Third Culture Kids

What is home for children living abroad?

He grew up in New Jersey. She grew up in New Zealand. They met online when he was living in San Diego and she was working in the Congo. Before getting married, they lived in the Sudan. After marriage, they lived in the United Kingdom, Pakistan and Thailand. Where will be "home" for their children?

It sounds like some kind of logic puzzle, but it's not. This is my life with my husband and our first child, born last year in Bangkok, Thailand.

It's the kind of scenario with which the renowned Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, also grappled. Born in France, with a father from New Zealand, an American mother, and French and English educations, he spent his developmental years constantly moving across the Atlantic. In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, he speaks about acquiring a loose sense of "home" in France when he returned there as a child:

"That day...I discovered France. I discovered that land which is really, as far as I can tell, the one to which I do belong, if I belong to any at all, by no documentary title but by geographical birth."((Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith (Anv. Edition), Kindle edition: Mariner Books, 1998, 35.))

Yet throughout his autobiography it becomes clear that the notion of ‘home' seems to escape him just when he needs it most, such as when his father dies:

"I sat there in the dark, unhappy room, unable to think, unable to move, with all the innumerable elements of my isolation crowding in upon me from every side: without a home, without a family, without a country, without a father, apparently without any friends, without any interior peace or confidence or light or understanding of my own—without God, too, without God, without heaven, without grace, without anything."((Ibid, 79.)) (emphasis added)

Thomas Merton probably never called himself a cross-cultural kid or a third culture kid, but in today's language, he would be considered both. Our son is already a "cross-cultural kid," and at the nomadic rate we're going, may well end up a "third culture kid." Who are these "cultured" kids? And how are they affected by the lack of obvious response to the question, "Where is home?"

A cross-cultural kid (CCK) is "a person who is living or has lived in--or meaningfully interacted with--two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during childhood (up to age 18)."((Pollock, David C. & Van Reken, Ruth E., Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition, Kindle Edition: Nicholas Brealey America, 2009, 30.)) A third-culture kid (TCK) is a sub-type of cross-cultural kid, and is defined as "a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside of... their parents' home cultures."((, accessed 10 March 2015.))

As is evident in The Seven Storey Mountain, this "lack" of home is no trivial matter in shaping one's identity. It has also been argued that it's no trivial matter at a societal level if one considers TCKs "the prototype citizens of the future."((Ward, Ted, "The MKs' advantage: Three Cultural Contexts," in Understanding and Nurturing the Missionary Family, edited by Pam Echerd and Alice Arathoon, Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1989, 57. )) There have always been TCKs, but their prevalence and influence is greatly increasing. Just look at President Obama.

My husband and I wonder what we should do as the parents of an actual CCK, and a potential TCK. Is it irresponsible to put our child in such a limbo? Do the benefits outweigh the loss of one place that is clearly home for him? In particular, how much does religious identity contribute to a sense of "home" for a TCK?

For now, we have a few years before our son starts to build friendships or go to school to decide how we feel about these kinds of questions. There is still time to establish a sense of geographical "home" if we choose to do so. For now, remaining abroad is the path of least resistance versus the prospect of settling down with all that entails vis-à-vis immigration, housing, jobs, and more. Living abroad is also still so interesting and vibrant, and makes sense in other practical ways. We approach the possibility of our son becoming a TCK with eyes wide open, cognizant of the enormous benefits that one can reap – educationally, linguistically, socially and spiritually – as well as the various challenges that one must face – such as distance from extended family, or the lack of educational, psychological or social continuity – when forfeiting a single ‘home'.

Lastly, there is a still higher question that seems worth asking, and which perhaps Thomas Merton would want to answer if he were here today. Maybe instead of trying to find earthly compensations for a lack of home, there are blessings to be found in this sort of homelessness itself. Would Merton have plumbed such spiritual depths or produced such spiritual insight were it not for his acute sense of homelessness? Perhaps being a TCK can constitute a type of sacramental, lived experience of Jesus' words, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matt 8:20)? Perhaps it provides a whiff of the eternal restlessness of which St. Augustine spoke, "Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in thee"?

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Image above via canstockphoto.