by Charles H. Troutman
Although missionary children live in as many different kinds of situations as other children do, they face a unique crisis of adjusting to American culture when they come from the field to the United States for their education.
Although missionary children live in as many different kinds of situations as other children do— with all the attendant problems and adjustments— they do face a unique crisis of adjusting to American culture when they come from the field to the United States for their education— primary, secondary or university. Most of them encounter no more difficulty than the thousands of other children who leave home for the first time at a similar age. But some missionaries’ children suffer a violent reaction. They should be our particular concern, because their situation is tragic as well as totally unnecessary. To ignore them is to do them a great injustice.
What are the signs of this particular reaction? Once on a college campus this missionary child, by now a young adult, will have come into contact with a wide variety of students and thought patterns of the sort that exist on every campus in the nation, Christian and secular alike. Apparently as a result of the usual interchange of ideas, he will reject both his parents and missionary service for himself. He may become a campus rebel; he may even throw over the whole Christian faith. In these reactions he is nod alone; he can easily find a group of like-minded students.
For a great number of these missionaries’ children, this rebellion will pass. For a smaller number it is only the first step toward a mush more serious condition. They find it impossible to make real friends, to study, and even to continue college. They may need psychiatric helps Some few have also suffered this reaction after college. Some make a complete recovery, but others apparently repudiate all things Christian.
This reaction is not unique to children of missionaries. It also occurs among children of government officials who must move frequently, and among children of U.S businessmen living abroad. Yet from my own limited observation, it seems that government and business families do not suffer intense problems of this nature as frequently as do missionary families. There must be some difference between the lives and relationships of families living abroad in secular work and those of missionary families.
The difficulty, where it is encountered in missionary families, revolves around two facets of mission life, one a strength and one a weakness. The strength lies in the necessity of the missionary family to identify and live closely with the local people in all aspects of life, as compared with government and business families that live almost entirely within the American colony. This "colony" is often physical, and the families there attempt to reproduce as accurately as possible a "little America" on foreign, or territorial soil. The weakness contributing to missionary family problems is the tendency of missionaries to place the "Lord’s work," or their calling above their family responsibilities, thereby often unconsciously neglecting the latter.
Diplomatic and business people in reality never leave the U.S. in their attitudes. They talk, dress and behave as though they were at home in the States, for in a real sense they represent the U.S., not only officially in their work but also as living examples of "America." But for missionary children neither isolation into a "little America" nor being a representative of "America" is possible or even desirable.
Their parents have little involvement in diplomatic of business circles. Most mission families live outside the big metropolitan centers and thus the children meet few Americans other than missionaries.
Since it is of the very nature of the missionary calling to work and live with the people of the country, missionary children grow up in a foreign culture until high school or college. Their attitudes towards the U.S., their mannerisms, values and language, all reflect their "foreign" home. Everything in their experience is based on "the field" and the U. S. is foreign, a place visited for a year once or twice within their memory. The field becomes home for the children even more completely than for their parents. All of this is excellent, giving the missionary children experiences of breadth, understanding and tolerance which their counterparts in the U.S., or even among business families abroad, may never have.
But at this point comes the complication. The foreign country actually is home for his children, and yet the missionary and the mission consciously and unconsciously teach that home really is the United States; that the family is "abroad" and that they "go home" every five years or so for a furlough. Quite often the only U. S. experience such a missionary family will have together is this furlough, with constant travelling, new schools, new friends, and the expectation of returning to the field in a year. Furlough time is not a settling, home-like experience. In fact, the first settled American living for most missionary children comes at the time for high school or college, often a very difficult time for even regular American children.
How does this complication affect the missionary child? He has no real place he can call home. He has left the only true home he knew, but which, he way taught, was "foreign." He has come "home" to a situation where he expects his schoolmates to treat him as one who, like them, is living at home. But young people, especially high-schoolers, will soon discover oddities about their fellow students. Missionary children have different outlooks, mannerisms, and possibly different accents, so often the "native" Americans will treat them as different from themselves.
However, the missionary young person will not know why he is treated as a stranger, because he has been taught that now he is at home. He is American end wonders why he is treated as a foreigner. Very often this young person will get frustrated with his contemporaries and withdraw from them, and possibly from his school work as well.
At this period of difficulty, many missionary children will hunt out an adult friend for counsel. In addition, they can talk with their parents about their problems via shortwave radio, tapes, and even the telephone. So, for most of them, the problems of adjustment axe solvable, the difficult time will pass, and they will not suffer from it, though trauma may be involved. Adjustment to separation is never easy.
When I lived in Australia, I got to know hundreds of Outback children who spent all their high school years away from home, yet they dad not seem to have serious adjustment problems. They left their sheep stations every term to go to a city boarding school. They knew that their homes were far, often days by Land-Rover, from the nearest school or even the nearest neighbor. Obviously, they could not attend day school. The younger children were either taught by their parents, a private tutor, or studied by means of the "School of the Air" via two-way radio. For high school, these children just naturally left home for the same reasons as do missionary children – there is no closer school. (Interestingly, it seemed that the city children who were in boarding schools in their own cities had the more severe problems. They often were sent to boarding schools by their parents, who did not want them at home, or who thought that boarding school would be good for them.)
But these Outback children were secure in their homes. They knew that they were leaving for an education and would be eagerly welcomed back home between terms, when they would resume their life within the family circle. They knew that when they finished university they could return eventually to operate the sheep station, and that their families wanted them to do this. In short, these young people seemed to avoid a traumatic family break, no matter how far "back of Bourke" their families lived.
For some reason, many missionary children do not feel this same security. They are sent to the U.S. and taught that the U.S. is home. Upon arrival, they find a country with which they are only somewhat familiar, and which most decidedly is not home. Some of them suspect that they have been sent to the U.S. to ease their parents’ burdens and that their presence on the field hindered the "Lord’s work." They feel that they are no longer an integral past of the family, and that they are separated not only by geographical distance, but by emotional distance as well. (Outback children are not sent to boarding school so that their parents can run more sheep. They go so that they can return to the station and run it with the benefits of their education.
I realize this is a harsh indictment of missionary parents, but it is based on my observations of both the parents and their children. Not every child of missionary parents will say "this happened to me." In fact, many will not. It is not my intention to generalize, but simply to gay this can and does happen, and no effort to avail it is too great. Parents ire the greatest influence a child will ever have. A child does not, upon growing up, forget what he has learned at home. Rather, he reacts either fox or against his home.
The alienation of missionary children from their families is totally unnecessary. A family can remain closely knit no matter what the father’s work, the Lord’s or someone else’s, and no matter what the separation, though separation is herd for every family. There are two things that missionary parents can do for their children while they ire growing up on the field to ensure a family that is a unit, with all the members working together in the Lord’s work.
First, though not the more important, is to ensure the security of the homy in a physical sense. One can make his home in any place on earth. Families of diplomatic personnel see very clearly that their home is in the U.S. and emotionally never leave it. They reproduce it on their place of service. However, missionaries’ children often live in one place on the field most of their lives, at leapt until high school, and can develop deep and personal friendships and involvements of every kind there.
Thus, the home of the missionary family is on the field, regardless of the location of the mission’s home office or the original home of the parents. My family lived in Australia for eight years, a long time in a child’s life. When we left Australia I still considered myself an American, of course. I remembered America sufficiently to be proud of my citizenship. But I was not American by culture. I presented a mixture, not totally Australian to my Australian friends and not wholly American to my American friends upon our return to the U.S. My sister and brother were more completely Australian than I was because they were younger when we left the U.S. and remembered little of it. Their situation was similar to that of missionary children because Australia was their only remembered home.
But while we were in Australia we regarded our home as being Sydney and our new friends here became very close indeed. So, despite the fact that Australia was not our native country, we regarded it as home while we were there, and we were accepted as being at home by our friends there. After the first few years few of them wondered when we were going "home" to the U.S.A. Our home was in Sydney.
For missionary children who grow up from infancy in a foreign country, that country is even more home to them than Australia was to us. So why not live at home on the field and teach the children that the field is their home while they are there? Home need not be one fixed place for an entire lifetime. However, it is the place where the facts of home exist— family, friends, and a familiar culture and language.
The second, and even more important, way to make the missionary family a working unit – and the children an active part of the family – is to be very clear that the family is just as much a part of "the Lord’s work" as the mission work itself. One way to assure this attitude is to include the children in the actual work of the mission, so that the mission is "their mission." Certainly there are jobs in the mission that the children can do, to give them the sense of participation. This must be actual participation, neither play-acting nor busy-work. Include the children, where feasible, in the discussions of mission affairs. Introduce them to your adult friends and allow them to get to know these adults as their own personal friends, apart from you.
The limitations of some mission fields make it imperative that parents give special attention to assisting their children in developing useful, long-term activities and hobbies. In the U.S. it is taken for granted that there are many activities for children. There are Scouts, paper routes, many high school and grade school activities, summer work, camps, and numerous church activities. On the field there may be none of these.
What possibilities are there then? One boy repairs tape recorders and radios for the school in which his father is principal. Another has learned car repair; a girl helps as a typist. Another boy takes part in the musical circles in the city where he lives. In more primitive areas, activities could include collecting, in a systematic manner, specimens of the area and examples of the culture. The importance of the development of individual creativity increases in direct proportion to the lack of the usual outlets for a family’s activity in any given location. Whatever the activity, it should be undertaken so that the child feels that he is useful, and that he is the one engaged, although, of course, he will need an instructor. But it is a combination of these – his own work, and his involvement with his parents’ mission work – that will make the home one in which he will feel welcome and secure, and to which he mill return for guidance and support once he has left for school.
If the missionary’s children are firmly included within the activities and intimate fellowship of the family, there can be separation without the otter loneliness that comes from suspecting that one is a burden and, therefore, a cause for relief when gone. When the missionary child is a part of the family in this full sense, and knows that. his home will always welcome him, then he can go to the U.S. prepared to accept the hardships of separation as they come. He will know that he will be different from many of his friends whose lives have been lived wholly within the 50 stakes. He will know that he is still wanted and can rely on leis family when he needs to. Separation now will not be the source of either rebellion, breakdown, or of rejecting the family.
Very few young people rebel at physical hardship. Today’s members of the counter-culture rarely come from depressed arias, but from middle-class homes where they have been rejected by their parents. Missionary children can live with physical hardship and even the pain of separation, but they cannot live with what they believe to be parental rejection.
Christian parents motivated by the love of God do not reject their children, but love them and support them wherever they are, in whatever work the parents are engaged. Children are just as much members of the family and its total work as are the parents. In fact, children are their parents’ very first responsibility.
This article is no sure cure for family troubles of all sorts, neither will children become perfect by any formula of upbringing. Still, a close family relationship and a secure feeling of home will do much to aid in achieving the goals of the Christian family.
Copyright © 1974 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.