Characteristics and Implications of Being a TCK

A Third Culture Kid …a what?

You may or may not be familiar with the term, but you are about to learn more about its true meaning! The term “Third Culture Kid” was first used by Ruth Hill Useem in the 1960’s during her anthropological study of expatriates in India. It has been defined and copyrighted by Dave Pollock, Executive Director of Interaction.

“A TCK (Third Culture Kid) is an individual who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents’ culture, develops a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership in any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience, but the sense of belonging is in relationships to others of similar experience.”

Aha, you are saying to yourself, it has nothing to do with the “Third world” as some people seem to think. Another common term used to describe TCKs is “Global Nomads,” and it is used to describe the children of internationally mobile families-whether they are with government, the U.N., business, the military or a church, as well as children of cross-cultural marriages.

Most people are born and brought up in one country, so they have had a very different experience from children born and/or raised in one (or several) countries. Their sense of identity, nationality, and belonging is therefore probably not exactly the same as TCKs.

Growing up as TCKs do has made their lives very different than it would have been if they had grown up in their parent’s “home” country, not worse – just different. And it will almost certainly affect their future.

Some research was carried out in 1996 that tracked the lives of a number of TCKs over a twenty year period. 82% of those respondents still have international aspects to their lives. 42% are living in a country other than their passport country.

So, what is a TCK like? Dave Pollock has been studying and describing the TCK profile for nearly twenty years. Here are 6 characteristics of TCKs. Read on and maybe you’ll recognize yourself or someone you know!


If one moved around a lot as a child, a mobile lifestyle may become the habit of a lifetime. People tend to repeat their upbringing and may have a migratory instinct as adults which started during their childhood. This can be a positive factor because it represents a confidence and ability to cope with change. However, it can mean an inability to make a long-term commitment to anyone to anything.


Not surprisingly, TCKs tend to be good at languages. They have been exposed to languages at an early age, and this ability to speak several languages often plays a key role in career choice.


Sense of belonging is a key issue. Where do TCK’s feel that they belong? “Where do you come from?” “Where is home?” These are some of the hardest questions TCKs have to answer. Sometimes they end up feeling at home everywhere and have the ability to move and settle in anywhere; or else home is nowhere-always somewhere else, and they are constantly tempted to move and search for that elusive somewhere that will be “home” so they can settle down.

Personality Traits

TCKs are usually extremely friendly and good at making friends quickly because they have been exposed to far more people than their monocultural counterparts. However, being able to initiate relationships they also have to know how to end them, because an expatriate community is characterized by frequent good-byes.

They may have very good closure skills because of lots of practice; but at the same time they may feel some unresolved grief, which is one of the key issues which TCKs have to deal with. When an internationally mobile family moves, the kids experience the simultaneous loss of home, friends, school, loved places and things.

This pattern may be repeated many times and can have long-term consequences if they never have an opportunity to grieve properly.

Expanded World View

Because TCK’s have been exposed to more than one country, they have a global perspective. In some ways they may seem more mature and worldly wise than their peers in their passport country. They haven’t just seen countries and people on TV or in a geography book, they’ve actually been there and experienced things first-hand. They’re probably much more interested in travel and the rest of the world than most monoculturalkids are.

Cross-Cultural Skills

TCK’s have a natural ability to act like chameleons because they have grown up knowing that one changes their behavior, language, or customs to suit the situation. No one sat down to teach them that, it was something they learned “by osmosis”. As a result, they grew up more culturally sensitive, more aware, more interested in people from other countries and cultures and generally with cross-culturally skills that many adults never acquire who have not traveled overseas until they are adults.


If it has not occurred to you yet, just think about it: adults took a long time to learn the language and the customs.

But TCK’s learned them pretty effortlessly and experienced a bonding with the country that was their childhood  home.

They have local friends, and are at ease with the place and the people. What incredible potential TCK’s have.

If they choose in the future, they could do a similar work to their parents (as a missionary), or they may have a totally different ”vision” they will want to follow.

There are many options open to them. Think of the TCKs in the Bible and all that they were able to accomplish-Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are pretty impressive examples of what a TCK can become!

Where to from here?

The purpose of this article is to help you think about the incredible potential the TCK’s you know have.They can reach out to people of other cultures and nationalities because their interest, sensitivity, and language skills are already “in place.”

Another purpose is to help you deal with some attitudes you may encounter in TCK’s. When they return to their passport country, some TCK’s spend a lot of time trying to be exactly like everyone else and wondering why they feel more comfortable as a foreigner in a foreign land than they do in their own country feeling different from people there.

In fact, they often discover that they “click” with other people who have lived overseas better than they do with their own “countrymen.” They just seem to have a natural bond with them. That’s okay, and it can really be a blessing to everyone.

Being a TCK will be a helpful thing for the future. They have some unique and useful skills to offer to a very culturally diverse world! Ted Ward, formerly of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School called TCK’s the “prototype citizen of the 21st century.”

So, remember: with God’s blessing, the sky’s the limit.

By Pat Gustin


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