Third Culture Children

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Third Culture Children

According to many sources and researchers the term “third culture kid” was a term first used by researchers John and Ruth Useem in the 1950s, to describe the children of American citizens working and living abroad and their children who were raised outside the culture in which their parents had grown up in for a significant part of their development years.

Today a definition of a TCK is:

“A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.  The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.” (Pollock & Van Reken, 2009)

Useem et al. (1963) felt that these children had distinct standards of interpersonal behaviour, work-related norms, codes of lifestyle and perspectives, and communication. It was felt that this new cultural group did not fall into their home or host culture. In 1963 she wrote:

‘’In summarizing that which we had observed in our cross-cultural encounters, we began to use the term “third culture” as a generic term to cover the styles of life created, shared, and learned by persons who are in the process of relating their societies, or sections thereof, to each other. The term “Third Culture Kids” was coined to refer to the children who accompany their parents into another society.’’ Useem et al. (1963)

The experience of being a TCK or an adult to a greater or lesser extent is unique in that these individuals are moving between cultures before they have had the opportunity to fully develop their personal and cultural identity. Researchers refer to the three cultures as:

  • A first culture: refers to the culture of the country from which the parents originated
  • A second culture: refers to the culture in which the family currently resides
  • A third culture: refers to the amalgamation of these two cultures which is further reinforced with the interaction with other expatriate communities where they reside.

Today this idea of a TCK has been increased as a result of globalisation, trans-national migration, numerous job opportunities and work overseas and the growing accessibility of international education to mention but a few.Figures suggest the numbers of the identified group is increasing rapidly, reaching up to 220 million people since 2013.

Central to their upbringing is their language development, not only from their parents but from the environment and culture they live in too. This means that they obtain language skills by being physically exposed to the environment where the native language is used in practical life. This is why so many are bilingual and even multilingual.

Families tend to seek out schools whose core languages they share, and preferably one which mirrors their own educational system. Where their own language may not be available, families will often choose English-speaking schools, like Regent International School (RIS) and Sunmarke School, for their children. They do this because of the linguistic and cultural opportunities that might become available for their children when they leave school from being immersed in English, and from an RIS and Sunmarke schools’ perspective the opportunities a MultiSmart education brings, alongside the excellent British speaking environment and curriculum that is available for all those who attend.

Some well-known TCKs or as sometimes known ‘global nomads’ include the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama who was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and grew up in Indonesia and Chicago. Ruth E Van Reken (2009) in her article refers to Mikel Jentzsch, author of ‘’Bloodbrothers – Our Friendship in Liberia’’. He grew up in the Niger and then Liberia and held a German passport. Before the Liberian civil war began Mikel played daily with other children who were later forced to become soldiers for that war. Through his eyes, the stories of those we would otherwise overlook were brought to life in his book.

Many TCK suggests growing up among different cultures has given them many priceless gifts. As Ruth E Van Reken suggests

’’They have seen the world and often learnt several languages. More importantly, through friendships that cross the usual racial, national, or social barriers, they have also learned the very different ways people can see life. This offers a great opportunity to become social and cultural bridges between worlds that traditionally would never connect.’’(The Telegraph; 2009)


Pollock, D.C., & Van Reken, R.E. (2009). Third culture kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey.

Useem, J.; Useem, R.; Donoghue, J. (1963).”Men in the middle of the third culture: The roles of American and non-western people in cross-cultural administration”. Human Organization 22 (3): 169–179

Useem, J.; Useem, R. (1967). “The interfaces of a binational third culture: A study of the American community in India”. Journal of Social Issues 23 (1): 130–143.
Ruth E Van Reken. (2009) ‘Third culture kids’

TCK World – Official Home of Dr. Hill Useem’s research, sociologist who coined the term “Third Culture Kid”

TCKID – Non-profit organization and community for Third Culture Kids

Harvey Trump,
Head of Secondary,
Sunmarke School & Fortes Education

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