Third Culture Kids

This week finds me in Shanghai, at the Wellington College International Shanghai EdFest, where in addition to talking about the benefits to young people of having global mobility – and what this means in practice – I have also been roped in to chair a couple of panel sessions on ‘Third Culture Kids’. Ably assisted on the panel by some actual Third Culture Kids, our aim is to explore what it means to be ‘Third Culture’, what the benefits are, what the challenges are, and what schools can do better to recognise the particular needs of these students.

The term ‘Third Culture Kids’ was coined in the 1950’s by a pair of researchers studying the children of American citizens who were brought up in different parts of the world as their parents travelled for work, and the name has stuck: today, it is commonly used to designate children who are raised for a significant period of their early developmental years in a culture other than their parents’ own, or other than the country which is inscribed on their passport (or, indeed, in many cases, one of their passports). Long gone, in fact, are the days when the world could be neatly imagined as segregated into monocultural chunks on a map; half of the world’s children are bilingual, and this means that vast swathes of our global population are growing up exposed to two or more cultures.

Shanghai skyline at dusk

Being a Third Culture Kid brings challenges and benefits in equal measure; but then, what child does not have challenges and advantages, whatever their heritage? Third Culture Kids might just have the upper hand, however – despite the challenges of establishing an identity, a less deep understanding of their ‘home’ culture, and (sometimes) confused loyalties, a Third Culture Kid, it has been demonstrated, has the tremendous advantage of an expanded worldview, intercultural and interpersonal sensitivity, and a greater degree of cross-cultural competence or cultural intelligence, which enables them to work far more effectively across a range of cultures. What a gift!

The big question for schools, however, is whether we really recognise and nurture this gift. All students are different and unique, but Third Culture Kids have an added layer of difference and uniqueness which might sit outside the norms and expectations of schools, especially if they have a more mono-cultural than international cohort. Do we address this sufficiently well in schools? Do we take time to help our teachers to challenge their assumptions about what students should be and do? Do we explicitly value the interculturality of Third Culture Kids? Do we hold them up as examples, and encourage other children to emulate them?

Big questions, with some interesting answers… more to follow from EdFest in Shanghai…

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