How do you feel when you hear the term ‘Third Culture Kid’ or ‘TCK’? Does it fill you with a warm fuzzy glow or a cold hard dread? Do you feel a sense of belonging or does it reinforce your feelings of the in-between? Do you identify with other associated terms such as globally mobile kid, Cross-Cultural Kid (CCK), expat brat, missionary kid, military brat or global nomad? With a myriad of terms strewn across research, books, social media and day-to-day conversations, it is little wonder that questions arise around the terminology for children who live a life that takes them across and among cultures and worlds.

To continue bringing some clarity to the conversation, this post concludes my 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.

Just some of the globally mobile kids terminology

I offer some of 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.

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

Part Two: The 21st Century Era and Questions Arising from the Third Culture Kid (TCK) Historical Journey

Part Two

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 21stCentury Era

This is the era of the Self-Initiated Expat (SIE). They are not sent by an organization but find a job or contract outside their home country. One big reason for this is businesses now find it very expensive to send expat families abroad. It is much cheaper to hire someone and let them worry about the school expenses, moving expenses, logistics and so on.  Identifying three types of SIEs, Ann went on to the explain each using real life examples.

  1. Currently included in TCK research

Locally Embedded

overseas-american book cover
Gene’s story

Gene lived in Latin America from birth to 18, across four countries. He attended the local school until Grade 11 when he was sent to an American school in Venezuela. He integrated into the local community but “he didn’t have the security of having a language to describe his feelings nor the comfort that immigrants have in knowing, although they are a hybrid between two countries, this is their new home,” said Ann. His Dad was very patriotic, constantly telling Gene he was American and would return to the US for college. “I lived in a fog, absolute confusion, no sense of identity or belonging anywhere,” said Gene.


Expat Integrated

Unable to find suitable teaching positions in the US, Else and Mette now teach at an international school in Europe. Their children are students at the international school and they socialize with people associated with the international. school. They are different from sponsored expats because they get to choose when they move on. They intend to repatriate but they don’t know when. There is no fixed plan. Third Culture Families, as identified by Marielle de Spa, are also expat integrated SIEs. They live largely in the expat community but they do not intend to become a citizen of the host country and have no intention of repatriating or returning home.

  1. Could be included in TCK research but has not been to date

graduateInternational students are often not considered TCK worthy because they are mostly abroad without children yet many graduate students are abroad with children. Technically, the parents are not ‘working’ abroad and the TCK definition is centered around parents ‘working’ abroad. Heidi is South Korean but lived in the Philippines twice whilst her Dad was completing his master’s degree. She attended two different schools and had to learn two languages. She struggled with who she was, then discovered the word TCK. As she read on, however, she realized: “but I’m not a TCK.” She found a tribe, lost it, and feels in limbo because she’s not defined. Should these children be included in the TCK definition because graduate school is a career move and SIE?

  1. Not included in TCK research today

Lifestyle Migrant

These families are not moving because of occupation, they move for lifestyle. Typically from North America and Europe, they want to get away from the lifestyle they dislike to a less materialistic, less competitive, more wonderful lifestyle. Living in the host country for nine months of the year then back in their passport country for three months of the year due to visa requirement, their lifestyle is much simpler than traditional expats yet they live in expat communities of like-minded families. They don’t socialize with the local population. Jobs and education are more intermittent and casual but they aim for their children to qualify for university entrance in their home country through homeschooling or small expat schools. “Do they identify with being a TCK? They would certainly identify with having more than one culture,” Ann said.

Family Migrant

passport stampsAnn had previously believed that a child of a cross-cultural marriage is not a TCK but a Cross-Cultural Kid (CCK). A TCK has to move was her thinking. Then she met Katia who turned her thinking upside down. Katia has lived in two distinct cultures – Russia and England. Her Dad moved permanently to South Africa and her mum remarried and moved to Spain, so she had homes there too. She wasn’t living abroad due to work but she was living abroad because of the people her parents were or with whom they were in long-term relationships. Is she a TCK?

Repatriated Immigrant

These families immigrated to a new country when the children were in elementary school, took citizenship for the new host country, and then repatriated to the passport country as teenagers. In many cases, it is not the plan to return to the passport country when they originally move overseas so the kids grow up thinking the host country is their new home. At some point, however, the parents decide to move back. Are these children TCKs? This needs more research.

Questions Arising from The TCK Historical Journey

Ann’s presentation highlighted the complexity associated with identifying and defining globally mobile children. Her examples show “those who fit but don’t feel and those who feel but currently don’t fit because of how we define TCK,” said Ann. Much has changed yet little has changed; external global forces have seen the globally mobile lifestyle change over time, yet the way we define globally mobile children’s experiences hasn’t kept pace.

Like any good researcher, her historical journey created more questions than it answered.

  • If we expand the TCK definition substantially, are we making it a CCK and is the CCK too broad to be a tribe?
  • What are we missing? “Let’s dig deeper into the definition,” said Ann. For example, is there a difference between military and missionary and diplomat? Sponsored or SIE? Locally or expat embedded? More research is needed on different nationalities, in particular from less developed countries. What about re-entry, particularly for those going back to a traditional culture and if schooling is not done in the home language.
  • We need to compare TCKs with people who identify with the TCK term but are not included in the definition. Is it the same? Are there differences? We need to understand their lifestyle and journey to make an informed decision.
  • “We talk about the home country but what happens when you have parents from two different countries and grandparents from three or four countries? Between them, they have two or three passports and you have four passports – what is your home country? What do passports really mean?” asked Ann.
  • In the past, children grew up in a world where they didn’t have the language to describe what or who they were but now, at least at some international schools, they talk about the TCK term. Is it a meaningful term to the modern day TCK? Is it comforting? Is it boring? Is it ‘don’t give me another box?’

Thanks to Ann’s presentation, we now know the foundations of the terminology to describe globally mobile children. It’s time to build upon them and plan where we are going from here.

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

Further Reading Resources


Ann Baker Cottrell

Families in Global Transition

FIGT Research Network

Journal of Cross Cultural Family Studies

Ruth van Reken


Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, 3rd Ed,  David C. Pollock, Ruth E. van Reken & Michael V Pollock, Nicolas Brealey Publishing, 2017

Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Overseas in the 21st Century, Tanya Crossman, UK: Summertime Publishing 2016

Relevant Links

Third Culture Kids: Prototypes for Understanding Other Cross-Cultural Kids, Ruth van Reken, 2017





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