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What are Third Culture Kids and Cross Culture Kids, and what is the difference?

Updated: Feb 27

First, CCKs (Cross Culture Kids) is the umbrella term, and TCKs (Third Culture Kids) are one part of it. You can see that the words “culture” and “kids” are in both acronyms. Both groups are in contact and affected by different cultures, and the time frame we’re talking about is the developmental years. These years range from 0 to 18. This is important because, in those years, children move through important developmental stages that relate to their social, physical, intellectual, cultural, and emotional functioning. There are three major stages, namely early childhood (0 - 5 years), middle childhood (6 -12 years), and adolescence 13 – 18 years). How well kids move through those phases has a huge impact on later life as an adult


The official definition for a CCK is “A person who is living, has lived in, or meaningfully interacted with, two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during their first eighteen years of life.” (Ruth van Reken 2017)


Here’s a visual that explains it a bit, and I’ll go into more detail below.


Traditional TCKs –Children who move into another culture with their parents due to a parent’s career choice.


“Domestic” TCKs —Children whose parents have moved in or among various subcultures within that child’s home country.


International adoptees —Children adopted by parents from a country other than the child’s country of birth.


Children of refugees —Children whose parents are living outside their original country or place due to unchosen circumstances such as war, violence, or natural disasters.


Children of immigrants —Children whose parents have made a permanent move to a new country where they were not originally citizens.


Children of minorities —Children whose parents are from a racial or ethnic group that is not part of the majority race or ethnicity of the country in which they live.


Educational CCKs – Children who live and study in a foreign country. Parachute kids are children who were sent to these countries without their parents. Here is a link to my blog about parachute kids. And I would also include day students as they are in constant contact with kids from other cultures. 


Children of Borderlanders – Children who move across the border to attend school in another country.


Mixed Heritage children - Children born to parents from different heritages.


Bi/multi-cultural/ and/or bi/multi-racial children —Children born to parents from at least two cultures or races.


Second, let’s take a closer look at TCKs…


The official definition of a TCK is: “A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental year outside their parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships with all the cultures while not having full ownership of any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background."


TCKs normally follow their parents around the world while their parents work(s) for big corporations, schools, the military, different churches, and the foreign service. Nowadays, we can also count children from self-employed digital nomads to this group. TCKs move a lot from country to country, very often every few years.


I want to add that children often belong in more than one of these circles at the same time. This helps us understand the growing complexity of the issues they might face.


These examples show the rich tapestry of experiences that Third Culture Kids and Cross-Culture Kids encounter as they navigate their childhood.

In which category do your kids fit in? Please share your thoughts and ideas to





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