by Karen Wrobbel
A study comparing MKs’ field experiences with psychosocial development, and the overall psychosocial development of MKs with nonMKs.
Myself, and other missionary kids I know, are among the most messed up people I know."…"My experience with Christians and church was where all my problems started."
"Best experience and growing up potential that was available-sorry to all who didn’t have the opportunities I did." "I look upon my MK experience as a blessing and a great privilege. I wouldn’t trade it for anything." … "I think growing up as an MK was excellent."
What makes the difference? Why do some missionary kids (MKs) look back with regret and anger, while others that being an MK is the greatest way to grow up? What can missionary parents, mission boards, and people who minister to MKs do to maximize the values of the MK experience?
These questions prompted me to study adult MKs. The 290 survey respondents (136 men and 154 women) ranged from 23 to 60-plus years had lived at least four years overseas while growing up. Their parents serve(d) in South America, Africa, Asia, Europe.
The study compared MKs’ field experiences with psychosocial development, and the overall psychosocial development of MKs with nonMKs. My study built on the work of Erik Erikson, who theorized that there are eight stages of development and that for each stage there is a "crisis" to resolve. Resolution of each stage builds on the previous stages. I evaluated development by the Measure of Psychosocial Development (MPD), which provides scores for eight positive negative attitudes (corresponding with Erikson’s stages), as well as scores indicating the resolution of tension between the positive and negative attitudes for each stage. How did on-the-field factors affect the MKs’ long-term development?
LENGTH OF OVERSEAS RESIDENCE AND REENTRY AGE
The MKs who had lived overseas more than eight years had higher average MPD scores than the MKs who had lived overseas four to eight years. Those who "reentered" after turning 13 also had higher average scores. These two groups had almost the same number of subjects, so it is difficult to say which factor, if either, influences development. It is reassuring to note that results suggest that long-term residence overseas is at least not harmful to development.
However, the higher average scores for the later reentry and longer overseas groups do not mean that reentry was always achieved without pain, as these quotes suggest:
"Reentry was hardest because I had no place to call home, no familiar face or place to retreat while becoming familiar with the new."… "Cultural adjustment-particularly reentry into the States after growing up in an Asian country-was tough. It has taken many years to feel more comfortable in the States."…"I loved being an MK. My problems were returning to the States at 14."
This group, like those in other research studies, reported difficulties in making friends and social separation because of the overseas experience. For example:
"By being broadened in living overseas, knowing other cultures, languages … it made finding friends and a ‘place’ in the States very awkward; hard to fit in with a majority of the people."…"I find it hard to make close friends here in the U.S. like I had in boarding school. I feel too mature for people my own age here."
How can we help? One MK suggested having a life management skills course at the MK school. Another thought that mission agencies should send their MKs home alone the summer after their junior year, so they could get a taste of what’s coming, make some friends, perhaps learn to drive, then return to the field for their last year before starting college. Another one pointed out that churches are sometimes slow to reach out to MKs, thinking that "we are independent and can cope with life." Help with financial skills (like bank accounts) and reentry seminars were also mentioned.
Boarding school is often blamed for MKs’ problems. My study group had its share of negative feelings. To quote: "Outlaw boarding schools for MKs under 12 years of age." … "All situations on the field which may require MKs to go to boarding school may be better served by the single (missionary), or childless couples."…"I will always be bitter about the eternal separations from my parents."
The data, though, suggest that boarding itself may not be the problem. There was no significant difference in average scores between the boarders and nonboarders. Early boarders (first boarded between ages five and eight) had higher scores on the isolation scale (indicating that they feel a greater degree of isolation/lack of personal intimacy) than later boarders (first boarded at age 12 or later), but there were no other significant differences.
Obviously, children react differently to boarding. Some said they felt very isolated and alone, while others enjoyed it, and one MK wrote that she was bothered that her parents would not let her board, because all her friends were boarding.
One factor in making boarding successful is the family. An MK wrote: "Although I went to boarding school, my parents wrote once a week and visited whenever possible. Some of my peers didn’t receive that much attention…they seemed to have more problems."
Others said: "My overall experience as an MK is positive because of my parents. Even though my brothers and I all went to boarding school, I never felt unloved, because my folks would write twice a week and would visit at the mid-point of each quarter of school." … "I spent 10 years in boarding school, and thanks to my parents, loved it. Even now, in talking with MKs, those who remember the time as happy and good-not sad or bad-are those whose parents never told them ‘poor you,’ but instead stressed the positive and made the effort to make the time at home with mom and dad very special."
According to these MKs, dorm parents are also a big factor: "Boarding school had some good years, some bad. Several houseparents were good. Some were fearful, controlling, too rigid. I think good houseparents who are whole, and parents who communicate with their kids no matter what, would be fine. In other words, I don’t think boarding school would have to be so bad."… "Missionaries who don’t fit in elsewhere on the field are often stuck with the MKs."…"I started boarding quite young and at that time it was somewhat traumatic. The people I grew up with, however, were caring."
The data show that the one factor in the MKs’ development that really made a difference was the family. The correlations between the MKs’ perception of family and development were consistently significant. Those who rated their family higher on being helpful and supporting, loving, and what they really wanted in a family, had lower scores on the negative scales and higher scores on the positive and resolution scales.
Missionary families must realize that, while their work is a God-given priority, the family is also a responsibility from God. MKs described feeling neglected because of "the work," or feeling like an unnecessary appendage. For example, one MK wrote: "It was clear to me at an early age that my parents’ work was more important than I was. I felt abandoned and insignificant my entire childhood, even though my physical needs were well taken care of. I feel this has left permanent scars."
Others, though, described parents who balanced the many demands on their time and made time for the family. To quote: "I praise the Lord for my godly mother and father. Their dedicated and faithful life was what made my MK experience a success…. They found the way to balance their ministries and their responsibilities to their children. Although we were very young when we had to leave home to go to school, I never felt far away from them because they had instilled within me the fact that no matter what, I was most important to them."
Their comments also suggest some other implications for the family. One of them said, "The key for children’s security is a quality husband-wife relationship. This was lacking in my home."
Parents who "practice what they preach" were mentioned for their positive influence. "Parents’ morals and standards for Christian living are a great influence on MKs," one of them wrote. "Love (agape) needs to permeate throughout the home even in later years."
The data on the family’s importance are not surprising, but perhaps suggest that we should do more for missionary families. Family life education would seem to be a wise long-term investment for mission boards to make in their families. Finding the balance between fulfilling God’s mandate to train one’s children and to preach the gospel is not easy, especially when faced with a foreign culture and seemingly endless demands on time and energy.
COMPARISON OF PSYCHOSOCIAL DEVELOPMENT IN MKS AND NON-MKS
The feeling that MKs are different, maybe even weird, is more common than perhaps we would like to admit. Yet many of those involved in missions and MK ministries identify with the thoughts expressed by one MK who responded to my survey: "Sometimes I wish a similar survey could be given to both MKs and a cross-section of children of Christians in the U.S. It might show that we are quite normal after all."
Are MKs really different? This study measured just one aspect of the person-psychosocial development-so it only begins to answer the question. But these beginnings offer some valuable insights. Average MPD scores for the MKs, 23-49 years old, were lower than the test’s norm group. The MKs who were over 50 years of age scored higher than the norm group average. Results for the older group, however, are reported cautiously, because only five MKs who were over 50 responded.
That psychosocial development was lower for the MKs was an unexpected, or at least unhoped for, finding. The indicate that, while the MKs studied are having much positive resolution scores which fall into healthy ranges on the test, they are not resolving the developmental crises described by Erikson as successfully as their monocultural counterparts. The overall MK profile is not an unhealthy one; it’s just not as healthy as the norm group’s. The scores represent good vs. better, not bad vs. good.
This finding, however, is not as surprising as it may first seem. While -there are many positives to being an MK, straggle with social adjustment is a theme in the research literature. T. P. Gleason wrote that third culture kids tend to put the overseas experience "behind them" during undergraduate studies. R. D. Downie described social identification problems because third culture kids feel separated from their peers by their overseas experience.
Burying the past in order to cope with the most pressing demands of the present in college years could also explain the lower scores for the younger adult MKs. After making the initial adjustments to the homeland, the adult MK can begin to come to grips with the unresolved tensions. It may take years to work out these tensions, which would explain the older group’s higher scores.
Comments from the MKs support this idea. "I learned early on that most people here lose interest quickly if you start talking about life as an MK, because they can’t relate it to their own lives. I also find it difficult to relate my past to my present life. Until the two can somehow be integrated, I don’t think I’ll be able to feel like a whole person." … "If you had sent the survey five years ago, the answers would have been very different. It took me a long time to adjust and my life took some drastic turns before I came to this point in my life. I loved being an MK and have no regrets, but I think we do have a lot of unique problems."
It is also possible that lack of resolution may not be bad. The MPD was developed in the United States and the normative population appeared to represent monocultural people. Perhaps the multicultural MK has a different balance between the two attitudes of each of Erikson’s stages, not a better or worse balance. Other cultures view some of these traits differently. A person from a culture that emphasized shame, for example, might have extremely high scores on the shame and doubt scale, but this would represent something cultural and not a developmental lack.
Even though the lower average scores for the MKs are not alarming, and may partially be explained by cultural differences, I think there are some implications for mission agencies. As stated above, this finding may indicate that adult MKs are still wrestling with the tensions between their overseas experience and the homeland. Mission boards need to continue their assistance to MKs beyond the college years when one receives a monthly check from the mission. MK newsletters or reunions are ways to let adult MKs know that the mission still cares, and that the door is open if they are struggling or need a listening ear. MK groups, such as Mu Kappa, are another way that those with similar experiences can interact and combat some of the feelings of social isolation.
Missionary parents need to be sensitive to the spoken and unspoken needs of their adult children. One MK wrote: "As an adult, I have felt acutely the lack of support available and given by my parents who are still on the field. I married, moved, miscarried, gave birth, adopted, etc., all without my parents’ presence or support, except long distance…. My children don’t even know them. We have had very warm, very short visits during furloughs filled with social events for my parents. It’s unsatisfying."
Another MK said: "The hardest part of my relationship with my family has been since moving back to the States during my formative early adult years. I felt little support or encouragement when my individuality and independence on issues of spirituality, life Style, career, politics, etc., began to emerge. I changed much faster I was able to communicate to my parents who are still on the field. I feel like I have changed so much that they really don’t know me as an adult."
Are MKs really different? Different than the monocultural American, yes; different in the sense of weird, no. The study showed basically healthy people, struggling with problems and adjustments like all people do. The only difference is that for the MKs, adjustments often relate to cultural issues that others just don’t understand, and parents and important others often are thousands of miles away. They need support and encouragement as they integrate past and present lives and try to feel like a whole person.
The family plays a crucial role in the development of the MK. We can meet all kinds of physical and educational needs, but more than anything, we need to provide loving and supportive homes.
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