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What is the “Third Culture Kid” phenomenon?: Considering the significance of worldview

A diverse group of young people link arms in a park
© G. Lombardo/stock.adobe.com

Elijah McBride is a college student in Dallas, Texas, studying entrepreneurship. He spent most of his childhood in Zarqa, Jordan, and he and his family moved back to Texas when he was thirteen.  

“I feel most alive in cross-cultural settings,” he says, “and that’s because I’m not just one culture.” Being of many cultures blended into one, McBride understands “the world mostly as a collective, broken, humanity.” 

McBride represents the Third Culture Kid phenomenon, a trend that migrating families have produced. Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are children who follow their parents into a “host culture.” These children develop unique cultural characteristics as a result of the intercultural reality of their move or moves.  

The trend of global migration

In the 1990 census, the total number of Americans living abroad was an estimated three million. By 2015, the number had grown to eight million, “with no end in sight of how high this tally might rise.” More and more Americans are living overseas and are either taking their children with them or having children in their host countries.  

In fact, the authors of Third Culture Kids call TCKs a kind of “prototype” human. They claim that, in a few generations, we might all look like TCKs if there continues to be so much cultural blending. 

Other examples of children who fall into this category are military kids, or missionary kids (MKs), or kids who simply have parents sent overseas in their line of work.  

The “third culture” is a blend of cultures that can exist in the developing individual. Oftentimes, the child doesn’t know that he or she is culturally different until they are much older. 

McBride said that “I always knew that I was a Third Culture Kid because my parents had the resources and the knowledge to help me understand my context. I went to international conferences with other families and teens all over the world who were serving as missionaries, and we would have a week of equipping and refilling and fellowship. Those people, even though I saw them only rarely, became some of my closest friends, because they were people who understood my experience.” 

However, he didn’t note his difference until later in life: “I began to understand its significance when I was a freshman at college, where I realized I had a different worldview.” 

What can we learn from Third Culture Kids? 

TCKs have a broad view of the world. In Third Culture Kids, the authors write that TCKs are more apt to feel the wonder of the world as well as its tragedy. Part of their reality has incorporated the variety of life into their everyday thinking.  

For example, a TCK who has witnessed or experienced poverty for themselves is able to easily imagine the depth and reality of poverty and suffering in other countries although they are halfway across the world. 

McBride says, “Along with many others, I have been redeemed and brought out of that brokenness. But I see myself as a member of a big, big portion of people that, when you get down to it, no matter where you come from, have the same hearts, the same wants. I view myself as a global citizen, as a part of this broken, hurt, humanity—though I personally have been redeemed by Jesus out of that brokenness.” 

Secondly, TCKs are open to those who think, speak, and act differently to themselves. McBride is comfortable making friends with those from other countries. He is able to sympathize and connect with those who feel foreign just as he does. 

Thirdly, TCKs are humble in their attitude toward others. As the authors of Third Culture Kids write, these individuals are not exempt from the temptation to ethnocentrism. They can feel pride for their own culture or for one of the cultures they possess. But when cultivated rightly, these individuals can approach the world and culture in a way unique, and perhaps more organically, than those of us who have only known one culture our entire lives.  

What counts as “intercultural”?  

The word culture is both an interesting and useful term because it can apply to so many different areas. Families develop cultures within themselves, as well as church communities and even towns. Any group of people sharing a similar worldview counts as a culture. With these definitions, we are experiencing micro-cross-cultural shifts and transitions every day. 

Each of our interactions with those with differing world views requires us to humble ourselves to the other’s perspective in order to meaningfully relate to them in the manner of Christ. We are called to connect with others and to honor them in the process. The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Philippi to “complete [his] joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” He urged them to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (‭‭Philippians‬ ‭2:1–3‬).

Third Culture Kids may carry out Paul’s exhortation to “count others more significant” than themselves, more easily because of the cross-cultural skills cultivated in upbringing, but, since none of us is perfect, this is a practice we must all continually grow in.  

The call to humility 

Throughout history there has been conflict because of unsuccessful cross-cultural communication. Think of Cortés and Tenochtitlan. Think of the colonists and the Native Americans. Think of the racial tensions in America today.  

Since the number of migrating Americans, and migrating people in general, is on the rise, our micro-cross-cultural interactions are also increasing. So it’s more important—now more than ever—for us to grow in our abilities to communicate cross-culturally.  

We can mend communities, families, and countries with the awareness that some people think differently than we do and being okay with that difference. That process is uncomfortable but worth the reward.

If you wrestle with expanding your worldview, consider these three steps:

  1. Learn to understand others’ differing worldviews, which requires humility. 
  2. Strategize how to communicate with others well, which requires sympathy. 
  3. And, as a Christian, actively pursue unity in and for the kingdom of Christ, which requires love. 

God calls us to this kind of unity, to know his creation through the variety of men and women and children he has created, with “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). 

Don’t lose sight of the glorious call given to us. 

Let us not sacrifice the truth we have, but let us be brave enough to be uncomfortable.