My back hit the cement with a sickening thud, and tears instantly filled my eyes. My arms and legs sprawled around me, and I took mental stock of my fall. I’d probably get a nasty headache, but three layers of winter clothing and the resilience of a twelve year old body had kept me from major harm.
Mostly my pride was suffering. Faces hovered over me, and voices babbled in a familiar, but incomprehensible language. I willed myself to sit up, choke back tears, and mutter whatever Russian word I could remember that might fit this situation.
Soon I was standing on the offensive patch of ice that had sent my feet over my head. I had fallen in the very center of the street market. Right in the middle of babushkas (grandmothers) selling homemade sour cream and men from the villages pulling freshly butchered pig out of their car trunks.
I offered a feeble wave at the words I didn’t understand, as if to say, “I’m fine now.” And I ventured on my way.
I was twelve years old. And this was my new home – Kyiv, Ukraine in 1995.
I’d said goodbye to friends and relatives in the States. Watched as toys, books, and most of our household things were sold in our front yard. I’d packed up treasured keepsakes and stored them in a friend’s attic. My family of seven had then stuffed every remaining personal or household item into fourteen duffel bags, and we’d flown away.
This was now home.
A post-Soviet country where grocery stores were mostly empty, raw meat was sold on the side of the road, and every Russian word seemed to have an unbelievable number of consonants.
I spent the first couple years learning to adapt. I was intrigued by the sense of adventure, but my adolescent insecurities were multiplied by this new life. Not only did I feel unsure of my emotions and all the glorious physical changes of puberty, I did not understand what people said, could not relate to much of anything, and grasped unsuccessfully for any sense of familiarity.
But I did adapt. Made new friends, both Ukrainians and other missionary kids. I slowly picked up the Russian language and got involved in church activities. And soon I embraced the adventures of daily life in Kyiv. Adventures like playing “how many people can you stuff into a city bus” and the excitement of a rare grocery store find, like Rice Krispies. It became second nature to pee into a squat pot and navigate a major city’s transportation at 12 years old.
Over the years, missionary parents have asked me about my experience as a missionary kid. They worry about the effects of this lifestyle on their own children. I can relate; I have some of the same fears for my kids who are now growing up overseas.
I thought I’d share some thoughts I’ve gathered over time, both from my own childhood and from other missionaries or expats. I hope these will encourage you as parents and offer some helpful guidelines for bringing up kids in a foreign culture.
Missionary Kids are Part of the Calling
When God calls a family to be missionaries, He calls each member. I used to hate when people said things like, “Oh, your parents are missionaries, right?” Maybe I wasn’t “doing as much ministry” as Dad and Mom, but I was living the life right beside them. And when God calls parents to serve overseas, He has a plan for each child, as well.
Kids aren’t just along for the ride. They make sacrifices and deal with culture shock and language barriers, just like their parents. Validate the challenges they face. Tell them you understand it’s hard and that you’re proud of them.
Put Them First
Sometimes your ministry will take you away from home for long hours or even weeks or months at a time. But make your family and your children a priority. Have a regular family night and individual dates with your kids. Stay in tune to what’s going on in their lives and hearts. Make sure they know you’re always there to talk and listen and offer a hug.
Nurture Their Walk with God
I was born again at five years old, but I began to walk with God as a 12-year old missionary kid. I saw Him working in people’s lives, and I became hungry to know Him through my own experience.
Just like you would in the States, be sensitive to each child’s spiritual state. Nurture in them a desire for the Word and prayer. Put a greater emphasis on who they ARE in Christ, rather than what they can DO for Christ.
Give Them Opportunities to Minister but Don’t Force It
As a kid, I was involved with drama ministry and visiting orphan babies in hospitals. These experiences opened my eyes to suffering and taught me about God’s love and compassion. But it was my choice to be involved.
I personally think it’s healthy to see a family serving together, but if one or some of your kids are resistant, don’t force it. This should be something God works in their hearts in His timing.
Don’t Focus Their Attention on “Home”
They will be homesick at times. They’ll miss grandparents, cousins, and friends. They’ll talk about craving a favorite food or missing a particular place. Validate those feelings. But don’t habitually focus their or your attention on what’s been left behind.
Help Them Plug in on the Field
Give them every opportunity to develop their social life on the field. As they become part of the culture and learn the language, they’ll “fit in” better and feel at home. Provide opportunities for them to make friends. This might be through school, church, or extracurricular activities.
Choose the Schooling Option Best for Them and Your Family
Missionary kids go to public schools, private schools, boarding schools, and are homeschooled. Each of these options is valid in different situations. Pray and do what is best for your child and your family. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if your kid isn’t doing what other missionary kids are doing, you’re somehow wrong or less of a missionary.
Introduce Them to Other Expat Kids
When I was growing up on the field, the other missionary kids were some of my closest friends. They understood me like no one else could on either side of the globe. Help your child make friends with other expat kids, even if only over long distance. They can share experiences and stories that help them recognize they aren’t alone. In many ways, your child won’t “fit” anywhere now that they’ve lived overseas. But other kids with that experience can provide them with a sense of normalcy and even help them celebrate their unique experiences.
Missionary life is hard for kids – that’s the honest truth. But I believe that when it’s God’s calling, it is also what’s best for them. I cling to that belief when I’m worried we might be screwing up our own kids’ lives!
And although it’s full of challenges, I know this life also offers kids so many benefits. You can check out this post about some specific benefits I gleaned from my childhood and now pray our children experience growing up on the field.
If you’re a missionary parent out there worrying about your kids’ welfare, you’re not alone! But in obeying God’s calling, you’re also providing the best opportunities for your child or children to grow. Hang in there!