Digging deeper

Explaining the terms and why families are so important for TCKs

The development and definition of the TCK-term

Over the past 60-70 years many passionate researchers have tirelessly worked on understanding TCKs and trying to define them and their story. Up until today, several terms have established among experts and concerned parties. Pollock, Van Reken, and Pollock (2017) have developed the most current and widely-used definition of the term Third Culture Kid (TCK):

A traditional third culture kid (TCK) is a person who spends a significant part of his or her first eighteen years of life accompanying parent(s) into a country that is different from at least one parent’s passport country(ies) due to a parent’s choice of work or advanced training.

Pollock, Van Reken, and Pollock (2017)

So, why are we talking about THIRD culture kids?

And what is the third culture and where does it come from? In the 1960s, Drs. Ruth Hill Useem and John Useem (Useem, Donoghue, & Useem, 1963) first described some type of culture developing among mobile children. In contrast to frequent misunderstandings though, the third culture does not refer to a culture in the classical definition. It simply represents the social cohesion and mutuality of the history, lifestyle and experiences those children make, independent of their birthplace, parents’ origins, religions or relocation reasons (Plamondon, 2011). Imagine: a Japanese and a Spanish TCK will feel closer to each other than to their “non-mobile” compatriots because both TCKs have made the same experiences of moving, of changing schools, of losing friends, of starting all over. They will understand each other without even having to extensively explain the whole context and (hi)story.

Newer term developments: Global Nomads or Cross-Cultural Kids

Global Nomads is another term in use to describe mobile children and it has been established by Norma McCaig (Schaetti, 2015). Ruth Van Reken came up with the description Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs) to include children and adolescents from all aspects of multicultural environments (Pollock, Van Reken, & Pollock, 2017).

A little bit about TCK Research and what elements researchers look at

Simultaneously with establishing a definition (and even before that), researchers have investigated factors positively or negatively affecting the well-being of children on the move. One factor I find very fascinating (because I am generally very interested in Bowlby’s attachment theory) is family attachment and relationships of TCKs. Attachment can be defined as “an affectional tie or bond that one individual (person or animal) forms between himself and another specific individual” (Ainsworth, 1973).

Attachment, TCKs and their families

However, the question I am asking myself is: How much attachment, and with whom can TCKs form attachment if they are continually moving around the globe? Certainly, the nuclear family (parents and siblings) as the only stable relationships for a TCK play a crucial role for their attachment development and consequently for their feeling of safety and security through all the transitioning. Many families have no choice but relying on wonderful helpers and nannies to take care of their children while posted abroad, at the same time those relationships are temporary and imply yet another break-up of close ties when moving.

Some insights into related research

I totally agree with Barbara Schaetti (2002) who points to the importance of attachment figures and their consistent availability for the children. The research I conducted for my Master Thesis also confirmed what Ota (2014) already emphasised: family attachment and cohesion of globally mobile families are linked to the quality of the emotional experience during their time of moving as a family. On top of that: a common mobile childhood and joint family experience can have a positive impact on the family relationships with parents and siblings (Baker Cortrell, 2007) and might bring families closer together. Family relationships are in the position to create stability since those are the only lasting relationships and, hence, essential ones for TCKs (Lijadi, & Van Schalkwyk, 2014).

Summing up what research says

In most research, family unfolded as one crucial factor for TCKs on the move. Accompanying family and the TCKs’ attachment to them is the only stable element in the life of a TCK for many years of cultural moving. It must constitute a vital part in the stabilisation and absorption of the impacts of a mobile lifestyle. “Family is at the heart of the interactions between TCKs and places they lived” as Lijadi and Schalkwyk (2017) state, and Ota (2014) highlights: “A child needs to feel his or her attachment are present and available before being able to launch into this world with confidence”.

References & Further Reading

Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1973). The development of infant-mother attachment. In B.M. Caldwell & H.N. Ricciuti (eds.). Review of child development research. Chicago, US: University of Chicago Press.

Baker Cortrell, A. (2007). Adult TCKs: Life choices, commitment and personal characteristics. Paper presented at the 8th Family In Global Transition Conference, Houston, TX, USA.

Lijadi, A.A., & Van Schalkwyk, G.J. (2014). Narratives of Third Culture Kids: Commitment and reticence in social relationships. The Qualitative Report, 19(25), 1-18. Retrieved from http://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol19/iss25/1.  

Lijadi, A.A., & Van Schalkwyk, G.J. (2017). Place identity construction of Third Culture Kids: Eliciting voices of children with high mobile lifestyle. Geoforum, 81, 120-128. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.02.015.

Ota, D.W. (2014). Safe Passage. How mobility affects people & what international schools should do about it. Great Britain: Summertime Publishing.

Plamondon, L. (2011). Four Third Culture Kids: One portrait. In G. Bell-Villada, N. Sichel, F. Eidse, & E.N. Orr (eds.), Writing out of limbo: International childhoods, global nomads and third culture kids (pp. 263-277). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Pollock, D.C., Van Reken, R.E., & Pollock, M.V. (2017). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (3rd ed.). London, UK: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Schaetti, B.F. (2002). Attachment theory: A view into the global nomad experience. In M.G. Ender (ed.), Military Brats and Other Global Nomads. Growing Up in Organization Families (pp. 103-119). Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.

Schaetti, B. F. (2015). Global nomad, third culture kid, adult third culture kid, third culture adult: What do they all mean? Retrieved from http://www.figt.org/global_nomads.

Useem, J., Donoghue, J.D., & Useem, R.H. (1963). Men in the middle of the third culture. Human Organization 22(3), 169–79.

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