One of the classes that my wife, Nina, and I co-teach is “How to Raise Normal MKs.” Other classes we co-teach—Field Medicine, Families Learning Language, and Pre-Evangelism—elicit some response from students, but nothing close to the response we get when we talk about raising children overseas through each life stage.
Nina and I were both raised overseas, with Nina’s parents in the military and mine in missions. We raised our son from age 3 to 15 in the village of Yembiyembi and then a year at the boarding school in Papua New Guinea. During that year, Nina served as the boarding school guidance counselor due to her education and background in Christian counseling. In the course of our 13 years overseas, and these 3 years now at Radius, we have found that the subject of how to parent in a wise and godly way is foremost in many missionary, and aspiring missionary, minds.
To that end, let me propose four foundational principles for missionary parenting.
1. Parents are the biggest factor.
No matter which way you slice it, parents are the overwhelming factor in their children’s upbringing. As I’ve read the stories of Adoniram Judson and John Paton and their children, it is amazing to see the severity of the cost that was exacted on them. But how these parents framed these challenges, and how they lived consistently (what came out of their mouth was the same as the way they lived), helped their children accept and overcome the challenges.
How parents talk around the dinner table, how they explain the challenges they are encountering, is huge. It is so very unhelpful to talk in front of the kids about the drawbacks of the mission leadership, the lack of support, what the home church is doing poorly, how we would be celebrating the Thanksgiving/Christmas/Superbowl season if only we were “home,” and so on. The parent who is able to talk about what a joy it is to live in this country (while it’s 110 outside and the Muslim call to prayer is being trumpeted from the minaret), who builds up the community members and fellow missionaries in their kids’ eyes, and who never misses an opportunity to thank God for his goodness—and they MEAN IT—that will resonate! Kids can smell fake more than adults give them credit for, and as parents truly live out the joy of what God has called them to, it will take root in their children.
Circumstances, mission policy, wild upheaval in their country of service, and even very painful events don’t affect kids nearly as much as their parents’ interpretation of those events. Nina and I have both sat with kids who have been mugged, beaten, caught in riots, and buried siblings—and we can attest first-hand to the difference between parents who see a sovereign all-powerful God in all details, and parents who give the child the impression that they’ve been dealt a bad hand. Yes, parents can shield their child from some pain, but on the mission field it is much harder to do. If parents enter into missions with the conscious, or subconscious, idea that their children will not be harmed, it can be a brutal blow when reality breaks on them. And they will implicitly transfer that shock and disappointment to their children.
2. Know your culture.
One of the challenges that missionary parents speak of often is reacquainting their children with their “passport country,” or homeland. Most children return to their passport country after their high school years, and that re-entry can be jarring. Parents should be cognizant of this and start preparing their children, not just for post-high school, but for re-entry any time they return home. Sadly, it is common for missionaries to know much about the people group they are working with and the country they serve, but to be woefully negligent about the culture of their home country. Insert just about any “missionary joke” and it will often center around their lack of understanding their own culture.
Nina and I, who are from San Diego, California, were encouraged early on to teach our son, Beau, to know this culture, even though he would be raised almost entirely out of it. For us that meant he’d better know the place of the Navy, Marines, Padres, Chargers (no comment), California burritos, Interstate 5/805, San Diego State Aztecs, and a host of other San Diego-specific things that the average kid his age would know. Watching seven-month-old Charger games just to see the fans, understand the reason they were cheering, and explain to him why timeouts were so long (very different from Rugby), were key little hooks to hang things on. Parents who bring their children back to the U.S. without some knowledge of local and national culture are setting them up for some tough blows. The (American) kid who is not at least aware of The Office (television series), Trump, the Kardashians, March Madness, 9-11, and other highly referenced cultural influences, is going to have a harder time.
Parents should prepare their kids in every way possible for that cultural jump. Saving some extra money for clothes that help them blend in, getting braces (especially for girls if needed), teaching them how to throw a football/shoot a basketball can go a long way in making that initial jump. The trick is to do all of this while keeping your mission priority. It was hard for me to teach Beau how to dribble a basketball on a dirt hillside in the jungle. But the goal was never to make his reallocation primary, but rather do the best we could with the tools we had. By being intentional in how they raise and educate their MKs, and staying abreast of their own culture as best they can, missionary parents can help soften the landing of reentry.
3. Know your language.
The biggest gift that a parent can give their child overseas is the gift of knowing and speaking the local language proficiently. Instead of being the home-bound outsider, the keys to local life are now in their grasp and can be utilized for much more than just their comfort.
Some of John Paton’s children would later return to the New Hebrides and would carry with them their father’s commitment to language fluency. Among the many difficulties the South Seas missionaries faced, Frank Paton listed language study as among the greatest. “No one can penetrate very deeply into the minds and hearts of the people till he has learned to speak to them in their own mother tongue.” Children who are able to speak the language are tremendous helps to the missionary team, and a testimony to the community of their family’s deep commitment to its people.
Recently I was in India visiting some of our graduates and was marveling at one couple’s 5-year-old daughter who was able to read Genesis chapter 1 in fluent Hindi with minimal labor. Her parents recounted for me how she is usually first in line to meet the customs officials on arrival and departure from India, and her Hindi ability has this unique power to completely disarm them. If parents prioritize their children learning the local language, they must first model that commitment themselves. When it becomes “who we are,” rather than a 40-hour-a-week job, the children are able to benefit tremendously, and the gospel has new ears and mouths that can be used for great purposes.
4. Give them eternal eyes.
One of the biggest gifts a missionary parent can give to their children is to exchange the “you poor child” narrative for the “you privileged son/daughter of the King” narrative. On our second-to-last return trip from San Diego to Yembiyembi, our son was old enough to remember how the Yembiyembi greet loved ones who have been gone a long time. They shower them with flower petals, coconut milk, and mud. After a thorough dousing of mud, they hold the kids up for all to see how big they have gotten and carry them around on their shoulders. Needless to say, our son was not terribly excited at this prospect. So, for the month prior, we started listing all the great things he was going to get to do. “How many middle-school kids get to ride in a 747 for 16 hours? How many kids get to fly in a small airplane, with the windows open!! How many kids wish they could play with mud, but their parents won’t let them? You are so lucky, look what you get to do that no one in your entire school will ever get to do!”
When boils are popping up on him, when Malaria comes calling again, when he has to listen to his dad teach again and again, the missionary kid must be reminded of the bigger picture. Only as children are able to tie this short painful life to a better resurrection will those discomforts be filed in their rightful place. Pain that is seen in the light of eternity is pain that is understandable. And as children see the all-powerful God change the hearts of those their parents have labored for, the picture of their life makes more and more sense.
May parents and churches be wise stewards of the children God has entrusted to them in this great task. From their small lives He will gain much glory. And from their wise parents, children will understand their place in this marvelous narrative.
President of Radius International