3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid

by Jonathan Trotter on June 15, 2014

Yesterday, we talked broadly about caring for the heart of your TCK. If you missed it, you can find it here. Today, we’re looking at the unique subset of TCKs known as Missionary Kids.

I thought I was done with youth ministry. I thought I’d move to Cambodia, be a “real missionary” (whatever that is) and never attend another youth camp or weekend retreat. I thought I’d never smell “junior high” ever again, or play those stupid messy games created by someone who’s never had clean-up duty. But I’ve never been so happy about being so wrong, because the missionary kids with whom I’ve had the privilege of interfacing over the past few years have encouraged and challenged and taught me so much.

They’ve also broken my heart.

As I’ve seen them say goodbye to home. Again.

As I’ve heard them describe the pain of being misunderstood.

As I’ve watched them hug good friends whom they know they will most likely never see again. Ever.

This post is dedicated to those students. To the ones who’ve let me in their lives, even just a little bit. To those who’ve laughed with me (and at me), to those who’ve answered my questions (even the stupid ones). Thank you.

And for the record, I tremble as I write these words, acutely aware of the multitudes of godly parents who are too busy caring for the hearts of their missionary kids to write an article like this. When I grow up, I want to be like them.

OK, here goes…


1. Don’t call them “Little Missionaries.”

They’re not. They’re kids, with unique temperaments, callings, and gifting. If they’ve decided to follow Jesus, then of course, they should be encouraged to do the things that Christians do (invite people to follow Jesus, love people, serve people, etc.), But God may not call them to the same cross-cultural work as you. Or cross-cultural work at all. And.That.Is.OK. Let them follow God where he leads them, and please don’t be offended if it’s not into full-time ministry.Processed with VSCOcam with k2 preset

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sending our kids to local schools, or out with local friends, but if we have the idea that our kids are little “soldiers for Jesus,” we’re playing a dangerous game. Kids aren’t soldiers, and they’re not missionaries. They’re children, and we should give them the space to develop as such.

My dad was a dentist, but I didn’t’ grow up among whirring drills and nitrous oxide (bummer). But that’s the point, isn’t it? I was allowed to grow up. And although I’m sure my dad used the phrase, “You’re going to feel some pressure,” he didn’t use it on me.


2. Be purposeful and strategic.

In Missionary Land, there’s a book/seminar/website for everything. We study how to cross cultures and what to do once we’ve crossed. We study how to help the poor without hurting them. We talk about planting churches without building them, developing disciples without dependence. We’re purpose-driven, strategizing, apostolic, visionary, pioneering, missional, culturally-sensitive, community developing, social justice flag-waving, chain-breaking, tired people.

But are we as purposeful and strategic in our God-given, God-ordained, role as parents? Do we ponder how to disciple other people’s kids more than our own? We are the first representatives to our kids of what a Christ-follower looks like. It’s an amazing privilege, and it is deserving of attention.

You’ve sacrificed a lot to be with the people in your host country. In loving them, listening to them, serving among them, you are aiming to show Christ. Make sure you do the same with your kids.


3. Remember that your MK’s good behavior does not validate your life or ministry, and his or her bad behavior does not invalidate it.

This one’s insidious. And devastating. But tying your validation to your child’s behavior (good or bad) is a socially acceptable form of idolatry. It has nothing to do with walking in obedience, and everything to do with looking outside of the Father for approval and validation.

All of us are on a spiritual journey. We mess up, find grace, keep walking. But this natural process often gets bypassed for MKs. They show up in churches and are expected to have it all together. No struggles, no sin, DEFINITELY no doubts. Maybe their parents expect this, afraid that a misbehaving or doubting child will threaten their support base. Maybe it’s church people.

In many ways, MKs live publicly, whether they want to or not. I mean, how many families in your passport country send monthly or quarterly newsletters to each other? One missionary kid confessed, “I had to be perfect so I wouldn’t mess up my dad’s ministry.” Another girl said, “Everyone thinks I’m better than them.” I asked her to clarify. She said, “They think because I’m an MK I’m more spiritual than them. They also think that I’m arrogant because they think I think I’m better than them.” It’s confusing, I know.

The pressure to validate a parent’s life choices is too heavy, and the risk of invalidating a parent’s life choices or ministry is too damning. Missionary kids should not have to carry either burden.


If this point resonates with you, I highly recommend the book, I Have to be Perfect, and other Parsonage Heresies. It was written by an MK.


May our children know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that our love for them is immense, never-ending, and flows straight from the heart of the Father. And when they feel our love, may they feel Him.


Have you ever felt the pressure to be perfect? What did that do to your heart?

Is there any danger in expecting children to be “little missionaries” or “soldiers for Jesus”?

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About Jonathan Trotter

Jonathan is a missionary in Southeast Asia, where he provides pastoral counseling at a local counseling center. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. Before moving to the field with his wife of sixteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years. He enjoys walking with people towards Jesus and eating imported Twizzlers. | www.trotters41.com | facebook: trotters41 | twitter: @trotters41
  • I love #1! I grew up in an MK community, and I actually think Missionaries are among the MOST “strategic” in parenting – parenting methods, ideas, are discussed all the time. Re: #3, i would think many missionaries feel helpless about that one. Any suggestions how to practically guard an MK’s heart from those burdens?

    • Richelle Wright

      I’ve always been sensitive about #3 with our kids, too – and a bit at a loss regarding what to do. A couple of things we do try and remember is that we are training up our kids in the way THEY should go, which means recognizing their individual gifts, talents, abilities and struggles.

      another thing – i have to come to grips with this: i CAN’T stop some people from judging us and our ministry based on how they evaluate our children and their “performances” or our parenting decisions /choices when they see us. that is a consequence of choices we’ve made and we have, in a sense, set ourselves in a more public forum where that is likely to happen. we’ve been honest with our kids and apologized when necessary. we’ve tried to be careful and not link discipline or praise to how they’ve made us look (bad or good) but to specific behaviors we do/do not want to see. i’ve had to pray and beg for grace from God to parent according to my child’s best interest and needs and not based on the expectations of those around/who might be watching. and we’ve tried to show that we love unconditionally – just as much when our kids misbehave as when they are perfectly obedient.

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        You make a really good point, Richelle. Even if we, as parents, don’t put that kind of pressure on our kids, other people still might. The Parsonage Heresies book actually talks about that — distinctively saying that the issue PKs/MKs have with needing to be perfect does NOT all come from parents — it comes from the church community surrounding them. So maybe it is the church as a whole who needs some instruction on these ideas??

    • I love Richelle’s thoughts, especially the “in the way THEY should go” part. I hope other experienced parents will respond with their thoughts, but for now, I’ll offer my opinion. : )

      It’s true, we can’t protect them from those burdens entirely, but we may be able to alleviate them somewhat. If we make our kids a huge part of our stories, we may be setting them up for this. That is, if our kids play a big role in our newsletters, missions reports, etc., we’re sending a message to our friends and churches that our kids ARE a big (and public) part of the ministry. We shouldn’t be
      surprised then, when folks “back home” treat our kids like it.

      Early on in blogging (and reporting) we made a conscious decision not to tell too much of our kids’ stories. They can tell their own stories when they grow up. Hopefully, this will help protect our own kids and educate our friends and churches. (After all, our children aren’t accountable to our supporters, just like a preachers kid is not MORE accountable to the congregation than an “average” member. This is a subtle but crucial distinction.)

      I believe that parents at peace are the greatest protectors when it comes to this. What I mean is, if the parents are insecure, and constantly threatened by the opinions of others, the kids will absorb all that.
      The worry, the anxiety, etc. Even if the parents don’t put the pressure on their kids, the kids may LEARN to feel that way by watching. They may be susceptible (or angry) because of how they saw their parents act (or react).

      So, my general advice then, would be for parents to make every effort to put to death the fear of man. To be at peace, secure in the Love of the Father.

      • Richelle Wright

        it has been fun and a huge blessing to see our kids starting to tell their own stories – wanting to share their stories.

        we usually talk/ask before “including” our kids in our prayer letters, ministry blog posts – if/when we do.

        but our reality is that it doesn’t matter where we go, what we do – we stick out wherever we go. either we are too blond haired/blue-eyed when in africa or we are too big (i.e. 8 kids – although there was that one church out in northwestern iowa where we were the smallest family). when you stick out, people make assumptions, ask questions they shouldn’t, offer advice we don’t want, make evaluations they really have no business making, have expectations when they don’t have a clue. i’d love to be able to educate people more on this, like elizabeth mentioned – but frankly, i’m pretty busy educating my kids on how to respond/handle. our thinking is that if we generally assume the best intentions of people who so/say those unintentionally hurtful/hard/ignorant things and help disciple our kids in that same sort of response, we all work through that as a family. thus that idea of parents being at peace (a much better way to say what i was trying to say) is absolutely critical and not just in this area of #3. for example, if i feel guilty for taking my kids to africa – might they not feel they are missing out on something somewhere and then resentment might grow?

        • Thanks so much for helping us all process this a bit more, Richelle. I really appreciate your thoughts. And I think you’re right, peace is critical. I need to ponder this a bit more, but I wonder if peace really is one of the BIG things that doesn’t get talked about very much, but that could have massive impact on our families and the folks we rub shoulders with…

        • Elizabeth Trotter

          “Frankly I’m pretty busy educating my kids on how to respond/handle.” LOL. So true!

      • Richelle Wright

        had a thought last night as i was reading. i’m reading a book called “fly a little higher” – a mother’s recounting of discipling (but also being discipled by… in a sense) her teenage son as he walked the road of terminal cancer. i was surprised at the many commonalities between things that mother felt with things i’ve felt. that might be another genre of literature worth exploring.

        as parents, we tend want this to be a 4-step… or 14-step… process with a pretty much guaranteed outcome: read this book, do these things – and our kids will not only survive but thrive their tck adventure. i don’t know – one of the most powerful lessons i’ve learned as a parent (thanks to some epic early and not so early failures) is that what works for one often doesn’t work for the others, especially if you want specifics. building the raft has been great for some of mine – it has only exasperated and annoyed others. this will always be a process guided by principles and a continual willingness to re-evaluate and change directions as necessary. my husband loves to do this when we go looking for a new place and have the time… start driving with a basic plan and idea, but no map – and eventually “sniffing out” the place we are looking for (i.e. in michigander redneck tongue – “bird-dogging”). sometimes, parenting is just like that. it isn’t a formula where we plug in all of the variables and then come out with a sure answer every time.

        the other thing is that sometimes we act as though, in all practical purposes, our kids’ outcomes are all riding on us and our decisions and our proactiveness and our ability to help them. one things we’ve promised our children (and that i think i’ve shared before) is that we will not refuse to make a hard but right decision for our family to save one or two of our children some grief. we do make those hard but right decisions because we are seeking to be obedient to God and then trusting Him to continue leading/guiding/growing us. there is a huge temptation to make our children into idols and focus a wrong amount of time and energy on serving them instead of following God… and that is true especially when we don’t have that peace in our parenting, because we feel guilty for decisions we’ve made, because we allow ourselves and our work/ministries to be shamed or justified by our kids.

        • Thanks for the translation help with that whole bird-dogging thing! : ) And yeah, I totally agree with you; we get into trouble when we take the place of God in our kids’ lives, thinking that we actually control the whole show. I was reminded recently of something John the Baptist said, “I’m not the Messiah, but he’s coming soon.” I think it applies to our parenting too… we’re not our kids’ savior, and pretty much all we can do is love them deeply and point them to Jesus, the One who’s come already and is in fact coming back.
          And again, thanks for joining in on this conversation. I’ve really appreciated your perspective and experience!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      My parents did this really well — I was the kid who found marijuana in the church yard, the kid who found out how to buy drugs, the kid who sassed and rebelled for a time. Never did they make me feel like it was about their reputation. Rather it was about their hearts, and hurting both their hearts and the heart of God. I look back on those times and the incredible tenderness they showed to me, as well as much of the grace of the community.

  • Another great post. Do you know of any books FOR TCKs (or MKs) about TCKs? I know there are many resources for parents, but I’d like to be able to point my 11 year old to some resources that might encourage him.

    • That’s a great question! Yeah, all the books I’ve read have been geared towards parents. Let me send out a quick message to my friends, the “experts,” and I’ll get back with you. : )

      • Thank you! I really appreciate it. If email is easier: karenohuber@gmail.com.

        • Also, just heard about “The Kid’s Guide to Living Abroad” by
          Martine Zoer. It comes highly recommended by a lady who’s done a lot of debriefing and training for MKs.

          • Brill! Appreciate all the suggestions, everyone. Should keep my 11yo occupied all summer long. 😉

    • Jen C.

      We are preparing to move to Zambia and this book has really helped my 10 year old daughter. It is full of kids sharing their personal stories. It helped my daughter feel like she wasn’t alone in the things she was feeling. The Kids’ Guide To Living Abroad by Martine Zoer. ISBN 13 – 978-0-9658538-4-2

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Hi Karen – the seminal work is called Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds. In this Dave Pollock and Ruth Van Reken draw from extensive research (in fact the only research of its kind) and give TCKs great tips. As an adult TCK who has also raised TCKs this is a must have. Unrooted Childhoods is a series of essays. Some are hard to read but they are excellent. I’ve detailed other resources here but need to update. http://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/tck-resources/

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Here’s actually a good series – novels – for 11 year olds. It’s called the Anika Scott series. The author is my sister-in-law’s sister. She grew up in Kenya and went to boarding school. http://www.amazon.com/Impossible-Lisa-Barnes-Anika-Scott/dp/1585865273 They are entertaining and enjoyable – my older kids read them while we were in Cairo.

    • A friend just recommended the book, “Hidden in My Heart: A TCKs journey through cultural transition.” Anyone else heard of that book? She said it was written by an MK in Japan and includes prayers and a sort of first hand account of some of the anger and bitterness she worked through.

  • Missy

    Hmmm…I think I agree mostly with #1. Our organization makes a point of including the children of members in much of the cross-cultural training we go through–not so they can be involved in a particular aspect of the ministry but because the life change of becoming a missionary directly affects the kids as well. My kids are “little missionaries” in much the same way a homesteader’s children become “little homesteaders”. The occupation of the parent directly affects the activities and lifestyle of the kids. Do my kids go out and evangelize or wrap bandages? No, but sometimes guests “invade” our home and we all do our part to make them welcome. Dad’s occupation isn’t 9-5 at an office with little affect on the family other than the income he brings home. Sometimes our whole family has to work together to keep the “business” of being missionaries going. (I’m not talking ministry, I’m just talking surviving/thriving in a cross-cultural situation.) Yes, my children will grow up and make their own choices, and as a parent I strive to be purposeful in showing Christ’s love to them first. At the same time, I think it would be naive not to realize that my children are missionaries just by living in the same house/country/culture as their missionary parents.

    • Good thoughts, Missy. Thanks! You highlight an important distinction, that while we shouldn’t expect our kids to be “missional” per se, we should help them thrive within our family’s culture (even if that involves typical missions work), and cross-culturally. Is that an accurate reflection of your thoughts on this?
      Our org requires pre-field training for our kids too, and I’m so glad! We literally referred to that training (ours and our kids’) at least once a week for the first six months in country! Yes, their lives are drastically altered by the decision to live abroad. And you’re right, sometimes guests “invade,” just like the teenagers “invaded” our house when we were involved in youth ministry in the States. : ) (Come to think of it, not sure those stains EVER came out.)

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  • Eldon

    As an MK, I had alot of struggles caused by fellow Christians rather than people that are against Chistians.

    I suffered rejection from several church members because they think that Im such a bad influence for not being a full time minister in the Church. They expected me to be perfect and godly in all angels.

    Just few years ago, my parents enrolled me in Christian school, back in our home country.
    (I wouldn’t really call it my home, since I grew up in the mission field.) Rather than having the joy of freedom from the pressure and the surveillance of being home-schooled, I was once again rejected by my fellow Christian friends. They thought, that I had lived in a cave, locked inside not knowing what is fun, sin, and pop culture. They didn’t bother much about me cause they are afraid I will ruin their fun. But thank GOD for a fellow mk, who stood by me. (And several others)

    It’s kinda sad also cause our parents, never seem to know and care what we are going through. In fact, they never even understand us.

    Nevertheless a depressing story, but that’s not the point. I don’t believe and expect that people would really understand us fellow mks, but nor do I blame them. Im also not surprised that fellow mks and pks rebel and disappear in many churches. We give our service, time, effort, which are not seem to noticed by people yet one mistake, changes everything.

    By GOD’s Grace, I didn’t become bitter.
    But humanly speaking, many times, I just want to have to people around me, who completely understands me and would just accept me for who I am, not for who my father is.

    I hope that you would take some time to know and treat your pastor’s son a little bit better. They go through life facing constant pressure and expectations. We are just human like anybody else out there.

    • Just now seeing this, Eldon! Sorry about my slow reply. Thanks so much for the comment, and I think what you said about people seeing you for who you are and not for who your father is is so important. Thanks for adding your experience to this discussion!

  • Greta Meece

    Great thoughts and right on. Our children were both PK and MK’s and many times those pressures was pushed towards them by good hearts of Christian. We simply encourage them to be the man or woman God desired them to be.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Greta! I always enjoy hearing from folks who have walked this road for a long time…

  • Jackie

    Thanks so much for re-posting this. I find that one of the toughest things to help my kids through is the grieving process. My youth wasn’t replete with such dramatic transitions between countries, cultures, and saying goodbyes. I never had to count the cost of forging relationships, wondering how much it would hurt when, inevitably, the time would come to say goodbye. My kids are undergoing this now, after their first significant stint (six months) in the U.S. One leaves Friday with her dad, and the other leaves next week, with me. I don’t know what to tell them, how to guide them, and how to help them think positively when I am mired in my own grief. So I just hug them tightly…..

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