Third Culture Kids
By Carrie Jones, LCSW
In Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, the authors, David C. Polluck and Ruth E. Van Reken, define Third Culture Kids (TCKs) as kids who spend a significant part of their developmental years in countries and cultures outside that of their parents’. So, if you are an expat living here in Shanghai with your child, your child is a TCK. Why is this significant? According to research by Polluck and Van Reken and many others, despite being from diverse backgrounds, most TCKs seem to have some common characteristics and common bonds and these shape and impact their worldview and their course of life.
It is important for parents (and anyone who regularly interacts with TCKs!) to recognize both the challenges and rewards of a multicultural childhood. I will attempt to outline some of the basic characteristics of TCKs and the issues they face as well as the benefits they reap from their experience, but I also would encourage you to read as much on your own as you can. There are lots of books and websites out there to help equip you as you raise your TCK. Sometimes, TCKs also are referred to as “global nomads,” so you might also encounter this term as you do some reading on the topic.
Here is a list of both advantages and disadvantages commonly faced by TCKs as summarized in Third Culture Kids/Global Nomads and the Culturally Sensitive Therapist by Beth Kebshull, LCSW and Maria Pozo-Humphries, LCSW.
- Linguistic Ability – many TCKs/Global Nomads are conversant in another language or have heightened interest and ability to learn a new language.
- Cross-cultural Skills – most TCKs/Global Nomads have a high acceptance level of differences. They see other cultures as different, but not necessarily better or worse than their own. Many have the ability to incorporate the best characteristics of the cultures they have experienced.
- High Flexibility – TCKs/Global Nomads are usually flexible, adapting well to new situations and new environments. They tend to escape cultural single-mindedness and tend to be less dogmatic and authoritarian than their counterparts back home. Because of this, TCKs/Global Nomads are usually good teachers and role models and able to generate new perspectives and thinking-skills in their listeners.
- Three-dimensional World View – TCKs/Global Nomads tend to view the world as a global entity inhabited by “real” people with the same basic human needs. Their realization provides them with a much greater potential for leadership roles.
- Maturity – In some instances, TCKs/Global Nomads are more mature than their “mono-culture” counterparts. For example, TCKs/Global Nomads routinely deal with international travel, foreign currency, a variety of food choices, and sometimes international crisis/unrest as part of their normal lifestyle. They may actually thrive in their ability to be open and ready for change. They may also be socially mature, being able to interact comfortably with people of all ages and cultures. TCKs/Global Nomads are people who can generally rely on themselves to think clearly and act appropriately.
- Family Closeness – Because Third Culture family members have shared the experience of adjusting to a new culture, they usually describe themselves as having close family
- International Orientation – TCKs/Global Nomads often describe themselves as liking to travel, and indicate a preference for a career with an international orientation. All these abilities, properly recognized and nurtured, can open doors to particular career choices that foster the peaceful bridging of cultures.
- Rootlessness – TCKs/Global Nomads usually feel that they belong to several cultures but own none. Because of this, TCKs/Global Nomads, as adults, may change colleges or jobs more often than their mono-culture counterparts. Part of their rootlessness might also be their need for change. It is important to remember that TCKs/Global Nomads have roots in their family, rather than geographical locations.
- Insecurity – TCKs/Global Nomads may view relationships as short-term, loosening ties after 2 years or so, due to their internal clock. They sometimes make intense relationships very quickly, but keep a margin of safety. (“This is going to be really good, but only while it lasts.”)
- Unresolved Grief or Sadness – The frequent breaking-off of relationships due to relocations may often cause sadness and unresolved grief.
- Off Balance – TCKs/Global Nomads may feel lost, not knowing what they need, where to get it, whom to turn to, or why they feel this way. This is part of the process of integrating into a new/different culture which may or may not be welcoming.
- Out of Phase – TCKs/Global Nomads may not be in the same developmental stage as their peers. This may also contribute to their alienation on returning to their “home country.” (Delayed adolescent rebellion is a common phenomenon for TCKs/Global Nomads during their early 20s and career decisions may come later than for mono-culture kids.
For More Information About TCKs
A voice for third culture kids and internationally mobile families.
At Home Abroad
The first-hand account of one TCK.
The Christian Science Monitor
An article that discusses how students schooled abroad often gain the world but can sometimes lose their bearings to some extent.
A website with a good collection of articles related to TCKs including TCKs Come of Age, Reentry: Coming “Home” to the Unfamiliar, The Expatriate Family: Practicing Practical Leadership, The Global Nomad Experience – Living in Liminality, Families on the Move: Working Together to Meet the Challenge, Phoenix Rising: A Question of Cultural Identity, Transition Programming in International Schools: An Emergent Mandate, and Transitions Resource Teams: A Good Answer to an Important Question.