Third Culture Thoughts Part 1 (On My Kids)

By Elizabeth 

A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. (Definition from the book Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth Van Reken)

Third Culture Kids don’t live in their passport country, or the country of their parents’ culture. They live in a host country. They don’t belong to their parents’ culture (the first culture), nor do they truly belong to their host culture (the second culture). They are in a culture all their own, a third culture. Their life is both global and mobile. My kids are TCK’s now. In early May I recorded some of my concerns for them:


It’s still a common occurrence for our kids to talk about missing people and places “back home,” but they are becoming happier here as well. They get sad A LOT about missing home, Grandma mostly, but also saying that our new home will NEVER be as good as our old home.

I recently learned more about missionary kids (MK’s) from another missionary who is himself an adult MK and currently works with teenage MK’s.  He said that the culture that most affects an MK’s stability and happiness is the culture of the family’s home, not the host culture. He also told me that 8 out of 10 times, an MK’s attitude toward language learning and the host culture comes from the mom, simply because of the extra time kids spend with their mom. He said those pieces of information are either encouraging to parents, or discouraging to parents, depending on their situation. I found it to be encouraging because our home is a happy place — Jonathan and I work hard to make our family fun, open, and loving — and because I am no longer the “trailing spouse,” as of 2 years ago this month.

Sometimes, however, I wonder what I am doing wrong and why my good attitude isn’t rubbing off on my kids like it should. I like it here, why don’t they?? That other missionary said they would, right!!??  But then I realized that I have been in the process of transferring my heart from America to Cambodia for the last 2 years. Although our family talked a lot about Cambodia and why we were going, their little hearts simply lived where they had always lived until they stepped on that plane in mid-January.   I sent my heart ahead of my body, so I’m a bit ahead of them in my adjustment.  Their bodies travelled first, leaving their hearts in America with friends and family. They need time, and I will give that time to them.

I tell them a lot that nothing will ever replace home, or Red Bridge, or Grandma, or Susan, or cheese bagels, or our awesome yard. Just because we were happy in America, it doesn’t mean we can’t be happy here. We won’t ever try to take away from the good of our life in America, but I want them to have hope that life can be good here as well.


In our training we were told to say goodbye well, and that it’s ok to grieve the loss of people and places when we make an international move. We’ve tried to be very understanding when our kids get sad and talk about home. We let them talk, we look at old pictures, we let them Skype family.  We hug them when they’re sad. At the same time we are making new memories here. We take them to the park, we take them swimming, we play badminton on our roof. We make jokes and laugh uncontrollably around the dinner table. Our kids’ lives have changed drastically, but one thing has not changed: they know they are immensely loved.

Our family in America

Our family in Cambodia