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Defining Key Terms: TCKs

For any Third Culture Kid (TCK), it can be a challenge to answer the question “Where are you from?” since it could potentially mean any of the following: Where were you born? Where did you grow up? What is your passport country or nationality? What is the last place you lived? Where are your parents? Where did you graduate? Where do you live now? Keeping in mind cultural context and who is asking the question, TCKs may want to give a “five second” response to “Where are you from?” such as, “Due to my parent’s work, I have lived most of my life in __________, but am originally from ___________” or “I grew up in several countries, but most recently moved from ___________.”


The classic explanation of a TCK is “an individual who has grown up in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of nationality during their child development years.” More specifically, TCKs are dependents of military, foreign service, or NGO personnell, international school educators, adult learner university exchange students, missionary/cross-cultural workers, and corporate expats.


A “traditional” TCK is a subcategory of Cross-Cultural Kids (CCK). A CCK is an individual who has lived in—or meaningfully interacted with—two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during their developmental years. The main difference between a “traditional” TCK and other CCK categories (as shown in this model) is the high mobility factor in living in multiple countries during their adolescent developmental years. A CCK does not necessarily have high mobility in different countries like a TCK does.


The “third culture” in this term refers to the distinct cultural ties a TCK has with others who have significant cross-cultural experiences. 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/or has lived before.

The main difference between a “traditional” TCK and other CCK categories is the high mobility factor in living in multiple countries during their adolescent developmental years.

TCK/CCK terminology describes an experience and profile, not an identity. This means that an individual who has grown up in one or multiple places during their adolescent years as a Third Culture Kid may experience different qualities and characteristics in their identity makeup that contribute to their perception of belonging, attachment, and association with their passport country, nationality, extended family, interests, food preferences, etc. It’s important for parents, educators, and mentors to normalize, celebrate, and support the both/and of these experiences, because there are both benefits and challenges to the TCK experience!


TCKs lead paradoxical lives; their global upbringing includes both benefits and challenges. In and through their international moves they can develop positive skills such as cultivating an expanded worldview, improving linguistic abilities, and learning cultural agility. And at the same time, they can also experience challenges surrounding their identity, sense of belonging, and maintaining community.

TCKs lead paradoxical lives; their global upbringing includes both benefits and challenges.

TCKs are resilient because they have learned to lean into the discomfort of stretching their comfort zones. From an early age, they have had to regulate and balance themselves when introduced to new routines and rhythms in different countries. Resilience is produced as they have exercised the skills to adapt in transition. Understanding that they have choices in transition has equipped them with the ability to know that they are not out of control when things in their life are in transition. Because of their multiple country transitions, they know that they can control their perspective on change and understand it typically involves both the hard—fear, anger, sadness, tension—and the good—happiness, anticipation, and gratitude.


TCKs have a sense of confidence as they adapt. Since they have had several opportunities to normalize crossing cultures and adapting to different environments, they are equipped to tolerate ambiguity. TCKs are expectant of the chaos and challenges that come with transitions and have the ability to hold space for the hard and good of it all. They have learned that being resilient means possessing the ability to react and respond reasonably to a situation. In drawing upon their past experiences with transitions, TCKs are confident walking through both the messy and magic middle of change. It’s important for them and the family to reflect on what worked well and what didn’t work well so that they learn how to move confidently through future transitions.

TCKs are resilient in cultivating connections because they understand that shared identity can come in many ways.

With frequent international moves, cultivating a sense of belonging, building community, and maintaining relationships can be challenges for TCKs. Helping TCKs identify their relational health and wealth “anchors” with family, friends, and mentors can support their sense of belonging in many places and to many people. Creating connections and relationships is important to help TCKs self-regulate and adjust well. TCKs are resilient in cultivating connections because they understand that shared identity can come in many ways. It’s not necessarily through common language; it could be through a common sport or other pastime activity. Because TCKs typically have multiple connections to people, they can feel a part of larger communities. They become resilient because they know they have caring relationships around the world.


TCKs often possess admirable qualities and skills that they can contribute to and invest in their community both locally and globally. TCKs are relational. They are respectful. And they are resourceful. Because of their practiced and learned resiliency, they have the ability to contribute their skill sets and experiences to others. Where others may despair, compare, and wonder, “How can I enact change?” TCKs often have the connections and the confidence to know where to begin and what is within their power to contribute to positive change. Their ability to challenge with care and to act in culturally appropriate ways allows them to build cultural bridges through their passions, ideas, and actions.


Third Culture Kid teens are resilient, resourceful, clever, creative, and flexible. For their entire lives they have not only practiced but also excelled at adapting to new cultural situations and learning new ways of being and of doing. There are many ways your church can invest in them and many ways they can invest in your church.

For more on being a Third Culture Kid, check out the following handout.

 

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