International Day of the Girl: 12 Essential Life Lessons

Girl with Backpack and Camara Arms Open Eyes Closed

“Está tratando para la embra!” “You’re trying for the girl!” This was the phrase we heard over and over again from our Dominican friends, colleagues, neighbors and even our doctor when we found out we were pregnant with our third child, after two boys, while living in the Dominican Republic.

Sure, it would be nice to have a girl, but of course, it doesn’t work that way and we knew it. We were simply “trying” to have a third baby.

Of course, she did turn out to be a girl. And while all of our children are third culture kids, the age gap that exists between my daughter and her older brothers somehow makes her seem like the most completely third culture.

Perhaps it’s because she was born in Washington, DC – the transit hub of our diplomatic lives. Or, maybe it’s because when we went home to visit this summer after two years in Tokyo, she was shocked to see that the signs at Starbucks were in English. And then again, it could be the fact that she asks why, in picture books, kids always have their shoes on in the house. The US doesn’t really seem all that foreign to the boys. It really does, however, to my daughter.

In that awareness, I start to think about how the touchstones for everything from culture to gender, from manners to stress management might be different for her. What unique rules apply to her, both as a girl and as a TCK? To be fair, maybe none. Maybe the rules are all the same regardless of the ways in which her nomadic upbringing, thus far, is ever so slightly different from my boys’.

But, sometimes it helps to separate the kids out a bit – to recognize how each of their individual experiences is unique from those of their siblings. This helps me to better understand the barriers that might exist to their success in this international lifestyle and to think about how to prepare them for moving through each phase in order to arrive safely at the next one.

At this moment, my daughter is five years old. She’s coming more and more into her own self. She’s started kindergarten and is getting the very first real understanding that life as a diplomat’s kid might be kinda’ different. Each phase of her life is a first for me too. I’m thinking about what it will all mean for her as the months and years pass and we keep going from assignment to assignment, from home to home. What will she need to know in order to successfully navigate what can be pretty choppy waters?

So, in celebration of International Day of the Girl, in recognition of my daughter’s globally mobile existence (6 homes in 5 years!), and giving in to my love of easily distilled life lessons – here are my 12 Essential Life Lessons for TCK Girls.

Dear Daughter:

Do not let people trap you in artificial boundaries.

This is a really border-hopping life and because of that, you sometimes forget that boundaries exist at all. I hate to break it to you, but lots of people are going to try to create them around you – from the clothes you wear to the activities in which you spend your time. Remember though, in this life, you get to see it all. You know what it’s really like out there. For every place where, “Girls don’t do that,” there’s another place where, “Yes! They totally do!”

You are every girl and every girl is you.

When you were a baby in Antananarivo, I would carry you on my back, down a dusty road to the boulangerie to buy bread. On the way home, we’d pass the two little girls, dirty faces, bare feet, disintegrating clothes, who lived behind a bush along the road and sometimes we’d share some bread with them. Now, here in Tokyo, city of money, city of models and Porches and sushi, you go to parties where every girl gets a cupcake, a bag of toys and her face painted like a butterfly. You and each of these girls are exactly the same on the inside. Exactly the same.

You have no obligation to stay with me.

I hate to say it, but it’s perhaps the biggest life lesson my parents gave me. They knew they couldn’t keep me from going far and wide and so they enthusiastically supported my desire to go, even if they worried (and probably continue to) every step of the way. So go. I won’t stop you. My heart never really leaves you anyway.

Speak another language boldly, even if poorly.

This is really about meeting people where they’re at. Connect again and again and again. Mess up. Try again. Say the wrong word and then laugh it off…and then try again. Say sorry. And while I’m at it – learn these 5 essential words in the language of every place you visit – please, thank you, sorry, toilet, help.

Do not become burdened by your baggage.

Tend to the packing and unpacking in a timely manner. Enable this process to be the bookends of a trip. Nice and tidy. To be honest, I’m not just talking about suitcases here. I’m mostly referring to your personal baggage. Take time to deal with your stuff. Have the conversation. Make the call. Go for a walk. Work it out. Don’t let all those difficult feelings pile up…they can get really, really heavy.

Always carry extra water and a small bag of nuts and chocolate.

Come prepared. Stressful things are going to happen. One should never rely on airplane food. Delays, wrong turns, unexpected bumps happen. You’ll be better able to handle them if you’re not dehydrated or hungry. Also, bring a bit extra to share.

When you think, “Should I call her?” The answer is always, always, always, “YES!”

I’m not gonna’ lie – it takes WORK to maintain relationships in this lifestyle. Sometimes, out of nowhere, you’ll feel this urge to call a friend, to check in on her, to see what latest joys she’s found in the everyday. Don’t question that urge, its motivation or where it comes from, just make the call. The best relationships are forged by taking that deliberate, thoughtful step to pick up the phone. Also, keep spare greeting cards in a box (postcards are perfect!). Send them regularly and at random times to the people you love. Don’t wait for birthdays or holidays – these days cannot be guaranteed and are not inherently more valuable than the day you’re living right now.

Remember small things can hold big memories.

You will never be able to take everything with you. Decide to accept this reality. Some stuff is just too big. And after all, it’s just stuff anyway. But there are all types of little reminders – receipts, notes, cards, paper money – that hold so much memory and they’re so portable. Fold them up and tuck them away – in a book, a box, a drawer, a bag. When you finally come upon them again, close your eyes and return to the moment and place when that little trinket represented all the energy of one particular place in time.

Speak kindly to your brothers.

We’ve been a lot of places. Who’s always there? Yep.

Be a student.

All this travel will sometimes make it feel like you know everything. You don’t. Get up close and personal with what it feels like to not know. Then, recognize when to sit up and learn something new.

Don’t be afraid to be a teacher.

Some people will say uninformed things about the places or people with whom you have had a personal experience. Listen. Hear them out. Then confidently (without apologizing) offer another perspective.

(And perhaps the most important) Home is where the heart is.

You will always feel the pull to be somewhere else. When you grow up from place to place, everywhere (and sometimes, sadly, nowhere) will feel just right. But, the answer lies inside you. Don’t be afraid to listen to that voice…even if it takes you somewhere you never expected to go my dear, dear daughter.

As we celebrate International Day of the Girl, what lessons would you add to this list?

Author: Jodi Harris

Originally from Austin, Texas, Jodi has lived in Spain, Northern Ireland, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar and Japan (her current home). She is raising three TCKs in loving, if not occasionally chaotic partnership with her husband, a US Diplomat. She is a trained clinical social worker, teacher, life coach, writer, T1D mom and the owner of World Tree Coaching – Life Coaching for Expats. She specializes in reminding expats how capable and amazing they really are and supports people in finding a sense of home no matter where they go.

Comments 15

  1. This is just so stunningly beautiful and appropriate and meaningful and needed and … I could go on and on. This is for global girls and girls … everywhere and anywhere. Thank you Jodi!

  2. I know this is written with daughters in mind, but it’s also true for the sons in my life. Thanks Jodi for putting words to so many of the thoughts in my heart.

    1. Thank you Francoise! And yes – you’re totally right – the lessons are ones our boys can learn just as much as our girls. xo

  3. Although we have repatriated, this is just what I want to tell my daughter now… thank you for expressing things so perfectly!

    1. Thank you for reading Debbie. And you’re absolutely right – these lessons work for us even when we go back to a place we call “home”….and then beyond that some day too.

  4. Oh how wonderfully written and how true they all are! I have two TCK daughters and I will definitely share this with them.

  5. I love your article .. especially where you said “SPEAK ANOTHER LANGUAGE BOLDLY, EVEN IF POORLY.” We are now in Bulgaria and the entire family is learning a new language.

  6. You comment about my heart never leaving you brought tears to my eyes. But when I read it to my daughter, I quoted my sister, “One you have kids, it’s like a little piece of your heart is walking around outside your body”, and also the great Nacho Libre, “I love the children. They are my heart.”

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