The global childhood and “Third Culture Kids”

I was recently introduced to an interesting term – “third culture kids.” With an increasing number of families drawn abroad for the purposes of business, government, military or missionary work, the children of these families are being raised in a plurality of cultural environments. Apparently the term came about as these children merge their “birth culture” with the culture of their new country of residence, merging the two to create an entirely new “third culture” hybrid of the two.

The idea behind “third culture kids” has taken on additional significance in recent months due to one of most famous products of this phenomenon – Barack Obama. Obama, as many may already know spent several years as a child living in Jakarta, Indonesia with his mother. In addition, Obama has appointed several other “third culture kids” to his administration including Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and National Security Adviser James L. Jones.

According to work done by sociologists who have studied children raised in such environments, third culture kids tend to be highly adaptable and intellectually flexible, allowing them to “think outside the box” and invent novel solutions to problems. However, this same research also cautions that these same children can also feel “groundless” and struggle to find their identity.

Whether we’re talking about the President-Elect or a child of former missionaries, one thing is clear – third culture kids are not going away anytime soon. As childhood becomes an increasingly global phenomenon, it’s likely to have a large influence on the cultural and personal identities of countless individuals, breaking down the barriers that demarcate sovereign countries.

Cultural identity is not likely to go away any time soon, but perhaps this is further evidence of the increasing creep of an emerging “global society.” I find that the more I travel, the more I have in common culturally with the individuals I meet there. We know the same music, have seen the same TV shows and bear witness to many of the same world events. I think that’s ultimately a good thing – whether we as travelers choose to embrace it or run from it is a far different matter altogether.