Raising a Third Culture Kid

I have recently become fascinated by the idea of TCKs, or third culture kids. What is a third culture kid? According to the TCK site, “a third culture kid is a “person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.”

The other definition on the site: “TCKs are the prototype citizens of the future.”

Being a third culture kid: the paradox of belonging to many cultures, and none at the same time

Although I had never considered it before and certainly never even heard the term until a few years ago, I myself am a third culture kid. I was raised in Mexico City, moved to the US in my pre-teen years. Even when living in New York, after returning from Mexico, I very much considered myself a part of the world as opposed to just an American. I was a bit surprised when I moved to Spain aged 26 and people there considered me so “American” when most of my peers back in the US considered me the opposite. It was almost like I belonged to both… and yet neither. My son, born in London to American parents, has been a bit of a migrant since his birth- first London, then Rio, then Montevideo, and now his longest run (9 months) in Bali, Indonesia. Although we adore Bali, we’re travelers at heart and this won’t be his last move, so he’s just as likely to spend his childhood years in South America as he is in Asia, or somewhere else altogether.

Until recently, the only real considerations about raising him all over the world were logistical ones: what sterilizing equipment do I use, is breastfeeding in public culturally welcome, and scanning menus to find kid-friendly foods (at times when I don’t even know what those foods are). But suddenly, as this little person has started walking and talking and making friends and absorbing his surroundings so fully, I have been thinking more and more about what impact being raised as a citizen of the world will have on him. He isn’t being raised Hindu or with Balinese traditions, even though he is exposed to them every day. We do our best to remind him of his American culture, but the practicality of this sometimes gets in the way of our best intentions. He certainly isn’t being raised with British traditions, even though that is where he was born.

We get a little tongue tied when we travel and people ask him where he’s “from”. We know that he doesn’t know what they mean even though he can tell you where he lives, what his name is and how old he is.

In my world, and in my 21 month old son’s world, third culture kids are more the norm than they are the exception.

Here in Bali, ironically enough, where the US is so, so far away, our son’s experience is no different than his counterparts. My son’s school is a mix of Australians, Indonesians, Japanese, Dutch, French, Spanish, Americans and others. The teachers at the school are all Indonesian and day to day, speak a combination of English and Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia). The songs they sing at school are just as likely to be in Japanese as they are in English or Bahas. His babysitter is from Italy, but speaks with him in Spanish. So, for my son, day to day, his world is full of different cultures, different languages, different religions. I’m proud of being able to give him that gift but not naïve enough to believe that it doesn’t come with its share of challenges too.

So, what will that mean for him? The short answer is, I have absolutely no idea. What are the risks?

• That he doesn’t associate with the American culture. That he can’t relate to his cousins in the way that kids growing up down the street from each other would, who play with the same toys, watch the same TV shows, eat the same food.

• That he belongs a little with many cultures, but not completely with any one.

And what, I hope, it will mean

• That he is accepting and open to other cultures. That he never describes another culture as “weird” and, even as he grows older, is still “blind” to those differences. That he understands the deep link between culture and religion in a way that some cultures struggle to understand. That he knows the difference between being proud of his culture and respecting other cultures at the same time.

• That he learns languages readily and easily. We just got the school report cards. On our son’s, under “ability to use 10-15 words,” he was rated as “achieving.” I was confused. The kid can recite his ABC’s, count to 10 in English and Spanish and spends his days with a running commentary on his world, probably totaling 100+ words. And then it dawned on me… they meant in Bahasa. He has 10-15 words in Bahasa Indonesian language. That, in my mind, is a fantastic way to learn to speak.

• That he is able to experience it all, and pick and choose what most resonates with him, and take that with him wherever he goes. That instead of having no culture, he has many.

Deep down, my instinct tells me that although we aren’t quite there yet, that we are heading into a world where the description of TCK’s as “prototype citizens of the future” will become more true rather than less so. And that in 10, 20, 30 years time, or maybe even sooner, there will be many more kids who associate with my son, who know what it is like to have the best of both worlds… even if you don’t have just one that is your own, fully.

What do you think? Are you a third culture kid or raising one? How do you make sure your child gets the best out of his/her third culture experience?

About the author

Carrie McKeegan
Carrie is an American who just moved from Bali to Mendoza, Argentina. Carrie caught the wanderlust bug early on from her parents, who raised her in Mexico City. Carrie and her husband David have lived in New York, London, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and Bali before moving to Mendoza. They are actively working to pass on the travel bug to their young son Timmy, who has already been to twelve countries.
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6 Comments

  • I’ve never heard the term either, but I guess I count as a TCK. I think our kids will end up pretty much like yours, but I husband and I have decided we want our kids to have a “home base” so they can connect to place and be “from” somewhere. We’ll see if that’s a bit of an antidote to the ungrounded nature of the traveling life. Thanks for the post.

  • I have never heard the term either, and it was certainly an interesting read. I really cant call myself or my son a tck, having lived in India all my life, but we have similar situations too… We are originally from Tamilnadu, but have never lived there. We live in Mumbai and speak better Marathi than Tamil, and have the same identity crisis at times! add to this the fact that i spent a considerable part of my life in delhi and picked up a lot of North Indian culture….. so what are we????maybe not tck, but second culture kids?????

  • It’s recently dawned on me that my child will be a tck, so it’s good to learn from your experience Carrie! I guess it makes life more complicated in some ways, but I certainly wish I’d had a more international experience growing up.

    @Anu, it’s an interesting question, how exactly do you define a ‘foreign’(or third) culture? It’s fascinating that you can go from one Indian state to another and find a different language, traditions, behaviours etc much as you would when travelling between countries in Europe, say. But it’s still the same country.

  • Great post, Carrie! I’ve been reading a lot lately about TCKs. As far as I can tell, the benefits FAR outweigh the drawbacks! My oldest daughter has recently moved to the US to study and has connected with other more culturally mature youth. She says that it’s been difficult to adapt to the American culture, but she’s not too concerned about it anymore. Why would she want to totally adapt? She doesn’t plan to stay there forever after all, lol!

  • great post! i have been living in Beijing (China) since 2004, and working with TCKs here since 2005. in my experience, when a child’s parents understand what it means to be a TCK and are aware of this as they parent, the child fares much better. it’s hard enough trying to work out your identity when you want to claim several countries/cultures without parents seeing you through their own culture and not seeing the rest of it. TCKs have unique struggles but they also have great gifts! given space to work through their personal identity, they thrive in life :)

  • Libby

    Carrie,

    What a great post! I have been working with TCKs for over 25 years…and I love this population.

    I sense from your post that though your life may have been confusing sometimes, and maybe even painful, you definitely see the value of bringing your children up as TCKs. That is fantastic! The Third Culture is one of the fastest growing people groups on the planet and you are helping your little ones to be part of that group. What an advantage they will have.

    You go girl!
    Libby