I am not a huge fan of tattoos, but when my 21-year-old daughter showed me hers, I fell in love.
It’s a simple design on her ankle — just the coordinates of Arequipa, Peru, where she grew up as a missionary kid (MK). You might wonder, What’s the big deal about that? But as a missionary parent, the message to me is huge.
It means my daughter so identifies with the place where she grew up that she wants to carry it with her forever.
Lately, there has been an explosion of articles by or about MKs who rejected the faith and have strained relationships with their parents. It is true that some MKs have suffered, and in no way do I wish to deny their experiences. But as I read these articles, I find myself thinking, Aren’t there good stories too?
In most articles about MKs, the emphasis is on the ‘M’; we seem to have forgotten the ‘K.’ We forget that MKs are first and foremost kids. They are children who need to be loved, nurtured, taught and disciplined just like every other child in the whole world.
When We Tell MKs They’re Different
Our children have no childhood memories of living in the U.S. except on home assignments. They grew up going to a Peruvian school, playing with Peruvian children and enduring periodic trips to the States where everything was strange to them.
During one of these trips, we attended a missionary conference where our kids learned about MK issues.
Shortly after returning to Peru, our 14-year-old, Philip, went to spend the night at his friend’s house. To our surprise, he showed up at home at 10:00 p.m., having walked the mile or so to get there. He told us he didn’t fit in with his friends.
The next morning, my husband, Craig, listened as Philip shared what he had learned about MKs. Craig then reminded Philip that he, too, was an MK and understood what it felt like to live in two cultures. He made it clear that no matter what they said it at the conference, it didn’t mean that he no longer fit in with the friends he’d had since kindergarten.
Sometimes we’re so eager to help our kids feel normal, we actually end up making them feel like outsiders. And this affects them not only on the mission field but also when they return to their passport countries.
So how do we help them live in this unique space without inadvertently hurting them? I talked with my kids and other MKs who successfully transitioned to the U.S., and I found some common themes.
Parents Who Model Integrity
Again and again, MKs spoke of the way their parents modeled integrity in their homes. They created an atmosphere of open communication, mutual respect, and trust.
David shared that the dad he heard preaching on Sundays was the same dad he chatted with at the dinner table. When David was disciplined, it wasn’t because he misbehaved in public, but because he misbehaved. The discipline had nothing to do with how his behavior reflected on his parents’ ministry.
Access to Outside Activities
The MKs also agreed that their parents did not shelter them, but encouraged them to get involved in activities that interested them. The activities were as varied as their personalities, but all of these kids understood that they were expected to fulfill their commitments, not give up when things got tough.
Zach, an MK from China and Hong Kong, credits his parents for teaching him values, discipline and how to make decisions. Knowing how to engage with the world — and persevere — is essential for young adults stepping into yet another foreign culture.
Finding a Place to Belong
These MKs had something else in common. Upon arriving in the States, they all found groups to belong to. For some, that was a continuation of an activity they had been involved in growing up. For others, it was something new.
Whatever it was, each one of them sought out a group of people with whom they felt safe and a sense of belonging. These friends could also, if necessary, explain the mysteries of North American culture.
Part of what helped MKs fit into new groups was realizing that every young adult goes through transitions. Successful MKs recognized that there is an adjustment period, but they didn’t think they had it harder than anyone else. They saw MKs as one more demographic with its own norms, its pros and its cons — just like any other.
My daughter, Becky, told me, “It’s difficult for any high school senior going to college. … I don’t know why it would be significantly harder for me.”
Walking Together Through Change
Finally, as MKs go through life’s transitions, it’s important to know that their parents will walk with them as best they can, just as any parent would.
Shelby, who grew up in Brazil, didn’t want to go to college in the U.S., but she decided to go at her parents’ urging.
“I knew that as long as I gave it an honest try, if I thought it was not right for me, I could talk to my parents and we would figure out what was right,” Shelby says.
Knowing that her parents would listen to her as long as she did her part was enough to convince her to try.
Missionary Kids Are Still… Kids
So, what’s the common denominator in all of this?
Parenting. But not missionary parenting. Just parents with integrity, raising their children to have it as well.
These families happen to be on the mission field, yes. But the reality is that the qualities these MKs admire in their parents are qualities that parents everywhere should aspire to have and instill in their children.
That tattoo that my daughter got is not something I would have sought out. But I take it as a message from her that I did my job well.
Perfectly? Of course not. But well enough that she wants to tell everyone she meets in the U.S. that, though her body is there, part of her will always belong in Peru, and a part of Peru will be with her always.
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