BOOK REVIEW: "Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds" (by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken)

Wondering how to help your children with a transition to a new country? Want to find out why your expat children are behaving the way they are? Looking for tools to manage different issues arising from a global nomad lifestyle? This book is an essential read to all expat parents.

It’s been a few years since I first heard of “Third Culture Kids” (TCK). Having grown up shuttling between two countries, it was eye-opening as an adult to finally understand that my identity of being neither here nor there had a name, and that here was a tribe that I actually belonged to.

Even if you’re not a TCK yourself, Pollock and Van Reken’s Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, regarded as one of the definitive texts on TCKs, is a must-read for any parents of TCKs; it gives us clues and advice on understanding and supporting our TCK children as they develop their sense of self in this wide world.

What is a TCK?

The term “TCK” was originally coined by researchers John and Ruth Useem in the 1950s, and is now typically used to define:

[A] person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. (Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken. 1999, 2001, 2009, 2017.)

Pollock and Van Reken describe the characteristics commonly seen in TCKs, such as an expanded worldview, adaptability, language and cross-cultural skills, as well as the not-so-positive restlessness and rootlessness, confused loyalties, and a lack of a true cultural balance that TCKs struggle through.

Building a 'RAFT': Help our TCKs get through the grief of parting

Living in an environment where mobility is a given, what I found most interesting was the authors' guidance on how to help our TCKs get through the inevitable grief of parting, as they or their friends move away from their latest post. While moving away is never easy, Pollock and Van Reken reassure us that we can help manage the transition by first allowing ourselves and our children to go through proper closure. 

The authors summarize this stage as “building a RAFT”:


Don’t leave a place without resolving interpersonal conflicts. Without doing so, it will be very hard to have real closure from moving away. “Bitterness is never healthy for anyone; the old discontentment can interfere with starting new relationships; and if we ever move back to this same place and have to face these people again, it will be much harder to resolve the issues then.”


Acknowledge our relationships with the people in the location we’re about to leave. It’s an important part of closure to let them know that we respect and appreciate them. This could include things like giving drawings or notes or little gifts to those people who mattered to you and your family.


“Saying goodbye to people, places, pets, and possessions in culturally and age-appropriate ways is important if we don’t want to have deep regrets later.” Make sure you schedule enough time to say these farewells--these are rites of passage that give “us markers for remembering meaningful places and people and directly addressing the fact that we are saying farewell.”

In the case of possessions, of course we can’t take everything that is important to us, but if we can help our children identify what are the sacred objects “that help connect one part of a global nomad’s life to the next”, that can not only aid in their closure but also help give them a sense of security once the move to the new place takes place.

Think destination

As we say our farewells, we should also think realistically about our destinations, and to review all available resources that may help us deal with potential issues. For children, it can help to look at maps, pictures of the next house or school, etc., to mentally prepare for the move. The key is not to idealize or expect too much from the move, and also not expect too little--gauging what resources are available so that we can make use of them can help with the adjustment process.

The book goes on to discuss further stages of the moving process. Other subjects covered in the book include how to help our children develop a solid sense of self as a TCK, and things to be aware of as parents of TCKs, such as delayed adolescence.


All in all, I found Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds to be chock-full of detailed, on-the-dot descriptions of the TCK experience, and of practical advice on how to help TCKs make full use of the advantages their experiences bring and not letting those become a source of trauma. It’s a must-read for all TCKs and their parents, not to mention educators and anyone else who come into daily contact with TCKs!

[This article was originally written for and published in BAMBI News (April 2016)]


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