[This article is available in audio format on the Pondering Purple podcast.]
This is a companion piece to my article titled “Ten Most Valuable Mindsets for MKs.” In that one, we looked at what MKs can do to set themselves up for a healthier, more self-aware and centered life. In this one, we’ll explore ten things parents can do to support their MKs toward wellness and wholeness. This list of helpful practices is about what MKs need and how parents can address and speak into those needs with intentional words and actions. (Note: the following chart can be downloaded for easy reference.)
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 my years in MK-ministry, I’ve observed several parenting traits and practices that seem to have set MKs up for a healthier outcome. These ten have been whittled down from dozens more—and though the selection is incomplete, it feels like a good place to start.
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. Missionary parents, your relationship with Jesus informs your children’s faith so much more than anything else. Not the work you do or the sacrifices you make. Not your public prayers, your sermons or your courage as you face adversity. Your children learn who God is from the way they see you abiding with him. Allow them 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 clearly 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 the circumstances, but their trust in their parents and God will often be jarred by the experience.
I’ve written an entire article specifically about this, which I’ll post later in this series. 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 have fulfilled you. I encourage you to hold your work lightly and your children close. There is eternal value in right priorities. (And if you want a glimpse of what can go terribly wrong when the opposite is true, I invite you to purchase a copy of my novel, Of Stillness and Storm. It’s available everywhere books are sold.)
3. Be physically, mentally and emotionally present for your children’s milestones.
Enjoy your kids—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 too loudly on the sidelines of their games—and document it all with way too many pictures. 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 actually lived with them and who still failed to be there in similar ways. Tournaments, performances, social events, awards ceremonies… Parents, these are the moments that reward and reinforce family ties. You may have to factor them 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 for your own children.
4. Foster the kind of communication that allows for intimate, even painful conversation within the family.
Don’t shy away from asking tough 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, sexuality, 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 as they respond. The latter are often just as significant as what they say.
5. Display and tackle your weaknesses in public and in private.
It’s so easy for adults in ministry to be too careful with their image—shirking honesty in an attempt to appear healthy and whole. 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. Parents, let friends and mentors into your struggles and let your children see you doing that. Show them 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, because that runs the risk of them growing 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 (these are good conversation starters for later!) 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. Yet that culture, whether they acknowledge it or not, is an integral part of their multi-faceted identity. Parents who have lived in that passport country and speak positively of it might be the strongest antidote to the negative attitudes many 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, even perceived by onlooking children, 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.
And be extra careful during furlough or Home Ministry Assignment! Make sure that “putting your best foot forward” doesn’t become a subtle form of deceit. Be authentic. Be honest with trusted friends and partners. And make sure you treat big financial partners the same way you treat the “regular” people in your lives. Your children are watching and learning from what you do.
10. Teach your children about sexuality and the meaning of sexual terminology.
This is so important, and there’s another article coming soon on this topic. Even if you consider the behaviors obscene or the language profane, your children need to learn about them from you. 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 have failed miserably at this in the broader missionary community! And the fallout is measured in incomprehension, poor decisions and shame. Knowing about modern sexual realities will allow your MKs to navigate their physical and virtual worlds with more clarity and safety.
I’m not pretending that any of 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.
One final word: though you might see mistakes you’ve already made, they aren’t the end of the story. Start again now. Start with determination. Start with hope. Start with love. Demonstrate to your children that though God called your family to ministry, his call on your life to parenting well is your top priority.
That message alone, in word and deed, has the power to enrich and enhance both their lives and their faith.
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