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Third Culture Kids (abbreviated TCKs or 3CKs or Global Nomad) "refers to someone who [as a child] has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture". The composition of TCK sponsors changed greatly after WWII. Prior to WWII, 66% of TCK's came from missionary families and 16% came from business families. After WWII, with the increase of international business and the rise of two International Superpowers, the composition of international families changed. Sponsors are generally broken down into five categories: Missionary (17%), Business (16%), Government (23%), Military (30%), and "Other" (14%).
Since the term was coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1960's, TCKs have become a heavily studied global subculture. TCKs share more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCK's from their own country.
Origins and research
Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coined the term "Third Culture Kids" after spending a year on two separate occasions in India with her three children in the early fifties. Initially they used the term "third culture" to refer to the process of learning how to relate to another culture; in time they started to refer to children who accompany their parents into a different culture as "Third Culture Kids." Useem used the term "Third Culture Kids" because TCKs integrate aspects of their birth culture (the first culture) and the new culture (the second culture), creating a unique "third culture". Sociologist David Pollock describes a TCK as "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 of any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background." In order to be a TCK, one must accompany their parents into a foreign culture. Entering another culture without one's parents, such as on a foreign exchange program, explicitly does not make one a TCK.
Research into Third Culture Kids has come from two fronts. First, most of the research into TCKs has been conducted by adult TCKs attempting to validate their own experiences. This research has been conducted largely at the University of Michigan where Dr. Useem taught for over 30 years. Second, the U.S armed forces has sponsored significant research into the U.S. military brat experience. Most TCK research on adults is limited to those people whose time in a different culture occurred during the school age years.
Research into TCKs has either studied students currently living in a foreign culture or years later as adults. Since the only way to identify somebody who grew up in a foreign culture is through self-identification, scientific sampling methods on adults may contain bias due to the difficulty in conducting epidemiological studies across broad-based population samples.
While much of the research into TCKs has shown consistent results across geographical boundaries, some international sociologists are critical of the research that "expects there to be one unified 'true' culture that is shared by all who have experiences of growing up overseas."
TCKs often come from highly successful, intact, educated families. When a group (whether it is the military, a business, church, etc) decides to send somebody to a foreign country, they are making a significant investment. They want to send people who will represent the group the best and provide the most value for the investment. TCKs will thus have a higher probability of coming from a family where at least one parent earned a college degree and often an advanced degree. "Almost all" TCK families are deployed to foreign countries as a result of the father's profession, and very few families live in another country primarily due to the mother's occupation.
TCKs also tend to come from families that are closer than non-TCK families. They will also have a smaller likelihood of having divorced parents (divorced parents are unlikely to allow their ex to take their child to another country.) "Because the nuclear family is the only consistent social unit through all moves, family members are psychologically thrown back on one another in a way that is not typical in geographically stable families." Unfortunately, TCKs are also more prone to abuse as the family can become too tight knit.
TCK's exposure to foreign countries depends largely on parent's sponsoring organization. The sponsor affects many variables such as: how long a family is in a foreign culture, the family's interaction with the host country nationals, how enmeshed the family becomes with local practices, and the family's interaction with people from the home country.
Military brats, primarily from the United States, are the most mobile of TCKs but generally spend only a few years abroad, and sometimes none at all. Approximately 41% of military brats spend less than 5 years in foreign countries. They are the least likely TCKs to develop connections with the locals. Because military bases aim for self-sufficiency, military brats tend to be exposed the least to the local culture. Also, because of the self-sufficiency of military bases and the distinctiveness of military culture, even those military brats who never lived abroad can be isolated to some degree from the civilian culture of their "home" country.
While parents of military brats had the lowest level of education of the five categories; approximately 36% of USA military brat TCK families have at least one parent with an advanced degree. This is significantly higher than the general population.
Nonmilitary government TCKs are the most likely to have extended experiences in foreign countries for extended periods. 44% have lived in at least four countries. 44% will also have spent at least 10 years outside of their passport country. Their involvement with locals and others from their passport country depends on the role of the parent. Some may grow up moving from country to country in the diplomatic corps (see Foreign Service Brat)while others may live their lives near military bases.
Missionary Kids (MKs) typically spend the most time overseas in one country. 85% of MKs spend more than 10 years in foreign countries and 72% lived in only one foreign country. MKs generally have the most interaction with the local populace and the least interaction with people from their passport country. They are the most likely to integrate themselves into the local culture. 83% of missionary kids have at least one parent with an advanced degree.
Business families also spend a great deal of time in foreign countries. 63% of business TCK's have lived in foreign countries at least 10 years but are more likely than MKs to live in multiple countries. Business TCKs will have a fairly high interaction with their host nationals and with others from their passport country.
The "Other" category includes anybody who does not fit one the above descriptions. They include: intergovernmental agencies, educators, international non-governmental organizations, media, etc. This group typically has spent the least amount of time in foreign countries (42% are abroad for 1-2 years and 70% for less than 5.) Again their involvement with local people and culture can vary greatly.  The parents of "Others" are the most likely of TCKs to have parents with an advanced degree (89% of families have an advanced degree.)
Non-United States TCKs
Most international TCKs are expected to speak English and some countries require their expatriate families to be proficient with the English language. This is largely because most international schools use the English language as the norm.
Families tend to seek out schools whose principal languages they share, and ideally one which mirrors their own educational system. Many countries have American schools, French schools, and 'International Schools' which follow a modified version of the British system. These will be populated by expatriates' children and some children of the local elite. They do this in an effort to maintain linguistic stability and to ensure that their children do not fall behind due to linguistic problems. Where their own language is not available, families will often choose English-speaking schools for their children. They do this because of the linguistic and cultural opportunities being immersed in English might provide their children when they are adults, and because their children are more likely to have prior exposure to English than to other international languages. This poses the potential for non-English speaking TCKs to have a significantly different experience than U.S. TCKs. Research on TCKs from Japan, Denmark, Italy, Germany, the United States and Africa has shown that TCKs from different countries share more in common with other TCKs than they do with their own peer group from their passport country.
A few sociologists studying TCKs, however, argue that the commonality found in international TCKs is not the result of true commonality, but rather the researcher's bias projecting expectations upon the studied subculture. They believe that some of the superficial attributes may mirror each other, but that TCKs from different countries are really different from one another. The exteriors may be the same, but that the understanding of the world around them differs. 
Growing up in a third cultural world
TCKs share some common characteristics amongst the subcategories such as multilingualism, tolerance for other cultures, a never-ending feeling of homesickness for their adopted country and a desire to remain in close contact with friends from their adopted country as well as other TCKs that they have grown up with. On the other hand, moving from country to country often becomes an easy thing for such individuals. They are what can be defined as truly global citizens who will embrace global cultures and experience and accept the global cultural rainbow.
Many TCKs take years to readjust to their passport countries and often suffer a reverse culture shock on their return to their ancestral culture. This is due to their having lived in many countries away from home and acculturated to adapt to these new cultures. This leaves them with a bit of everything. Compared to their peers who have lived their entire lives in a single culture, these TCKs would have a globalized culture. Many choose to enter careers that allow them to travel frequently or live overseas. There is a growing number of online resources to help TCKs deal with issues as well as stay in contact with each other. Recently, blogs have become a helpful way for TCKs to interact. The unique experiences of TCKs among different cultures and various relationships at the formative stage of their development makes their orientation to the world different from others. However, this also makes it difficult for them to have in-depth communication with those who have not experienced similar conditions.
While Third Culture Kids usually grow up to be fiercely independent and cosmopolitan, they are more culturally sound and sensitive. They also tend to get along with people of any culture. TCK's tend to be very privileged, and will live in their own sub-culture, sometimes excluding native children attending their school.
As Third Culture Kids grow up they become Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs).
Some of them come to terms with the tremendous culture shock and loss that they have experienced. They gain a broader understanding of the world through their varied experiences, while others spend most of their adult life trying to come to terms with those same issues.
Many Third Culture Kids face an identity crisis: they don't know where they come from. It would be typical for a third culture person to say that he or she is from a country but nothing beyond their passport defines it; they usually find it difficult to answer the question.
The term "Third Culture Kid" was coined by Ruth Hill Useem in the early 1960s. She and her husband studied children who grew up in two or more cultures, including their own children, and termed them simply "third culture kids". Their idea was that children from one culture who live in another culture become part of a "third culture" that is more than simply a blend of home and host cultures.
Children and adults of the third culture share similar identities. Useem defined a third culture kid as
"[A] person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in 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."
Two circumstances are key to becoming a third culture kid: growing up in a truly cross-cultural world, and high mobility. By the former, Pollock and van Reken mean that instead of observing cultures, third culture kids actually live in different cultural worlds. By mobility, they mean mobility of both the third culture kid and others in their surrounding. The interplay between the two is what gives rise to common personal characteristics, benefits, and challenges. TCKs are distinguished from other immigrants by the fact that TCKs do not expect to settle down permanently in the places where they live.
Third culture kids grow up in a genuinely cross-cultural world. While expatriates watch and study cultures that they live in, third culture kids actually live in different cultural worlds. Third culture kids have incorporated different cultures on the deepest level, as to have several cultures incorporated into their thought processes. This means that third culture kids not only have deep cultural access to at least two cultures, this also means that thought processes are truly multicultural. That, in turn, influences how third culture kids relate to the world around them, and makes third culture kids' thought processes different even from members of cultures they have deep-level access to. TCKs also have certain personal characteristics in common. Growing up in the third culture rewards certain behaviors and personality traits in different ways than growing up in a single culture does, which results in common characteristics. Third culture kids are often tolerant cultural chameleons who can choose to what degree they wish to display their background.
As a result, Pollock and van Reken argue, third culture kids develop a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere. Their experiences among different cultures and various relationships makes it difficult for them to have in-depth communication with those who have not experienced similar conditions. While third culture kids usually grow up to be independent and cosmopolitan, they also often struggle with their identity and with the losses they have suffered in each move. Some may feel very nationalistic toward one country, while others call themselves global citizens.
|Type of Work||Missionary||Military||Government||Business||Other|
|Work Setting ||Missionary||Military||Government||Business||Other|
- TCKs are 4 times as likely as non-TCKs to earn a bachelor's degree (81% vs 21%)
- 40% earn an advanced degree (as compared to 5% of the non-TCK population.)
- 45% of TCK's attended 3 universities before earning a degree.
- 44% earned undergraduate degree after the age of 22.
- Average age to obtain a master's degree is 24[How to reference and link to summary or text]
- Educators, medicine, professional positions, and self employment are the most common professions for TCKs.
- TCKs are unlikely to work for big business, government, or follow their parents' career choices. "One won't find many TCKs in large corporations. Nor are there many in government ... they have not followed in parental footsteps".
- 90% feel "out of sync" with their peers.
- 90% report feeling as if they understand other cultures/peoples better than the average American.
- 80% believe they can get along with anybody.
- Divorce rates among TCKs are lower than the general population, but they marry older (25+).
- Military brats, however, tend to marry earlier.
- Linguistically adept (not as true for military ATCKs.)
- A study focusing exclusively on career military brats—those who had a parent in the military from birth through high school—shows that brats are linguistically adept.
- Teenage TCKs are more mature than non-TCKs, but ironically take longer to "grow up" in their 20s.
- More welcoming of others into their community.
- Lack a sense of "where home is" but often nationalistic.
- Some studies show a desire to "settle down" others a "restlessness to move".
- Depression and suicide are more prominent among TCK's.
- The "third culture" implied in the concept has no relation with the phenomenon described in John Brockman's book The Third Culture.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 www.state.gov document (PDF)
- ↑ "Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major Study -- TCK "mother" pens history of field"
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 Cottrell (2002) p 230
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 Useem 1999, article 1 of 5
- ↑ Reken
- ↑ Pearce (2002) p 166
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 Ender (2002) p XXV.
- ↑ Hymlo (2002) p 196
- ↑ Pearce (2002) p 169
- ↑ Pearce (2002) p 170.
- ↑ 11.0 11.1 McCaig NM (1994). Growing up with a world view - nomad children develop multicultural skills. Foreign Service Journal, pp. 32-41.
- ↑ 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Cotrell (2002) p 231
- ↑ Pearce (2002) p 157
- ↑ Jordan (2002) p 227.
- ↑ Cotrell (2002) p 233-234. In the study, military dependents were the "most representative of the United States population." Over all 80% of TCK families had at least one parent with a BA. 46% of TCK families the father had an advanced degree and 18% of the families the mother had one. p 234.
- ↑ 16.0 16.1 Pearce (2002) p 168.
- ↑ Hymlo (2002) p 201
- ↑ 18.0 18.1 Hymlo (2002) p 196
- ↑ Pearce (2002) p 157
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- ↑ Cotrell (2002) p237
- ↑ Cotrell (2002) p238
- ↑ Useem RH (2001). Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major Study. International Schools Services.
- ↑ 24.0 24.1 24.2 Lewis L. Third Culture Kids.
- ↑ Cottrell AB, Useem RH (1993). TCKs Four Times More Likely to Earn Bachelor’s Degrees. International Schools Services, 7(5).
- ↑ 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 26.4 26.5 26.6 Cottrell AB, Useem RH (1994). ATCKs maintain global dimensions throughout their lives. International Schools Services, 8(4).
- ↑ 27.0 27.1 27.2 Cottrell AB, Useem RH (1993). TCKs Experience Prolonged Adolescence. International Schools Services, 8(1).
- ↑ 28.0 28.1 28.2 Cottrell AB, Useem RH (1993).ATCKs have problems relating to their own ethnic groups. International Schools Services, 8(2).
- ↑ Jordan (2002) p223
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- TCK World
- Interaction International
- Global Nomads International website
- Global Nomads Washington Area
- Third Culture Kids Study Report
- YouthCompass-Navigating Life Together
- Comparison of TCK "Versions"
- de:Third Culture Kid
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