Third Culture Kids: You know where you're from

Most definitions of culture in an international environment, centre around discussions of various national groups and their collective characteristics. For the children of internationally mobile parents, however, culture is contextural: the child picks up traits of each of the places s/he’s lived, becoming third culture kids (TCKs). So what is a TCK?

Image of two small children illustrates an article about Third Culture Kids
Heather Mulkey, Group Marketing and Admissions Officer for International School of London (ISL) Group, explores the definition of Third Culture Kid for Relocate. Read our more recent article about Third Culture Kids: The ups and downs of being a third culture kid.The original definition from the 1950s defined TCKs as children who accompany their parents into a different society.  The ‘first culture’ is the home culture, whilst the ‘second culture’ is all the places the child has lived.  The ‘third culture’ is the community of people who have done the same thing.The current definition has developed to “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.”  The emphasis on the developmental years is important because adults have defined value systems whilst children are just beginning to develop theirs.  In most cases, the parents of TCKs grew up in one place, where their parents and the local community reinforced what defined that culture.  A TCK is developing his/her value system within a much more fluid environment with many more external influences:  their friends, their school, their caregivers (nannies and drivers), the country they’re living in now as well as their passport and previous countries they’ve lived, their compound or local expatriate community, the media, even their parent’s employer which may be the military or a religious organisation and last but not least, their parents. The definition continues, “The third culture kid builds relationships to all cultures, whilst not having full ownership of any.  Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background, other TCKs.” Research continues to explore the issues.  Current thought tends towards expanding the definition to include Cross Cultural Kids:  a child who is living in two or more cultural environments for a significant period during childhood.  Examples of CCKs are children of immigrants who may live in one community but interact in another through schooling, or children whose parents are of two different nationalities or even children living in different regions of the same country – a child born in Mississippi may feel like s/he’s landed in a new country when they move to Boston. But whether a TCK or CCK, they know they’re TCKs when the answer to the common question of ‘Where are you from?’ may be complicated.
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