Where is God in My Grief Tower?

by Lauren Wells

A wise man who looks a lot like Indiana Jones (and also happens to be my father) once said that in moments of deep grief you’re faced with a decision: either cling to God and let him be your source of comfort, or run from him and wade through the grief on your own. 

You can’t make it through the expatriate life without experiencing the touch of grief. Grief is temporarily or permanently losing something that you loved. Living a life of high mobility, constant goodbyes, and exposure to big and little traumas causes griefs to steadily stack up along the way. I’ve written a couple of books on this metaphor, which I call the Grief Tower. 

For many expatriates and their children (Third Culture Kids), grief comes in consistent stones of varying weight stacking one on top of the other. On their own, each stone might not feel very significant, but together they create a tall, wobbly tower that will eventually crash if this grief goes unprocessed. 

When my company (TCK Training) debriefs families, we go through the process of writing out the family’s Grief Tower Timeline – putting paper and pen to the big and small hard things that have happened in the family’s life. Sometimes these butcher’s paper timelines are the length of the kitchen table. Sometimes they roll through the kitchen, down the living room, and out the front door. 

As we excavate years’ worth of grief, a quiet question often fills the room. Where was God in my Grief Tower? This life I was called to has created this tower of grief – not just for me but for my children, too!

Even when we trust God’s sovereignty and believe he works all things for the good, the waves of grief still hit us hard. And when this happens, we respond both to our grief and the grief of others with whatever internal narration we’ve come to adopt. Our personal storylines tend to subconsciously ripple into an assumption that God responds the same way to our grief that we as humans do. 

When people say, “Look at the bright side,” we think the right thing to do is to stay positive. We forget that God invites lament. When people say, “He works all things out for the good,” we forget that when it doesn’t feel good in the moment, God is still there to empathize, comfort, and acknowledge that this feels so hard. When people say, “You’re so strong for how you’re handling this,” we don’t remember that God doesn’t expect us to be strong. We forget that He is strong so we don’t have to be. 

At TCK Training, we believe that TCKs should feel and know the love and goodness of God in how they’re cared for. In these raw spaces of grief we have to remember that God’s response is not to “stay positive,” “toughen up,” or “look forward” — and neither should ours be (whether to ourselves or to others). 

Instead, He invites us to lament and ask, “Why?” 

He allows us to mourn deeply and to take time to focus on the grief. 

He reminds us that we don’t need to be the strong one because he is strong for us

When we work with TCKs who turn away from God in their grief, it is most often because they have come to believe deeply that God’s responses to grief are a pep talk, a “get over it,” or an “it could be worse.” I think, perhaps, their belief comes from how they’ve been responded to, and that perhaps how they’ve been responded to comes from the subconscious beliefs held by those responding to them. 

I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: 

How do I respond inwardly to my own grief?
Does this influence how I believe God responds to my grief?
Does that belief influence how I respond to the grief of those around me? 

May we grow in our response to grief and learn to offer the compassionate heart of God both to ourselves and those around us.

Photo by Piotr Musioł on Unsplash

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Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

Risk Factors and Risk Prevention for Homeschooled MKs

Please note: This article addresses various types of abuse and neglect and includes discussions around child sexual abuse.

As TCK Training’s Director of Research I have spent a great deal of the past year analysing data from our 2021 survey of 1,904 Adult TCKs. One of our findings was that homeschooled missionary kids tended to have more exposure to childhood trauma than did missionary kids who were primarily educated in other ways. This data can seem both shocking and surprising, so Elizabeth Trotter, a homeschool parent herself, requested that I unpack it further in today’s article.

Background

It is common for TCKs to experience more than one type of education during their childhood. In our survey we asked respondents to list ALL their educational experiences and also to select what they considered to be their primary educational experience.

294 of our 1,904 respondents (15%) selected “homeschool” as their primary educational experience. Most of these (216) were born after 1980. 22% of younger TCKs were homeschooled, compared to only 5% of TCKs born before 1980. 88% of the homeschooled TCKs who took our survey were missionary kids. 

 

The data I will be sharing today compares missionary kids born between 1980-2003 with other adult TCKs during the same time period. I will also be comparing missionary kids who were homeschooled to missionary kids with any other educational background. 

TCK Training just released a white paper entitled TCKs at Risk: Risk Factors and Risk Mitigation for Globally Mobile Families. In it we look at 12 risk factors and their prevalence among the TCKs we surveyed. I am about to discuss the numbers for homeschooled missionary kids for eight of these factors. These numbers may be painful for you to read; however, they are not the end of the story. Risk mitigation is a big part of the white paper, risk prevention is a big part of this article, and our belief in hope is a huge part of our heart at TCK Training. 

Risk Factors in Homeschooled TCKs

We start with physical abuse. This is one of only two risk factors in which the rates for homeschooled MKs were lower than that for other MKs, but the difference was minimal. 12% of homeschooled MKs reported experiencing physical abuse at the hands of an adult living in their home, compared to 14% of other MKs, and 16% of TCKs in general.

Next comes emotional abuse. 43% of TCKs overall reported experiencing emotional abuse from an adult living in their home, and for homeschooled MKs the rate was 47%. Among other MKs it was 35% – significantly lower, but still more than a third. And this is not historical MKs – we are talking about Millennial and Gen Z TCKs here. Nearly half of homeschooled MKs under the age of 40 reported experiencing emotional abuse in their home growing up. 

The question of physical neglect asked respondents how they felt as a child – asking about their sense of security over whether their physical needs for food, clothing, and medical care would be met (by their parents). 12% of TCKs overall and 13% of non-homeschooled MKs reported experiencing physical neglect as children. 19%, or nearly 1 in 5 homeschooled MKS, reported childhood physical neglect. Again, this is not saying 19% of homeschooled MKs are physically neglected, but rather that 1 in 5 did not have security that their needs would be met.

Similarly, emotional neglect addresses whether an individual’s needs for emotional security were met – whether they felt loved, important, special, and supported by their parent/s and family. 42% of TCKs overall reported emotional neglect during childhood, similar to homeschooled MKs at 41%. The rate among other MKs was only a little lower, at 37%. This is a significant percentage of MKs under the age of 40 who often felt unloved by or unimportant to their parents as children. 

 

The next three risk factors concern child sexual abuse (CSA). This is a topic many in the mission world prefer not to discuss, believing they can raise their children in a safe bubble where they will not be exposed to “sexual sin” and will therefore be safe from abuse and assault. The results of our survey show that many MKs raised in these bubbles were in fact not safe from CSA. 

24% of TCKs born after 1980 reported experiencing child sexual abuse as defined by the ACE questionnaire (perpetrated by an adult or a child at least five years older). That’s 1 in 4 TCKs. Even more homeschooled MKs – 28% – reported experiencing sexual abuse. The rate of sexual abuse in MKs who were not homeschooled was a little lower – 21%, or 1 in 5.  

Another form of CSA is child-to-child sexual abuse, which occurs before age 16, when the perpetrator is another child. The rate among TCKs generally and MKs who were not homeschooled was 26% – 1 in 4; among homeschooled MKs it was slightly higher, at 29%.

We also asked about grooming. This is when an adult prepares a child for future abuse – testing their boundaries and getting them accustomed to inappropriate words/touch. 1 in 3 homeschooled MKs (33%) reported experiencing grooming, compared to 24% (1 in 4) of other MKs, and 27% of TCKs generally.

Finally, a very important risk factor is that of household adult mental illness. To calculate this we asked respondents if any adult living in their home while they were a child had depression, mental illness, or attempted suicide. Usually this indicates a parent, but it could also be an extended family member, residential domestic worker, or other adult. Studies in the US put this rate at 19%; in our study, 39% of TCKs (all ages) reported household adult mental illness. This is more than double – but to be expected, given a previous study by the Truman group demonstrating that expatriate workers were at 2.5 times the risk of depression/anxiety than their domestic counterparts. 

Among TCKs born after 1980, the rate of household adult mental illness rose slightly to 43%. This is the other factor where homeschooled MKs had a slightly lower rate – 40% reported household adult mental illness. But 50%, fully HALF, of all other MKs reported household adult mental illness. 

 

Risk Prevention

While these numbers are disturbing, they are not the end of the story. It is not inevitable that missionary kids, and especially homeschooled missionary kids, will experience abuse and neglect during their childhood years. There are preventive care measures we can put in place to limit the likelihood that these traumas will occur, and there are protective factors to buffer them from negative long-term consequences of the difficulties they do face. Here are four simple ways to engage in risk prevention for missionary kids; more detailed information is available in our white paper.

1) Parental Mental Health

The prevalence of household adult mental illness is a significant risk factor for MKs, whether or not they are homeschooled. In our white paper we demonstrated that the presence of household adult mental illness dramatically impacted rates of all forms of abuse and neglect for TCKs. 

One of the best things parents can do to improve their TCKs’ childhood experience is to care for their own mental health. Put your own oxygen mask on first! You cannot give your children the emotional support they need when you are yourself suffocating. See a therapist, engage in a hobby that brings you life, get some time away, take a nap – or all of the above! Do whatever you need to do to bring balance to your life and replenish your emotional resources. 

2) Child Protection

Child protection policy is something that can easily be neglected in missionary circles. We want to trust everyone! Even if we are taught child protection principles, we may fear that by implementing them we will give the impression of mistrust or disrespect to team members, community leaders, or new/potential friends. But if 1 in 4 MKs are experiencing sexual abuse as children, we have a responsibility to protect them in every way we can. Child safety officers in missionary agencies share recommendations based on the latest information and best practices available to protect our children; heeding their calls for child protection is vital. 

3) Teaching Children

An important part of child safety is teaching children from early ages how to protect and advocate for themselves when we are not there to watch out for them – whether at school, with friends, or with people we have wrongfully believed are trustworthy. This does not mean you have to expose your children to things that are beyond their years. But you can teach them the difference between a secret and a surprise. You can teach them that they’re allowed to say “no” (and how to do so). You can teach them that they have a right to privacy, to feel safe and comfortable, to have control over their own body, and to have confidence in sticking up for themselves and their own safety. These things can make a huge difference in your children’s lives. In fact, children who have these skills are less attractive to predators. These skills provide a safety net for all kinds of abuse, as a child who is thus equipped is more likely to recognise the wrong-ness of physical or emotional abuse. 

4) Investing in Connection

Regularly tuning in with your children, listening to what matters to them, creating space for their emotions, and ensuring that they know you love them and will take care of them, can help prevent the experiences of physical and emotional neglect. This may mean sacrificing certain ministry commitments so that you can be present for events that are important to your children, along with making time for regular family routines. 

Now what?

While this is a long blog post, it only scratches the surface of the risk factors and risk mitigation we have been researching. If you would like to know more, I invite you to look into our free research resources at tcktraining.com/research.

What I really hope you take away from this is that while no one parents perfectly, little things can make a big difference. Demonstrating your love in words and actions matters. Caring for your own mental health so that you have the capacity to be more kind and patient with your family matters. Teaching your children how to confidently say ‘no’ matters. Teaching your children that they have the right to feel safe and comfortable matters. Risking embarrassment or cultural insensitivity to ensure a safe environment for your kids matters. Investing in time with your family matters. All these little things add up, and together they build a safe and secure environment for your child.

 

 

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

Rice and Beans and the TCK Hybrid Identity

by Hannah Flatman

Rice and beans: the perfect combination! Where we live in NE Brazil, beans are often served first, with rice on top. That seemed strange to our family at first, coming from the UK where most people put their rice on the base and ladle the beans on top. One of my TCKs currently likes rice first with beans on top; she was born in the UK. My other TCK prefers beans topped with rice; he has a Brazilian passport. Although essentially it is the same meal, it does change your experience depending on whether you place the rice or beans on the base, top, or side by side. 

This versatile meal got me thinking about the hybrid cultural identity of our TCKs. Which cultural influences are central to their identity? Which are secondary (or tertiary) at the moment? At what stages in cross-cultural transition do TCKs begin to identify more with their host culture than their passport culture? 

In some ways the terms “host culture” and “passport culture” limit the multidimensionality of influences and experiences making up a globally mobile lifestyle. They don’t allow for multiple passports or multiple simultaneous hosts, and they assume that any one culture is self-contained and not already a melting pot of cultural influences. Alternatives such as “root culture” or “heritage culture” are less widely used, however, so for the purposes of this conversation, I’ll refer to the more commonly used “host culture” and “passport culture.”

All TCKs have a hybrid identity, but individual TCKs may emphasise different aspects of their cross-cultural identity. They may be rice-first or beans-first depending on the places they’ve lived, how long they lived in those places, and their age in each of those places. Their experience of the world is quite different from their monocultural peers, who may think in terms of rice-only or beans-only.

Our family has a third combination of ingredients on our plate. My husband had a long-term ministry and calling to South Sudan before we met, and I to Brazil. From our current ministry base in Brazil, we usually make an annual visit to South Sudan. We are discovering this was one thing as a couple, but another as a family with young kids. 

When we got married, we wanted to remain true to our commitments to two countries on different continents. We chose to see opportunities rather than competing demands. With children, however, our time and resources are more pressured than they were as a couple. For this season as a family with two little ones, Brazil is our home, and South Sudan is the place we keep returning to.

When a South Sudanese friend spent a month with us last year, our children’s links to South Sudan came alive to them. They discovered that South Sudan is also “their place” (both have Dinka middle names). They now have another combination of ingredients, another colour to add to their kaleidoscope identity. 

Having a wider pool of significant cultural influences than the traditional model of passport and host cultures is very common for TCKs. As we introduce our little ones to a fourth (or sometimes fifth) culture, we notice increasingly how different members of the family have different cultural identities. My husband and I came to South Sudan as adults; our children are having a significant experience of South Sudanese culture in their formative years through lived experience and ongoing relationships there. 

Though children may have more cultural influences than passport and host cultures, we still use the term third culture kid to describe their experience. It is the experience of living cross-culturally, outside of their passport country, which is the Third Culture, not the number of cultures in the mix.

At different stages in their lives, and particularly during times of transition, TCKs’ palates change. The experience of cross-cultural living and engagement in those formative years shapes who they are. Our rice-first child was once decidedly beans-first, until we spent a year in the UK during the pandemic. We intentionally provided opportunities for her to engage with our serving country’s culture despite the distance, as well as to maintain her Portuguese and friendships whilst away. During that year our beans-first boy learnt to sleep under a blanket, and to eat rice without beans (literally and metaphorically). 

Lauren Wells reminds us of the chameleon-like ‘ever-adapting identity’ of TCKs and gives some ideas about how to anchor their identity.1 During those early years identity is constantly being constructed and moulded. What can parents and TCK care-givers intentionally do to anchor our TCK’s identities? This is an important question for both host(s) and passport cultures. Are we having an ongoing conversation with our TCKs about which aspects of their cross-cultural identity are important for them to maintain, for themselves or for the family, and why? How do we give them the tools to evaluate which aspects of the culture are good (and which aren’t), which are significant, and which will help shape them into Christ-likeness? Whilst there are some cultural practices of the host culture they need to adopt whilst living there, there are choices about which other ingredients they add to the plate which can be made together with their care-givers and family.

As a family we’ve added even more questions to the list. Each member of the family may adopt a different form of hybrid identity to the other. How do we cater to that? How can we support family members who struggle with an aspect of our host culture which we enjoy? Which particular family traditions or events are shaping our little ones? How can we intentionally create routines, traditions, and relationships which take the best from each culture? How can we help our TCKs to grow in Christ-likeness? 

I often think about how our saviour was shaped by cross-cultural experiences, including being sent to live as a TCK on earth and his time as a young child in Egypt. His siblings and parents did not share in all these experiences. I wonder how Mary and Joseph navigated that. I wonder how I, as a parent, can navigate my children’s different experiences of the world.

TCKs are known for being sociable and quick to make friends. My two connect most readily with other rice and beans kids, or really any child who has lived a cross-cultural experience, whether that’s rice and beans, or yam and chicken, or ramen and kimchi. Sometimes their monocultural (just rice, or just beans) friends don’t get them fully. 

Even if they might not completely understand, we appreciate when anyone takes the time to listen to our little ones and engage with their rice and beans identities and hear their beans and rice stories.

One of the rice and beans stories we tell in our home is A Fish out of Water. I first told this story to my little ones before a cross-cultural transition back to our passport country, the ‘home’ they couldn’t remember. It is the story of a little fish struggling with a cross-cultural transition, until a new friend with similar experiences reminds her about her home with the Creator. Conversation questions at the end help families to open up discussions with their TCKs about culture shock, loss, and how to support each other through a cross-cultural move.

I hope A Fish out of Water will give MK and TCK caregivers ideas about how to intentionally walk through a transition (before, during, and after) with their little ones. Let’s embrace every combination of rice, beans, and foods which make up the hybrid identity of our TCKs!

(You can find A Fish out of Water on several Amazon marketplaces globally. It is also available in Brazilian Portuguese through Betel Publicações.)

 

1. Wells, Lauren. Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids: A Practical Guide to Preventive Care. Kindle Edition. p. 1984.

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Hannah Flatman writes about culture shock, transitions, and raising resilient Third Culture Kids. She has been serving as a missionary in NE Brazil since 2005 and is mum to two little ones whom she has already guided through several significant cross-cultural transitions. Hannah is the Short-Term Missions Coordinator for Latin Link Brazil and also serves in South Sudan, where she and her husband have an ongoing commitment to the Ngok Dinka community in Abyei.

When Your TCK is Bullied

Praying for Answers

There was a time which seemed to last forever, a time when my kids got bullied.

I wish I could say that, because of my spiritual and emotional maturity and love for our host country’s people, I had a good attitude about this. But I didn’t. Instead, when my kids were hit with pebbles and sticks and had their ice creams thrown in the dirt and were told to go back to America, I wished mean things upon other people’s children. Like acne. Or sinkholes.

Thankfully, we were still learning the language at the time.

My children confided in me. They looked to me for answers I only wished I had. How could I help them? I tried talking to parents, and to the kids themselves, but it didn’t help. Thus began more than a year of research and problem-solving, in which I feared I’d wear out both Google and God, and pretty much everyone else I knew, in my quest for a solution. Perhaps you are facing a similar situation. If so, I want to share six strategies that worked well for us.

1. Give it to God

It can be difficult to know whether a given case of bullying is something that will burn our kids or refine them; crush them or make them stronger. I’ve found that, like in many parenting challenges, I have to bring this kind of issue before God and lay it at His feet, praying for wisdom and guidance. It’s possible that removing your kids from a bullying situation will be the best option. Or God might direct you to stay and work through it. Trust Him, and trust your instincts as a parent.

2. Teach Confidence

According to nearly every article I read on the Internet, bullies want an easy target. Someone who won’t fight back, who will give a good reaction—whining, crying, cowering, tattling. Bullies love this because makes them feel powerful, when, perhaps, they feel powerless in other areas of life. This is sad and disturbing, yet it is true in our sinful world.

I decided to focus on teaching and modeling confidence. We worked on standing straight, chin up; looking around; having a relaxed, pleasant expression. We worked on reacting to unkindness in a calm, amused manner or cheerfully ignoring insults. A fellow TCK mom and good friend of mine also recommended encouraging my kids to focus on people who do like them, and spending time and energy on those people and activities that bring joy.

I was recently with a group of expat teens who were asked to share their biggest struggle in their host country. Several mentioned not knowing the local language. It takes time and effort, but solid language skills can give a huge boost to confidence. If you’re looking for help in this area, you can check out my earlier article, 3 Ways to Help Your TCK with Language Learning. 

3. Stay Curious

I know how frustrating it is when your child asks you to explain someone’s behavior, and your only answer is, “Um, yeah, I have no idea.” It hurts our parental pride not to have tidy, sitcom-succinct answers. But press into that discomfort. You may find an opportunity to better understand your host culture.

Find a friend—a local mom, a thoughtful teenager, a language helper—someone you can talk to. Questions might include: Is this normal behavior? Is it seen as a problem here? What do people in your culture normally do about this issue? Why do you think it is happening? 

Involve your child in this cultural research. Approach it like a puzzle. By staying curious, you model how to approach the other cultural mysteries your child will face in his or her life. We learned that in our host country, hitting is seen as a problem-solving option for both children and adults. It’s a part of life. This helped us to see and understand the difference between frustrated, childish whacking and targeted hitting that is meant to intimidate.

4. Make Great Memories

Being bullied takes large withdrawals out of several banks, including the Bank of Self-Esteem and the Bank of Love for the Host Culture. You, as a parent, can help balance this by making deposits.

For the Bank of Self-Esteem, we arranged special times both as a family and for one-on-one dates with Mom or Dad. This gave us a chance to learn more about what each child loves and to give them opportunities to develop their talents and dive into their interests. Consider helping your kids find ways to serve your family such as cooking a meal or fixing bike tires. This will naturally increase self-esteem and put bullying in perspective.

For the Bank of Love for the Host Culture, we sought out other people and families and purposely spent time with those we all got along with. To help your child find new people to hang out with, you could help them join an art or sports club, or learn skills that are unique to your country. One TCK I know learned to play bagpipe when she lived in Scotland; another taught English classes in her Cambodian community; a third learned to tie a sari in India. Look beyond just peers — younger kids and elderly people are also great places to find positive relationships.

5. Be Creative

As I observed the neighbor kids interacting one afternoon, I had an epiphany. These kids were bored! And the more bored they felt, the more they pecked at each other. They needed something to do.

Now, gross motor stills are not my gift from Jesus. I spent most of my elementary PE classes feeling really, really confused. But I swallowed my pride, gathered some of the rocks the neighbor kids had been throwing at each other, and started a relay race. Surprisingly, the bullying nearly disappeared for several weeks. (And I had a childhood dream fulfilled when the kids rang our doorbell and asked me to play!)

Rock relay races may not be applicable in your circumstances, but the problem-solving principle might be. Maybe someone has a habit of putting others down to boost their self-image. Would a one-on-one playdate without group pressure help them feel less threatened? Maybe everyone else knows how to play soccer and your kids love basketball. Could they ask one of the friendlier kids to coach them? Pinpointing the reason for the bullying is the first step in equipping your child and/or other kids to redirect behavior and energy in more positive ways.

6. Practice Forgiveness

Six months after I started this journey with my kids, I got an email from a “mother in Israel,” an elderly woman who prays for us and our mission. She’d read a kids’ article I’d written about the bullying and advised my children to forgive their enemies. I read the letter, then looked around self-consciously. Did she know about the acne and sinkholes? And, more importantly, how did I forget about forgiveness?

I had taught my kids to be diplomatic, to act confident, to walk away, to be helpful to the neighbors, to love themselves as children of God despite their flaws, to know the bullying wasn’t their fault, to be willing to grow. . . . But I’d never mentioned forgiveness.

We began to pray for our enemies. It was hard. Hard for them and for their mama bear. I began a months-long dive into Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the sermon where this famous advice is given. Suddenly, it seemed, the entire sermon was about bullies and bullying and what we’re supposed to do about it all. 

I learned that Jesus wants us to see all people as just that: people. It’s easy to objectify someone who hurts us. Praying for our enemies, forgiving them, and even trying to love them leads us to see them as people. 

And maybe that’s why it’s so hard to forgive. Because by forgiving, we realize that our bullies are just as in need of grace and help as we are.

Why We Stayed

I’ll be honest. At the beginning of our bullying journey, I was ready to pack up my cubs and move. After all, our landlord even confessed to our helper that his family moved out because of rude neighbors!

I submitted these plans to God… strictly as a formality. I mean, I assumed God had read all the same articles on bullying and depression and anxiety that I had. He would surely give us the green light and send us to a more emotionally functional neighborhood. But, long story short, God said no. I very clearly sensed Him telling me to wait. I second-guessed myself daily, and talked to God often, ready to rescue my kids from this trial at a moment’s notice.

But as I waited, something unexpected happened. I saw my children grow and mature. I saw them start living their faith. They began to lean on it and to depend on it. I watched them come to Jesus because they didn’t want to forgive, and I saw Jesus help them do the impossible. That is hard heart work. And in the end, this growing relationship with God was more valuable than the comfort of always being loved by everyone.

If you’d like to hear more about our journey, I’ve written about it on my newsletter, Whatsoever Things. I’d love to see you there.

New data shows how missionary kids can suffer. Here’s what parents can do about it.

TCK Training’s research into the experiences of globally mobile Third Culture Kids included some hard truths, especially when it comes to the experiences of missionary kids. Missionary Kids are experiencing abuse and neglect at higher rates than American children. Dramatically higher, in some cases.

Now that we know this, what do we do? The bottom line is: we need to talk to our kids. We need to understand their perspective and how our lives can appear to them. We need to provide clear assurance to them that they are and will continue to be loved, listened to, protected, and cared for.

Abuse
Let’s start with the ‘good’ news. While 28% of Americans experienced physical abuse from an adult member of their household before the age of 18, only 16% of missionary kids in the TCK Training survey reported the same. 16% is more missionary kids being hurt in their homes than we want to see, of course, but it’s still a positive sign. 

Now for the bad news. 11% of Americans experienced emotional abuse from an adult member of their household before the age of 18. Among missionary kids, that number was 40%. That’s 2 out of every 5 missionary kids. Nearly four times the rate seen in the American public. 

The rate of sexual abuse (from an adult or child at least five years older, experienced before the age of 18) was a little higher among missionary kids than among Americans – 24% vs 21%. In addition, 26% of missionary kids experienced child-to-child sexual abuse, and 28% experienced grooming behaviour. 

Neglect
When we move on to talking about neglect, the news gets worse. 10% of the American public reported experiencing physical neglect as children. In the TCK sector, Missionary Kids were the most likely to report physical neglect, at 14%. This means that as children, 14% of missionary kids worried they would not have enough to eat, or would not have clean clothes to wear, or would not have a parent able to take them to the doctor if they needed to go.

This doesn’t mean 14% of missionary kids went without food, clothing, or medical attention. It means that for 14% of missionary kids, this was a significant worry during their childhood. 

11% of Americans reported experiencing emotional neglect as children. More than three times this number of missionary kids, 37%, reported experiencing emotional neglect as children. That’s more than 1 in 3 missionary kids who as children felt they were not loved, special or important, or that their family was not close and supportive.

Again, this does not mean a third of missionary kids are unloved, but that a third of missionary kids are not sure of this – they do not feel loved, do not feel special, do not feel important, do not feel that their family is close and supportive. 

Now what?
The goal of this research is not to scare people away from mission work, or life overseas in general. It does, however, bust the myth that the mission world is a safe bubble in which children are protected from all kinds of potential harm.

Even when your own children are untouched by abuse and neglect themselves, it’s highly likely their friends are affected. These things are happening in our communities, all around the world. This much is clear as I speak with child protection officers and TCK caregivers in various mission organisations in (and from) various countries. Many have even suggested to me that TCK Training’s research likely paints a better picture than reality, given their own experiences on the field. 

Now that we know, what do we do? 

1. Talk to our kids. These things are happening, and we can no longer pretend they aren’t. We need to talk to our kids about what abuse is, what neglect is, and how to recognise this in their interactions with others. This will enable them to recognise unsafe behaviour directed toward them and also help them identify friends in trouble.

Discussions about safe/unsafe touch, private parts, bodily autonomy, the difference between secrets and surprises, and listening to our internal sense of safety and discomfort is essential — even with very young children. This is especially true when we are living in a culture with different ideas of what is acceptable than we ourselves might have. 

We need to teach children that they are allowed to say no, they are allowed to feel safe, and they do not have to obey every adult at all times. Then we need to back them up. We need to let them say no to hugs/kisses when they are uncomfortable. We need to allow them privacy in the home. We need to give them permission to set boundaries — even if this creates some tension or embarrassment in our community. To do otherwise sets them up to potentially accept abuse down the line. 

2. Understand their perspective. We also need to listen to our kids. Once we’ve taught them that they have a right to feel safe, we need them to tell us when they feel uncomfortable about a person or situation — especially if this happens when we are not present.

For this communication to happen, they need to know that we will listen and believe them when they tell us, and that we will take action. That means we will not put them in that position again but will discuss what will make the situation safe/comfortable for them — or find an alternative.

Often this will mean discussing self-advocacy, how to ask for what they want/need, or to say no/set boundaries. Sometimes it will mean being present — not leaving them alone at a certain friend’s house or extracurricular activity, whether in the short term or long term. It might extend to finding a different form of transport to school, or even changing schools. 

The other important part of listening is understanding how they view their life and world. Things that seem safe to you may not seem safe to them. Anything that frightens them or creates anxiety in them is worth taking time to explain and create plans for. No question or fear is wrong or stupid or a waste of time. Listening to what is on your child’s heart, validating their emotions, and assuring them you have a plan to take care of the things that worry them is vital. And it brings us to our third and final point of advice.

3. Provide clear assurance. Neglect is, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire, more about the child’s perception of physical and emotional security than about the actual provision of food and love. The child’s worry and anxiety about physical provision can be as big a burden as actual lack of physical provision. That is, carrying the mental/emotional burden of not knowing whether there will be enough food each day/week has a deep impact on a child — even if dinner is on the table each night. 

Missionary Kids reported experiencing Physical Neglect at a higher rate than American children. Anecdotally, we believe that in most cases this is due more to carrying the burden of worry than to not having enough.

Many missionary kids are part of the support raising process, ensuring the family will have enough money to return to their host country and stay there. They take on a sense of burden to provide for the family, often without knowing whether or not there is actually enough (especially when younger).

In some cases, missionary kids know exactly how little money there is – or believe the family is in more financial trouble than they are. This can happen when children are included in requests for prayer/support, or the family prays together for their financial needs to be met. Parents often believe that when God provides, this will strengthen their children’s faith. Instead, many children remain in a state of long-term anxiety, unsure their daily needs can/will be met. 

It is vital that missionary parents clearly communicate that they will provide for the family’s needs and that the children do not need to worry. Children need to know there will be food on the table, and they never need to worry about that. 

37% of missionary kids lacked assurance they were loved, special, and important. It is crucial for all missionary parents to clearly communicate this, in words and deeds. Give each child one-on-one time, for conversation and for play. Listen to what is important to them.

If God entrusts you with the irreplaceable ministry of raising up a precious child, do not let that child believe the ministry of child-rearing, of modeling the protecting and faithful love of God, is less important to you than any job — even the work of spreading the gospel. 


A Life Overseas is committed to supporting global families in every way we can. Understanding abuse, its prevention, and caring well for the abused is part of that. If you would like to read more, the following articles are a good place to start:


Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Is It Possible to Parent Well?

Somewhere between the 1,100-mile move and the wheels falling off (not literally, but figuratively) of our family’s parenting vehicle, I asked the question:

‘Is it possible for me, as a career missionary, to parent well?’

It seems I crucify myself between two thieves: Fear and Self-Doubt. And there are probably a million other places I can go which defeat me as a parent.

But, fellow cross-cultural parent, I am not writing this for any of us to stay in places of shame or defeat. I believe God has a fresh word for all of us amid the uncharted waters of loving our kids in new spaces, both figurative and literal.

When we were first considering a dramatic ministry change, I called a friend to pray over me and my family. She saw a picture of me trying to protect my kids from what this new call and accompanying relocation could do to them. As I released them, they were in scary places I had no control over, and they were shaken. Yet, my friend’s word of encouragement was that without this ‘shaking up’ they would never establish themselves in their own unique relationships with God.

Whether you are in transition, or simply in the throes of what missionary journeys can do to us as very human parents who still struggle, may I offer this same word to you for your children?

It is easy to chastise ourselves for what the calls to ministry in new places and often countries and always cultures can do to our kids. And while we consider their desires and preferences, sometimes a transition happens despite our children’s deep desire to remain in a specific place.

A little over a year ago, this was my story.

This is not a post about knowing all the answers. I am far from a place of confidence along the parenting journey. We have walked through some excruciating experiences in the past year.

However, I’m choosing to be vulnerable and share some universal parenting truths that are currently keeping me and guarding me as a parent. Perhaps there is some daily bread for you too, in this offering.

  1. There Is Divine Strength to Parent: Missionary or not, it is a hard thing, at times desperately hard, to be a parent. From the moment our children come to us so needy for our love and care, we feel out of our depth to meet those needs. What starts as the newborn phase of physical exhaustion moves rapidly to the deepening emotional and spiritual needs of growing people. This past year has felt like the most exhausting in my fifteen years of parenting, yet the promises of God remain, ready for me to grasp and embrace. These three Biblical promises alone, remind me of the truth of sufficient strength for my every need:

“But those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31, NIV)

“He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11, NIV)

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

2. Comparison Leads Us to Futile Places: We can learn much from parents further along the road, as well as from our peers. But, when our ‘learning’ becomes construction of standards by which we compare, there is only the wilderness of dry rivers and dust-eating attempts to find nourishment. This is true primarily because there is a whole story that goes with each family. There are places we cannot see — especially those places that are far from social media — that tell a different story than the external. This is not to dampen the joy of those who are experiencing places of genuine flourishing as parents, but there is not a parent on this earth who has never struggled. We are all co-journeyers on this long road home, none of us having it all together.

3. As You Press into the Heart of God, He Will Teach You How to Parent Well: Truly, the best thing we can ever do is to learn the manifest heart of our Abba Father. As we learn His heart, this is the place from which we learn to parent. His love is infinite, always seeking us, pursuing us. We see how he has loved his covenant people though they strayed time and again. This gives us the grace to continue to love our kids when they do not love us back and ultimately when our hearts break in big and little ways. We remember that yes,

“The Lord disciplines those he loves,
    as a father the son he delights in.” (Proverbs 3:12, NIV)

But, He also is a God whose kindness is intended to lead us to repentance. (Romans 2:4, NIV)

God never stops being our Abba, for we are in Christ Jesus. Therefore, He gives us the strength to know His heart FOR US in our brokenness, mistakes, and sin. Then, we too, can give that same heart to our children.

4. He Who Has Called Us Is Faithful: As I have felt the guilt of following God and therefore causing my children to enter hard places, I have had to remember God’s faithfulness. Just as he called me to be a parent, so he calls me to do this as I am His child, surrendering my life to Him. My oldest son just began high school. It is his ninth school. I would not have chosen this for his story. Yet, God. He is the ultimate Author, and He chose our journey as missionaries to shape our children’s lives too. I think of all of the ways my son has needed to trust God in new things. I trust our journey as his parents has been for his good. And I can trust that for my other two children. No matter their current struggles or strengths, it is God who owns them and the entirety of their stories. The final chapter of completion is His to write. I could desire nothing more than that their journey would lead them to His arms and that we would dance together in that great and Final Day at the Wedding Feast of God.

There is much more that could be said as parenting is incredibly profound. What I offer here is meant to encourage the brokenhearted, the struggling, the doubting, the fearing among us. If my own journey is any indication, that will undoubtedly be you in one or many parenting seasons.

And the truth is that, though we are deeply imperfect, we can parent our children from the strength, hope, and heart of God. This is the promise of Christ in us.

You Can’t Cross the Ocean on an iPad

by Beth Barthelemy

“My mom lives near where your Grandma lives,” my friend told my youngest, who looked up at her with her head tilted to one side. “No,” my two-year-old daughter said, “my grandma lives in the iPad.”

My friend looked at me, tears filling her eyes, because she lives motherless on this continent too. Because she had a two-year-old daughter too, who likely also does not understand her grandma as a real, full of hugs and love kind of person.

Without fail, one of the most common consolations I am offered when I share this hardest part of living an ocean away is the well-meaning, “Well at least you have technology these days.” Which is always said in love, with compassion. And which I always receive with inward tears, knowing its insufficiency.

Technology reminds us constantly of what we are missing, of what we are lacking. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, let me explain.

If my family had boarded a ship sixty years ago, we would have said our goodbyes knowing full well we may never see our families again, or at least not every person in them. The grief would have been intense. We would have arrived in a new country and built a new life, acutely aware of all that we had left behind. It was a different time, and I am not wishing for it. I don’t know if I could do this life sixty years ago.

In the 21st century, leaving looks like never fully leaving; we have a foot in each continent. We have double the relationships, double the lives. We build a new life while maintaining the old one, and we live in a perpetual state of grief, never fully saying goodbye. I don’t know that it is a better way to do life overseas; it is simply a different way.

When my daughters do crafts with Grandma over FaceTime, I am so grateful for her presence. I’m also aware that her hands are not here to guide theirs. I can acknowledge the joy that my children have a relationship with her even as I mourn that this relationship is one-dimensional on a screen. When I see my mom on the screen in front my daughters, or my dad strumming a song for them, there is joy and grief, every single time.

After the past couple of years, perhaps it is easier for others to relate than it would have been before. We have all found ourselves fatigued with online church, with yet another Zoom meeting, yet another voice memo instead of a chat over coffee. Not a single non-family member crossed the threshold of our door for many months. We have all been immensely relieved that life has begun to return to normal, to in-person church and meetings and coffee dates, and to friends physically entering our home and lives again.

Are we ungrateful to mourn the losses in this century of advancement when we live far from family and friends? What is there to do when we feel the insufficiency of technological relationships?

Technology is a gift; it also reminds us that we are not made for one-dimensional relationships. We are meant to look deeply into each other’s eyes, to exchange prolonged hugs, to hold hands, to interpret body language and hear all the intonations in each other’s voice. We are meant to live with those we love, those with whom we are in community, just as God dwells with us, not in some abstract, intangible way, but in spirit and in truth, and in flesh through Jesus.

As we do in so much of life, we can mourn and rejoice at the same time. I miss my mom and am grateful I can hear her voice over the phone, and I’m also grieving because I could use her warm hugs. My children know and love their cousins — and also there is no good way for nine children under ten to play well over Facetime. We are created for personal, tangible, physical relationships; one-dimensional technology-based relationships are a poor representation of the lives we are meant to live with those we love.

And yet. It really is not ungrateful to feel sorrow during a video chat. We know that our times together, fully together, are that much sweeter for all the time lost. And we can gratefully look forward to a time when we will live forever with those we love, in the presence of Christ.

My youngest has since felt the touch of her grandma’s hug, seen the smile in her eyes, and knows that she does not, in fact, live in the iPad after all, but in a real house. She has also had the gut-wrenching experience of saying goodbye for a long stretch of time, of delayed hugs and holding of hands and cuddling on her lap. We will enjoy talking to her over Facetime tomorrow, and we are counting the days until we are really truly together again.

(38, for those interested. Only 38 more sleeps!)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to four young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, have lived and worked in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for the past five years. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her online at bethbarthelemy.com and on Instagram as bethbarthelemy.

Because There Just Aren’t Enough Words to Describe the Overseas Experience, Here Are a Few More for Your Lexicon

airplane wing and clouds

Over the years I’ve created a collection of new terms for old things—things that are common to traveling and living overseas but that haven’t had common labels. Most of them have come to me while I’m in the air, looking out the window or thumbing through an inflight magazine.

I’ve posted these before on my blog, but I’ve yet to hear anyone use a single one in casual conversation, so I’m thinking they need a broader audience. I hope that some of these can make their way into your vocabulary. I’ll keep my ears open.

bait and glitch
You find a cheap plane ticket online and go through all the steps to buy it, double and triple checking all the details, and then when you select “confirm,” you get that encouraging message that says, “The fare you’ve selected is no longer available.” Maybe it’s because the search site wasn’t up to date or because someone else recklessly grabbed the last seat while you were prudently making up your mind. If it’s the latter, it just proves the old standard, “Time flies when you’re choosing flight times” (or something like that).

direct flight to the dog house
This is what you receive after you proudly show the money-saving itinerary—that you just booked—to your spouse, and said spouse points out that it includes a 14-hour layover (also known as a “wayover”) and that you and your four children will need to collect all checked baggage between each of the five connecting flights. Travel to the doghouse does accumulate frequent-flyer miles, but they can only be redeemed for undesirable trips, such as to overnight stays on the living-room couch.

metapacking
Carrying a suitcase in a suitcase so that you can bring back more stuff than you take. This can be as simple as a duffle bag inside another piece of luggage, but in its purest form, it is a checked bag precisely fitting inside another checked bag. The term metapacking can be extended also to encompass using a cheap or broken suitcase to transport items one way and then disposing of that suitcase after you arrive. Seasoned travelers always keep a broken suitcase lying around.

eurekathing
Something you find inside your luggage when you start packing—something you haven’t seen since your last trip. Discovering it brings out such responses as “Oh, that’s where that is,” or “I do have one of those.” A wad of ten-dollar bills is eurekaching, a piece of jewelry, eurekabling.

tetrisness
The feeling of accomplishment one feels after packing every necessary item just right in a suitcase. A landmark study out of the University of Gatwick-Hempstead shows that tetrisness activates the same portion of the brain as when one successfully folds a fitted sheet.

TSAT
The TSAT (pronounced Tee Ess Ay Tee or Tee-Sat) is an oral exam in which family members yell questions and answers from room to room concerning Transportation Security Administration regulations:

Is it the 3-1-1 rule or 1-1-3 . . . or 3-2-1 or 9-1-1? Does deodorant count as a liquid? What about wet wipes? Or snow globes? Or chocolate-covered cherries? Can I take nail clippers in my carry-on? What about tweezers? Duct tape? Scotch tape? Chopsticks? Toothpicks? Javelins?

fortnightlies
Countless requests—for coffee, a get-together, or a meal—made by friends who have just realized that your departure for a long or permanent stay is only. two. weeks. away.

vontrappish
How you feel when you’re ready for bed the night before a morning flight, with all your luggage placed neatly (more or less) next to the door—lined up like the von Trapp family ready to sing “So Long, Farewell.” You may have mixed feelings, and you may or may not sleep. In extreme cases, you hear yourself humming the tune.

flotsam and jetsam and thensam
The abundance of things that people give you and your children right before you leave for the airport or get on the plane. This includes gifts, souvenirs, snacks, word-find and sudoku books, coloring books with a four-pack of crayons, and those faces with metal shavings that you form into a beard with a magnet.

disafearance
Leaving your tightly locked up (?) house thinking you might have left the iron on (even though you don’t remember having done any ironing) is one thing, but watching your hand zip your passport into the front pocket of your backpack and then just two minutes later checking to see if it’s actually there because you’re afraid that you didn’t in fact zip your passport into the front pocket of your backpack but instead, due to a muscle spasm, may have opened the car window and tossed your passport onto the shoulder of the highway—or what if it just spontaneously combusted, leaving no smoke or ashes? That’s disafearance.

duffling
Upon hearing the counter agent at the airport say that your checked bag is three pounds overweight, you feign frantic action by grabbing zippers, patting your pockets, turning in circles, and saying things such as “I could . . . ,” “Well, I . . . ,” and “What can . . . ,” hoping that the ticket agent will take pity on you and say it’s OK. Be careful that your duffling isn’t too aggressive or the agent will actually let you follow through on solving the problem.

terminal fowliage
Birds that have somehow gotten into an airport and fly around amongst the rafters and indoor trees. Birds stuck inside a place where people come to fly. Sense the irony?

flaggle
A flaggle of tourists is a group of middling to senior travelers, led by a tour guide with a flag and bullhorn. The flag is akin to the kind I and my friends used to bolt onto our banana-seat bikes when we were kids. Oh, if only we’d had megaphones, too. You can tell that the flaggle is on the return leg of their trip when you see them bringing home food and souvenirs packed in large, branded gift bags or boxes with tied-on handles.

making a this-line’s-not-for-you-turn
After standing patiently in an airport line for fifteen minutes and realizing that it doesn’t lead where you need to go, you nonchalantly walk away—as if standing in lines is simply your hobby and you’re now looking for another place to queue up for more pleasant amusement. (Aren’t you glad you came early?)

shuftle
The standing-room-only shuttle bus at some airports that shuffles passengers on the tarmac from plane to airport terminal (or vice versa). This word can also be used as a verb.

Sadow-Plath effect
Happens in the moment when you accidentally kick a pulled carry-on with your heel and it flips onto one wheel and mo.men.tar.i.ly balances before flipping completely over or wobbling back to both wheels. This brief pause at the top of the carry-on’s arc is actually a tiny breach in the space-time continuum, caused by the rapid upturn of the luggage in combination with the forward motion. The effect is named after Bernard D. Sadow, inventor of the wheeled suitcase, and Bob Plath, creator of the rollaboard.

glizing
Glizing is the act of experiencing the wonderfully smooth exponential forward motion as you stride confidently on an airport’s moving walkway. This only happens when you’re not in a hurry, in part because, as studies show, the walkways do little to speed you up, and often slow you down.

BlackNSquare
When you try to describe your piece of luggage at the lost-luggage counter, all you can remember is that it’s part of the BlackNSquare line made by the Yuno company. Question: “What Kind of luggage do you have?” Answer: “Yuno, BlackNSquare.” Yuno also makes the upscale models BlackNSquare with Handle and BlackNSquare with Wheels.

preseating
To sit down, with plenty of time before boarding, able to relax because your bags are checked, you’re definitely at the right gate, and a quick look shows that your passport is right where it’s supposed to be. You take a deep breath and contemplate the hopeful possibilities of your trip. You can charge your phone, read, or people watch. You’re free to walk about and might grab a cup of coffee, browse the bestsellers in the bookstore, or window shop expensive luggage and watches . . . and on the way, you can go glizing.

passenger of imminent domain
This is the person directly in front of you on a plane who, upon sitting down, immediately pushes their seat back as far as it will possibly go. Intuiting that something must be hindering it, they try to force it back farther, again and again. There. Must. Be. Something. Keeping. The. Seat. From. Reclining completely flat (possibly your knees). Finally, leaving the seat fully back, they lean forward to watch a movie.

chipillow
The bag of snacks that you bring from home that bloats up once you reach higher altitudes. With care, it can be used to rest your head on, due to the fact that it’s in the same food group as the neck croissant.

FASL
Flight Attendant Sign Language. Includes such specialized hand maneuvers as indicating the exits by extending the arms to the side, palms forward, pointing with two fingers, Boy Scout style, and mimicking the pulling of life-vest inflation cords using the crook of the thumb and first finger with the other fingers fanned out, subliminally showing that everything will be “OK.”

single-entré seating
The rows in the far back of the plane where you no longer get a choice between the brazed beef medallions over a wild-rice pilaf and the broiled fish and mashed potatoes. You get the fish.

cartnering
This is the act of hovering next to the food cart as it’s making its way down the aisle. Timing a trip to the bathroom with the distribution of meals is truly an art form, and it is best done passive-aggressively (such as by wearing a smile while dancing from one foot to the other).

Silent Gotcha Port
The “SGP” is the small screw hole on the seat armrest that looks as if it must be the place where you plug in your earphones.

Queen Ramona’s Veil
The dark mesh curtain that separates business class from coach. Its main purpose is to protect those in the front of the plane from projectiles thrown by the riotous mob behind, who are known to catapult dinner rolls at each other using slingshots fashioned from their airline-provided sleep masks and who sometimes divide into teams for prolonged games of ultimate Frisbee. In small planes, the curtain, only a few inches across and resting next to the cabin wall, is known as Queen Romana’s Veilette. Its purpose is purely psycho-social.

The term “Queen Ramona’s Veil” comes from the name commonly used for the wood-and-iron gate employed by the overly paranoid and little-known British Queen Ramona II to separate her highness from the filthy hordes sometimes present in the steerage portion of her royal sailing ship. Mention of the barrier is made in the English dirge “The Death of Queen Ramona at the Hands of the Filthy Hordes.” (Can you tell that I rarely get to fly business class?)

seatemic (pronounced see-uh-tehm-ic)
Your connecting flight is delayed and you have no time to spare so when it lands you run as fast as you can (and by “as fast as you can” I mean a combination of running, jogging, speed walking, walking, stopping, and wheezing) across the airport and arrive at your gate just as they’re closing the door and you speed down the gangway and board the plane and force your carryon into something close to an available slot and find your seat and quickly strap in so the plane can take off. . . . Now all you can do is sit still, sweating, with your heart racing and your veins coursing with adrenaline. Your body is in a fight-or-flight response but something tells you this is a different kind of flight. If you are suffering from these symptoms, you are seatemic.

no-watch list
Movies on this list are not allowed to be shown in-flight. The list includes Red EyeAirborneNon-StopFlightplanSnakes on a PlaneQuarantine 2: Terminal, and Plane of the Living Dead. And, yeah, some of these shouldn’t be shown on the ground, either.

altivism
Gazing out of an airplane window, seeing the new landscape below, and feeling joyfully overcome with the real and imagined possibilities.

post-ping che-klatches
The sound of seatbelt buckles popping open the instant the plane stops at the gate and passengers hear the OK-now-you-can-get-up tone. This allows those in window seats to immediately grab their carryons, put them where they were just sitting, and wait, hunching under the overhead bins.

welwelwel-ke-come
This is the glorious sound of the immigration agent thumbing through your passport looking for an empty page—and then adding the stamp that says you’re free to enter.

dyslistening
The condition by which your over preparation for answering an expected question in another language overwhelms your auditory senses and you answer the query you’ve anticipated, no matter what is actually said, as in responding to “How many would you like?” with “Yes, but no ice, please.”

visatrig
The act of trying to predict which agent in the office will be the most likely to give you your visa or other important document and then conducting complex calculations concerning the number of people in line in front of you to see if you will get the agent you hope for. A domestic version of this is sometimes encountered in the DMV.

unchewing
The physical and mental reaction that occurs when you realize that the chocolate-covered, cream-filled donut that you just took a bite of in your host country is in fact not a donut and that’s not chocolate and the filling might very well have gristle in it.

[photo: “Fight over Slovenia,” by (Mick Baker)rooster, used under a Creative Commons license]

3 Ways to Help Your TCK with Language Learning

Sponges

Has anyone ever referred to your Third Culture Kid as a language sponge? Maybe you picture your child’s brain effortlessly slurping up nouns, adjectives, and conjugations, lisping in perfect Mandarin or Swahili.

That’s what we pictured. After all, my husband and I love languages. Our kids were born in the mission field. Why wouldn’t they learn?

However, when we moved to our second country of service, we quickly realized our daughter, Ashi, was not in a very spongey, language-learny mood. It would take all our language learning knowledge and experience, plus a whole lot of prayer and creativity, to support her and her brother’s learning journeys.

Along the way, we discovered three important ingredients to successful language learning in kids. This “secret sauce” includes exposure, structure, and inspiration.

1. Exposure

The fact is, language learning takes time–hours and hours of meaningful exposure on a consistent basis.

According to the US State Department[i], it takes 600-700 hours of classroom instruction to reach fluency in a level 1 (easy) language. And that’s for adults, who, contrary to the sponge theory, may learn and retain languages faster than children[ii].

The need for more time in the target language is one reason some workers send their children to local schools. But what if attending a local school isn’t a good fit for your family or your child? What if you homeschool or send your child to an international school?

That was our situation. We knew we’d have to get creative. In order to support our young language learners, we decided to:

  • Move outside the city, where people have more time for a cup of tea and a chat, and where kids aren’t constantly attending one after-school program after another.
  • Set up activities that attract children. A trampoline, kiddie pool, or pick-up game of soccer are great ways to encourage positive social interaction.
  • Seek friends with kids, especially those who are not currently learning English.
  • Hire household help—specifically a friendly, chatty helper!
  • Learn songs in the local language.
  • Enroll our children in extracurricular activities taught in the target language.

Other missionaries we know have also incorporated these ideas:

  • Instituting a family language hour, where only the target language is spoken—make sure this is fun and low-pressure!
  • Allowing children to watch cartoons in the local language.

What if your child is getting lots of exposure but still asks your neighbor lady the equivalent of, “Please, I give you water me?” What’s a missionary mom (or dad) to do? That brings me to the second crucial ingredient to language learning: structure.

2. Structure

The idea that children are language sponges who learn easily with zero instruction is somewhat of a myth. Obviously, babies learn languages without taking grammar classes. But that process also takes three or four years!

Studies suggest that very young children are better at doing what experts call “acquiring” language, which is absorbing it by hearing and using it in everyday life rather than receiving explicit instruction[iii]. But this requires many, many hours of high-quality, contextualized exposure each day. That’s hard to get outside a kindergarten classroom, where kids spend eight hours a day hearing simple songs and poems, doing calendar work, and engaging in thematic play.

Most language learners, regardless of age, benefit from specific instruction.

If your target language is a common one, you can find wonderful resources for this, online and/or in person. Think talkbox.mom, Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, YouTube, a local language center, etc. But what if your target language is a little more obscure? And what if available in-person language learning options aren’t working for your child?

To meet our children’s need for structured instruction, we hired a local teacher but designed the lessons ourselves. Specifically, we:

  • Let the kids choose scenarios to play with their teacher. Some favorites included bargaining in the marketplace and choosing what to wear in the morning.
  • Gamified everything. We created gameboards on Canva, played Go Fish with verb cards we drew ourselves, played Simon Says, used Uno cards to practice numbers and colors, added sentences to an ongoing story, and anything else we could think of. The key is to pick just one grammar point and a handful of verbs and nouns, and use the game as an excuse to build sentences. Always start with something that is at or only slightly above your child’s language level. Briefly review the grammar and vocab, explain the game, and play!
  • Had our language helper record our children’s stories, or stories our kids knew, as well as verb conjugations, and listened to these in the car.
  • Engaged in structured language practice at home using games, translation drills, and simple writing exercises.

Maybe you’re still learning your target language, too. That’s okay! A little goes a long way, so share what you know, even if you’re only one step ahead of your kids. Just a few months after beginning this regime, our son was starting to talk outside the classroom.

Ashi, however, was still lacking the final ingredient: Inspiration.

3. Inspiration

There is a hidden obstacle to language learning. Teaching professionals call it the Affective Filter. According to FluentU, an Affective Filter is, “the invisible, psychological filter that either aids or deters the process of language acquisition[iv].” In other words, it’s the stress, anxiety, boredom, and lack of confidence that makes language learners go blank anytime they hear a new word.

After some prayer and observation, we realized this was our daughter’s struggle. Ashi is sensitive about being the center of attention. Language learning felt like a performance to her. Her independent personality balked at that.

We needed to locate low-pressure opportunities for Ashi to be her unique self and practice language. Since she loves feeling capable and helping others, we turned to our neighbors.

Ashi helped my friend with her baby, a group of old women with their rabbit farm, and another lady with food prep and dishwashing. She helped our helper cook local dishes. When she complained about going to language classes, we remained firm, but we let her choose a tasty local treat or favorite activity afterward if she kept a positive attitude during class.

After several months, our daughter’s relationship with the language changed. She began to feel proud of her ability to communicate. Although she often tells groups of people she doesn’t speak the language, the fact is, she does.

Don’t Say You Can’t

One day, about a month ago, our family walked into a labyrinthian marketplace full of textured rugs, fake Aladdin lamps, and exotic solid perfumes. After about 15 minutes, I realized I had lost Ashi. I found her in a shop that sold pens covered in mirror “jewels.”

“That’s too expensive,” she was telling the shopkeeper in Arabic. “Knock the price down for me a little.” I looked at the shopkeeper, a wrinkled, bent-over man with a cane. He was grinning.

Ashi got her discount.

This morning I asked if Ashi has any advice for her fellow TCKs. She mentioned playing Go Fish and making friends. But this, she says, is her best advice ever:

“Don’t say that you can’t!”

 

[i] https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/

[ii] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-child-language/article/age-and-learning-environment-are-children-implicit-second-language-learners/457C069A5339D656788E7E8D217B2A3A

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/16/parenting/children-language-development.html#:~:text=Mu%C3%B1oz%20makes%20the%20point%20that,Like%20Dr.

[iv] https://www.fluentu.com/blog/educator-english/affective-filter/

I went to a foreign country to share the gospel. My children grew up and chose not to believe.

by Anonymous

I never intended to be an overseas missionary. Then in 1997 I found myself living in Russia with my husband and four small children. We believed God had sent us to this place, and we had a glorious ten years of serving and ministering there. When we arrived, our children were two, five, and six, and eight. I homeschooled them, and they enjoyed being a part of the local church family.

I had always believed that if you raised a child in the love and nurture of the Lord, they too would follow Jesus. We believed the verse, “Raise up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” You can only imagine the shock we felt when our son entered University, lost interest in spiritual things and began to date an unbeliever!

We were wholeheartedly following the Lord! How could this happen? We tried to get him to go to the campus fellowships, but there was no interest. Little did I know at the time that two of my girls would follow the same path. My next oldest daughter went to a Christian college near our home; I didn’t want her to attend a secular university like her brother! She was fine for a while, but then she, too, began to drift. Eventually she lost interest in being a Christian. My next daughter stayed closer to home, faced some difficulties at college and did not stray from her faith. My youngest daughter, after graduating from a Christian high school, followed her brother to the secular university near our home and also lost interest in the things of God.

What can I say? I never expected this. I honestly thought that since they were being raised in the Lord with a loving and involved family, our children would never depart from Him. Since that time I have blamed myself, my husband, our mission, and even our church, but in the end I realized that it may not have been any of these things. I have come to believe it was their free will. They became curious about life “outside” the Christian world they were raised in. They, like all of us, need their own salvation experience, and though we trained them in the fear of the Lord and tried to do our best, God gave them the freedom to make their own choices. 

I have wrestled with their choices and struggled not to compare our kids with others serving the Lord around me. I have been to dark places of disappointment with God where I felt betrayed by Him. I laid down my life in obedience on the mission field and gave up so much to evangelize and bring his gospel to the Russian people – how could I have lost my own children in the process? It crushed me to see so many come to faith and then watch my children lose their own. I began to read everything I could get my hands on about prodigals, trying desperately to find some answers. 

It was during this time of praying and crying out for His peace that the Lord gave me a vision. He showed me a lighthouse on a hill overlooking a harbor. Tied to the shore were four small boats. He revealed to me that those small boats were my children and that some of their boats had come undone and were starting to drift out to sea. My husband and I are the lighthouse on the hill, and our job is to abide in Him and shine His light so that it is visible to the children when they need us to guide them safely back into the harbor of His love. This picture really set me free from the temptation to nag and guilt my adult children back to Jesus. Their salvation belongs to Jesus. He is the savior. He is the one who leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one. I can “just be mom!”

As I write this, my children are in their twenties and thirties. I have learned much about prayer, faith, and total trust in the Lord through this long trial. I have learned about my need to have “unconditional love” for these children God has blessed me with. I didn’t realize that I was not loving them in this way until one year when we were on vacation. The pressure cooker seemed to explode, and our son and daughter said these words: “I feel like you will only accept and be proud of us if we do what you want, if we become the ‘Christians’ you want us to be, then you will love and accept us.” These words were incredibly hard to hear and broke my heart, but I began to examine my attitude and the words I was speaking to them. It was a revelation into their hearts.

Since that painful encounter, I have determined to simply put my whole trust in the Lord and enjoy my children, the four gifts that He has given me. I have come to realize that it’s not about me and what I have done or not done. I do not have to feel the shame of their decisions or take the credit. All glory in their salvation belongs to the Lord. This has really set me free. We are now enjoying a closer relationship with our kids, one that allows us to do the loving and the Savior to do the saving. 

These painful circumstances led me to start a prayer group for moms of prodigals. I believe it is of vital importance to have others around you who understand your pain. We often felt misunderstood and judged by people in the church (usually those with kids still at home) who would ask us questions like, “Are your children going to church?” Or “Are they dating a Christian?” And then I would feel the judgment come. Each of these questions was like another knife in my heart. Then I would meet with my ladies, and the pain would lift. It is a wonderful gift to meet weekly with these other moms who feel and experience the same challenges. We are a living testament to the truth of Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Waiting for the salvation of three of our kids has been an unexpected cross to carry, but the comfort, help, and presence of the Holy Spirit has kept us abiding and shining the light for Jesus. His word keeps me grounded, and meditating on the truth gives me great hope in what He has done and will do in the future. I know these kids belong to Him. I will pray and wait and watch for the salvation of my God.

 

“In Him we have this hope as an anchor to the soul, both sure and steadfast and which enters the Presence behind the veil.”
Hebrews 6:19

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The author has chosen to remain anonymous to protect her family’s privacy. If you wish to reach out to her for support, you may reply to this email, and the leadership team will connect you through email.

Home Assignment Is _________?

by Kayle Hardrick

Home Assignment is winding down. We are turning our sights towards preparing to return to our host country and to our work there. We are trying to fit in all the last visits we haven’t had a chance to make yet and purchasing the things we had been wishing we had in Cambodia with us the last few years. We are slowly starting to look at weight and space for packing our suitcases. I keep thinking about what Home Assignment is like. How do I describe it?

It is like packing up your family over and over to see people you love and feeling like each visit is not long enough with those people. It feels like fun family times in a car and new experiences because of generous friends and supporters—like driving an RV. It is getting to do things you never thought you’d get to do and being reminded of all the things you would be doing if you lived in your passport country. It is missing your host country and the things happening there while you are away. It is feeling at home in many homes because the people in each home love you like family.

It is buying groceries in many different grocery stores and cooking in a dozen kitchens. It is doing laundry in all kinds of washing machines and sleeping in so many beds of various sizes. It is hauling exhausted children to nine different states and being so proud of them for making friends, enjoying time with extended family, and having relatively wonderful attitudes throughout it all. It is meeting people you have never met in person and being so thankful they have lived this life and for the grace they have with your kids. They understand when your kids just can’t have the manners they should have that evening.

It is watching your kids feel safe and secure because they see and understand the vastness of the family of God. It is your daughter making friends in Sunday School at every different church you attend and opening up her world and her new friend’s world to more. Home Assignment is visiting so many different churches because people you love have found a community they love there, and you want to see it and engage with it. It is having conversations with your kids about all the different church traditions you have gotten to experience over your time.

Home Assignment is lots of coffee, trying old and new foods, and bonding with others. Home Assignment is encouraging others in their lives here in our passport country and being encouraged by them for our work in our host country. Home Assignment is lots of extended family time that you wish would last forever. It is finding a church you can just be in, rest, and enjoy. Home Assignment is being encouraged by the home office because you see more of the big picture within your organization. Home Assignment is far too long and far too short all at the same time.

Originally shared in a newsletter.

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Kayle and her husband Chris serve with Engineering Ministries International in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they have lived for nearly six years. In addition to homeschooling their three kids, Kayle helps with onboarding and language learning at the EMI office, serves on the board of a small NGO-run school in town, and facilitates continuing education courses for cross-cultural workers around the world through Grow2Serve. She loves swimming, hiking, being outside even in the Cambodian heat, and spending time with people.

Dealing With Abuse Overseas is Complicated

What struck me the most were her lifeless eyes. Without emotion, the young teenager related to me disturbing descriptions of abuse in her home. Her father would verbally assault her and yank her hair. He would beat and kick her mother, locking her out of their bedroom for hours.

My horror quickly turned to despair. As a teacher, I knew about mandatory reporting of abuse. But this was not the United States. I had no one to report to.

*******

Amid the wreckage of abuse revealed in recent years, we can rejoice that many organizations now have their eyes wide open. New protocols. New safety standards. Tough policies. If you are serving overseas, hopefully your organization has already required all staff to complete child protection training. (If not, stop what you are doing right now and implore your leadership to get on the ball with this. Right now. Don’t wait. And keep nagging until it happens.)

In developed countries, there is no longer any room for excuses. Basic child safety procedures should be routine: Screen all workers. An adult should never be alone with a child. Doors and curtains should be left open. Workers should be trained to write incident reports. All signs of abuse should immediately be reported to authorities.

Unfortunately, in many countries, this is not so simple. And that’s what we need to talk about.

Standard child safety training (as important as it is), does not take into account the complications of life in a developing country. When I say I had no one to report to in my opening story, that’s exactly what I meant. I was living in a country where Child Protective Services did not exist. Beating a child or a wife was not only socially acceptable, it was ordinary. If I had gone to the police, they would have laughed at me. So what is there to do in this kind of situation? 

Or, let’s say you are in a position to hire or train children’s workers. What should you do if you live in a country that doesn’t do background checks? Or in a place where bribes are so common that you know you can’t trust the system? 

Or, what if you are in over your head with a suicidal or self-harming teenager? You know the protocol should be to pass her on to a professional, yet you are living in a location where there are no mental health professionals available to help. Maybe an ex-pat, English-speaking, or wealthy teenager might find hope in a telehealth option, but that’s not possible for the kid you are working with. What do you do?

I’m not an expert on these kinds of agonizing situations, although I faced them many times in my work overseas as a youth leader, chaplain, teacher, and principal. I had to document the injuries inflicted on a child by his father. My husband and I were called in the middle of the night by the mom of a teen attempting suicide. Not because we were experts, but because there was no one else.

I believe we need to do some hard thinking and praying in these circumstances, preferably in advance. We need help and advice from those who have gone before us so that we are not caught off guard. 

I wish I could say that my husband and I always did the right thing. But we tried the best we could, and we learned many things along the way. Here are a few:

  • In the absence of background checks, we asked for a reference from a pastor or a community leader. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it helped.
  • We did what we could to enter into families’ lives. We discovered that oftentimes abusive parenting happened not because the parents were evil, but because they knew no other way. When given the option of counseling and parenting advice, they often were willing to receive it. 
  • We educated ourselves. We learned about self-harm, trauma, and eating disorders. And if we couldn’t refer a student to a mental health professional, we could at least get a medical doctor involved. 

If you are looking for more resources on this subject, you can start right here at A Life Overseas:

One thing we get terribly wrong in our response to abuse. And one way to get it right. 

Ask a counselor: What about child abuse? 

Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field and the follow up Telling My Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field

Here are some helpful organizations that can provide support, resources, and training:

There are no easy answers here, and this article is just the beginning of the discussion. But I believe that together, we can work for positive change. So I invite you into the conversation. How have you dealt with abuse when serving overseas? What resources would you suggest? What other factors do we need to consider?