Get your FREE guide!

Calling all parents! Feeling lost knowing how to help your kids with the ins and outs of AI? Download our AI conversation starters!

Cross Cultural Families

Published: November 3, 2023

Cross cultural families scaled aspect ratio 1 1 Cross cultural families scaled aspect ratio 1200 630

The number of families made from people of different cultures, countries, or languages is on the rise. And though these cross cultural families are as different as they come, there are some common themes that may feel familiar for a family navigating through how to integrate two or more cultures.

What is a cross-cultural family?

First, let’s get clear about what a cross-cultural family is. In the 1950’s, an American Sociologist named Ruth Useem coined the term “third-culture kid.” At the time, she used it to mostly describe expatriate kids who usually had parents whose work took the family to different countries. Third-culture families tended to move around a lot, and were mostly in countries that were foreign to both parents, even as they became more and more familiar to the third-culture kids. The experiences of families like was – and still is – certainly important and interesting as they experience unique circumstances and challenges. But clearly, these kids are also just a small subset of the ways in which a family can experience multiple cultures, countries, or languages.

Global familiesIn the years since, the concept has expanded and evolved to now include a wide range of global experiences. For example, more recently, the authors Ruth E. Van Reken, David C. Pollock, and Michael V. Pollock wrote what just may be the current defining volume about the third culture experience. Though their book still uses Useem’s term as its title, they’ve actually expanded the definition to include many more possible inter-cultural family configurations. They also introduce a new term: cross-cultural kids. This new group includes anyone who has “lived in—or meaningfully interacted with—two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.”

And there are so many ways to be a cross-cultural family! This list is by no means exhaustive, but some of the main possibilities are:

  • Family moves to a different country because of a parent’s job
  • Family lives in parents’ home country but has bi- or multi-racial, ethnic, or linguistic parents
  • Parents, and possibly kids, are immigrants or refugees
  • One or both parent is from a minority group
  • One or more kid in the family is an international adoptee
  • One parent has relocated to the other parents’ home country

(list inspired by:

What makes cross-cultural families unique?

Of course, the experience of being part of a cross-cultural family will be very different based on many factors, including the family’s socioeconomic status, the circumstances that make them cross-cultural, and the openness to and acceptance of others that they find in their host/majority country or culture. But, there are still some similar challenges that all these families may face. For example, whatever the circumstances, cross-cultural parents will inevitably have to navigate systems that aren’t familiar to them and confront their assumptions about how things work – and sometimes they’ll need to do all this in a language that isn’t their native tongue. For better or worse, at one point or another, these parents will watch their kids grow up to adopt cultural attitudes that may feel foreign to them.

Possible challenges

Cross cultural families conflict

From my own limited perspective as a parent raising my kids in my spouse’s home country, from what I’ve seen in the other cross-cultural families around me, and based on the limited research on the experiences of cross-cultural families, what follows is a recounting of some of the kinds of questions cross-cultural families may come across:

  • When to have kids and how many. What role will the kids play in the nuclear family as well as the extended family? How involved will extended family be?
  • Who gets to name the baby? What names are acceptable, given cultural or linguistic expectations or limitations?
  • What language will each parent speak to the kid(s)? In what language will you expect them to speak to you?
  • How much of your own culture will you try to provide your kid(s)? What kinds of experiences did each parent have as a kid that they want to give their own kid(s)?
  • What are your views on education and discipline style?
  • What holidays will your family celebrate?
  • Which parent will navigate the systems (such as healthcare or schooling)? If there’s one parent who is in their home country, are these interactions automatically their job? If not, how much help will they provide if the “foreign” parent doesn’t get it?
  • What are your main goals for your kid(s)? What does success look like for them?
  • Where is home?

What cross-cultural kids can contribute

Yes, cross-cultural families face many challenges. But there are also many exciting opportunities! In a global world, what a gift to have diversity built right into your family structure – and cross-cultural kids are in a unique position to benefit from that diversity. Cross-cultural kids get consistent and continuous hands-on experience with cultural flexibility, allowing them access to richer and more varied perspectives.

Cross-cultural families “Promote broader, stronger social and cognitive skill sets, as well as personal strengths such as cultural adaptation, intercultural effectiveness, greater interpersonal flexibility, and less ethnocentric attitudes”

(Crippen & Brew, 2007

Cross-cultural parents also have a unique opportunity to create family traditions. In fact, such families get to flexibly create the conditions that are best for their unique circumstances. Families can take the best of what they know, and combine it with the best of what they learn from those around them. The process isn’t always easy, but if done thoughtfully, the results can really be something quite special.

Some advice

So you find yourself raising cross-cultural kids? Congratulations! Here are three pieces of advice for starting to answer some of the questions listed above, and for trying to smooth out some of those rough spots you might come across.

  • Be aware (aka mindful). Try to avoid acting instinctively and take an extra moment to be aware of the ways in which your background influences your assumptions.
  • Talk honestly. Review the above list of questions that might come up when starting a family and raising kids in a cross-cultural environment. Be honest about your thoughts and assumptions, and talk openly about them with your co-parent.
  • Be open. It’s inevitable that your assumptions will conflict with those of your co-parent or of the surrounding culture. Instead of simply assuming that your ideas are the.right.way, be open to learning about other ways. You may even find that you prefer a different approach than what you originally thought!

The Global Digital Mindful Project

On a mission to construct and enact strategies for empowering kids to thrive in today’s global, digital, mindful world.

How do the experiences, challenges, and perspectives of cross-cultural families relate?


The connection should be obvious, but I’ll spell it out: the world is global! In order to create a cross-cultural family, somewhere, at some point there has to have been some crossover amongst countries, cultures, ethnicities, or languages. And our close contact with others from a different culture, or living in a different culture puts us intimately in contact with global diversity, with all the potential benefits of developing a global awareness. Cross-cultural families are, by definition, global – but their very existence is contributing to making the world more global and also helping us all cultural competency.


As with the role of digital technology in any part of our lives, digital tools can be great for cross-cultural families if used mindfully. Perhaps a good number of cross-cultural parents even met with the help of some kind of digital technology! Tech can also help maintain connection across borders and be a lifeline for when parents struggle.  But just as with anything, cross-cultural families will likely want to avoid using technology tools as a crutch or as a way to isolate themselves in real life and therefore avoid interacting with those around you and learning about new things.


The concept of being mindful comes up throughout this discussion of cross-cultural families. Confronting other cultures and assumptions forces us to be particularly aware and thoughtful about what our own assumptions are, and to make mindful decisions about how to create the environment that feels right to us. Parents of cross-cultural kids have a unique opportunity to create their own cultural mish mash. It’ll be more coherent if parents do so thoughtfully and mindfully.