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  • Pramila Rajendran

Understanding TCKs (Third Culture Kids)

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Today, we live in a world where cultures cross over borders through more than just physical travel. Cross-Cultural Identity today comes from the crossing over of knowledge and experience through media, school education and migration.

However, there was a time when this cross-cultural identity was being understood and constructed within a framework for people to grasp. This cross-cultural identity was described under the term ‘third culture kid' (TCK).

Third culture kids (TCKs) are individuals who are (or were as children) raised in a culture other than their parents' or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their early development years. They typically are exposed to a greater volume and variety of cultural influences than those who grow up in one particular cultural setting. The term applies to both adults and children, as the term "kid" refers to an individual's formative or developmental years. For example, it is used for military kids, corporate kids, diplomat kids, biracial kids, refugee kids, adopted kids, missionary kids and many more terms that factor a cross-cultural upbringing. However, for clarification, sometimes the term Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) is used. For TCKs who become adults.

The term "third culture kid" was first coined by researchers John and Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, who used it to describe the children of American citizens working and living abroad. Ruth Useem first used the term after her second year-long visit to India with her fellow Sociologist/Anthropologist husband and three children.

The model of the third culture by Useem and Useem (1963) that was later on advanced by Dr. Dave Pollock and Ruth Van Reken (2001) can be applied to have a better understanding of the phenomena.


TCKs move between cultures before they have had the opportunity to fully develop their personal and cultural identity. The first culture of such individuals refers to the culture of the country from which the parents originated, the second culture refers to the culture in which the family currently resides, and although not widely agreed upon by the TCK community, some sources refer to the third culture as the amalgamation of these two cultures.

In the early 21st century, the number of bilingual children in the world was about the same as the number of monolingual children.


TCKs experience a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language and cultures, while living in their host culture, being physically exposed to the environment where the native language is used in practical aspects of life. "TCKs learn some languages in schools abroad and some in their homes or the marketplaces of a foreign land. ... Some pick up languages from the nannies in the home or playmates in the neighbourhood" (Bell-Villada et al. 23). This language immersion is why TCKs are often bilingual, and sometimes even multilingual.

TCK’s go through entry and reentry issues based on the passport they hold or the job their parents hold that takes them across borders. How can we support them with their identity and confusion on identifying with majority cultures, adaptation and much more?

They often ask who am I? Why don’t my friends understand me? Why do I crave travel often?

I am happy to be a mom of two adult TCKs and it is invigorating to talk to them about their experiences.


Pramila Rajendran

Citation used:

  1. Wikipedia

  2. Pollock, D.C., & Van Reken, R.E. (2009). Third Culture Kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealy.

  3. Useem, Ruth Hill; Downie, Richard D.(1975-11-30). "Third-Culture Kids". Today's Education.

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