When we first moved to Uganda about a decade ago, I hadn’t thought through any changes that might need to be made in my parenting style. After all, we were the same parents, the same children, the same family. It didn’t occur to me that moving to a new culture might mean that I would have to adjust my parenting style. Besides, our morals and values hadn’t changed. Surely that would remain the same and there would be no need.
What I didn’t account for was the fact that I would be consumed with the details of learning to live in a new culture, adjust to cultural norms, and even just getting through the day would take so much energy! At the end of the day, I had little left to concentrate on parenting my kids well. I didn’t give much thought to the fact that they were also in a new culture and the learning curve was just as high for them.
When signs of stress started surfacing in my children, I needed to realize that my lack of care couldn’t continue. I couldn’t rely on past lessons that they had learned and habits that we had put into place. Even though there was some normalcy to our family life in the home, everything else was topsy turvy. Even our home life wasn’t quite the same as there were new schedules and ministry looked so much different now.
As soon as you move your children from one culture to another, they become someone new. Someone that they never were before. It can take one by surprise even if you are expecting it. My top priority for them should have been to help them understand this new identity, their new role, if you will. You see, when children move to a new culture, they readily absorb so much more than we adults do. We may take on some new aspects of the new culture and make it part of us. But for children, it is integrated in a whole different way. Deeper. Strongly embedded.
Missionary kids become “third culture kids,” as the current label is given. Once mono-cultural, they will no longer be that. They are now multi-cultural. They have their original culture (often coined as their “home” or “passport” culture) which has combined with their parent’s culture. But now there is a third culture that has come into the equation and it seeps in deeply, almost unconsciously. It becomes a part of who they are.
And yet they are not thoroughly this new culture nor are they their ‘home’ culture and yet again, definitely not fully their parent’s culture. It is as if they have created a combination of all three cultures into a whole new culture. This is how they have come to be known as Third Culture Kids.
It is an interesting phenomena to observe. When we would go back to the states for a visit, our children would gravitate towards the other missionary kids. It is almost like there is this invisible magnet inside each of them that draws them together. You could put 100 kids in a room with only a few of them being missionary kids. It would only be a matter of time and they would have found one another.
If you are a parent of a missionary kid, I encourage you to learn about what life is like from their perspective. Try to understand them. Ask questions and ask more questions. Then listen and listen some more. Helping them process through the unique gift that God has given them in being missionary kids is one of the best gifts you could pass on to your children. Help them to see that while their identity as a kid has changed, their identity in Christ has not. They can ground themselves in who He has made them to be no matter wherever life takes them.
One great book for parents to read and increase their understanding is Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds which you can purchase from Amazon HERE if you would like to know more about your MK’s perspective.
So back to my parenting style. Did I adjust my parenting style? Well, I guess I would say that it wasn’t so much that my entire parenting style changed. Rather, it became apparent that I needed to learn more about what my children were going through. I needed to stop and ask more questions. I needed to listen, listen and listen some more. I know that I didn’t do this perfectly. Perhaps I didn’t even do it soon enough. But I did.
And if you aren’t a parent of a missionary kid, I encourage you to pray for the parents that they would have wisdom to parent well in the midst of cultural stresses. Pray for their children that they would be willing to be open to share with their parents. Pray that the missionary families around the world would be lights to all those around them. Yes, pray. For only He could guide them well!