Since the term was coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1960's, TCKs have become a heavily studied global subculture. TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their own country.
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 the term "third culture" was used to refer to the process of learning how to relate to another culture; in time, the meaning of the term changed and children who accompany their parents into a different culture were referred to as 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 Michigan State University, 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 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." It has been observed that TCKs may be more prone to abuse as the family can become too tight knit. "The strength of [the] family bond works to the benefit of children when parent-child communication is good and the overall family dynamic is healthy. It can be devastating when it is not...Physical, sexual and emotional abuse ... may go unnoticed or unacknowledged by others for a variety of reasons, such as misguided notions about 'respecting privacy,' or fear of repatriation or family disgrace with colleagues."
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.
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.
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 upper middle class. 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. In Japan, the use of the term "third culture kids" to refer to children returned from living overseas is not universally accepted; they are typically referred to both in Japanese and in English as kikokushijo, literally "returnee children", a term which has different implications. Public awareness of kikokushijo is much more widespread in Japan than awareness of TCKs in the United States, and government reports as early as 1966 recognised the need for the school system to adapt to them. However, views of kikokushijo have not always been positive; in the 1970s, especially, they were characterised in media reports and even by their own parents as "educational orphans" in need of "rescue" to reduce their foreignness and successfully reintegrate them into Japanese society.
Many TCKs take years to readjust to their passport countries. They often suffer a reverse culture shock upon their return, and are constantly homesick for their adopted country. Many Third Culture Kids face an identity crisis: they don't know where they come from. It would be typical for a TCK to say that he or she is a citizen of a country but with nothing beyond their passport to define that identification for them. They usually find it difficult to answer the question, "Where are you from?" Compared to their peers who have lived their entire lives in a single culture, TCKs have a globalized culture. Others can have difficulty relating to them. It is hard for TCKs to present themselves as a single cultured person, which makes it hard for others who have not had similar experiences to accept them for who they are. They know bits and pieces of at least two cultures, yet most of them have not fully experienced any one culture making them feel incomplete or left out by other children who have not lived overseas. They often build social networks among themselves and prefer to socialize with other TCKs.
Many choose to enter careers that allow them to travel frequently or live overseas, which may make it seem difficult for TCKs to build longterm, in-depth relationships. There is however, a growing number of online resources to help TCKs deal with issues as well as stay in contact with each other. Recently, blogs and social networks including MySpace, Facebook and TCKID, have become a helpful way for TCKs to interact. In addition, chatting programs including MSN Messenger, AIM, and Skype are often used so TCKs can keep in touch with each other. The unique experiences of TCKs among different cultures and various relationships at the formative stage of their development makes their view of the world different from others.
While TCKs usually grow up to be fiercely independent and cosmopolitan, they also tend to be more culturally and racially sensitive. They tend to get along with people of any culture, and develop a chameleon-like ability to become part of other cultures. TCKs can isolate themselves within their own sub-culture, sometimes excluding native children attending their schools, or defining themselves in relation to some "other" ethnic or religious group.
As Third Culture Kids mature they become Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs). Some ATCKs come to terms with issues such as culture shock and a sense of not belonging while others struggle with these for their entire lives.
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 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 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, TCKs actually live in different cultural worlds. By mobility, they mean mobility of both the TCK 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.
TCKs 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. TCKs 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 TCKs relate to the world around them, and makes TCKs' 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, TCKs 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 TCKs 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.
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There are different characteristics that impact the typical American Third Culture Kid: