Have you noticed the number of social media posts questioning the terminology around children who live a life that takes them across and among cultures and worlds? Third Culture Kid (TCK), globally mobile kid, Cross-Cultural Kid (CCK), expat brat, missionary kid, military brat, global nomad are just a few of the terms floating around. As one term resonates with a certain individual, that same term repels another. To bring some clarity to this conversation, I have created a two part series drawing on the wisdom of Dr Ann Baker Cottrell. Ann studied under Drs John and Ruth Hill Useem, who coined the term ‘Third Culture’ and ‘Third Culture Kid’ and subsequently, became part of their research team. Presenting her research at the Families in Global Transition conference in 2017, Ann took participants on an historical journey, through real life examples, to raise questions about our 21st century use of terminology describing globally mobile kids.

“I’m a sociologist so before I move ahead I want to know where I’ve been, I want to know the foundations (in order) to know where we’re going from here.” Dr Ann Baker Cottrell
Just some of the globally mobile kids terminology

Over the next two blog posts, I will share my insights from Ann’s research and presentation of a modern history of globally mobile children as a way to understand the complexity that surrounds the terminology. I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

Part One: The Colonial Era and The Post-Colonial Era

Part Two: The 21st Century Era and Questions Arising from the TCK Historical Journey

Part One

Ann Baker Cottrell, a highly regarded researcher of globally mobile children, began her presentation with the words, “I am significantly unqualified to talk about childhood mobility let alone international mobility. I am the quintessential mono-cultural.” Although she did belong to the one family home from the age of six until she was 45, Ann studied under Drs John and Ruth Hill Useem, who coined the term ‘Third Culture’ and ‘Third Culture Kid.’ Subsequently, she became part of their research team and as an adult, living abroad for stints of one to two years in four different countries so she is qualified to talk about childhood international mobility.

“Eons ago when I was researching globally mobile kids, the definitions were clear and the categories were obvious. Today more people are moving in more and more different ways. I’m increasingly not so sure, what we mean by the terms we’re using,” said Ann, a Sociology Professor Emeritus at San Diego State University. Cross Cultural Kids (CCK), Domestic CCK, International CCK, Third Culture Kids (TCK), Global Nomads and Immigrants are just some of the terms used to identify globally mobile children.

A Modern History of Globally Mobile Children

The modern history of globally mobile children can be divided into three eras: the Colonial Era from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s, the Post-Colonial Era from the 1950s to the late 1900s and the 21stCentury Era. A dominant pattern of global mobility can be identified in each era but, according to Ann, “that’s not to say other types of globally mobile children don’t exist in other periods.”

The Colonial Era

Regarded as being between the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s, the Colonial Era saw the globally mobile landscape dominated by colonial administrators and missionaries. We read about this era in the work of Rudyard Kipling and Pearl Buck.

Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling

Representatives being sent by their country or church to another country, to do the work of that country or church, characterize this era. Typically they were from rich or developed countries and went to the less developed world. Relations in these countries between the expats and the ‘natives’ as they were called, were hierarchical – ruler/ruled or superior/inferior. Often multi-generational, careers abroad were typically life-long, staying in the one country, resulting in much higher learning of the local language and culture. For example, Kipling’s first language was Hindi and Buck’s first language was Chinese. Schooling was different between colonial administrators and missionaries. Colonials sent their children home for their entire schooling. Missionaries tended to be educated abroad, often homeschooled, before returning to their home country for college.


Exemplifying the Colonial Era, we were introduced to Rona and Ruth.

Rona is a British, second generation colonial. All four of her grandparents were in the colonial service in India. Both her parents were born in India but were sent back to Britain for their entire schooling without their parents. Some stayed with extended family, others lived in foster homes created specifically for British children coming back from India. Rona’s parents lived in Africa from before she was born until she was an adult. Her entire elementary education was in Africa – homeschool or day school nearby her family or boarding school in Kenya. She returned to Britain for the first time as a boarder in high school. An example of the multi-generational pattern, as an adult, Rona and her American husband spent a few years in Indonesia on a technical assistance program.

Ruth (van Reken) is an American, second generation Missionary. Her paternal grandparents were missionaries in Persia, now Iran. Her father was homeschooled but went back to the United States in high school, with his mother. Ruth lived in Nigeria from birth to 17 years of age with two US furloughs. Her elementary schooling experience comprised of homeschooling and boarding school locally. She was sent to US for high school and lived with her grandmother. Another example of the multi-generational long involvement, Ruth also went back to Africa as an adult missionary and raised her own Third Culture Kids (TCK).

The Post-Colonial Era

Beginning after World War II, the Post-Colonial Era occurred between the 1950s and the late 1900s. Diplomats, business people, military personnel, technical assistants and others working for international organizations, the media, humanitarian groups and education professionals were sponsored by their organizations to be there.

With the end of colonial rule and the end of World War II, there was a significant change in attitudes about international relations. A lot of aspiration, hope and idealism about the project of modernising or developing the third world, brought many new kids of people being sent out by their sponsoring organizations. As with the colonial era, they came mainly from the developed countries to the less developed countries but the relationships changed. They were more egalitarian, coordinated relations, not superior/inferior – at least in principle. Overseas assignments were shorter and likely to be in multiple countries. This meant globally mobile families were less likely to learn the local language and children were more likely to stay abroad with the family for a longer period of time. “This was a new kind of international order and full of idealism,” says Ann.

Ruth and John Useem
Ruth & John Useem

Into this new world dropped John and Ruth Hill Useem, American sociologists wanted to understand how this new world order worked. Moving to India with their three sons, they studied American expats living and working in India in the 1950s, 95% of whom were sponsored. They wanted to learn how representative Americans, worked with their Indian counterparts. As they observed these people, the Useems realized they created a culture for their working space. It wasn’t Indian and it wasn’t American. “It was a mix for that in between space and they called it, for short hand, the ‘Third Culture.’ They had absolutely no intention for that to be theword but before they knew it, the word got out. People heard it, people loved it and there was no going back, which is why we have the ‘Third Culture’ or ‘The In Between’,” explained Ann.

Although she was doing this research with her husband, Ruth was also an expat wife and an expat mother. As a sociologist she took a lot of interest in the other expat wives and children who had moved to India because of their husbands’ and fathers’ work (as was the reality at that time). The children were being raised in the Third Culture by their parents and she called them Third Culture Kids. She was amongst the first researchers to ask the question, what does this mean to the kids? “This was a really radical idea,” says Ann, “nobody cared about what it meant to the kids. If you wanted to know anything about children’s lives in an earlier period, you read autobiographies, biographies and novels written by people who’d had the expat life. The only research literature was on missionaries and that was limited.”


Ruth recognized, regardless of nationality, sponsor or where they lived, TCKs and their families shared a culture of living outside their home, between nations or in between spaces and never being of the host country. She realized this as a culture, based on the shared experience and not geography, nation, ethnic group, race or nationality. “This was really hard for other sociologists to swallow because for a sociologist, a culture is based in a geography or skin color or something like that,” said Ann. Having identified and named this new tribe, Ruth then recruited a lot of people to do PhD research of TCKs. This was the first real body of research on this culture. It helped identify some of the characteristics that we recognize today.

Ann introduced us to five individuals who grew up as TCKs during this post-colonial era. Tayo and Lance stood out.

Tayo is the son of a Nigerian diplomat who spent more than half his life outside his home country, educated largely in international schools. “Tayo is important because he reminds us that not only do TCKs go everywhere, they come from everywhere,” says Ann. It’s easy to forget when you read the literature on TCKs as it tends to be somewhat American based.

Lance is Ann’s son. He lived overseas twice because of Ann’s work as an academic but mostly grew up in San Diego. He fits the TCK definition because he spent two years abroad during his developmental years but he does not identify with the TCK term. It’s meaningless to him. “We need to recognize that the fact that you lived abroad doesn’t make you identify as a TCK,” said Ann.

TCKs Growing Up Among Worlds bookcoverIn the 1970s, David Pollock found the TCK research as it fitted with some of the work he was doing with missionary kids. “He got the word out of the libraries and into the light of day where people could get a hold of it because the dissertation research just wasn’t reaching the people,” said Ann. He created the TCK profile and joined forces with Ruth van Reken to write the book which many people call ‘The Bible, because it was the source of so many epiphanies and so many ‘aha’ moments. For many of the individuals Ann used in her presentation, words that exemplified these epiphany moments included:  “finally”; “fit”; “others like me”; “not alone”; “have a home”; “family”; “people”; “have an identity”; “I’m not a freak”; “I’m not weird.”

This article was written by Jane Barron and originally published in Insights and Interviews from the 2017 Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference – Building on the Basics: Creating Your Tribe on The Move

Stay tuned for Part Two: The 21st Century Era and Questions Arising from the TCK Historical Journey in our next blog post.

Image Credits: TCK Terminology and Ruth & John Useem – Dr Ann Baker Cottrell; Rudyard Kipling – flavorwire.com; Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds 3rd ed – FIGT Bookstore


2 thoughts on “Globally Mobile Children: One Tribe or Many? Part One

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