Helping Third Culture Kids Learn their Home History

shutterstock © Alena Ozerova2

Helping Third Culture Kids Learn their Home History

By Leah Evans

Originally published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 22 | January/February 2016

Do you have a child who can discuss world politics, navigate an airport with ease, and speak more than one language but doesn’t know the basic concepts of your home country history? While expat kids tend to know a lot about world history, have a strong grasp of geography, and a good sense of cultural differences, they often need extra help to understand their home country history, holidays and traditions. Without the constant reinforcement through school, holidays, and tourism at home, this topic is an easy one to overlook. Children might visit the Great Wall of China, the Egyptian pyramids, and the British Museum, but they aren’t visiting local historical sites, singing their national anthem on a regular basis, or learning about national holidays in depth at school.

How does a parent teach the major concepts of home history, traditions and culture? Here are a few suggestions for all expat families living abroad.

Sharing History Through Timelines

Children living abroad often have a strong understanding of world history, as well as knowing key details about their host country history. Parents can take the foundation of knowledge these children already have and build upon it to teach home country history. Timelines are a great way to synthesize knowledge that a child already has and to build upon it with new knowledge. A timeline made of string and put up in the hallway, for example, can be a great building block over the course of a school year. Start with big events in world history and add them to the timeline. Search online for pictures to illustrate each major event and add them to your timeline. Then, add events from your host country. Finally, make a list of major events in your home country and add those as well. You will have a strong timeline with many points of comparison for the whole family.

A friend in Korea used the timeline to add pictures and events from their family history. They had a relative who loved genealogy and shared some of the key dates and photos that she found of the family. Realizing that they didn’t have photos of the family member who moved to Boston during the Irish potato famine, they instead added pictures of the north end of Boston where many Irish immigrants settled. It was a great way to show how the family fit into the larger world historical picture.

Another friend in Ukraine put up a bare bones timeline and then added pictures to it every time the family visited a historical site. With trips to Rome, Paris and Istanbul, they found plenty of sites to photograph, and the kids were thrilled to explore historical sites and learn about dates and events.

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We also love journal timelines that can travel with a child. You can make your own by taking a long strip of butcher paper and then folding it like an accordion into a journal book. Children can open it while traveling and tape photographs and postcards, and also write down dates and stories while they are traveling. Back at home they can put the timeline up on a blank wall, if possible.

For younger children, it is sometimes better to focus on recent history, such as the last 25 to 100 years. This way, it is much easier to pull in family history and to connect learning with current experiences.


We often take holidays for granted and forget to explore the meaning behind them, but they are a wonderful way to explore history. Look at the history of the holiday, the people behind the holiday, and why it is considered important in your home country. Many families think of special activities to celebrate the holiday. For instance, families might write letters to servicemen and women on Veteran’s Day, they might bake a dish that may have been made by pilgrims during Thanksgiving, and they might create a mural about civil rights for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Holidays are a wonderful time to stop, think about our history, and learn a bit about the past.

One family told me about their tradition of having a party to teach local friends about their holiday. They serve a typical dish, give a little presentation about the holiday, and tell why it is important to their culture. They have a great time planning the party and researching it so they can be knowledgeable and informed during the party.

Families can also create holiday timelines. Create a timeline in a hall or on an empty wall using string or paper. Divide it into four sections for spring, summer, fall and winter. Add the holidays and then paste an information card and picture for each holiday. It is also fun to add family birthdates and cards that give a brief history of each family member. This is a great place to add important dates for work, school and vacations.

Finally, families can look at each day as a holiday and research “this day in history.” Create a notebook with 365 days and try to find a few important events for each day of the year. Add a picture or two and use it to learn about your culture and history.

Holidays are a time to slow down and reflect. Families often have time in their otherwise busy schedules to think about history, family stories and traditions. They can use this time as a regular reminder to tap back into their home culture.

Cultural Traditions 

Every culture has those special traditions that everyone knows and understands. Americans say a pledge of allegiance to the flag; the British sing allegiance to the queen and Ukrainians bring flowers to their teachers on the first day of school.

Families living abroad might miss out on teaching these traditions to their children. It is easy to forget about these things when living abroad. Parents can sit down and make a list of stories and traditions that they want to share with their children. Then, they can incorporate them into daily life, pick a day or two to go over all of them, or buy books and videos that explain them.

Cultural traditions are harder to identify and teach, but they are part of the social fabric of a country that makes a person feel like they belong and understand their peers. Sharing these traditions can make it easier for children if and when they return home.

Children lead rich and varied lives when living abroad. They often have a broader understanding of history and culture, thanks to their experiences. However, sometimes these global families need to put in a little extra effort to teach children about their own history, culture and traditions. This is easy and fun to do and can be accomplished with just a little extra effort.

[Image © Alena Ozerova 2016 under license from Shutterstock]

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