by Joyce Kruckeberg and Anita Stafford
Missionaries taking their children with them to a foreign country will experience unique demands on their coping ability. Skill will be needed, to survey the options available to supplement their own resources, for child training and family living.
Childrearing in any culture is a challenge to the patience, endurance, and ingenuity of parents. Missionaries taking their children with them to a foreign country will experience unique demands on their coping ability. Skill will be needed, to survey the options available to supplement their own resources, for child training and family living.
Even in their own home countries many couples are unprepared for the experience of rearing children and may encounter some anxiety as they assume the parental role. One obvious reason some couples assume their childrearing responsibilities with more anxiety and less practice in child care methods and discipline techniques is due to a limited exposure to young children. The small nuclear family that many parents were reared in did not provide them with the opportunity to care for brothers and sisters.
Furlough periods, separation of family members for school or work reasons, frequent moves, heavy demands on the parents’ time and energy, and the unfamiliar culture are often distressing factors to family life on the mission field. The constant demands of childrearing coupled with the vocational stress of mission service may influence some families to return to their home country or to actually retire prematurely from mission work.
In order to reduce the loss of valuable talent and assist family life, specialists can work with mission boards to provide information and training that will reinforce personal capacities in these potentially stressful situations. Competence in decision making and time management complements training in communication skills, child development and guidance, and early childhood education. Parents need practice in setting goals for themselves and their children in addition to evaluating available options in order to meet the long-range needs of each family.
The investigation of parents’ satisfaction with childrearing on the mission field was instituted by the authors in January, 1979. Three hundred Missionary Parents’ Attitude Questionnaires were mailed to active missionaries in eleven countries. The parents represented three groups: families serving on a mission field outside the United States, families on assignment in the United States, and families on furlough. Names and addresses were obtained from mission boards and from denominations.
A profile of parental satisfaction and skills for childrearing on the foreign mission field resulted from the responses of the 191 parents. The parents revealed a high level of enjoyment in their experiences as parents and an appreciation of the mission field as an environment for children. Sixty-four percent believed they were doing a good job of preparing their children for life outside the nuclear family when the child leaves home for boarding school or college. A majority of the parents stated that more childrearing problems were anticipated than had actually been experienced.
FAMILY LIFE EDUCATION
A definition of family life education was presented in the Missionary Parents’ Attitude Questionnaire as follows: "Family life education includes a broad range of information designed to increase skills of family living; for example: needs of children of all ages, communication between family members, discipline techniques, nutrition and health, optimum use of time, energy, money, and community resources." Based on this definition the missionary parents were asked to respond to the following:
"Counselors and family life education materials are easily available to help missionary families on the foreign field." More than half (58 percent) of the respondents disagreed with this statement. Thus it was implied that such help was either not available to them, or if available, the families were not aware of the resources. Seventy-two percent agreed that "Family life education would be helpful if given before the field assignment." There was also positive agreement by 82 percent of the parents with this statement: "Family life education would be helpful if available as workshops on the mission field." Nearly 50 percent of the parents indicated they had taken a course or study program, not directly related to parenting, that they believed had increased their skills for family living. Courses mentioned were diverse; e.g. nurses training, Seminar in Basic Youth Conflicts, or a Bible school course on marriage and family.
Topics pertaining to family living were presented to the parents. Analysis of their responses indicated that 79 percent desired help in one or more of the subjects listed on the chart below.
PARENTS’ DESIRE FOR TRAINING IN FAMILY LIFE SKILLS
Preschool children’s needs and behavior
Yes: 28.2%, No: 71.2%
Communication skills between family members
Yes: 46.1%, No: 53.9%
Setting behavior standards for children
Yes: 34.1%, No. 65.9%
Time management and other resources
Yes: 40.3%, No. 59.7%
Budgeting limited income
Yes: 26.7%, No: 73.3%
Helping children adjust to the new situations
Yes: 40.3%, No: 59.7%
Coping with furloughs and travel
Yes: 44.5%, No. 55.5%
Enriching family life through leisure activities
Yes: 37.2%, No: 62.8%
Expressed other interests
Yes: 17.3%, No: 82.7%
Overal composite score to parents desiring to help with one or more above suggested topics
Yes: 79.2%, No: 20.4%
Seventeen percent of the participating parents suggested additional subjects that they believed would be appropriate for family enrichment. Needs were expressed and help solicited in guiding devotions for children of various ages and providing Christian education for preschool children. Handling sibling rivalry and understanding the teen-age years were needs of some parents, while others desired help with nutrition or in establishing and maintaining the priorities of work and family time.
Parents wanted help in developing their child’s positive self-concept and in preparing older children for life in the home country. Coping with the child’s diagnosed learning disability was a problem for certain parents. Others were challenged in teaching their children with correspondence materials.
Many parents mentioned titles of books that had been especially helpful to their family at some particuar time. As expected, the Bible was the most popular resource for counsel on child guidance.
NEEDS OF PARENTS
Before initiating any program designed to increase family living skills and coping abilities of missionary parents, professionals should be aware of the unique stresses faced by couples with children at a mission location. At any one time a mission community can benefit from a variety of subjects. Education for family life is a life-long process as parents reorganize their time and priorities to accommodate each new addition to the family and then learn new behaviors appropriate to the needs of each child.
A mission community’s empathy and support is critical to the new parents’ adjustment. Mothers are especially prone to lowered self-esteem and depression because of the nearly constant exposure to their child’s needs. Although well trained to perform mission service, a young mother may have little opportunity to practice infant care. A few lessons on the care of the newborn child, given by a mission’s nurse, can help at this time.
Childrearing is an emotional investment. The young parents’ attitude toward their child is affected by their feeling of adequacy and their adjustment to the new role. Young couples working in isolated locations are particularly vulnerable, as they guide their children’s development, without supportive services of a mission center. With increased self-confidence in their ability to nurture and control their children, parents often gain greater satisfaction from interaction with their children and more appreciation of their own contribution to each child’s development.
With children under five years in the home, a great deal of time is spent in preparing each child for school. This critical period of the child’s development is already filled with other demands on the parents’ time as they train for missionary service, speak at churches, learn languages, select gear for field use, travel, and then make adjustment to life and service at the chosen location. In many cases there will be no nursery services to supplement the parents’ child care, so that any mission duties undertaken by the mother will be done with preschool children nearby and requiring attention. With or without child care services, the parents can experience exhaustion and frustration in coping with the needs of their preschool children while performing mission duties.
Appreciation of the early childhood years and the parents’ contribution to the child’s development is increased by a greater understanding of the developmental stages and the behaviors that are typical of those stages. Every parent faces the challenge of providing four basic emotional needs for his child: love and security, praise and encouragement, new experiences, and training for responsible living. The unique personality of each child complicates the task as parents must assess the physical and emotional strengths and liabilities of each child.
Effective childrearing requires long-range goals be set for the child’s training and preparation for life away from home. In missionary families this becomes critical since the child may leave home for boarding school at an early age. The parents’ composure will be sustained if they have encouraged independence and responsibility through a series of planned experiences designed to equip the child for effective living. A child that has household chores, cares for his own possessions, and speaks for his own needs will usually be well prepared for school life. A positive family atmosphere is a strong foundation for developing the child’s self esteem and a sense of security.
When faced with making a decision for the child’s education, parents may be uneasy with the nontraditional alternatives available to the missionary family. They often have several choices depending on the location of the mission assignment. Time is required to consider national schools, correspondence courses, boarding schools, but finding the best solution for each child will result in the parents’ peace of mind. Some families decide to use a combination of these alternatives because of the child’s individual needs and emotional maturity.
Consideration of the national culture forces each family to adjust their children’s social activities and contacts with national children. By participating in the local community life and making friends there, the child develops self-confidence and is better able to adjust to the parents’ culture when returning to the home country. However, there may be aspects of the national culture that influence parents to remove the child at a particular development stage.
Little has been printed about the parents’ role as primary educator of the missionary child. Parents equip the child with fundamental attitudes and a sense of security through membership in a congenial group. Their encouragement provides direction in the child’s endeavors and promotes a sense of personal worth. Although parents may not have the time and energy, teaching ability, or interest necessary to teach their child during the early elementary years, the foundational experiences of the first six years must be recognized as pivotal to the child’s adjustment to formal education and community life.
School entrance dilutes the family’s influence as the peer group becomes more important to the child’s life. As children mature, parents are forced to accept the child’s increasing desire for independence. Communication skills, that have been practiced between parent and child through the years, will smooth the way for maintaining relationships between childhood and maturity.
Discussion of sexual development with the child was difficult for more than seventy percent of the parents that answered the questionnaire. This is congruent with the challenge faced by parents in all modem societies, but in the United States there are secular and religious oriented books and courses to aid or substitute for the parents’ instruction. Sex education is not only for the adolescent, but is a life-long learning task as individuals strive to understand their own sexuality and assume behaviors and attitudes appropriate to their changing role in society.
Development of character in a child demands a commitment of time and interest, which the child equates with love and concern. There is a danger that the desire to serve humanity can be so intense that mission projects assume a higher priority than the child’s need for the parents’ time and energy. Without television and other distractions there can be more time for family sharing of books, hobbies, games, family projects, worship, and community service. How much time the family actually spends together depends on the priorities and time management of the parents.
Young parents often encounter difficulty in coordinating leisure time with child care needs, homemaking duties, and available finances. Parents have needs for privacy and experiences apart from their children’s lives. They must balance their devotion to their children with concern for their own growth and recreation. The missionary parents of this survey indicated a desire for information that could enrich family life through leisure activities.
Furlough periods can be a distressing experience for missionary children. More than half the respondents revealed that their children were anxious to return to their home on the mission field, while traveling with their parents during furloughs. Less than one-third of the parents believed their children enjoyed visiting churches and associates in the home country. Workshops on furlough planning should acknowledge the possibility of family stress during times of increased mobility.
Most parents viewed their respective mission board as supportive of special needs of their children. However, many believed their mission board could better prepare the family for possible stress resulting from separation of parent and child for education
In order to reduce the loss of valuable talent and to assist families, professionals must encourage families to seek creative alternatives that meet individual needs and encourage parents to evaluate the goals of family members. Mission boards that have initiated some preparation for the demands of family life on the mission field have had a reduction in premature retirement by their field personnel.
PLANNING FAMILY LIFE EDUCATION
A survey of the needs and interests of the mission’s families should precede any attempt at family life enrichment, since the objective is to improve family functioning in weak areas as well as to enhance family strengths. Before inviting professionals to present seminars on certain subjects, a mission board might look within its own membership for knowledgeable people. Too often the popular seminar approach merely provides prescriptions for success rather than encouraging creative coping styles that meet individual needs and consider family personalities.
A mission couple trained in the basics of family processes and committed to personal growth of mission families could provide long-term interaction with families. Experienced adults contributing to small group discussions will encourage young parents to synthesize coping techniques that will suit their particular values. If serious adjustment problems surface, referral can be made to competent professional counselors.
In presenting family life education, principles and guidelines will often be sufficient to initiate a group discussion of the topic. Assimilation of such emotionally charged subjects as sex education or discipline techniques is best accomplished through repeated exposure to various media presentations, exploration of the concepts in light of biblical principles, and then application of appropriate ideas in a practical situation.
Evaluation should be part of all family life programs. Objective review of the original goals and actual accomplishments or deficiencies will enable parents and planners to maintain quality and interest in future presentations.
The 191 missionary parents of the survey indicated an interest in family life education that would better equip them for parental responsibilities on the mission field. Mission boards can respond to this interest during training programs before field assignment and by providing current information to families on the foreign field. Selected members of the mission community can make valuable contributions to family life as they share their interests and skills or lead discussions of selected books or films.
Missionary family life is subject to the pressures of intercultural living, limited resources of time and energy for mission duties and childrearing, family mobility, and nontraditional options for the children’s education. Recognition by the mission community of the effect of these stresses is the first step toward strengthening family life.
Programs designed to encourage parental growth and family strengths reflect a faith in the ability of families to remain autonomous and vigorous even during transistions and in multicultural situations. The life-long process of education for family life can strengthen personal and collective resources for coping with stress and subsequently promote the welfare and significance of the mission community.
Copyright © 1981 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.