The life of a Third Culture Kid is not a simple one. Wonderful, enriching, colorful, and filled with incredible life-altering experiences, absolutely. But certainly not neat and tidy, or without its share of troubles.
Missionary kids are often referred to as “little missionaries.” The term makes me cringe and here’s why:
1.We need to let kids be kids. Missionary kids are often held on a pedestal. They are presented to the world on the stages of churches and in monthly newsletters. They know that their job is to look and act the part of the good missionary kid so that people support their parent's ministry. There is immense pressure on missionary parents to have perfect kids and immense pressure on the kids to play that role. We need to give them permission to just be kids. Yes, let’s encourage them to share the gospel, but let’s not make sharing the gospel part of the requirement of playing the “perfect missionary kid” role.
2. Sharing the gospel should be more than an occupation. We learned in Sunday School before we could walk that we need to “preach the gospel to all of creation” (Mark 16:15) and I absolutely believe that this is true. However, missionary kids are at risk for seeing Christianity as an occupation. When you refer to them as “little missionaries” or ask, “Are you going to be a missionary when you grow up, too?” it is kind of like calling the lawyer’s kids, “little lawyers” and asking, “Are you going to be a lawyer when you grow up?” Sharing the gospel can be done in the jungles of South America or as a bus driver in California or any other occupation anywhere else.
I was (and still am) often asked if I am going to be a missionary like my parents. For a long time, this question made me stutter and break out in a sweat because I felt like if I said “no,” I would be seen as less Christian. When I did answer, “no,” I felt obligated to go on to explain all of the ways I was involved in ministry here in the US and add on that maybe one day I would be a missionary overseas if God called me to that.
God may call some missionary kids to live as missionaries overseas when they grow up, but He may also call them to a different occupation and neither option should affect their validity or confidence in sharing the gospel.
3. Allow autonomy. Allow missionary kids to choose to follow Jesus Christ for themselves. It is hard as parents to give our children autonomy in this area, and especially so when you are missionaries and have so many eyes watching you and your children. But, when children feel like Christianity is a requirement, they are more prone to rejecting it, especially in teenage years. This is particularly true for missionary kids and other kids whose parents work in ministry. If children grow up being pigeonholed into the “little missionary” role, they are likely to resent that role and unfortunately may resent the Christian label that comes with it. We absolutely should “train up our children in the way they should go”(Proverbs 22:6) and instill Christian values and beliefs, but we need to be careful to not make Christianity a requirement rather than a choice. Our hope and prayer as parents is that our children will choose to follow the Lord and desire to share the gospel; not to do either out of obligation.
4. No one should be a “little” missionary. God has given us all the ability to share the gospel no matter what age we are. Sometimes children can minister even more effectively than adults can. The term “little missionary” can come across as a bit demeaning and condescending. While I’m sure no one means it that way, it can sound like they are telling the child that they are not old enough to qualify as a “real” missionary. No one, even children, like to feel like they’re not taken seriously and we want to be very careful that we don’t imply that, especially in the context of sharing the gospel.
Calling them “little missionaries” is a quick way to close the door on conversation, so here is better way to get to know missionary kids:
If you genuinely want to know what the child wants to be when they grow up, ask them. Don’t imply that “missionary” is the correct answer.
If you want to know if they have been able to share the gospel with anyone, ask them. They may have some amazing stories!
If you want to know about their relationship with Jesus Christ, ask them.
Take them seriously, ask questions, don’t assume, and please don’t call them “little missionaries.”
Settling is even more difficult for the TCK who has little support during their time overseas from those he/she left behind.
So, how can you as a friend, family member, or church support the adapting child while they are overseas and thus, ease the transition when it becomes time for them to "settle"?
Be patient. This is tip #1 for a reason. From the last post, we know that TCKs have a difficult time developing deep relationships, particularly when they return to their passport country. Be patient with them and push past the point when the friendship doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Chances are, it will, if you give it time.
I had been living back in the United States for 5 years before I made a good, tell-anything-to, kind of girlfriend. Her name is Laura and for the first year of our friendship we had frequent coffee dates and awkward trips to the mall. As we were walking around the mall one day, I kept thinking "I want so badly to have a good, deep friendship with Laura, so why am I so terrible at this!?". I was certain that she would stop pursuing me as a friend and our hangouts would taper off. This is what had happened to a slew of other potential girlfriends. But, Laura was patient. She continued to reach out to me and slowly but surely, I learned to let my walls break down. She is now one of my very closest friends. And guess what? Through this experience, I became better at developing deep friendships and I now have several great girlfriends. This is a first for me.
The point here? Be patient. We TCKs do not let people in easily. Sometimes by choice, but sometimes because of the subconscious walls our adapting nature has taught us to put up. Give us time to see that you aren't going anywhere, and you will start to chip through that outer shell we've spent years developing.
Keep in Touch. Do you have a close friend who moved overseas? Don't let that friendship end. While that friendship may be important to you, it will likely be even more valuable to the TCK. It is rare for a TCK to have a friend who has known them and remained a close friend their whole life. That friend is a treasure. My sister-in-law had a close friend move overseas while they were in junior high. Despite the distance, they kept in touch over the years with frequent Skype dates and other means of communication. They are now roommates in college. I haven't talked to the TCK, but I would imagine that having my sister-in-law as a friend and roommate in college has greatly softened the challenge of the transition back to the US. It has likely helped her to settle, even if subconsciously.
Be Patient. Just as TCKs may have trouble developing deep friendships, they may also take a while to warm up to family members whom they haven't seen in a while. This is especially true for children who moved overseas at a young age. Don't take it personally! Give them time.
Ask Questions. Family members often have a very difficult time acknowledging that the child has developed a life overseas. Because of this, they tend to talk about it as if it was just a long vacation. This will only increase the depth of the walls the TCK has put up. Ask genuine questions about their life. Ask them about their friends. Ask them about their school. Ask them to tell you stories. This is probably the best way to help the TCK warm up to you!
Keep in Touch. I wrote a post on long-distance grandparenting with creative ways to keep in touch with TCKs. These methods are great for other family members as well! If you want your TCK to be more comfortable with you and ease the settling process when they eventually move back to their passport country, stay in touch with them while they are living overseas.
Acknowledge the Child Apart from their Parents. When the family comes to visit your church, talk to the TCK directly. Ask them how they are doing! On more than one occasion, when we visited supporting churches, the pastor would ask my parents how I was doing (while I was standing next to them!). I remember being so hurt that no one would ask me how I was doing or how I liked living in Africa. For a long time, I thought that they must not care about me. After all, I wasn't their missionary, my parents were. I know now that that was not the case, but this memory from my childhood made it very difficult for me to want to settle into a church as young adult.
Don't Make them a Spectacle. We visited a church while on furlough one year when I was a freshman in high school. I was invited to go to the high school youth group for the Sunday service, and my shy-self worked up the courage to go. The youth service began and, without warning, the youth pastor asked me to come up to the front. I stood in front of a sea of high schoolers, absolutely mortified, as the youth pastor explained that I lived in Africa, so they should make an effort to make me feel welcome. I thought I was going to barf and made a mental note to stay in the adult service the next Sunday.
Most TCKs just want to blend in. As difficult as it may be, do your best to let them.
Keep in Touch. Again, keeping in touch with TCKs while they are living overseas is one of the best ways to give them a sense of belonging when they return to their passport country. When we lived in Tanzania, one of our supporting churches sent a care package and sent individual packages for my brother and I. I felt so loved by that church. To this day, I remember what was in my package: a bible (which is still my go-to bible today), a beautiful journal, a CD of a Christian artist who had become popular while we were gone, and a letter. This gesture meant worlds to me. When we returned to the states, that was the church that I wanted to go to because they had cared about me.
It will be much easier for TCKs to settle when they move back to their passport country if those whom they have left behind have supported them while they have been overseas. When a TCK knows they have friends, family members, and a church family who cares about them, the idea of being settled, in those areas, may be a bit less daunting.
Churches, family members, friends, I would love to hear from you! In what ways do you support the TCKs in your life?
TCKs and parents of TCKs, are these things important to you? Are there any other ways you would like to receive support from those in your passport country?
The term TCK refers to anyone who has spend a significant part of their developmental years in a country other than their country of origin (Van Rekken & Pullock, 1994). There are many common characteristics among those who share the TCK lifestyle. One benefit that I have heard most commonly pointed out is the TCK's ability to be exceptionally adaptable and flexible. The TCK lifestyle has required them to become a "cultural chameleon". They have the uncanny ability to subconsciously pick out the subtleties in a new culture and operate successfully in that culture even if they only move between their passport country and one host country. Because of this, adapting becomes their lifestyle. More than that, I believe that adapting becomes their comfort zone.
The funny thing, is that TCKs often don't realize this. Many dream of a settled life in a small town, where their children can grow up in the same house, go to the same school, and have the same people in their lives who knew them from birth. For a long time, this was my dream. This sounded comfortable. However, each time I got close to this settled feeling, I would get uncomfortable and the clock in my head would go off that said "time for a new place, new things, new people!" and I would once again, be on the move.
Still, I thought it was the settled feeling that I was searching for.
After many conversations with TCKs and colleagues who also work with the TCK community, I found that I was not alone in this. For the majority of Americans, being settled and adapted is comfortable. You have "arrived" when you have a stable job, purchase a house, and start to "build a life". Moving is considered one of the top 10 most stressful life events on the Holmes and Rhae Stress Scale. However, for the majority of TCKs, moving is thrilling, exciting, and comfortable. This process of settling and adapting is familiar territory and they know how to navigate it well. It is when they begin to settle that they feel uncomfortable and must make the conscious decision to wade into the uncharted territory of settled and adapted. So how can you as a new TCK parent prevent this struggle from becoming debilitating when your TCK reaches adulthood? How can you as a church, community, grandparent, friend support the TCKs you know and love? My passion lies in preventative care and education for TCKs, MKs, and their parents. There are many resources available for adult TCKs and MKs who are struggling because of their globally mobile upbringing. However, there are very few tools to prevent those struggles from becoming issues in the first place. I believe that by educating parents and children, they can begin a healthy life overseas and prevent many of the issues that TCKs and Adult TCKs commonly face due to their globally mobile upbringing. This three-part series will address parenting the adapting child, and how those left behind can support the adapting child. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback!
One hot topic among parents with whom I work, is the struggle of leaving their children's grandparents behind. Moving overseas requires significant sacrifice and as missionaries, those sacrifices are made knowing that you have been called by God to life in cross-cultural ministry. However, the people who you leave behind are required to sacrifice by no choice of their own. This struggle is particularly difficult in regards to grandparents. My friend, Amy Medina writes beautifully about this struggle in her blog, here. From the grandparent's perspective, you are taking their grandchild/ren away from them to some far off place, depriving them of being actively involved in their grandchild/ren's life. If you are blessed enough to have Christian parents, they may be more understanding of your choice, but that doesn't make it easy by any means. If your parents are not believers, the concept may be even more difficult to grasp and accept. So how do you deal with this?
Often this struggle is not addressed and remains as the elephant in the room, so to speak. It bubbles out in insensitive comments or unspoken tension. This is why you need to have "the talk", preferably before you move overseas. Here is what I suggest "the talk" should consist of:
Acknowledge how difficult it is for them to have you leave with their grandchild/ren. Express that it is incredibly difficult for you as well. Talk about the specific events you are sad that they will miss.
Talk about why you feel God has called your family to this. Whether or not your child/ren's grandparents parents are believers, it is important that they know why you are willing to make this sacrifice.
Talk about ways that they can stay actively involved in their grandchild/ren's lives. With technology today, there are many ways your children's grandparents can remain a significant part of their life. See below for specific ideas.
Ask for their blessing and for them to be praying for your family. Share how important it is to you for them to give their blessing, to be supportive of your decision, and to remain involved in your child/ren's lives. Unfortunately, some will not give their blessing. At this point, you have done what you can on your end and the ball is in their court. Pray that the Lord will work on their heart and will open their eyes to see why you are making the decision that you are.
As I said, there are many GREAT for ways for grandparents to stay involved while you are living overseas. Here are some practical ideas. Many come from the book, "Long Distance Grandma", which is packed full of good, practical ideas for long-distance grandparenting.
Share a meal together regularly. Perhaps begin a Saturday tradition of "breakfast with grandma and grandpa". Skype them in and share a meal together. Talk about the week. Depending on the time difference, it may be dinner at grandma's house and breakfast at yours, but that is ok! Maybe they can eat breakfast for dinner that night.
Share pictures. Have the grandparents ask the children for pictures of their new home, friends, school, etc. This is valuable for a multitude of reasons. The grandparent can be "in the know" when the child talks about a certain place or person, the child is excited that the grandparent wants to know about his/her life, it gives the grandparent questions to ask and conversation topics, and gives the grandparent a little window into their grandchild's new world.
Twin stuffed animals. The grandparent can buy two stuffed animals to gift the child/ren one of them and keep the other. They can tell the child/ren that when they hug the stuffed animal, they are getting a big hug from grandma/grandpa. For older children, they can each take pictures of their stuffed animal in different places or during different events and send the pictures back and forth.
Storytime. The grandparent can read the children a story and show them the pictures in the book via Skype or another instant video service.
Visit. Perhaps the very best way for grandparents to be a significant part of their grandchild/ren's life is to visit them while they are overseas. Their grandchild/ren have begun a new life in a new culture and it will be very difficult for them to connect with their grandparents if they have not experienced their life. By visiting, grandparents communicate that they want to see and experience the child/ren's new world.
Read about TCKs. I can not express how strongly I feel about grandparents and other family members and friends who are significant in the child/ren's life, reading the book: "Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds". It is often hard for family and friends to understand how much your child has changed because of their experience living overseas, especially if you move when they are a bit older. However, from the moment they began their new life overseas, they became a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and have changed in ways that even they probably don't realize. This book will open grandparent's eyes to how their grandchild/ren may have changed during their time living overseas.
Making the decision to move overseas, doesn't mean that the grandparents can't be involved in and play a significant role in their grandchild's life. With some effort on your part as parents and on their part as long-distance grandparents, that relationship can grow despite living worlds apart, and can even be deeper because of the intentionality it requires.