them turn a corner. Their eyes would go from glazed over to darting around and shining. When they were ready to complete the program they were often running around the consultation room.

Jenny was very, very sick, but she was starting to eat. She was looking around and taking things in. Our friends we’re seeing progress and hopeful that she would do okay. They were prepared for a situation of severe needs and possible brain damage, but they wanted to take things one day at a time and do what they could to get her healthy.

On Sunday Olivia followed Bev around, helped change Jenny’s diapers, and sat on the couch holding her like she’d been doing it her whole little life. It was the first time we’d really seen her take a keen interest in any baby and she so badly want to just be near her. It was sweet.

Jenny died yesterday.

Our friend phoned this afternoon to tell me so I could be the one to tell Olivia and to pray for them as they grieved her loss.


I knew living here would provide our kids with hard life lessons, but I think I thought I could shelter them a bit more, at least for a little while.

Olivia was in the room when I got the call, so there was no hiding it. Not that I would have. After I got off the phone I had to tell her that Jenny had died. She was too sick and her body was tired. That she was with Jesus, and that she wasn’t sick any more.

I sat there, with Olivia curled on my lap as we both cried. Her because she was faced with hard questions like, “Does everybody die?” and the sober reality that it is in fact one of life’s guarantees. Me, because I had to watch my daughter face our reality here, that I couldn’t shelter her from it.

I sat there with tears streaming down my face as I told her, “Babe, one of the hard things about living in Haiti for a long time for all of us, is going to be the fact that we’re living and working with and knowing people who don’t always have what they need. They can’t always go to the doctor when they need to, or afford the medicine they might need. They can’t always get the food they need. And that means that people will be sick, and sometimes they might die. We’re going to know about a lot of people like that. I’m sorry you had to learn this now.”

And I realized that while I might want to protect my kids from that, it is in fact the reality of our friends and neighbors here. That there isn’t much explaining because it just IS. And that breaks my heart. But I also hope that as parents we can walk with our kids through these moments and talk to them about how we can turn ourselves off, or we can choose to feel it, even if it’s hard or it hurts.

In moments like today I realize even more so how much grace, love and prayer we need as parents raising our kids here. I know it might be tempting to think, “If it’s hard like that, why would you stay?” We stay because we know this is where God wants us, and we believe that life is hard, and that we shouldn’t protect ourselves from that, and neither should our kids. The reality, the hard reality, is that MOST of the world lives with these hardships every. single. day. We have the luxury of stepping back. We want our kids to know how the rest of the world lives, and to let that shape them into the people they will become.


It’s a hard lesson at the small age of 5.

Pray for our friends as they grieve, for Jenny’s family, for Olivia as she processes, and for us as parents as we lead and teach and feel so very inadequate most days.


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About Leslie

I'm Leslie. Wife. Mother. Missionary. In the day to day my husband and I are responsible for running Clean Water for Haiti, a humanitarian mission that builds and distributes water filters to Haitian families. Living in Haiti full time provides lots of stories, and as I tell my husband, our grandkids probably won't believe most of them. Maybe writing them down will give me some credibility.

4 thoughts on “Third Culture Kids – The Hard Realities

  1. I’m so sorry for Jenny. You’re all in my thoughts.

    But I did just briefly want to say something about third culture kids. In the Foreign Service, I see a lot of them growing up, and I know a fair number of adults who grew up as third culture kids. By and large, they are just the neatest, most interesting people — the most fun kids to be around — with the best and widest perspective and an insatiable curiosity about the world. I’m sure there will be stumbling blocks for both of them to come, but I’m equally sure that both your kids will be people I’d want to know.

    • I absolutely agree with you! Before and just after Olivia came into the picture we had friends that were FSO’s and Embassy staff in different departments, and we met a lot of people through them that worked with development organizations, as well as the missionary community we have here, and a lot of them had grown up in cross-cultural settings and were way more fun to be around! I think we all have this idea that missionary kids turn out weird, but I’m realizing that what gets tagged as “weird” is really just either because of the personalities of the family themselves, or it’s the cultural differences that kids grow up with. I remember when I was a youth pastor and one of the churches missionary families had to move back after the father passed away suddenly. The kids were 9-13 in age and the adjustments they went through were hard, and entertaining. One of them told me about having to learn how to use a cross walk button rather than just running across the road like he would have done in Africa.

      Everything you’ve mentioned is exactly what we hope for our kids as they get older! Thanks for reading :)

  2. It’s hard to teach a lesson like that. I’ve had to have the talk with my kids several times, my youngest has a really hard time with death, each and every time. I can’t imagine how our conversation would have gone if we lived in your situation. I pray for your friend and the kids she works with.

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