Between Worlds: Third Culture Kids

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AFM’s missionary kids (MKs) are unsung heroes in my book. They willingly and sometimes unwillingly follow their parents to foreign cultures to become cross-cultural missionaries. These young ones are often the bridge to ministry, opening doors of friendship for the Gospel. By their sweet smiles and playful antics, they tug at the heart strings of all people.

MKs, if given the chance, are often the first to master the spoken word. On more than one occasion they act as translators for their parents. They become linguistic masters! I’m sure you remember numerous articles describing their ability to create friendships long before their parents can preach a sermon in the local language.

While there are numerous blessings to being a missionary kid, there are also some drawbacks. Let me explain by first defining a term used to describe MKs and other young people who have lived overseas.

Missionary kids are known as Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Before they have fully developed their own personal and cultural identity, they move between the worlds of different cultures. The three cultures are as follows: The first culture refers to the culture of the country from which the parents originated, the second culture refers to the culture in which the family currently resides, and the third culture refers to the combination of these two cultures that the missionary kid develops as their own (see illustration).

We have already seen some of the blessings of being a TCK/MK. But there are other advantages such as having an expanded worldview and gaining hands-on experiences in multi-cultural travel, food, housing and ecosystems. MKs/TCKs also develop cultural intelligence, the capacity to function effectively between cultures. They are exposed to different languages and sounds. And they have an increased tolerance of personal differences; they know there is more than one way to accomplish a task.

With these positive effects, there are also some potential negatives. Because third-culture kids spent their formative years in the culture where their parents serve, most have a confused loyalty, a cultural identity crisis. Most cannot answer the question, “Where is home?” Since there is a lack of experience gained by living in the parent’s home culture, ignorance (especially in the realm of societal norms and practices) makes reintroduction into the parents’ home culture a scary and bewildering time (see Karin’s article).

Feelings of rootlessness and restlessness can make the transition to adulthood a challenging time for TCKs. In fact, these feelings can follow them for the rest of their lives. One researcher found that TCKs feel more or less “out of sync” with their age group throughout their lifetimes.

So while there are real gains for our MKs in mission service, there are also sacrifices. As a supporter of AFM, please pray for our amazing group of missionary kids—past, present, and future. Write them encouraging notes as they transition home (often sans parents) for school. Support AFM’s Children’s Education fund so that there can be an option for Christian education as MKs make a cultural transition. And finally, pray that all of us will be TCKs, with the third and final culture being God’s kingdom!

Most importantly, MKs, thank you for giving your lives to spread the Gospel. You may not see the fruits of your sacrifice until Heaven, but you are in good company. Jesus understands living cross-culturally. He experienced the feeling of being out of sync with His peers. And He endured loneliness and heartache for the sake of others. MKs, you are part of a special group of people who have paid a price for loving others. We owe you a debt of gratitude. May your reward be rich in Heaven through the lives rescued by Him who loves all.

Learn more about TCKs:

Cottrell, AB; Useem, RH (1993). “TCKs Experience Prolonged Adolescence”. International Schools Services. 8: 1.

Pollock, D.C., & Van Reken, R.E. (2009). Third culture kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealy.

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