Who Are Cross Cultural Kids?

Third Culture Kids: Prototypes for Understanding Other Cross-Cultural Kids

Ruth E. Van Reken

Who are Third Culture Kids (TCKs)?

“Children who accompany their parents into another culture [usually for a parent’s career choice.]”

—Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, Sociologist, Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University, Originator of the term

“A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s). Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. ”

— David C. Pollock, developer of the TCK Profile, founder, Interaction, Inc., co-author Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds

Some groups that belong to the traditional Third Culture

The Third Culture Model

@Model designed by Ruth E. Van Reken 1987

As Ruth Useem wrote in an early article describing the Third Culture, “each of these subcultures [community of expatriates] generated by colonial administrators, missionaries, businessmen, and military personnel—had its own peculiarities, slightly different origins, distinctive styles, and stratification systems, but all were closely interlocked.”1

In other words, for all the differences of background, nationality, ethnicity, and purpose for living internationally among the groups, there were some fundamentals they all shared that transcended those differences. It was here in the early days of cross-cultural interchanges that a new way of looking at “culture” began. It was also here that the impact of how such a lifestyle impacted children began as well.

Common characteristics of Third Culture experience (for adults as well as kids)

  • Cross-cultural lifestyle
  • High mobility
  • Expected repatriation
  • Often a “system identity” with sponsoring organization/business (e.g. military, missionary, corporate, foreign service)

Common personal characteristics of TCKs (children who grow up in this world)

  • Large world view
  • Language acquisition
  • Can be cultural bridges
  • Rootlessness—“Home” is everywhere and nowhere
  • Restlessness
  • Sense of belonging is often in relationship to others of similar background rather than shared race or ethnicity alone

Major challenges

  • Cultural identity
    • “ Cultural marginality ”2
      • “Cultural marginality” describes an experience in which people don’t tend to fit perfectly into any one of the cultures to which they have been exposed or with which they have interacted, but may fit comfortably on the edge, in the margins, of each. (For how that relates to TCKs see http://www.worldweave.com/BSidentity.html)
  • Unresolved grief
    • Many of their losses are not visible or recognized by others. With no language or understanding to process these losses, many TCKs never learned how to deal with them as they happened and the grief comes out in other ways (e.g. denial, anger, depression, extreme busyness, etc.).

Recognizing the third culture kid (TCK) experience as a “petri dish” for understanding others in our changing world

In 1984, Dr. Ted Ward, of Michigan State University, stated that TCKs 3 were the “prototype citizens” of the future. 4 In other words, the experience of growing up in and amid many cultures coupled with a mobile lifestyle would one day be the norm rather than the exception as it was in the early days of Dr. Useem’s initial studies.

Because of that, it is important to look at the TCK experience as a “petri dish”—a place where certain factors related to such a lifestyle have already been isolated and studied. As we do that, we can begin to apply lessons learned to a larger group of children and adults that is currently emerging…those individuals who are growing up or have grown up as what we are now calling cross cultural kids.

(CCKs)—children who grow up among many cultural environments for any reason.

As we understand what CCKs share, we can also look more deeply at the specific issues each sub-group faces. By looking at the world of CCKs in similar fashion to how we have studied the TCK experience, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel the shared dynamics of each subgroup. Such an approach will give all of us an opportunity to develop more universal language for what we share while helping us more clearly delineate the circumstances that are, in fact, group specific. Such a process will not only increase our understanding of the world around us, but also help us share the lessons we have already learned from and about the experience of a globally mobile childhood.

How the world is changing

What “normal” used to be

  • Prior to WWII, most people grew up and lived in stable (not highly mobile) monocultural communities
  • Most people lived in the same community for much or all of their lives, often near family
  • When people traveled, they usually traveled for fun rather than relocation. Their roots remained stationary

Because of that….

  • People had strong sense of cultural balance due to a deep, intuitive understanding of how things in that place operated—definite role models ahead of them
  • “Us/them” labels clearly delineated—sense of belonging to community usually strong.
  • Sense of personal identity also strong— “This is my tribe. It’s where and to whom I belong.”

What is now becoming normal

  • With increased transportation and trade, many families live in a lifestyle where cultural boundaries are no longer clear
    • For some, the cultural rules change with every airplane ride
    • For others, a move to another part of their home country (or even city!) can be a major cross-cultural move
    • For still others, the diversity has come to where they live. They may make a cross-cultural switch each evening when they leave school or a job.

Because of that…

  • Fewer and fewer truly monocultural communities left.
  • Traditional ways a community defines “us/them” is breaking down. Now, who is “us?” Who is “them?” Who defines?
  • Sense of personal identity also a new challenge. To which group do I belong?

Who are Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs)?

Due to all these changes, there are more children than ever who can rightfully be called Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs)—

A Cross-Cultural Kid ( CCK) is a person who has lived in—or meaningfully interacted with—two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.”

    • Ruth E. Van Reken, co-author, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, 2002

Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs) Model

This group includes:

  • Traditional TCKs –Children who move into another culture with parents due to a parent’s career choice
  • Bi/multi-cultural/ and/or bi/multi-racial children —Children born to parents from at least two cultures or races
  • Children of immigrants —Children whose parents have made a permanent move to a new country where they were not originally citizens
  • Children of refugees —Children whose parents are living outside their original country or place due to unchosen circumstances such as war, violence, famine, other natural disasters
  • Children of minorities —Children whose parents are from a racial or ethnic group which is not part of the majority race or ethnicity of the country in which they live.
  • International adoptees —Children adopted by parents from another country other than the one of that child’s birth
  • “Domestic” TCKs —Children whose parents have moved in or among various subcultures within that child’s home country.
    • Special note: Children are often in more than one of these circles at the same time. (e.g. A traditional TCK who is also from a minority group; a child of immigrants whose parents are from two different cultures, etc.) This helps us understand the growing complexity of the issues we face in our changing world .


Observations from the literature and experience

Cultural marginality recognized for most groups but not potential or hidden losses

Table Comparing Common Factors of Third Culture Kids’ (TCKs) Upbringing with Those of Other Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs)

 Cross-cultural interactions
 Cycles of Mobility
 Anticpated repatriation
 Organizational System Identity
 Appearance compared to surrounding majority culture
 Socio-economic factors
 Group specific issues/hidden losses
High Change cultural environments frequently
High Repetitive Between countries
Very often Usually the sponsoring agency/ corporation.
May change with each move
Varies but many live with certain “status” due to parent’s career
Each sector deals with issues specific to their purpose for existing
Children of immigrants
Likely to be high
1.Probably interacts with very different cultural worlds daily—at home and at school/work
1.Big move to new country
2. May or may not travel within new country or back to visit country of origin
Less often
Depends where they came from, where they immigrated to
All socio- economic groups included
Loss of lifestyle in original country
International adoptees
Depends Some keep contact with country of origin while living in adoptive parents’ cultural world
1.Usually one major original move. After that, depends on family
Not usually
Depends Often different from majority culture of adoptive parents
Often middle to upper socio-economic scale as it is expensive to adopt internationally
Face normal adoption issues as well as cultural issues
Children of refugees
Depends. Live in the culture of the refugee situation but often it exists in the midst of another cultural world of the non-refugees around them
1.May be high mobility for short or long periods
2.May be little for long time while in refugee camp
Hoping so
Not usually but can begin to get their identity primarily as “refugees”
Depends where they are refugees and where they have come from.
Generally poor. Even those with means often cannot access them during a war or crisis and live in an impoverished situation
Often have faced the violence of war, starvation, displacement…may still be living in fear of current and future violence
Children of non-immigrant minorities
1. Some live in a strong subculture and change cultural worlds each day from school to home. 2. Others live more like majority culture- don’t exchange cultural worlds as markedly day by day
1.For some, mobility between cultural worlds is daily2.Others live In a one more monocultural environment for years3.Some move for parent’s job like any other family
Citizens already
Sponsoring system is not the most usualplace for identity per se but I can depend on parent’s career
Usually unlike surrounding majority culture
All socio- economic groups included
Can face issues of prejudice because of ethnicity/nationality
Bi-racial/ bi-cultural children
1.On frequency of interaction with each parent’s cultural world
2. If they have one strong ethnic culture at home and another in their school/job
1. On where parents are from
2. How often they visit family who live afar
1. To which parent’s culture? 2. Some are dual citizens
Not necessarily
May resemble in one culture, not another, maybe in both, may be in neither
All socio- economic groups included
May face issues of rejection from one parent’s cultural group or another or both
“Domestic” TCKs
Our definition assumes the moves have been between different cultural communities in home country
Have moved from place to place
Citizens already
Depends on parent’s career
May be same as or different from majority with each move
All socio- economic groups are included
Face many of the same issues traditional TCKs face of rootlessness, etc.

What are common patterns you see in the various experiences?

What is the “new norm” developing for how children learn culture?

What is the impact of this changing process? Why?

Why #1—Understanding identity issues
Why a cross-cultural childhood matters

What is culture?

  • “Customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” —Webster’s Tenth Collegiate Dictionary
  • “. . . System of shared assumptions, beliefs and values. It is the framework from which we interpret and make sense of life and the world around us.” — Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology, 2d ed.

The role of the visible and invisible layers of culture

A look at Drs. Robert Kohl/Gary Weaver’s cultural iceberg

The Cultural Iceberg

used by permission in Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds

Historically, the visible elements of culture have been used to both express and identify the invisible layers. In today’s world, the visible expressions of culture are becoming more uniform throughout the world but the elements in the invisible layer are much slower to change. The result is more confusion between people because what they expect the person to be when they first meet isn’t necessarily how/who the person is.

How is culture learned?

  • From those in the surrounding environment including parents, extended family, teachers, peers, caregivers, etc.

How is a sense of cultural balance learned?

  • Learn the cultural rules/mores as a child
  • Test the cultural rules/mores as an adult
  • Internalize and work from the cultural rules/more as an adult

What is the role of culture?

  • Gives sense of
    • Belonging
    • Identity
    • Confidence
  • Why?
    • If you know the “rules” you are seen as an “us” rather than a “them”
    • If you know the rules inside, you can operate with confidence that you will not so easily make a social mistake that might damage relationship

How do CCKs learn culture compared to monocultural kids?

  • The same way all children do—from the world around them
    • The difference is not in the process but in the world in which they learn culture.
      • In traditional societies, most members of the community share the same values, beliefs, customs, traditions, etc. In a CCKs world, they are often interacting with many and varied cultural communities either simultaneously or each they move from one cultural environment to the other(s).

Looking at the Possible Multiple Cultures of a CCK’s World

Adapted from chart for GNI’s copyrighted by Norma McCaig Founder of Global Nomads International Used with permission

While the specific cultural worlds may have different in the various circles for each type of CCKs, once we understand that the difference between how a traditional monocultural children and CCKs learn culture is not the process but the worlds in which they learn it, we go a long way to normalizing the CCK experience. In looking at the above chart, just think of the multiple cultures that CCKs interact with from their earliest days. Ironically, this is a very normal world and way to live for most CCKs.

The result of this new world and way of cultural learning?

  • Traditional patterns of “belonging” may no longer exist.

CCKs in Relationship to Surrounding Dominant Culture


Look different

Think different


Look alike

Think different



Look different

Think alike



Look alike

Think alike

Copyright 1996-David C. Pollock/Ruth E. Van Reken 5

The stress for most CCKs is not from the multiplicity of cultures they experience in their childhood but comes when they try to repatriate or fit into some other cultural box others expect them to belong to but which is being defined in racial, nationalistic, or other more traditional ways of defining “culture”.

Ironically, when CCKs are in the foreigner or mirror box, who they are inside is what others expect them to be when looking from the outside. Their identity is clear and life is relatively simple. When, however, they are in the hidden immigrant or adopted box, life can become quite complicated. Who others expect them to be is not who they are because they have learned their cultural cues amid and among various cultural groups.

Another challenge for CCKs is that they may be changing boxes as their mobility takes them from one cultural community or environment to another. Depending on their circumstances, some CCKs never know what it is to live in either the Foreigner or Mirror boxes where identities are relatively clear but may always be in one of the more ambiguous boxes of the Hidden Immigrant or Adopted. The reality of the challenges many CCKs face begins to grow!

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts to give a CCK is to acknowledge the reality that this world of multiple cultures they have experienced as children is a valid place of belonging, even if not rooted in one geographical place or ethnicity. Need to stop “pathologizing” the issues but begin to perhaps define new norms.

Recognize common reactions as CCKs try to sort out their identity issues

  • “Chameleon”—tries to find “same as” identity
  • “Screamer”—tries to find “different from” identity
  • “Wallflower”—tries to find “non-identity”

The fallout

  • In the end, even parents and children in the same family may not necessarily share
    • A common sense of national identity
    • A similar sense of “Where is home?”
  • Adult CCKs and spouses/significant others from the same passport country(s) may not realize they have a truly cross-cultural relationship
  • Those in the workplace may make wrong assumptions about fellow employees which can lead to unnecessary friction

Why these things happen

  • Often the “hidden diversity” or “hidden identity” of a CCK is unrecognized…even in the home, a relationship, at work, etc.

Our traditional ways of defining identity/diversity….

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Socio-economic
  • Ethnicity
  • Nationality
  • Sexual orientation

Are they generally in the visible or invisible portion of the iceberg?

  • All but sexual orientation are in the visible layer of culture.
  • Revisit the cultural identity box and rethink it in comparison to “visible and invisible” aspects. How does that compare with the iceberg?

That means if we keep ONLY our previous definitions and assumptions on diversity and culture….

May easily put people in the wrong “slots” and wind up with more alienation and stereotyping than before

  • We will miss the reasons behind behavior or emotional responses as we won’t understand the significant but often unrecognized losses some people experience as CCKs.

Important to remember

  • Diversity is not simply a difference in the visible layers of culture…see—“British, Asian and Educated, but No Role Model for Diversity” by Sathnam Sanghera
  • The impact of an cross-cultural childhood can be a “hidden diversity”
    • Affects worldview
    • Affects the dynamics of family living
    • This is what often leads to the sense of “cultural marginality”
      • CCKs of all sorts can’t fit the pre-assigned boxes

Why # 2–Understanding unresolved grief issues
Why a highly mobile childhood matters

Adding the mobility piece for CCKs …

  • Is it as significant as the cross-cultural piece?
  • Is it MORE significant?
  • Does it have ANY significance?

How we can begin to assess mobility piece?

  • Can compare/contrast to TCK experience, e.g.
  • Cycles of mobility
  • Frequency of mobility
  • Community of mobility
  • Ask new questions:
    • Are we seeing signs of grief?
    • Are we seeing signs of mourning?
      • If so, what are the losses?
      • Same, different, from TCKs?

What creates “high mobility” in a CCK’s world?

  • See chart on pages 5-6. Can be international mobility, local between subcultures, sporadic when returning to visit original culture, between parental cultures, etc.

What happens with each move?

  • To varying degrees, many of these moves are transition experiences. With every transition there is loss as well as gain. Depending on the amount and frequency of the mobility, the amount may be significantly different but even in situations where are less obvious cycles of mobility, there may be hidden losses.
  • Loss always results in a grief process…if loss is small, it may go almost unnoticed, but in larger losses, the grief is significant and may result in long term conscious or uncounscious mourning.

Expressions of unresolved grief

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Withdrawal
  • Rebellion
  • Vicarious grief
  • Delayed grief

Why grief is often unresolved

  • Lack of awareness—“Hidden losses”
  • Lack of permission to grieve
  • Lack of time to process
  • Lack of comfort

How can we help apply lessons learned from helping TCKs to others?

1. Realize for ourselves and educate others that until we know any person’s story, we can’t make any assumptions about who that person is.

2. Start with assumption of our sameness rather than difference.

  • While each person is obviously “different from” each other person, maintaining an identity by difference alone leads to isolation, alienation, and further fractionating. A “different from” identity as an only identity is ultimately a negative identity for we must constantly seek (and emphasize) the differences in order to maintain a sense of self. In such situations people may never move past who they are not to find out who they are.
  • A more positive sense of identity recognizes that no matter the culture, ethnicity, nationality, race, etc. we all share human characteristics such as:
  • A need for relationships
  • A need to express our emotions
  • A need to think and wonder
  • A need to be creative
  • A need for physical safety and rest
  • A need for a sense of belonging

For those who have felt culturally marginalized in the traditional places, it is here we can begin to realize we are still full fledged members of the human race. We can even relate to those who may not be of like experience or who are “fellow marginals.”

3. A recognition of sameness, however, also allows us to celebrate “difference”—the differences of our various cultural worlds.

  • Once our identity is not tied to having to “fit” a particular mold that we, or others, have set out for us, we are freed to enjoy and celebrate the many ways people around the world find their way to express or fulfill these common needs. We don’t have to deny one part of our cultural “selves” to embrace another. We can be “all of the above” rather than having to pick and choose just one part of our story.

4. Help “depathologize” how others may perceive or interpret the CCK experience. How?

  • Educate
    • Read and circulate magazines such as Among Worlds and apply lessons there to larger world of CCKs
    • Hold seminars
      • Include this in diversity programs
      • In service training for educators, counselors, HR, parents
  • Get new language
    • Can we change words like “cultural marginality” to a less alienating sounding terms? (and discuss if we are having such an increase in “marginality”, who is left at the center of the group? How do we define a CCK experience positively?)
    • Can we add new terms to help give us more language? e.g.
      • Hidden Diversity — adiversity of experience that shapes a person’s life and world view but is not readily apparent on the outside, unlike the usual diversity markers such as race, ethnicity, nationality, etc. . Paulette Bethel & Ruth E.Van Reken, 2003.

5. Understanding unresolved grief may be a factor behind otherwise non-understandable behavior

  • Look for ways find help for person to identify and deal with losses directly
  • Make sure if referred to a counselor, that person has understanding of potential hidden losses

Click here to find out how this applies to the educational process.


Ruth Hill Useem, “Third Cultural Factors in Educational Change,” in Cultural Challenges to Education: The Influence of Cultural Factors in School Learning, edited by Cole S. Brembeck and Walker H. Hill (Lexington, MA: Lexington Book, 1973), 122.

These are excerpts from “Phoenix Rising: A Question of Cultural Identity”—an excellent article on cultural marginality as experienced by TCKs. It is written by Barbara Schaetti and the entire article can be found at http://www.worldweave.com/BSidentity.html

“Children who accompany their parents into another culture [usually for a parent’s career choice.]”

— Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, Sociologist, Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University, Originator of the term

4 Plenary talk at ICMK Manila, October, 1984.

David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, Nicholas Brealey/Intercultural Press, London, p. 53.


  1. […] Along with the benefits of a cross-cultural life, TCKs can also make personal sacrifices as a result of nations expanding their interests into new frontiers, similar to the man in Where Is Everybody?, who symbolizes the sacrifices NASA astronauts and other employees made as space travel became one of the nation’s priorities. (I left a few details out so you could possibly enjoy some element of surprise if you have not seen it yet).  The children (TCKs) and spouses (Third Culture Adults) of those with a globally mobile career have our share of sacrifices as a result of being sent out to international postings.  TCKs and Third Culture Adults sacrifice stability of the living environment and staying close to family members, such as parents, siblings, other extended family members and, in some cases, children.  TCKs and Third Culture Adults also experience feeling different and isolated as a result of frequently being uprooted, which has the greatest impact during the developmental years, and experiences like feeling like an outsider in your own birth country.  (You may read more about the the experiences of Third Culture Kids in David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken’s Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds) […]

  2. […] The full presentation from this workshop can be found here. All parents may also find the work on Third Culture Kids by Ruth Van Reken useful too. Please note that previous workshop resources can also be found on the […]

  3. […] between worlds and across conventions extends beyond third culture kids, the culturally blended, the culturally mobile, bicultural children, multiracial children, children of immigrants, and […]

  4. […] frequent in today’s world, and Ruth van Reken has extended the traditional phrase “TCK” to “CCK” (cross-cultural kid), which include other categories of children who move frequently. Among […]

  5. […] BONUS: Remember that culture plays a key factor in understanding patients’ backgrounds. See Ruth Van Reken’s website for some interesting twists in culture in our globalized […]

  6. […] Van Reken’s Cross-Cultural Kid.org (TCK resources and […]

  7. […] 1974 at age 17, I found myself at a challenging intersection of faith & culture. I was a third-culture kid recently returned to the US from thirteen years of life in Africa. I had recently graduated from […]

  8. […] 1974 at age 17, I found myself at a challenging intersection of faith & culture. I was a third-culture kid recently returned to the US from thirteen years of life in Africa. I had recently graduated from […]