Looking at the varied life experiences of Third Culture Kids (TCKs), with their physical and developmental “journeys” throughout life, what might a profile of this distinctive and wonderful group of people include? Each person has “upsides” and “downsides” in his/her life experiences that are unique. However, if we look at TCKs as a group, they have a number of “upsides” and “downsides” in common, making them what they are – Third Culture Kids. Placing these on a scale, from the viewpoint of most TCKs, the “ups” outweigh the “downs” and both are balanced by the insights and understandings they bring.
UPSIDES of being a TCK:
- Multi-lingual – Being multi-lingual is no small advantage in an increasingly internationalized world! It sometimes comes as a nice surprise to learn that, in learning another language, they also learned how to think like other people groups.
- Many Cross-cultural Skills – Generally speaking, TCKs are more understanding and less prejudiced or judgmental because they have been exposed to many different lifestyles. This also gives them a great capacity for compassion. They also are good observers and tend to check out a situation before drawing conclusions.
- Expanded Worldview – TCKS have a good sense of how peoples of the world live and work. They understand what is behind other cultures because they have lived in different places. They also learn to understand the very important principle that different is not always wrong, it is just different.
- Large Numbers of Relationships – Because both TCKs and their friends are often coming and going, their address books fill up pretty quickly. One TCK said, “I can go almost anywhere in the world and stay with a friend.” Perhaps surprisingly, because of frequent separations, many of the relationships develop and go to a deeper level quickly, choosing to not waste moments spent together.
These are all special reasons for TCKs to thank the Lord for calling their parents to serve internationally. Adults going into new cultures often have to work to develop language, cultural sensitivity and an expanded worldview. TCKS absorb these as they spend their developmental years in different cultures.
However, recognizing the “downsides” helps TCKs – and those who relate to them – understand who they are. By God’s grace, most begin to see how the “downsides” help them relate to those they meet who have had similar experiences, even non-TCKs.
DOWNSIDES of being a TCK:
- Rootlessness – This is a reality for those who have lived a large part of life in a culture different from that of their parents. Statistics tell us that many TCKs experience eight major moves by age 18. They are sometimes called “global nomads,” including military kids, diplomatic corps kids and children of international business people. Because of this, one of the most difficult question you can ask a TCK is, “Where are you from?”
- Frequent Separations – This is probably one of the most difficult of the “downsides.” TCKs spend a lot of their lives saying goodbye. This is the natural consequence, especially for missionary kids, of going back and forth every few years. It seems like goodbyes happen every year because either you or some of your friends are leaving. This causes real grief, which needs to be understood by parents and friends. Although this can result in some kids choosing not to develop close relationships because of the pain of separation, it can also cause them to place more value on their relationships.
- Off Balance Culturally – Due to the differences in the rates of social development in different cultures, TCKs can feel out-of-touch with their peers when they return to their “home” culture. The desire of every young person, no matter what age, is to “fit in” wherever they are. The TCK has worked hard to fit in with their host culture. Fear of not having friends and not fitting in is one of the hard parts of anticipating a return to their parents’ home culture. I have heard some say to their parents during these times, “You may be going home but I am leaving home.” The adjustment time varies between individuals but, sometimes sooner than they expected, it does happen – and just when they begin to feel “at home,” it is time to return to their other “home!” Such is the rhythm of life that becomes normal for a TCK.
These transitions don’t last forever. It helps to remember that Jesus made the greatest transition when he became flesh to dwell among us. Remembering this helps TCKs to persevere. Their TCK qualities give them a bridge to their future in an increasingly internationalized world.
NOTE: These “upsides” and “downsides” were adapted from material originally written by David C. Pollock in material for a seminar provided by Interaction Incorporated in 1989.
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Diane Morris served with One Challenge as an elementary school teacher and counselor for 28 years at Faith Academy in the Philippines. Then she served OC families (training, caregiving, and traveling to the fields) from the US Mobilization Center in Colorado Springs for 23 years (1991-2014). Now retired, she continues to volunteer at OC.
For more, see Journey with TCKs.