by Miriam Adeney
Taking school-age children to a new culture is risky yet missionary parents who look ahead can reduce the trauma.
Northgate shopping mall!"
"Yeah, that’ll make a set with Aurora mall and South-center."
"Red. I want ’em red, like Illinois and Kentucky."
"No way. Malls are…."
"Hand me that scissors."
With dad’s help, Jennie, 12, Rina, 11, and Peter, eight, were creating their own Monopoly game. A cardboard box had been hacked to pieces and sprawled in tatters at their feet.
Beyond the door stretched Mexico. Their graduate student mom had brought the family along for the summer, while she took an intensive Spanish language course. Now, to entertain themselves, they were designing, painting, and cutting their very own original Monopoly game, with places named for places at home. There would not be another game exactly like it anywhere in the universe.
Taking school-age children to a new culture is risky, especially if they encounter a different style school system and language. Yet missionary parents who look ahead — even envisioning things like cardboard box Monopoly games — can reduce the trauma.
In this article I’ll pass along some ideas about how you can accomplish that goal and achieve aa well-adjusted family life that can make a lot of difference in your own effectiveness as a missionary.
First, don’t be afraid to tackle a "heavy," like discussing a theology of culture with your children. Start with practical things: bribery, beggars, drinking water, prostitutes, and strange customs like pinching children on the cheek as a sin of friendliness. Then go on to talk about how to affirm what’s good in a strange culture and at the same time stand apart form what’s bad.
Theological underpinning will help. All cultures are the product of people made in God’s image. All cultures contain glimmers of truth, beauty, and goodness. In all cultures there will be some warmth, some noble friendships, some creativity, some pursuit of excellence. These are not neutral, they are gifts of God, an expression of his image. Every good gift is from above. All wisdom and knowledge are knit together in Christ.
At the same time, the people who make cultures are also sinners. So the cultures they develop contain not only good things, but also exploitive, immoral things. That’s why the Bible says, "Love not the world. Be not conformed to the world." We live on a tightrope, balancing affirming culture and judging culture. No easy position.
Encourage your children to look for things they can appreciate in their new culture. An efficient mass transit system? Tropical fruits? Colorful festivals? Families that have grandparents, uncles, and aunts all close by? Fewer divorces than back home? Less waste? Cooking and farming techniques that conserve food and water? Intriguing art, music, drama, poetry? Novel ways of honoring people and sharing with one another?
When I lived in the Philippines, I saw strong families, warm hospitality, and lots of time lavished on children. I saw the ability to live graciously on little and a heritage of economic freedom for women. Sauces deliciously extended a little meat to many people. The Filipinos delighted in sharing. Their music is creative. They enjoy being with large groups of people. When I saw their good traits, I thanked God for these gifts of his common grace.
At the same time, you and your children will differ with the local culture for many reasons. You may rightly value and retain certain of your own cultural traits: self-reliance, emphasis on the nuclear family, pragmatic approach to problems, importance of health, fitness, and athletics, for example. Even though you may need to downplay them somewhat, you may conclude that there are parts of your heritage worth preserving.
You may also choose to differ with the local culture just because of personal tastes. You do the same thing at home. Not all children keep the same hours, or have the same toys, or recreational habits. Each family sets its own preferences and limits.
Of course, immorality itself— not just your heritage or preferences— causes you to draw the line. But be careful not to condemn something until you have figured it out. Discuss the issues with local Christian elders and respected community leaders. This would include such things as apparent laziness, bribery, begging, the black market, arranged marriages, and polite evasions rather than frankness. Look at the larger context before you make judgements.
You can help your children to make the same kind of ethical judgments you had to make when you lived in America. They can understand when it is necessary "to come out from the world."
Another important step in helping your children adjust to their new culture is sharing your own struggles with them. Tell them your own goals and then your successes and failures as you try to adapt. Ask them to pray for you as you learn to use the phone and the public transportation. Admit that it’s tough to talk with a troublesome neighbor and that you have trouble with your temper. Show them that adapting is a growing process for all of us.
Talk them through the culture shock cycle: honeymoon, disillusionment, endurance, enjoyment. Confess your own love-hate feelings. Figure out practical coping skills, like: staying healthy— physically, spiritually, emotionally; making time for relaxation and hobbies; learning new skills and taking some risks; keeping a journal and writing letters; finding out how the local people have fun.
Encourage one another to be honest about their feelings. Forgive yourself and each other. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Cultivate a sense of humor. Expect that the pressures of cultural adjustment will deepen your walk with God and drive you to prayer as never before.
Tailor these general ideas to suit each child’s needs, so that each one can develop his or her own coping skills to use when feeling special stress.
Many missionary families have found that taking the offensive helps. Rather than sit back and absorb the cultural jolts like a punching bag, help your family to make a hobby of learning about the new culture. You might start a looseleaf notebook with sections on family customs, social and political groups, and economic exchange patterns, communication styles, and values and religions.
Start a friendly competition and compare entries and everyday observations. Check books out of the library, visit museums and historical sites, and talk to experts in your city and neighborhood. As a family, read about places before you visit them. Afterwards, hold a cultural debriefing to mull over what you’ve seen.
Needless to say, insist that every family member in school enroll in a vigorous language-learning program. Without this, successful cultural adaptation is virtually impossible.
Then you can go on to encourage friendships with all kinds of people. One of my friends, Katy, is an expert at this. Born in Egypt of Greek parents, she migrated to Australia. As a young adult she worked in Greece, then traveled in ministry across Europe, and finally came to the United States. Everywhere she builds warm, deep friendships.
How does she cope? She recognizes the universality of the church and expects to worship anywhere. She is genuinely interested in whoever she’s with and expects satisfying relationships. She keeps in touch with friends she has made in other places— and still speaks Arabic and Greek— but focuses on the people at hand.
Our children can develop this same kind of outlook toward other people— Americans, neighborhood people, or people of any nationality.
Busy missionary parents find that in the midst of their own culture shock they must insure that their own family rituals do not get lost. Going to the mission field does not mean giving up things like reading, music, arts and crafts, sports and games, special projects and hobbies, and family expeditions to the outdoors, the zoo, and the museum. These are vital to the successful adjustment of your children.
Before you go, talk about the stresses you anticipate and plan ahead about building family activities into your schedule. If you don’t put them on your calendar, they won’t happen. Let the children suggest what they’d like to develop as family rituals. You may find some trades will have to be made, but honor their interests. Never mind if other families are absorbed in music, if your children prefer hiking.
(Two books will help: The Hidden Art of Homemaking, by Edith Schaeffer, and Children of Joy: Raising Your Own Home-Grown Christians, by David and Elizabeth Gray.)
Part of your adjustment will be to the local Christian culture. In the context of a general church history, you can introduce how the gospel came to your new land. Don’t make it boring. Emphasize missionary heroes and heroines. Your children might want to look for stories about the Christians in more recent times. They need to appreciate the strengths and traditions of the church in your place.
While successful adjustment is your goal, don’t overlook the fact that both biblically and existentially you and your children are pilgrims. In every culture we stick out as pilgrims, seeking a city whose builder and maker is God. Abraham is our prototype. Like him, you have been called to an alien culture that has many hazards. You may be uprooted at any time, but you are there to bring hope and blessing.
In the midst of overwhelming opportunities and challenges, above all do not forget to tell your children that you love them. Tell them often. Remember how special they are in God’s sight. Impart a positive self-image. Pray for them. Tell them how great they are to share with you a special role in God’s service.
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