My Kids Are Not Little Missionaries

by Editor on September 8, 2015

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We don’t go into cross cultural missions without a fair degree of idealism. We would never leave our home, family, friends and culture if we didn’t think it was our calling and that we would make a difference. As parents, our children become part of that idealism. We can’t help having expectations and dreams of how our kids will be shaped by an amazing cross cultural experience.  As I look back over the years, I can see how my ideals didn’t line up so well with our family reality. For me, growth has included embracing a continual lowering of expectations and perhaps a little more acceptance of being who we are.

My sons are now 19 and 17. As a family we are about to leave SE Asia for a season to help them settle, or become unsettled (depending on how it goes), back into our passport country. They were born in our passport country and moved with my husband and me to SE Asia at the ages of 4 and 6.

We had already spent 3 years in that country before they were born and had a reasonable grasp of the language. We wanted to go deeper this time. I imagined us becoming a culturally-integrated and truly incarnational family, making a profound impact by our deep identification with the people. We somehow thought that immersing our kids into the culture would be easy even though our own previous experience of living in that culture had been extremely challenging. So many people had told us that kids are incredibly adaptable and resilient. They teased that our boys would soon be much more fluent in the language than we were and love all the new experiences.  It didn’t work out like that for us.

It’s easy to see things clearer in hindsight. At the time it seemed like a good idea to please our local friends by placing our boys in a national school of 6,000 students, where our children were the only little blond foreigners that the school had ever had. That was the beginning of an exhausting and painful inner struggle that felt like a tug-of-war in my guts. I was torn between what was best for my kids (helping them grow, learn, and be stretched, but still protected) and doing whatever it took to build relationships with local people and feel accepted by them.

We did come up with a strategy, after a few disastrous experiences, for how our kids could avoid being touched, kissed and pinched by strangers, or teachers who should know better, and still maintain some level of respectfulness. We made it clear to them that snarling like a rabid dog as adults approach is not OK. But giving the formal greeting of hands in front of the face and then running off before they can touch you is usually acceptable.

There were many days out visiting in a village where after several hours of intense connecting with local kids I could see my boys were just about to reach that point of things getting ugly. They were exhausted from the cross cultural relating, and it was in all our interests to leave NOW.  Again I felt the inner wrenching of being torn by the desire to stay and go deeper with our local relationships and ministry and giving our kids what they needed.

I now see how children have culture shock and culture stress like we all do, and they don’t just adapt because they are kids. They react according to their personality and a myriad of other factors that can be hard to identify or predict. They need support and acknowledgement of their struggles. We came to realize that although we really valued local relationships and knew they were key to our ministry, our relationship with our kids was the one that would last a life time. That was our top priority. That didn’t mean life was all about them, or we never expected them to learn patience and self-control. It did mean that we wanted them to know we were always there for them and were trying to make the best decisions we could for us as a family, trusting that God was in it all with us. One time this meant relocating to a city where they could attend international school, quite a change and unsettling for our ministry, but definitely the best decision for us as a family.

When the boys were 12 and 14, we moved to another country in SE Asia with a different language and culture. This time I accepted from the beginning that it was the international community that would be their life. My husband and I went to language school again, and they went to an international school. After five years they have friends from all over the world but only speak enough local language to tell directions to a Tuk Tuk (local taxi) driver.  They have not gone to a local church or become friends with the local neighbors. But they do have a supportive school community. They can get around the city independently and are fully engaged in the international church and youth group. I’m more than content with that.

My kids are definitely TCKs, although they don’t like to be labeled as such because, like most of us, they just don’t like being labeled. They are TCKs who connect deepest with other TCKs but they are also their own persons. They have their own experiences of being a TCK and don’t necessarily tick every box on the ‘you know you are a TCK whenlist. They may not have connected very deeply with this culture we live in but that is OK and I really like them.

Sometimes parents of younger children who know my boys and see how they are usually pretty comfortable relating to other kids and adults ask me something like “What are your parenting tips for TCKs?” I don’t think I have anything to offer that is different from what you would read in any quality parenting book. I naturally think my sons are great, but I believe that has more to do with who they are than anything my husband or I did or didn’t do. We made plenty of mistakes. There have been many influences in their lives. If I believe that they are great young people because of my incredible parenting, then I am setting myself up for some difficult days ahead. If they start making decisions I am unhappy about does that mean I really messed up as a parent? We really don’t have that much control. I’m grateful that God leads us all on a journey of grace and healing, our kids included.

Accepting who we are and who my kids are means being willing to not hold too tightly to certain definitions or ideals. It means being open to things being a little fuzzy for a while and different from what we expected, and that can be hard. It means letting our kids be the people they are becoming and letting go of a desire to make them into any kind of extension of ourselves. Yes, we have been in this cross cultural life together as a family and we are all shaped by that, but they are not little missionaries. They are themselves. And I really like them.

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My name is Rachael from Australia. Before having children, my husband and I served in Thailand for three years, working with people living with leprosy and other disabilities. After a significant time back in our home country we returned with our two sons for another five years of working with the Thai national church. We later moved to Cambodia and served in team leadership with our mission for five and a half years. Our boys have done Thai national schooling, home schooling, Australian government schooling, and both Christian and secular international schooling. They will soon be university students in Australia and more importantly, they are still talking to us.

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