by Leslie A. Andrews
To answer the question, “How well do the children of missionaries do in different dimensions of their lives as adults?,” MK CART/CORE undertook a multimission research project entitled “AMK Study.”
To answer the question, "How well do the children of missionaries do in different dimensions of their lives as adults?," MK CART/CORE1 undertook a multimission research project entitled "AMK Study."2
A 40-page questionnaire was sent to approximately 1,475 adult MKs. The names of the MKs were randomly selected from a total pool of approximately 10,000 names provided by the agencies participating in the study. Six hundred and eight completed, usable surveys were returned. (Of the original 1,475 sent, 259 were returned undeliverable due to incorrect address.) An additional 25 surveys were returned too late to be included in the data analysis.
The "Spiritual Well-Being Scale" — a highly reliable instrument that has been used in scores of studies over the past 15 years — was used to measure three dimensions of well-being: religious, existential, and spiritual well-being.
Religious well-being refers to a person’s sense of connectedness to God through private prayer and a sense of his love and personal involvement in one’s life. Existential well-being is an individual?s emotional sense of purpose, direction, and satisfaction with life. Theoretically, spiritual well-being is a composite of one?s overall religious and emotional well-being.
The quality of an adult MK’s spiritual life presumably influences all of his or her life. Therefore, how well an individual fares in this vital dimension of life is of the utmost importance to the missions community. If we fail here we have failed everywhere.
So, how are people who have spent three or more years in a cross-cultural setting because of their parents’ roles as missionaries doing spiritually? The data were correlated with a number of variables in the personal characteristics, family culture, education culture, and mission culture domains.
Overall, women expressed a greater sense of religious well-being than men. However, there were no significant differences found between men and women in their existential and spiritual well-being.
Married respondents (75 percent of those surveyed) reflected a higher degree of existential, religious, and spiritual well-being than did single people. Divorced respondents, who comprised only 5 percent of those surveyed, scored lower on all three measures than MKs who are married but have never divorced.
Existential and spiritual well-being tended to increase with age, but religious well-being did not.
There was an association between current occupation and existential, religious, and spiritual well-being. Adult MKs who work in more people-oriented vocations (missions, business, Christian ministry, homemakers) tended to be those who reflected higher levels of overall well-being than those who work in low-touch areas (computers, high tech, service industries).
It was interesting to note that respondents who are now missionaries themselves display a greater sense of existential well-being than those who work in education, the military, or the professions.
Respondents who have received some form of professional counseling (29 percent of those surveyed), as well as those who feel they would benefit from counseling (20 percent of those surveyed), exhibited lower levels of existential, religious, and spiritual well-being than those who have not had any professional counseling. While questions about the nature and length of the counseling these adult MKs received may need to be addressed, it seems likely that this variable reflects, not on the counseling itself, but on the people who seek counseling. In other words, adult MKs who are not doing well existentially, religiously, and spiritually would be the ones who would most likely seek counseling help. Note one adult MK medical doctor?s comment:
It has taken decades of work and prolonged counseling for me to have survived the trauma of my MK upbringing. Very much yet remains to be resolved and some of it shows no hope ever of resolution. But I wouldn’t exchange it for anything! It has given me a spiritual depth and a cultural andpersonal breadth I could have attained in no other way.
Such variables as birth order, adult MK generation, family income, or living or deceased status of an adult MK’s father had no significant effect on the respondents’ sense of well-being.
Of considerable interest were the findings with respect to the parent-child relationship. Not surprisingly, the adult MKs surveyed were profoundly marked by their mother’s and father’s ways of parenting.
One respondent wrote:
As a whole I feel that my experience as an MK and now as an AMK has been very positive! I wouldn?t trade my childhood for anything. I learned so much and felt such a part of my parents’ ministry. My faith has been strengthened because of the faith I saw exhibited in my parents’ lives and the lives of other missionaries.
Another respondent viewed his family experience very differently:
There was also a sense of being the victim of my parents’ commitment. . . . The "emotional" abuse was very subtle. They were so busy with God’s work they had little time to pay attention to my emotional needs. Since it was God’s work, it was very difficult for me to resolve my anger and feelings of abandonment. How can you blame someone involved in God’s work?
When asked to rank the people who had the most positive spiritual influence on them during their elementary and high school days, respondents rated their mothers and fathers first and second, in that order and with the smallest variation, from among the 11 possible choices. A large number of family-related variables correlated significantly with the respondent?s existential, religious, and spiritual sense of well-being.
For example, the more warm and close the respondents perceived their relationship to be with their mothers and fathers during the four developmental periods (grades K-6, grades 7-12, college, and present time), the greater their current sense of well-being. Furthermore, the strength of the parent-child relationship appears to increase gradually over time on all levels.
A slight majority of the respondents (55 percent) said they felt included in their parents’ ministry while they were with them. This group tended to reflect greater levels of well-being than those who either did not feel included in their parents ministry or were uncertain about inclusion in their parents’ ministry.
Furthermore, the amount of time that the respondents spent in their parents? ministry also related positively to the MK?s sense of religious and spiritual well-being.
There was no correlation, however, between the adult MKs’ current sense of well-being and whether or not both their mothers and fathers were equally involved vocationally in the ministry. Contrary to conventional wisdom, whether or not the mother worked as a missionary did not seem to alter the spiritual well-being of the respondents, at least among this cross-section of adult MKs.
In the early 1970s I remember being taught in seminary that when a minister assumes a pastorate, it is important that he or she make it clear that the church is hiring one pastor, not two. The pastor’s call should not be considered binding upon the spouse. I remember thinking that the church might well rue the day such advice was given. A similar phenomenon may have occurred within the missions community to the extent that parents seek to protect their children from the obligations and potential sacrifice of the missionary’s call. Is it possible that by protecting their children, missionaries have instead excluded them from an important dimension of family life, that is, caring for and supporting one another in their mutual responsibilities?
The ways in which the respondents who said they felt involved in their parents’ ministry contributed to that ministry varied.
One respondent wrote,
We were often given the responsibility of taking dispensary medicines to these villages to make us feel we were helping the hospital. We helped in the pharmacy counting and sorting pills for distribution.
Other MKs said that they accompanied their father pilots on flights to outlying villages; distributed literature; or served as counselors in camps. What these MKs did was not nearly as important as the fact that they did something which they saw as supportive of their parents’ ministry.
The survey respondents’ overall sense of well-being was also significantly affected by parenting styles. For example, those who exhibited a greater sense of well-being had parents who: (1) permitted them to hold their own points of view, encouraged them to explore new ideas, and granted them freedom in decision-making and maintaining secrets; (2) spent time with them; supported them when they made wrong decisions; made it easy to confide in them; made them feel that what they did was important; and considered their point of view when making regulations; (3) explained rules and reasoned with them when they thought the child was wrong and needed to be punished, without relying upon parental authority; explained how the child’s actions made others feel.
On the other hand, respondents who are not doing as well had parents who: (1) expressed hurt and acted distant when they disappointed them; made the child feel bad and as though the child’s behavior reflected upon them as parents; and punished the child with guilt and shame; (2) set few rules and left the child act as he or she wanted; had difficulty being strict and tended to treat wrongdoing lightly; (3) were too busy to answer questions; complained about the child; acted as though the child was in the way; thought the child’s ideas were foolish; and seemed annoyed with the child; (4) used force to make the child conform or obey, including spanking and physical confinement.
Overall, then, missionary parents who treated their children with respect, took their children’s point of view seriously, explained why they did what they did, and used their authority to give their children wings raised adult MKs who are experiencing a greater sense of existential, religious, and spiritual well-being than those whose parents tended to be more punitive and emotionally distant.
Another interesting association between parental influence and the adult MKs’ spiritual sense of well-being was whether or not the MK experienced personal trauma within the family. Of the MKs surveyed, those who reported that they had experienced sexual, physical, or emotional abuse within their family are not faring as well overall compared to those who were not victimized.
Such traumas as crime, natural disasters, terrorism, or kidnapping do not appear to be signficantly correlated with spiritual well-being of these adult MKs.
Overall, then, respondents who experienced trauma while in the care of a "trusted other," tend to have greater difficulty— existentially, religiously, and spiritually— than those who did not experience personal abuse.
When the family structure remains intact, and when love, closeness, and warmth permeate family relationships, respondents tended to possess the capacity to— love and work— well. As one MK wrote,
My overall MK experience was wonderful and I think it had a lot to do with my parents’ attitudes about the life God had called them to as well as how they presented their calling to us and how they lived their Christian lives. I wish I had all their wisdom as my husband and I are now raising two MKs of our own.
The MKs surveyed tended to exemplify academic excellence. Nearly 30 percent graduated from high school with honors, and 27 percent were elected to the National Honor Society. Nearly all (94 percent) of the respondents attended college, and close to three-fourths (73 percent) graduated with a B average or higher.
Many of these MKs earned honors while in college: 44 percent received academic scholarships; 25 percent graduated cum laude, magnum cum laude, or summa cum laude; 11 percent were listed in Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities; 6 percent received athletic scholarships; 3 percent were Phi Beta Kappas; 2 percent were MortarBoard; and another 2 percent received music scholarships.
Those who were listed in "Who’s Who" exhibited higher levels of well-being than the other MKs surveyed. One-third of the respondents majored in such subjects as Bible, Christian education, and related fields.
While in college, the MKs surveyed participated in a wide variety of activities. The type of activity appears to be related to how well they are doing existentially, religiously, and spiritually as adults.
For example, those who were involved in student government seem to fare better on all three areas of well-being than all others.
Respondents who were not involved in any extracurricular activities in college displayed lower sense of existential, religious, and spiritual well-being. While this may be a "chicken-and-egg" issue, the implication seems clear that encouraging MKs to become involved in socially approved and admired activities has a positive relationship to their well-being as adults.
Of special interest to missionaries is the relationship between boarding school attendance and the sense of well-being the respondents displayed.
As a group, respondents who attended boarding school as boarders did not appear to have been disadvantaged as adults on any of the three levels.
Those who attended boarding school as non-boarders did display a greater sense of religious well-being than other adult MKs. This would suggest that the combination of boarding school attendance (probably Christian, MK school) while living at home with one?s parents is the "best of all possible worlds" for the development of an MK?s religious well-being.
Apparently a positive interaction occurs between the school-home environments which is not possible in a non-boarding school environment.
The age at which the respondent entered boarding school does not appear to have an affect on the respondents’ current sense of well-being.
The boarding school findings may seem to contradict many missionary parents’ intuition. It may be that the MKs’ sense of belonging, security, and competence, which is so essential to their self-esteem, is usually well-established by the time he or she enters the first grade.
Parental attitude also played a significant part in the child’s adjustment to boarding school, as did the role of the boarding home parent.
Looking back on their experience in boarding schools, the MKs who viewed their primary caregivers at the boarding school as "parents," tended to reflect a greater sense of overall well-being than those who saw their caregivers as a "disciplinarian," "counselor," or "friend."
"Disciplinarians" may have been more punitive toward the MKs, and caregivers who were viewed as a "friend" may have promoted a diffusion of boundaries, which can confuse maturing children and adolescents.
While most of the respondents had positive experiences with their boarding home parents, some were quite negative. One respondent wrote, "My dorm mother was a lost cause. I might not have even been there from all the attention she gave me."
Another has taken years to move into healing:
The bitterness and resentment have been very deep indeed. After all of those years . . . I was finally able to talk to my parents about some of my early childhood horrors at the hands of missionary dorm parents. The damage, denied and suppressed for so long, is now being dealt with and worked through. I’ve often wondered what became of the other little boys who shared my hell.
It would appear that other persons in the community of faith can function as competent surrogate parents, especially if a proper foundation has been established at home prior to boarding school.
On the other hand, findings seem to indicate that no matter how nurturing the boarding school environment may be, if the parent-child relationship is not strong the MK will not do as well as an adult.
It should encourage parents to know that when the family bond is strong and intact, and the boarding school provides a positive nurturing environment, they canreasonably expect that their children will not face any long-term damage. In fact, they will likely associate positive values with their education.
As one respondent wrote:
The quality of my boarding school. . . primarily determined by the caliber of staff and their personal walks with the Lord was a major positive influence in the person I am today. That along with the unconditional love I was assured by my parents are definitely paramount to who I am.
Factors connected with a boarding school experience that had no significant affect on the MKs? overall sense of well-being were: (1) location of the school (rural, small town, or urban setting); (2) type of accommodations (dormitory or family style); (3) number of adults or house-parents serving in the boarding school; (4) size of school; (5) distance of school from home; and (6) number of home visits.
How much does the mission culture in which an MK grows up influence their sense of well-being as an adult? Of the adult MKs surveyed, 17.4 percent are now career missionaries. Furthermore, many have been involved in short-term missionary experiences.
While connection to a specific mission does not seem to be related to the respondent’s current spiritual functioning as an adult, a variety of quality indicators within the mission are related.
For example, the more warm and close the interaction between the respondent’s family and other missionary families tended to be, the greater was the reported sense of existential, religious, and spiritual well-being. Respondents who feel that other families in the mission were concerned about them when they were sick or in trouble also show higher levels of well-being.
However, if missionaries were critical or indifferent to the way in which the MK’s family chose to live their lives, respondents tend to display lower levels of well-being than those who viewed their mission more favorably.
The overall quality of care provided by the mission, as perceived by these adult MKs, also relates to higher levels of well-being. So does nonmonetary support afforded the family.
There was, however, no significant correlation between the respondents’ sense of well-being and whether or not the MK received specific help from his or her mission for college finances.
Cohesion and adaptability within the mission, as perceived by the survey respondents, are also positively related to their current sense of well-being.
Cohesion refers to such things as emotional bonding, family boundaries, coalitions, time, space, friends, decision making, and interest and recreation. It can range from "disengaged" to "separated but connected" to "enmeshed." Adaptability includes "assertiveness," "leadership," "discipline," "negotiation," "roles," and "rules," and can range from "rigid" to "flexible and structured" to "chaotic." When examined in tandem with interaction among missionary families, it is not surprising that cohesion and adaptability would be related in some way to the well-being of adult MKs.
The climate within the mission, as assessed by the survey respondents, for the time they were growing up, yielded positive associations in five areas.
1. Rewards. This represents the degree to which the MKs felt missionaries were recognized and rewarded for good work rather than ignored, criticized, or punished when something went wrong.
2. Warmth and support. Warmth and support is the feeling that friendliness is a valued norm in the mission; that missionaries trust one another and offer support to one another; and that good relationships prevail in the work environment.
3. Leadership. This area reflects the willingness of a member of the mission to accept leadership and direction from qualified others. As the need for leadership arose, missionaries felt free to assume leadership roles and were rewarded for successful leadership, which was usually based upon expertise.
4. Organizational clarity. This area depicts the feeling among missionaries that things were well organized andgoals were clearly defined rather than being disorderly, confused, or chaotic.
5. Responsibility. This area indicates that missionaries were given personal responsibility to achieve their part of the mission?s goals, as well as the degree to which they felt that they could make decisions and solve problems without checking with superiors each step of the way.
Finally, the more warm and close, in contrast to cold and distant, an adult MK now feels about the relationships formed with the mission?s culture, the greater is his or her sense of existential, religious, and spiritual well-being. Furthermore, respondents whose parents led them to feel that their mission was a good, supportive thing in their lives also tended to exhibit higher levels of well-being than those whose parents did not convey such an impression.
Overall, the MKs who responded to this survey seem to be doing very well with respect to their purpose and direction in life, their sense of connectedness to God, and their overall spiritual well-being.
Adult MKs are resilient individuals who value the breadth and depth of their cross-cultural experiences. These respondents excelled educationally and do not appear to have suffered unduly as a group in their existential, religious, and spiritual well-being as a result of attending boarding school. Family relationships were probably the single most important factor associated with how well these adult MKs are doing today spiritually. While the boarding school environment must be nurturing, and boarding home parents must function as effective surrogate parents, that by itself is not adequate to overcome family dysfunction.
Given the absence of overpowering negative factors in an MK’s life, the presence of strong familial bonds, and a safe, nurturing environment when separated from parents, most MKs can be expected to do very well spiritually as adults.
As one respondent wrote,
I would never trade my experience as an MK for a "more normal" childhood. I really believe that because I was raised as I was, I have learned what it means to have a personal relationship with God. I have been able to experience firsthand God’s provision (as we trust Him), God?s love and care for us.
1. MK-CART/CORE is a consortium of 10 missions (Consultation and Research Team) and six professional researchers (Committee on Research and Endowment). CORE responds to questions posed by CART, plans and implements appropriate research, and evaluates and reports research findings to CART. CORE functions as an advisory body to CART when requested, but is never directly involved in policy-making. The research projects conducted thus far represent the most broad-based cooperative research conducted among MKs to date.
2. Some adults who grew up as MKs have chosen to refer to themselves as "former MKs" in an effort to formulate a new adult identity. Others, however, have adopted the language of AMK (adult missionary kid) to affirm their identity as children of missionaries who now happen to be adults.
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