What’s a Third Culture Kid?

What's a Third Culture Kid?Children who’ve spent a considerable portion of their formative years in foreign cultures are known as Third Culture Kids (TCKs). The term “third culture” refers to the lifestyle of global mobility and intercultural living that’s typical of expat children who move overseas because of a parent’s career. Although the combination of the passport (first) culture with the host (second) culture produces a fusion culture that’s unique to each child, certain commonalities exist.

Expat kids have a different perspective

Living overseas affects children profoundly because their worldviews haven’t yet been formed and consolidated by their experiences (unlike adults, who move abroad with identities and cultural values firmly in place.) Of course, adults also wrestle with culture shock and the need to adapt to their new environment, but they do so with an underlying sense of who they are. Children, however, are still in the process of laying the foundation of their personal and cultural identities, making them more open to cultural influences.

Many TCKs don’t know where “home” is

David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, authors of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, write that “TCKs are raised in a neither/nor world.” They have a sense of belonging to several cultures, but may be incapable of wholly identifying with any single one. As a result, cultural identity is often an issue for them, even as adults.

Yet Third Culture Kids are ultimately more than the sum of their cultural parts. They are modern-day alchemists, blending elements of their various “homes” with the nomadic expat culture to produce life patterns that differ significantly from those of their monocultural peers.

The positive side: maturing earlier

The life of a global nomad affects children in many ways. For example, TCKs tend to mature earlier than those who grow up in a single culture, for a number of reasons:

  • They’re excellent communicators, thanks to a well-honed ability to adapt their conversational styles as needed. Having to re-establish themselves socially every time they move means that Third Culture Kids can’t afford to be shy. They also have more opportunities for communicating, since they’re likely to speak multiple languages.
  • They possess a worldliness that comes from exposure to different cultures, values, traditions, religions, and political systems. Their international experiences translate into a body of knowledge that is both deeper and more wide-ranging than that of typical teenagers.
  • They’re veteran travellers, and are usually quite capable of navigating airports and train stations without adult assistance. This comfort with solo travel at an early age is often a reflection of a greater sense of independence (although this tends not to be the case with children living in high-risk areas, who are generally afforded less personal freedom.)

The negative side: delayed adolescence

One of the many paradoxes associated with TCKs is that they tend to experience both early maturation and delayed adolescence.

The teenage years are a time for developing identity, establishing independence, and learning how to make suitable choices. Pollock and Van Reken point out that for Third Culture Kids, these issues are fraught with more than the usual measure of adolescent angst. TCKs go through numerous major transitions in their short lives, and that lack of stability and resultant sense of uncertainty tend to interfere with their ability to make decisions and plan for the future.

Testing societal norms is expected at this stage, but since the rules of acceptable behaviour are different for each culture, global nomads are never entirely sure what’s appropriate and what isn’t. This means they’re often at a loss when it comes to that quintessential teenage pastime: rebellion. According to Van Reken and Pollock, “while peers in their new (and old) community are internalizing the rules of culture and beginning to move out with budding confidence, TCKs are still trying to figure out what the rules are.”

High mobility and international living during their childhood years have a significant and lasting impact on Third Culture Kids. Although many struggle with the consequences of growing up abroad — especially when they return to their passport country — there is much for global nomads to celebrate.

This article originally appeared on Suite101.com on June 24, 2010 © Maria Foley. 
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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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4 Responses to What’s a Third Culture Kid?

  1. Liv says:

    I think, in the right situation ie: with happy and supportive parents, the positives far outweigh the negatives of raising children as expats. What I wouldn’t give to be bilingual for a start!

  2. Craig says:

    I am an TCK and raised 3 TCKs. Even what you write is true for the majority of TCKs, we have to be careful that description of what a TCK generally is does not become an excuse for developing TCKs to say “That’s who I am.” We had a son who after hearing that he was a TCK, he had never heard it before, decided that he did not fit in with friends who he had known since he was 4 years old. Yes, we are VERY privileged and YES we did struggle to adapt but the label of being a TCK is not excuse to act wrongly.

    • Maria says:

      That’s the thing about labels — they can easily become excuses. Most of the TCKs I’ve talked to were relieved to learn the term, because it meant they weren’t as alone as they’d thought. The situation you describe is the flip side of that, TCKs taking advantage of the label to take the easy way out. I’ve only known one kid (teenager, actually) who tried to use his third culture status as an excuse for poor behaviour. His parents made it clear that being a TCK doesn’t mean you’re allowed to be rude just because the consensus is that TCKs sometimes struggle to maintain relationships.

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