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 There Gender Bias in Christian Non-Profits?

by Rebecca Hopkins

Women may struggle finding their voice in meetings. They may want to grow in their roles, but don’t have anyone willing to mentor them. They may not be considered for high-level management in Christian non-profits. And their work often goes unnoticed and unsupported, particularly when a couple is sharing one support-based salary. That’s what the latest studies in gender bias in faith-based organizations have shown. 

I sat down to talk with Biola University professor Leanne Dzubinski, who has a doctorate in ministry, an additional Ph. D., and 25 years’ experience in cross cultural ministry. She and other researchers recently surveyed more than 1,500 female leaders about gender bias, 300 of whom come from faith-based organizations.

The 2020 report can be accessed here: “Measuring the Invisible: Development and multi-industry validation of the Gender Bias Scale for Women Leaders.” (Fellow researchers include Amy Diehl, Amber Stephenson and David Wang.) The study is a follow-up to Dzubinski’s and Diehl’s 2016 study on both faith-based organizations and in higher education, titled, “Making the Invisible Visible: A cross-sector analysis of gender-based barriers.”

 

Can you give me a brief summary of the purpose and the results of the studies?

When Amy and I started working together, we looked around and realized that researchers tend to look at just one thing, such as unequal pay, harassment, work/life balance or lack of mentoring. We didn’t see anything that looked at the whole picture. Our first study built a comprehensive picture of the many things that women encounter as leaders in male-dominated culture. We found 27 types of bias. 

 

Is there anything particularly different with faith-based organizations?

We did cross-industry analysis and we did see some differences. (Editor’s note: The researchers also included women leaders from law, medicine, and education in the 2020 study.) 

Everything we identified was present in every sector. Everything is everywhere, but the strength of it differs by field. Part of the reason may be the nature of different industries. For instance, the medical field is highly professionalized. Law is highly competitive. 

As I’ve done this research over the years, I often hear women in mission agencies who say, “We’re 10 years behind the times.”

But we’re not the worst. We’re not the best. We’re just the mainstream. 

Specifically, hostility gender bias, like workplace harassment and queen bee syndrome, was one of the lowest types of biases in the faith-based communities. That aligns with our values. We don’t take kindly to harassing. It could also mean that we’re socialized not to critique and complain.

Interestingly, we did not score badly on salary inequality, even though, in the United States, women still earn an average of 78 percent of what men earn.  That could be because nobody goes into missions work to make a lot of money. (Editor’s note: One exception that the 2016 study identified was the two-person career model, in which one salary is raised to support the work of a couple. This model was identified as a form of gender bias.) 

 

So, what are the types of gender bias with which faith-based organizations struggle? 

There’s a lack of mentoring and lack of sponsorship. There were disproportionate constraints in self-monitoring and how we communicate, how we speak up in a meeting. Do you get your voice heard? Women report being scrutinized more closely.  

Also, women are expected to be nurturing and caring, a form of gender role socialization. It has become embedded in evangelical faith and labeled as “Christian.” This is a fundamental, gender role stereotype. But it doesn’t help our men who like to be kind and nurturing and don’t get recognized for that. And it doesn’t help our women who have a million ideas and don’t get recognized for that. 

 

Tell me more about the two-person career model and its effect on how women are treated in mission organizations. (Editor’s Note: This was a finding from the 2016 study.)

One of the reasons why the two-person career model hinders us in mission organization, the default is to make the women’s work invisible. If there’s one annual report from the family, then nobody knows what the woman actually contributed. If it’s not seen, it may not be supported. It’s hard to support it if you can’t see it.  

 

What are the biggest hurdles for Christians to believe gender bias exists?

In our first study, Amy and I identified gender bias unconsciousness, the idea that someone just does not believe or is not aware that gender matters in the workplace. Women say, “I worked my way to the top, it may not be a problem.” Men reinforce this idea that, “You’re special, you’re not like other women. You have the qualifications to come in and work on this but most women don’t.” 

With conscious unconsciousness, a woman may be aware this is going on, but chooses to distance herself, maybe for self-preservation. 

Gender bias unconsciousness did not show up in this (2020) study. Maybe now it’s virtually impossible to claim this doesn’t exist due to the #metoo and #churchtoo movements. 

On the flip side, I think we’re still dealing with an evangelical subculture that overall prizes male leadership. Women’s leadership has become more accepted at the middle level, and at functional levels like human resources. More CFOs are headed by women now, too. The middle level seems to be OK for women, because there’s still a male above her.  But we still struggle with putting women into those top positions. 

Several things contribute to this, including “sanctified sexism.” This means religiously-based gender schemas, which are used to permit, justify, or excuse treating women differently. Often it’s cast as chivalry or protection by men. But the effect is to diminish a woman’s authority and ability to make choices for her life.

So, for example, not asking a married woman if she wants a leadership role because the male leaders assume she’s too busy with her children is sanctified sexism. They made the decision for her (treating her like a child) instead of with her. 

 

What’s the impact of gender bias on organizations?

Two things that came out in our current study: increased turnover intent and lower job satisfaction. In practical terms for mission agencies, think how expensive and time intensive it is to recruit and deploy a missionary. Women who leave, who self-select to leave the organization and do something else, costs the organization.  

The benefits that research has shown us when we do have a better handle on diversity are better creativity, better decision-making, and better outcomes financially. When we have those diverse voices in the conversation in the beginning, the outcomes are better. The organizations, although they may not see it, are hurting themselves.

 

How has the year 2020 affected this topic?

COVID has been a massive wakeup call for all kinds of organizations who have been chugging along. Mission agencies may capitalize on it, saying, “We know we need to change, but now we’ve got a kick in the pants to get us moving on this.”

Here’s how we can change: including diverse voices, strategizing well and not just falling back on the things we used to be. I’d also include race and ethnicity in the discussion about our need for diversity. The broader and more diverse the pool the better. It may take longer to figure it out, but the result is better. 

 

How could women and organizations use this survey tool to better their cultures? 

An individual woman could go through the survey and score herself, and say, “Now I understand what’s happening.” It could be personally encouraging: “Oh, this isn’t just an issue that I face, but typical for other women.” 

Or organizations could have women leaders take this and analyze the results. Are there areas where they’re doing really poorly? Then find the areas that aren’t too bad and get quick early wins to improve them. This will grow confidence that this is working. And second, find areas that score poorly and come up with a plan to address those. It’s different for every organization. The downside is there’s not a cookie cutter approach. But the upside is that it could be used to identify particular areas for growth.

The questions themselves are in the article. All you need are Survey Monkey and someone who knows statistical analysis to analyze the results for you. 

Amy, Amber and I are open to consultancy to analyze this scale. There are lots of organizations that can help with organizational change.

 

How does change happen in organizations? What are the obstacles to change?

It can feel very disruptive to people who are used to doing things a certain way. For major change, the top leadership needs to be on board and be the spokesperson for continual change. For individual women who are trying to bring about change, be prepared for opposition. Be sure God is calling you to this. 

 

Do you have any stories to share about women leaders in Christian nonprofits about your research about gender bias? 

I do hear stories. There are two lessons, the takeaways that I get over and over again. The first is, women say, “Oh this wonderful.  I have a name for this experience that I went through and I can make sense of it. It’s not my failure.” It helps them not to self-blame and that’s really important. The other thing is how much hurt women have absorbed, how much comes at them. 

But with that hurt, I cannot tell you of a single story where a woman has become bitter. I’m sure there are women who have walked away from the faith. Research tells us that. But I’m not hearing those stories from missionary women or at the college. They’re staying faithful to their organizations, the church and their calling. They persevere. God has called them, and they do not give that up lightly. 

I’m really hopeful that organizations will use (the survey), that it will be helpful for women personally and helpful for organizations more broadly. I’ve been concerned about our mission industry for a long time. If we can improve health in this area it might impact race relations, our relationships with our children, our national partners. It could spread out in a way that can help us do ministry more completely.  

Also, in our present situation of hurt, I believe that women could be the ones to lead in racial reconciliation and change.

 

Editor’s note: Missio Nexus members can access Dzubinski’s recent presentation on this topic.

 

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Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.