Third Culture Kids

Ruth Hill Useem introduced the term ‘Third Culture Kids’ to describe children who spend part of their lives in a different culture:

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.

In an increasingly globalized world TCKs can have real advantages, but also face challenges.  Compared to their peers who have lived their entire lives in a single culture, TCKs have a globalized culture. TCKs typically have a global perspective and are flexible both socially and intellectually, as well as able to comfortably engage with those who think and act differently than they do.  It is hard for TCKs to present themselves as a single cultured person, which makes it hard for others who have not had similar experiences to accept them for who they are. They know bits and pieces of at least two cultures, yet most of them have not fully experienced any one culture making them feel incomplete or left out by other children who have not lived overseas. They often build social networks among themselves and prefer to socialize with other TCKs.

Studies have found that, although TCKs learn to build relationships to all of the cultures they've experienced, they don't quite have full ownership in any. While TCKs can assimilate elements of each culture into their own life experiences, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.  The unique experiences of TCKs among different cultures and various relationships at the formative stage of their development makes their view of the world different from others.

They tend to get along with people of any culture, and develop a chameleon-like ability to become part of other cultures. Adapting to new situations quickly and with confidence is no problem for third-culture kids. Excellent communication and diplomatic skills are what many third-culture kids get out of their experience abroad. These skills help third-culture kids thrive later on, during their academic studies as well as their career.  Some TCKs may also isolate themselves within their own sub-culture, sometimes excluding native children attending their schools, or defining themselves in relation to some "other" ethnic or religious group.


The studies show that TCKs have a number of benefits from the experience:

  •       More adaptable and capable of integrating into new environments

o   The experience of moving to an entirely new country and being surrounded by unfamiliar smells, tastes, environments, culture and people requires TCKs and their parents to adapt quickly.  This experience tends to build confidence that can help them adapt to the challenges they face in other situations throughout their lives.

o   Even simple experiences like travelling without your parents on an escorted travel arrangement with one of the airlines builds a level of confidence not available to those who have lived their entire life in the same location.

  •       More likely to be bi- or multi-lingual

o   International schools are available in many locations and there are many arguments for choosing educational different options when you become an expat.  If your child is young enough (under 10, for example) they will adapt very quickly to learning in a new language with long term benefits, especially if you get them started before arriving.

  •      More likely to be successful in University or other higher education

o   An American study of ‘adult third culture kids’ showed that 81 percent of the adult TCKs gained a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 21% of the general population. 

  •      Greater awareness of the world around them

o   There is a world of difference between reading about places around the world and experiencing them first-hand.  We tend to build a vision of different parts of the world often built up from inaccurate and outdated views of the lifestyle.  When you travel around Asia and Africa you get a much better understanding of how modern high-tech capabilities can sit alongside people living lifestyles that have changed little for decades or centuries.  Poverty is something you can understand, but when you have seen beggars in the street and third world housing while travelling it becomes something you understand so much better.

  •      It can bring your family closer

o   It is often necessary to spend more time together and to provide greater support as you jointly adapt to your new environment.  This can lead to you drawing closer at a time when many families in the more familiar home environment are drifting apart.