Several weeks ago, I published an open letter to missionary parents. The huge response to that article indicated a hunger for information about rearing children in ministry, whether it’s local or overseas. So here’s a little more! This is a companion piece to the “Ten Most Valuable Mindsets for MKs” I published nearly a year ago. The following chart can be downloaded and printed for quick referral.
In no way do I want to imply that if parents get the following ten practices right, their kids will grow up to be happy, productive and God-believing adults. I wish it were that simple. Though parenting is a crucial element in shaping young lives, there are other influences that also mold the thoughts and behaviors of children. Their impact seems to be getting more powerful with every generation, and we must acknowledge that reality, but…parenting matters. Parents matter. Children who are loved well, MK and non-MK, have a firmer foundation from which to wage their existential battles.
In over twenty years of experience in MK-ministry, I’ve observed several parenting traits and practices that seem to have set MKs up for a healthier outcome. I’ve listed just ten of them below—whittled down from dozens more. Though the selection is incomplete, it’s a good place to start. Please use the comments section at the end of the post to share your thoughts and supplement these ten points with your own.
1. Show who God really is through the way you abide with him.
Your faith can too easily begin to look like a job or an obligation. From this article, published December 15: “Missionary parents, your relationship with Jesus informs your children’s faith. Not the work you do or the sacrifices you make. Not your public prayers, your sermons or your courage as you endure the desert-lands. Your children learn who God is from the way you abide with him.“ Allow your children to long for the intimacy they see you display in your relationship with Christ.
2. Prove to your children that they are your priority.
This might begin before you head to the mission field. More challenging yet—it might actually derail your plans to move overseas or shorten the length of time you live there. There are no easy solutions to the dilemma of parents who receive The Call and children who don’t. What I do know is that children who are “forced” into a life of foreign ministry seldom do well. They might eventually make their peace with their circumstances, but their trust in their parents and God will often be jarred by the experience. You might want to suspend your plans while your child processes the options. Another approach is to compromise by offering him/her a well defined trial period overseas, followed by a reevaluation in which all possibilities are considered. Whatever you do, please know that honoring your children by respecting their fears and wishes honors God. He is big enough to soften a little girl’s mind to consider changes she can’t fathom—but in his time, not ours. And he’s God enough to redirect a family’s path to good and meaningful alternative work through the reticence of a little boy whose feet are firmly planted on familiar ground. Your commitment to putting your children first might require that you leave a place you love or that you never get to engage in a ministry that would fulfill you. Hold your work lightly and your children close. There is eternal value in right priorities.
3. Be physically, mentally and emotionally present for your children’s milestones.
Enjoy your children—delight in them as God does in us, despite their shortcomings and flaws. Give them a glimpse of God’s unconditional love through yours. Throw birthday parties, celebrate graduations, embarrass them by screaming on the sidelines of their games—and document it all with photos. Do all you can to meet their physical and emotional needs. One MK I knew was at boarding school just five hours from home, and his parents never made it to any of his soccer games or stage productions. But I’ve known parents whose children lived with them who failed to be there in similar ways. (More here.) Tournaments, performances, social events, awards ceremonies… Parents, these are the moments that reward and reinforce family ties. You may have to factor it into your planning and your budget, but be there. Don’t let the job you do, the lives you’re saving or the image you’re protecting become an orphaning force in the lives of your own children.
(One more thing: when your children head off to college, go with them. At least one parent needs to be physically present to help them to prepare for their new life. Whether they tell you they want you there or not, be nearby, ready to make emergency Target runs, help with processing the newness and advocate where needed. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on this specific topic.)
4. Foster the kind of communication that allows for intimate, even painful conversation within the family.
Many forms of abuse on the mission field, including parental neglect, have festered because this type of purpose and honesty was lacking. Don’t shy away from asking tough personal questions. Intentionally, frequently, lovingly and honestly check in with your children on a variety of topics: friends, school, self-esteem, bullying, faith, family dynamics, loneliness, goals and dreams. This gut-level dialogue stands a better chance of becoming a natural communication tool if you start when they’re young and weave it into your family’s fabric. Be careful to listen to their words and their silences. The latter are often just as significant as what they say.
5. Display and tackle your weaknesses in public and in private.
It’s easy for adults in ministry to be too careful with their image—shirking honesty in an attempt to appear above reproach. Your children need to know that being imperfect is not a deal-breaker…with God or with others. Jesus powerfully and unconditionally loves the imperfect. He died because he loves the imperfect so much. A majority of the MKs I work with instinctively consider an admission of weakness to be unacceptable. Seeking help for that weakness is an even greater affront to the image they feel they must preserve. (It’s a message communicated to them in both subtle and overt ways.) Let friends and mentors into your struggles. Show your children that flaws are not terminal, and that transparent, accountable and committed relationships can lead to healing and growth.
6. Demonstrate self-care: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual.
You’re not a machine. Take a break. Treat yourself to something fun or delicious. Build time for exercise or an evening with friends into your schedule. Plan some family outings even when your to-do list is endless. Buy something frivolous that won’t break the bank. Seek balance and serenity. And don’t instruct your children not to tell anyone when your family invests in making a memory, lest they grow up feeling guilty for good things. (More here.) You might be selective about how much you post on social media or refer to in conversation, but don’t hide good and healthy self-care. If MKs see their parents taking their own well-being seriously, they will be more likely to allow themselves to do the same.
7. Invest time and energy (even funds!) to keep your children connected to their extended family.
Don’t let your Calling alienate your children from the safety net and grounding of blood-relatives. Schedule regular interactions. Send photos, videos and updates. Report to your relatives about what your kids love, what they’ve been up to (good conversation starters!) and what cultural quirks might seem odd to mono-cultural family members back home. Explain those differences to your children too. Seek to bridge the cultural divide from both sides in the interest of strong, long-distance familial bonds.
8. Celebrate their passport culture.
Too many MKs grow up disdainful of their “home” country, for a host of reasons addressed here. Yet that culture, whether they acknowledge it or not, is an integral part of their multi-faceted identity. Parents who have actually lived in that passport country and speak positively of it might be the strongest antidote to the negative attitudes most MKs harbor. Just as you help your children to appreciate the richness of their overseas cultures, warts and all, be determined to do the same for the “home” culture that often feels foreign to them. It will reconcile them to that piece of their personal puzzle and allow for a less traumatic reentry, if and when that happens.
9. Avoid even the appearance of hypocrisy.
Do your language, your attentiveness, your interactions with your spouse—even your moods—change when you’re in a public setting? No matter how ministry-serving or result-guaranteeing it might be, hypocrisy is poison. As much as you can, be the same person at home as you are in your work. Make sure that the faith you display for others is the same you live out behind closed doors. Something as simple as public prayers being more lofty than private prayers can send a dangerous message. Nothing promotes hypocrisy (even unintentional) as powerfully as furlough or Home Ministry Assignment! Make sure that “putting your best foot forward” doesn’t become a subtle form of deceit. Be authentic. One more thing: be careful about treating big financial supporters better than “regular” people in your lives. (More here.)
10. Teach your children about sexuality and the meaning of sexual terminology.
Even if you consider the behaviors obscene and the language profane, your children need to learn about them from you. Does it make you uncomfortable? Try saying the words to someone else first. Have another trusted adult in the room with you to do some of the talking. Whatever it takes, speak to your children about this topic. They need to be introduced to popular (even crude) slang and sexual practices in a controlled environment, one in which they can ask questions and process at their own pace. We’ve failed miserably at this in the broader missionary community! Yet comprehending these realities will allow them to navigate their physical and virtual worlds with clarity and safety.
I’m not pretending that the above is easy. Succeeding will require a daily recommitment to the process out of love for your children. And of course, there are no guaranteed outcomes—but healthy parental practices will foster stability and confidence, strengthen family ties and enhance a visceral understanding of God’s goodness.
Though you might see mistakes you’ve already made, they aren’t the end of the story. Start again now. Start with intentionality. Start with hope. Start with love. Do your part to demonstrate to your children that though God called your family to ministry, he called you to be parents to them.
That message alone, in word and deed, has the power to change their lives.
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