Parenting in Real Life: Ministry Version

by Mandi Hart

As long as I can remember,  I have been captivated by the thought that we reproduce who we are in others. We will reproduce not only what we say, but who we are. It is something that is ‘caught’ and not ‘taught’. Apple trees will reproduce apples and orange trees will produce oranges. I first heard that concept many years ago when I was learning about discipling others and the teacher was telling us that we need to live out of who we are in Christ.

Joseph Chilton Pearce says that what we are teaches the child more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become. We really do reproduce who we are in our children even when we don’t want to admit it. Our children know without being taught whether you are sincere or not. They see through our masks in ways that adults often can’t.

One of the challenges I have encountered since becoming a missionary is that we pray for the work on the field, we plan various activities on how to reach those who do not know Jesus, and our conversations centre around the gospel most of the day. And then we come home. Our children need us, and my husband and I discovered that we had poured ourselves out to their detriment during the day.

Our children go to a ‘secular’ school. We prayed as a family and all agreed the Lord was leading them to be around children their own age from all spheres of life. As a matter of fact, this helps us. It is a great reminder that we are the primary source for teaching our children about the Lord. The Old Testament reminds of that as well. It’s so easy to let the churches or schools teach our children about God and His ways.

One evening, my husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads in sadness. We realised that we were too tired from all our conversations during the day to speak to our teens about the Lord. Then, one day, we had a valuable discussion about it and understood how purposeful we really needed to be with them.

We have to parent intentionally. The result was that we changed a few things in our schedules so that we could be more available to our children. We stopped having afternoon meetings at our home and removed many of the work items from our lounge and dining room. Our home had started feeling like a missions base and not a safe place.

Within a short period of time, we started to notice a few changes in our children’s hearts. We had more energy to have those spiritual discussions them too. All of us started to enjoy doing Bible studies again, and we spent more time discipling them.

Whilst we don’t always have it right, we’ve learned some things through this experience:

1. Keep your home a haven — a safe place from the world (for you and your children).

2. Set some boundaries around your work so that your children feel like they can enjoy being at home.

3. Make sure that you have enough energy left to spend time with them. You need to intentionally invest spiritually into your children.

4. Admit your mistakes and be real.

5. Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you as you parent and love them.

Being a missionary doesn’t mean that my mission field is only ‘out there’; it starts at home with my children. They are the ones I want to minister to first. After all, I will reproduce who I am in them rather that what I say or do.

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Mandi Hart lives in Cape Town, South Africa but carries the nations in her heart. She and her husband, Neil, are the leaders of All Nations Cape Town and have been involved in church planting, discipleship, and missionary training for over a decade. Mandi holds a certification in counseling and a degree in communications and has ministered to mothers and families in a number of ways over the years, including leading a moms group of over 75 moms of babies and toddlers. She has run parenting workshops in Africa & the Middle East and thinks that every stage of parenting is the best stage (she currently has two teenagers). Mandi loves spontaneous adventures, traveling, and sharing a delicious meal with friends and has just released her book Parenting With Courage.

My Kids Are Not Little Missionaries

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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.

Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)

I sat on the floor, weeping.

I was two whole days into living abroad, and I was already losing it.

Those tears portended more, and in our first year overseas, the thing that knocked me down the most, the thing that discouraged and distracted and depressed me the most, was the sense that I was failing at fatherhood.

I loved being a dad. It was a very core part of my identity, and something I really cherished. Moving to Cambodia, I had expected cross-cultural stress. I had expected transition tension and unmet expectations. I had even expected conflict with other missionaries and nationals. But I never thought I’d feel like my identity as a father was being shredded up and burned in the furnace of a cross-cultural move. That was a surprise.

Have you ever felt that? Like living abroad was changing your parenting in a not-so-positive way?

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We moved overseas when our boys were six and seven and our girls were one and three.

I suppose my fathering style could have been characterized as, um, B I G. I loved playing with our kids in wide open spaces, throwing things, kicking things, climbing things. We played loud and we took up a lot of space, and that’s how we liked it.

And then we moved to a concrete box with bars on the windows in an urban capital of a developing country. No grass. No yard. No large spaces.

For me, the shift from wide open spaces to urban jungle was rough. I had to adjust, but first I got depressed. Often, it’d happen on a Saturday; I’d wake up just wanting to go outside and throw a football with my kids.

And with the clarity of thought that overwhelms at times like this, I felt like I had moved from a garden to a prison. A prison that was 95 degrees and thick with humidity!

I had traded acres of green for walls of grey. En Gedi for Sheol.

I watched my kids hang from metal bars on windows when they used to hang from giant limbs on oaks. They were happy, but I was dying.

I missed being able to step outside and kick a soccer ball. I missed our fire pit on cold autumn nights. I missed our porch swing. I missed our yard. I missed the way I used to father.

But thank God the story doesn’t end there, with a depressed dad missing what once was. No, the story definitely doesn’t end there…

 

The Dawn
Slowly, I began to realize a few things. First, I still needed to play with my kids, and second, I could still play with my kids. That sounds silly, I know, but in the haze of transition, this realization wasn’t a given.

I knew things had changed; I knew I had lost some stuff. I needed to grieve that loss well and figure out how to adjust and bend and change too. Basically, what I needed was some creativity, a little bit-o-crazy, and the willingness to spend cash.

And so it began.

I penciled in a “man trip” to a national park an hour outside of the city. I took the boys and we hiked and wrestled and joked and ate junk food. It was glorious.

I was invited to speak in Beijing. The boys tagged along (thanks in part to the honorarium), and we walked Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall. We ate at McDonald’s. A lot. The younger one navigated the subway system, and “a clear day” took on a whole new meaning.

I took the girls on a staycation. We got a hotel outside of town, stayed up late, and swam a lot. Of course, we also ate junk food. (Don’t tell mom.)

We started Nerf wars, using multiple levels of our row house, with intense battles taking place over the “eagle’s nest” position on the top floor. Best vantage point and all.

I bought a ping-pong table and crammed it in a corner. One side has two feet of clearance, so we use the walls and ceilings as extensions of the table. That table provides lots of “play time” that my kids enjoy and I need. Does that sound weird? It’s true. I need to play with my kids.

Rainy season hit our town, flooding the streets up to our knees. I yelled at the kids to get on the moto and we plowed through the water, making a giant wake with our urban jet ski. Neighbors laughed at the crazy white guy with three little kids screeching with delight in monsoon rains.  In America, we’d find a snow-filled parking lot and drift in our van. Here, we find a flooded street and pretend we’re on a lake! Same Same (but different).

We play “air hockey” on the tile floors, using wooden blocks as pucks and plastic cups as the hand-held hitter things. We use Lego men to play table football. We put a badminton set on the flat roof, supposing that a birdie falling from forty feet would do less damage than a volleyball.

We rent a soccer field for $7/hour to throw a Frisbee or a football. I don’t feel guilty spending the money. In America, we didn’t have to rent the park.

We go “cliff jumping” at the Olympic Stadium pool. My six-year-old actually chipped her tooth jumping from the five meter platform. I was so proud of her. (Don’t tell grandma.)

My youngest daughter loves motorcycles. She wraps her little five-year-old fingers around the handlebar and yells “Faster, Papa! Faster!”

We have disco lights in the bathroom. Long story.

 

Practically Speaking
So, here’s what helped me through this particular parenting crisis. Maybe these will help you too.

1. Be Creative. Early on in transition, creativity is very hard to come by. You’re exhausted and on the edge already. So ask around. Ask other parents, “What do you do for family time here? Where?” Just remember, what works for one family might not work for your family. That’s OK. Find the things that work for your family, and then do those things. Boldly.

2. Be Crazy. The Cambodians think we’re crazy, and maybe they’re right. Maybe I am crazy, but I’m also not depressed. Are you willing to look a bit weird? (Wait, you’re a missionary, what am I saying?!) But seriously, are you? Your survival might depend on it.

3. Spend Cash. If you need to spend some money to share a fun experience with your family, spend it. And don’t feel guilty about it. Now, if you feel like God doesn’t want you to spend it, then don’t. But if you’re afraid of spending money because of what your donors might think, that’s a pretty good reason to go ahead and spend it. Don’t let your kids grow up thinking that the most important question when discussing a family activity is, “What will our supporters think?” That question has killed many missionaries, and their children.

 

One Day
My kids still make fun of me for crying in those early days. Thing is, I don’t think they realize I was crying for them; I thought I had lost them. I thought I had lost me. One day they’ll know.

One day they’ll grow up and read this, and when they do, I hope they know how very much I loved being their dad.

In America,
In Asia, and
Anywhere else in
This whole wide world.

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Resources for Parenting Abroad

3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid

To the Parents of Third Culture Kids

One Down, Three to Go

Five Longings of a TCK’s Heart

 

Have you ever felt this? Like living abroad was changing your parenting in a not-so-positive way?

How did you deal with it? How are you dealing with it?

What would you add to the “Practically Speaking” section? It doesn’t have to start with a C (but extra points if it does).