by David L. Wickstrom
Missionary research is getting a bad name, especially as it relates to missionary kids (MKs).
Missionary research is getting a bad name, especially as it relates to missionary kids (MKs). As one MK put it, "I believe that we are always sought out and used as a source of study since we are so easily targeted. . . . It seems that many books and articles written are only by those who have had bad experiences. This definitely affects those who have never been overseas."
The opinions of many MKs can be summarized in the statement, "We’re getting tired of being studied so much; we’re constantly getting surveys in the mail, and it makes us feel like we’re strange or something, like guinea pigs." Many reading this might want to stop at this point, echo the statement with a loud Amen, and put the article down.
However, many MKs are saying just the opposite. As one said, "I’m so glad someone has stopped speculating and is actually doing some good solid research on MKs." And several mission boards endorse and support researchers who are concerned about the growth and development of MKs. One such group is MK-CART/CORE, the Missionary Kid Consultation and Resource Team/Committee on Research and Endowment, comprised of 10 mission agencies organized to identify issues and problems. CORE is a group of professional researchers within the larger organization which plans, implements, and evaluates research for CART. But first a little history and background.
As the MK above intimated, there has been a perception for many years that MKs are "different" or "have problems." They have often been lumped together and described variously in the Christian community as being "reactive," or "rebellious," or simply "just not good at fitting in." These stereotypes have not necessarily helped MKs feel more secure nor motivated them to "fit in." Instead, many have felt even more conspicuous because of cross-cultural experiences which their classmates at "home" had not had and with which they could not identify. In addition, many MKs have felt out of place because of their being in a missionary family and constantly being "on display" at churches.
Because of the problems some MKs have experienced, numerous people have tried to understand why. They have come up with varying explanations. For many years the answers were given in anecdotal form. Some blamed the parents: "Anyone who would go to the jungles of Africa has to be a little strange; no wonder their kids don’t fit in." Some blamed the church and missionary community: "If I had to do so much traveling and stand up in front of so many people all the time, I’d feel like an exhibit and would get tired of it pretty fast. I’d rebel, too, if I had to do that." Then there were those who blamed the system of education: "Well, it’s no wonder they are different; I couldn’t handle being shipped off to boarding school year after year. The separations from parents certainly would have an effect on a child."
For those who schooled their children at home, the criticism was, "Well, it’s obvious why there are problems-not enough socialization."
Others identified the problem to be the constant moving of missionary families with the accompanying separations from family, friends, home country, and the familiar. The result: When not defending their "normalcy," MKs often felt even more different. Mission boards and parents kept trying to understand their kids, encourage them, and help them to grow as healthy individuals committed to following Christ and ministering to the world around them.
In the midst of this searching to understand the experience of MKs, a few researchers in the late ’70s and the ’80s studied some of the correlates of personality characteristics in children raised overseas. One writer, Ruth Useem of Michigan State University, coined the term "Third Culture Kid" and gave a profile of not only missionary kids but of other children raisedin cultures other than those of their parents. Dissertations by Hermann and Schipper in 19771 and by Wickstrom in 19782 added information regarding missionary kids, but empirical research was scant.
It was out of this milieu that Paul Nelson of Wycliffe Bible Translators and David Pollock of Interaction, Inc., along with some other mission personnel, interested educators, and social science professionals, decided to convene an International Conference on Missionary Kids (ICMK). The first ICMK was held in Manila in January, 1984, and attendance and interest far exceeded expectations. Dozens of MKs told their stories, and numerous individuals who worked with MKs shared their experiences. The atmosphere was one of inclusion and belongingness, a feeling of "being at home," of "not being strange." This conference established so much momentum that organizers planned another ICMK for 1987. However, the Christian and Missionary Alliance convened a consultation for mission executives and professionals of other disciplines involved with MKs. The purpose was to begin to develop a more systematic approach to understanding the needs of missionary children and to provide for their care and nurture. This meeting helped clarify the development of the program for ICMK-Quito in January,1987, a conference even larger than ICMK-Manila. At this conference, a number of thoughtful presentations and papers were given, though many remained anecdotal. Again, little empirical research described the MK experience; however, mission organizations were beginning to desire a more thorough understanding of missionary children.
It was at this point that MK-CART/CORE was born. In March, 1987, following ICMK-Quito, executives from several mission organizations got together with some of the organizers and presenters from ICMK-Quito and asked them to conduct empirical research with MKs on behalf of the sponsoring organizations. The researchers would study the topics the mission groups proposed. These topics would then be refined into researchable studies, and the results would be analyzed and presented to the mission organizations.
In addition, the results of the studies would be published in various journals, magazines, and books. Data from the studies would also be available for analysis and publication by other researchers, each study first being approved by the researchers of MK-CORE. The members of CORE would also be available to consult with mission boards and other researchers who wished to understand further implications of the data. Incidentally, the timeliness of MK-CART/CORE was confirmed at a third ICMK in Nairobi in 1989, where delegates passed a resolution emphasizing the need for cooperative research.
Since 1987, MK-CART/CORE has completed two pilot studies, one with boarding school personnel and one with adult MKs, and has designed and completed two major studies based on the pilots, again with boarding school personnel and with adult MKs. There have also been standardized follow-up interviews with a sample of the subjects in the adult MK study, subjects who expressed a willingness to share from the wealth of their experiences. In addition, some of the results of the studies have been summarized and presented to MK-CART (the member missions of MK-CART/CORE),3 and two formal articles have been published in a special missions issue of the Journal of Psychology and Theology (Vol. 21, No.1, 1993). This has been possible only because of the positive response and cooperation of the boarding schools, the participating missions, and the adult MKs.
In the boarding school personnel study, researchers delineated actual and ideal characteristics for personnel. This study should help mission boards to recruit and train workers for boarding schools. In addition, researchers asked the staff members to describe difficult situations and tell what resources they needed-emotional, spiritual, social-to deal with their problems. These narratives are richly detailed and provide fascinating and moving stories of situations and issues for boarding school personnel.
In the adult MK study, researchers sampled a pool of over 10,000 adult MKs from participating missions, and 1,475 were sent an extensive questionnaire about their experiences and attitudes as missionary kids. Out of that number, over 600 returned usable protocols describing a myriad of details regarding spiritual, educational, social, and vocational aspects of their lives.
In addition, almost 200 provided written comments-even lengthy letters-each one giving a story of victories, struggles, traumas, and reflections from experiences overseas. Also, almost 80 percent of the respondents indicated willingness to have an extensive follow-up interview, a number of which have been completed.
It is from these studies, designed and conducted by MK-CART/CORE, that researchers hope to provide clear, enlightening, and helpful information for mission organizations to enhance the developmental experiences of the MKs under their care. Evangelical Missions Quarterly will publish a series of articles detailing the results of the studies. With greater understanding, the church can more effectively encourage and appoint new missionaries. It can also build up missionary families already serving the Lord.
In addition, mission organizations can better recruit new missionaries and present the needs of various works overseas, especially as they affect MKs. Agencies also can be more selective in appointing appropriately gifted staff and training them in how best to nurture and educate MKs.
Finally, as is the case with all research conducted by MK-CART/CORE, it is our prayer that missionary children throughout the world will be better able to understand and accept themselves, to be more resilient and healthy servants of Christ, and to be able to say without apology, "I’m an MK, and I wouldn’t change that for anything."
1. C.B. Hermann, "Foundational factors of trust and autonomy influencing the identity-formation of the multi-cultural life-styled MK." Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 1977, 53773A. University Microfilms, No. 78-00, 710. D.J. Schipper, "Self-concept differences between early, late, and non-boarding missionary children." Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 1977, 1905B. University Microfilms, No. 77-21, 536.
2. D.L. Wickstrom, "Self-esteem and dependencey in early, late, and non-boarding missionary children." Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Rosemead Graduate School of Professional Psychology, LaMirada, Calif., 1978.
3. Missionary organizations are welcome to become members of MK-CART/CORE and may receive information on how to do so by contacting Leslie Andrews, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky. 40390.
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