Third-Culture Kids Make Ideal Global Citizens

They often refer to themselves as “cultural chameleons,” because they can adapt to any environment but feel as if they belong nowhere.


Stephanie Sexton and her husband took their four third-culture kids to what they hoped would be the ultimate American experience at Harry Potter World in Florida. Photo by Orlando Sentinel.

A move from one country to another is always a big family affair. For a household with four children moving more than 10,000 miles away, the affair becomes an odyssey — even for those of us in the Foreign Service. So when my diplomat-husband and I prepared to relocate from China to Brazil in the summer of 2016, we decided to take our kids to Harry Potter World in Florida for what we hoped would be the ultimate American experience, despite Harry’s inherent Britishness. Visiting DisneyWorld had been a highlight of my childhood — and as it happens, both theme parks are in Orlando.

Another family with four children we had met in China joined us on the trip. After one day in the “wizarding” park, one of the kids asked me if we had to go again. That gave the other children an opening — they would rather stay at the hotel. The adults told them we were all going back to the park and using up our three-day passes. They accepted the decision without complaints, and then started reminiscing about past vacations and adventures overseas. “Remember when we fed the elephants in Thailand? And canoed down the Tuul River in Mongolia? And snorkeling at the Great Reef? And mountain-biking with the zebra and giraffe in South Africa?”

We made good memories in the United States that day, even if it took some prodding. But I realized that my children would forever have an international outlook they are true third-culture kids. They don’t feel part of any one culture. Such kids often refer to themselves as “cultural chameleons,” because they can adapt to any environment but feel as if they belong nowhere.

We considered how moving around every few years would affect our children even before joining the Foreign Service. Having lived in the same house for the first 18 years of my life, the diplomatic lifestyle went against everything I knew from my midwestern upbringing. I wondered if it would help the kids or hold them back? I knew we would be far from extended family, missing weddings, birthdays and holidays. Covid-19 made even emergency visits impossible. It further removed the children from having an American identity.

Foreign Service kids experience a childhood like no other. Living in different countries enriches their lives but can also make them feel left out and alone when they return to the United States. Many experience what is known as reverse culture shock. Third-culture kids often find comfort in blending in, rather than accurately representing their true selves. They shy away from recounting their past to avoid explaining why they attended several schools in as many countries. They live through experiences most Americans hardly think about, such as military coups, evacuations and doing homework in a bomb shelter. So trying to fit in or staying quiet becomes the easy, safe option.

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When third-culture children return “home” to go to college, that “home” may be a place they have never lived before. With their parents still abroad, they may have to settle into a new stationary life in a place with which they feel no connection. A football game or a prom may mean little to them. They may think in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit, and kilometers instead of miles. Unlike most of their American peers, they probably don’t have driver’s licenses, as they are usually not allowed to drive overseas. All this adds up to an internal struggle to connect, and the lucky ones find a community of young adults with similar experiences and interests to mitigate those struggles.

Acknowledgement and recognition as a unique subgroup can also support the cause of third-culture kids. Among the prominent members of that informal group are some famous grown-ups, such as former Secretary of State John Kerry, actor Viggo Mortenson, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, journalist Christiane Amanpour and former President Barack Obama.

Establishing systematic transition programming that can be consistently implemented around the world is a key first step to formal recognition of third-culture kids. The Safe Passage Across Networks, Families in Global Transition and other nonprofits support research and development in this area and provide various resources. The Foreign Service Youth Foundation helps young people adapt to changing environments between their parents’ tours and after returning to the United States. The State Department pays for college students to visit their families abroad once a year.

Studies have shown that the unique characteristics of third-culture kids make them ideal global citizens: adaptable, open to new ideas and experiences, multilingual, empathetic and culturally aware. I see that in my own children.