I read an article recently about parenting habits for raising well-adjusted kids. Practices like early bedtimes, stable routines, and setting boundaries. I agreed with all of it and thought, “Hmm. Practical. Helpful. Totally feasible.”
And then I considered our children’s lives. They’re missionary kids. Third culture kids.
One was born in America, the other in Ukraine. Both have lived here longer than in their “homeland,” and a bi-cultural, tri-lingual environment is their norm. We’ve lived in three homes in three and a half years.
They’re accustomed to traveling by train, bus, car and plane. Our four-year old, Nora, yells, “We’re at the border!” when we pull up to the Polish-Ukrainian car crossing. They clap their hands when we get out the suitcase, always curious about the next adventure.
Our two-year old, Titus, picks and chooses between Russian and English words. When practicing facial features with Mama, he says “eye,” “head,” “uha” (ear in Russian). We haven’t decided yet if “nose” is in English or Russian, since they sound the same from his mouth.
Nora instinctively walks around manhole covers, because she knows they might be loose or missing. Titus loves soup and kasha (any form of porridge), like a true Ukrainian child. Nora understands that when she wakes up in the morning, her cousins in the States are still in bed.
Routine feels far from reality. When we’re home on the field, the weekly schedule varies, depending on current ministry needs. Papa works from home a lot, but there are weeks when the kids don’t see him much. Sundays at church are long – they never get their naps.
It’s common for them to sleep in new places. We travel for ministry, conferences, family getaways, and furloughs. Last summer on our 15-week Stateside furlough, we stayed in sixteen different places.
They don’t 100% fit in anywhere. When Nora plays at the park here, she speaks her version of Ukrainian, and the other kids look confused. This mama is thankful that so far, Nora hasn’t caught on when the older kids mock.
But their experiences make them different than American kids, too. They don’t understand why you shouldn’t pee in the grass at the park. Nora knows for sure that a football is round and black and white.
Honest disclosure here. When I consider the many unstable parts of our lives, I wonder if we’re failing our kids. How can our children possibly be well-adjusted when we’re raising them in constant upheaval?
The Bigger Truth
The most important answer is about the bigger truth. The truth is: we’re raising our kids in obedience to God.
We live in Ukraine, on the mission field, because it’s where God called us to be. In the times we feel privileged and the times we want to cry and pack it all up, we’re still walking in obedience.
That has two implications. One is that in obeying God, we’re also trusting Him to do the best for our children. A former missionary kid myself, I firmly believe that when God calls a family to the field, He calls each member. God has a plan for our Nora and our Titus. His best plan for them involves living a somewhat unorthodox life, right here in Ukraine.
The second implication is that we’re setting an example of obedience for our kids. They see how our relationship with the living God impacts the decisions we make, from the small to the life-altering. We pray they will grow up to follow Him themselves.
I hold onto this truth and bring it to mind in moments of doubt, when I feel like a terrible mom.
But can we as parents of third culture kids develop practices that will help them be well-adjusted? I don’t think any parenting is a formula – “do this and that and your kid will be well-adjusted.”
But our family has found some habits that help Nora and Titus deal with the uncertainties of our lifestyle. I realize every family is different, and your location and lifestyle might not allow for all these habits. You might also have older kids; ours are both under five.
But these are what work for us, so I thought I’d share them with you.
1. Regular Bedtime
In our family, it’s an early bedtime. We make occasional exceptions, but as a rule, Nora and Titus are in bed by 8PM. We follow the same routine – brushing teeth, pit stops, reading the Bible and praying. We also put them to bed awake and let them fall asleep on their own.
This routine has made it infinitely easier for them to travel and to sleep in new places. Remember those sixteen furlough homes? They both slept well in almost every one.
2. Family Day
We protect this with a vengeance. It is a very rare and time sensitive ministry need that interrupts family day. We believe Nora and Titus take precedence – they are the primary disciples God has given us. Family day demonstrates that they’re important, Papa and Mama love and make time for them, and we as a family need to grow together.
3. Naps and Quiet Time
Nora (4 years old) doesn’t nap anymore, but she takes a quiet time in her room while Titus sleeps. We’re a bit more lenient on missing this every few days, but it’s still a steady habit. Sometimes Mama is home; sometimes it’s Papa or our babysitter. But it’s a time for the kids to recharge physically and emotionally.
4. Maintain Friendships
Like any third culture kids, ours have friends all over the world. We try to help them maintain those relationships. They have regular play dates with kids in L’viv, and they’ve become modern-day pen pals with cousins and friends in other countries.
Video chat apps have made this easier for smaller kids, who can’t email or send Facebook messages. Even Titus, almost two, comes up to Mama and says, “Marco!” when he wants to send a “Marco Polo” video to his infant cousin.
5. Become Part of the Community
Our kids aren’t in school yet, but we consistently take them to church, public parks, and on play dates. We’re looking into kindergarten and extracurricular activities and finding ways to expose them to Ukrainian and Russian languages. Speaking the language allows kids to overcome a huge barrier to adapting in their culture.
Community is vital for third culture kids, because their life can feel isolated and lonely at times.
We haven’t practiced this as much yet, mostly because our kids are still so small. But as a missionary kid, I remember the importance of talking with my parents about the joys and challenges I faced. I loved sharing stories about funny, strange or even scary experiences I had. These stories were part of my identity, and I needed an outlet for them, especially with someone who understood me.
Sharing the hard times with my parents brought the added benefit of a strong friendship with them. They were my confidants, my safe place when I was hurting. And that relationship has continued through adulthood.
7. Demonstrate Thankfulness
Living in another culture, whether for adults or kids, is hard. It’s an awesome privilege; but it’s hard. In the challenging times, it’s tempting to complain and vocalize how we wish things were different.
Our children observe everything. They repeat everything, including speech and attitude. So it’s vital for their sakes that we demonstrate a positive, thankful attitude for our life. Point out the benefits of their experiences, the places they are privileged to visit, the people they meet and the things they get to see.
I’ll admit – Josh and I are working on this one; failing at times. But still working. And still convinced it’s an important practice.
More Practices for Well-Adjusted Third Culture Kids
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Just a few of the habits we’ve developed in our missionary family.
What about you? If you’re raising missionary or other third-culture kids, what are some practices you’ve adopted to help your children adjust?