Parenting for Missionaries
in a Third Culture
by Beth Reese
[For a fuller discussion of the missionary family see “The Strength of Missionary Families: A descriptive study of missionaries among the churches of Christ”. This is the thesis of Beth Reese published in May, 2002. It can be found in the library at ACU, Harding and Harding Graduate School.]
“Family life education would seem to be a wise long-term investment for mission boards to make in their families. Finding the balance between fulfilling God’s mandate to train one’s children and to preach the gospel is not easy, especially when faced with a foreign culture and seemingly endless demands on time and energy” (Wrobbel, Evangelical Missions Quarterly 26, 1990).
What does it mean to be a Third Culture Kid?
Third Culture Kid (TCK)- “an individual who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years in a culture other than that of the parents, resulting in integration of elements from both the host culture and parental culture into a third culture” (Pollock in Bowers, Raising Resilient MKs, 1998, p46).
Missionary Kid (MK)- a TCK whose parents are missionaries living or working in a culture different from their own.
This lesson will examine the subject of raising godly TCK’s and MK’s. The discussion will be put in terms of worldwide research on strong families. Dr. Nick Stinnett, internationally recognized family researcher, began in 1974 with a small team to pursue the characteristics of successful families. Studying 14,000 diverse families in fifty states and 24 countries, his team has determined six characteristics that are present in all strong families. These characteristics are commitment, appreciation and affection, positive communication, time together, spiritual well-being, and the ability to cope with stress and crises.
Comment from one adult MK – “Being an integral part of mom’s and dad’s activities and knowing the struggles as well as joys of mission work, I can now decide to be a missionary myself, knowing what it is to face the discouragement. But none of this could have been possible if my parents had not put the family before the work” (Survey, EMQ 10, 1975).
1. The Third Culture Kid has a heightened need for security since many of the things in his environment are unsettled.
2. There should never be any doubt to the child that his parents will always be there for him.
3. The parent can reassure the child by participating in play, school celebrations, sports activities, and other activities of the child.
4. When a teen, the TCK will go through a stage of learning to be independent. The wise parent will help him progress from a totally dependent child to a mature young adult. With help and encouragement from the parents, this does not have to be a violent or complete separation from the family, but merely a maturing/shifting of relationships. Teens still need to learn boundaries as they learn to make their own decisions.
5. The TCK also needs to know that grandparents and other extended family still support and love them. This can be a little difficult for them since grandparents are always doing things for cousins in the States and they might not always get the same attention.
5. The MK is also able to develop a commitment to the ministry of the parents. The parents can aid this sense of commitment by letting the MK participate in the ministry in age-appropriate activities.
Affection and Appreciation
“Studies of children of missionaries show that the one universal positive quality in the families of well-adjusted missionary children is the demonstration of affection at home” (Severn, EMQ 23, 1987).
1. Tell your children you love them every day. Demonstrate this love with touching, hugs, or kisses even through their teen years.
2. Children need to feel loved and appreciated. They need to know, in a very real way, that they are more important to their parents than all the other people in the world.
3. A TCK needs to have a healthy self-esteem level because he will be subjected to varying levels of criticism, scrutiny, or ridicule. Build the TCK up with well deserved compliments and praise.
4. Children need to feel loved and accepted for who they are and not always for just what they do. While we were still helpless Christ died for us (Rom 5:6).
5. If a parent finds he is emotionally drained when he returns to the family, he might give the children attention at the beginning of the day.
6. Maintaining rituals of love (family devotionals, mealtime, and bedtime) at the end of the day help the busy family to remember to take time for each other.
7. If the parents keep a context of affirmation in dealing with the children then discipline will be understood and accepted as a part of love. When affection and appreciation are not often found then it will appear that the main attention a child receives is when he has been naughty. (See supplemental section on discipline.)
8. The best way to teach appreciation is to model it. Thank the children when they do good things. Teach children to express affection and appreciation by learning to treat other family members with kindness, respect, unselfishness, and courtesy. Love is kind… it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered (I Cor 13:4-5).
9. Acknowledge your TCK’s feelings. He will likely have many new emotions and may not know how to deal with them. Be sympathetic (I Pet 3:8). If one part suffers, every part suffers with it (I Cor 12:24). Weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15).
“Families can respond appropriately to the needs of the members only when there are well-established patterns of communication within the family. Communication is probably the most significant aspect of the dynamics of family life” (Gilpin, “Family Preparation for Living Overseas”, 1985, p. 15).
1. Missionaries’ main problem in the family seems to be communication. Often a missionary may spend many hours of the day ‘communicating’ outside the home, so they want to rest when they are at home.
2. Also many families assume that their own family will understand them, especially since they may have a lot of difficulty communicating with others in another culture.
3. Family rules sometimes change overseas because the environment is different.
4. Family discussions need to be had to establish and reinforce rules.
5. Parents need to discuss changes in their parental roles that may be caused by work needs.
6. Families need to spend time talking and praying together.
7. If children are away at school, be especially diligent at communicating regularly. When physically possible, call, write or e-mail at least weekly and get together at holiday intervals and long weekends.
8. When living in a country that speaks a different language from the parent’s home language, special thought needs to be given to the child’s language development.
9. When the TCK comes home wanting to tell you about his experiences, be sure you really listen to them. You might pick up clues that things are not always as they should be. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (Jas 1:19).
10. Learn not to ‘jump on’ the child for the things he relates to you. Try not to be critical and jump to conclusions.
11. Communication involves talking, listening, and understanding.
12. Communicate openly and honestly and constructively. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Eph 4:29).
13. Be willing to explain your rationale to teenagers – not so that they must agree, but so that they can understand how decisions are made.
“The development of character in a child demands a commitment of time and interest which the child equates with love and concern” (Kruckenberg and Stafford, EMQ 17, 1981, p. 168).
1. It is very important for both parents to spend time with the TCK. They need to be shown by actions that they are more important than the work the parents have been sent to do.
2. Sometimes fathers feel that the demands of the work are too great for him to spend adequate time with the kids. It is important to remember that the admonition in Eph. 6:4 to bring up children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord was addressed to ‘fathers.’ Father can take a child with him when making some visits or trips. (Car time is important – Think creatively e.g. ‘make it up as you go’ stories.)
3. Family time is vital. It should be scheduled and kept. Learn to set boundaries. It may be necessary to let the local people know when you schedule family time and teach them to respect it.
4. The first 5 or 6 years of life are formative ones. It is important to spend time with your child to help him develop in a spiritual way. Children are never too young to benefit from attention.
5. Spend some time playing together. Plan at least one weekly activity together.
6. Take vacations together as a family. This allows you to get out of the spotlight for a short time. Vacations do not have to be expensive. The time spent together is much more important than being entertained.
7. Share at least one meal together each day as a family. This will be difficult, but with determination it can happen most of the time.
“The MK is the product of parents who have a deep faith in God” (Austin, “Descriptive statements of missionary families,” unpublished 1986).
1. The MK and the TCK need to develop their own faith in the Lord. They need to live and act as children of the King.
2. Parent on purpose. You can help your children develop in the way you believe they should go. Make decisions before the children are born or when they are small about the kind of child you want to raise. Children do have their own personalities and character, but parents can help to guide them in godly ways. Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it (Pr 22:6).
3. Home is where we have family, friends, and familiar culture and language. “Home need not be one fixed place for an entire lifetime” (Troutman, EMQ 10, 1975, pp.150-151).
4. Expose the MK to great ‘heroes of the faith.’ Include the children when visiting with the people you know and respect greatly. Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ (1Cor 11:1).
5. Help the TCK to develop dependence on God and not on the things of the world. It is certainly okay to have ‘things’ but the TCK needs to be able to know what is important in life.
6. While it is true for all families, the parents in countries where the church is not strong must make sure they teach their child about spiritual matters. Sing, read Bible stories, memorize Scriptures, discuss meanings of Bible stories, etc. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up (Deut.6:7).
7. Sometimes families have to make new rules for living in the culture. Raise TCKs to critique culture from a biblical perspective. (For example: modesty. In some cultures it means high necklines, in others it means long skirts, in others topless is okay for nursing mothers and traditional dancing.) Since the TCK lives in two cultures, the standard set should not only be biblical but acceptable in both cultures.
8. Be sure to have some family traditions and rituals.
9. Establish family holidays and traditions.
10. Keep laughter in the family but never let it be to embarrass or cut one another down.
11. If family is included in the work and activities, then they will feel closer. When they are later separated (school), they will know they are missed.
12. Help your children develop good attitudes toward household help.
13. Home is where faith – or lack of it – is most evident. Be a walk about – talk about model (Faulkner, Raising Faithful Kids in a Fast-Paced World, 1995).
14. Sing, discuss, and pray as you go about activities.
15. Be a servant family. Take your children with you when you help or visit others.
16. Teach your children from a young age that what “I” want is not always the most important.
17. Encourage your older TCK to seek out those who need help. They can bake, sew, mow, build, or anything else that is needed to learn to serve.
18. Have a strong value system in place that clearly impacts decisions and rules. An effective value system has five characteristics (Faulkner, p.20-22):
a. Blesses society in general (society).
b. Deals honestly with sin or wrongdoings (ethics).
c. Lasts eternally (time and the future).
d. Gives meaning and purpose to life (value of life).
e. Answers the big questions of aging and death (death and dying).
19. Let your Christian faith have structure as well as heart. Give your children practical ways to show that the Lord comes first. Allow young men to participate in leading worship services. Allow young women to teach class.
20. Let your Christian faith have structure and guiding principles for ethics and morals, not just laws that tell them what is legal.
21. Model making wise decisions in your daily life.
22. Practice personal accountability.
23. Think about the long-term significance of choices that involve cultural values.
a. Education: What social agenda and view of life is being taught? E.g. definitions of the family, of normative sexual experience, of the ultimate source of life.
b. Fine arts: What values are exemplified in dress, in movements, in depictions?
c. Sports: What attitudes are coaches and teammates encouraging?
d. Entertainment: What messages are carried by TV, games, movies, shows, songs, instrumental beats?
e. Friends: What are the priorities and values of the child’s peer group?
24. Help your growing TCK learn to think through how to overcome wrongs. Help him to learn how to repent and change. Help him to learn to help other people grow in their spiritual lives.
Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis
“We will be praying for David. I know it is stressful for you to have him ‘wandering around in the middle of nowhere’, especially with those hooligans around too. I am sure it doesn’t help that you don’t have Dad with you too, so we are praying for your peace of mind and heart as well. We are proud of you for being brave and letting him go. Often it is the mom (and later also wife) who are left behind to worry that are the bravest, not the guy who is out having the adventure.” Tammy Short, personal e-mail, July 21, 2004.
1. A family platform (core values) helps the TCK to cope. When there are good values at the core it is easier for a TCK to put other things into perspective.
2. Living in two cultures can cause stress and frustration. The TCK is often confused at the definition of home. Some have compared living in another culture to Jesus coming to the earth. It is God’s plan, it does involve some pain and difficulty for us – but it does end up for the better good (both for us and the church).
3. One major source of stress for the TCK is the fact that he is always being watched. The MK has the extra advantage of knowing that he is in the second culture for a heavenly purpose.
4. Another common time for stress for the TCK is furlough or home leave. Everyone is still watching you and your kids. On furlough make comments to help the TCK remember names, people, events so that they can put things in context.
5. There is not as much community help available (child care, schools, Sunday school, activities, even places to go) in some cultures. The missionary family often has to learn to be self-sufficient. Extended family is not usually available.
6. Because the overseas family must be self-sufficient, the TCK and his family also need to learn how to accept and ask for help.
7. The school situation overseas can sometimes be a problem. Families have to make choices about boarding school, home school, starting a school, sending to a local school, or supplementing learning at a local school.
8. The TCK will need to learn to handle other children picking on him without letting his self-esteem suffer or succumbing to bad activities or habits.
9. Children need to know, beyond all doubt, that they can call their parents from any place, at any time and they will come and get them. Parents need to remember that the trust of the child is very important. There will be time later to ask questions and receive answers. When he came to his senses, he said, “…I will set out and go back to my father….” So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Lk 15:17-20).
10. Here is a plan for coping:
a. Pray. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6-7).
b. Mediate. Turn your mind to positive things. Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:8-9).
c. “Come away for a while.” Step back, think, and re-group. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, He said to them, “Come with Me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest (Mk 6:31).
d. Look at the big picture.
e. Look for the blessings.
f. Be pro-active in working on solutions.
Parents need to love the Lord with all of their hearts and
demonstrate it to their children while
training the children to love the Lord with all of their hearts and
to demonstrate it to others.