by Lynn Dixon Sidebotham
As an adult child of missionaries, and as the mother of four MK children, I am fascinated by literature on missionary kids. Discussions of change, separation and loss, MK schooling, and the formation of a “Third Culture” among MKs have helped me.
As an adult child of missionaries, and as the mother of four MK children, I am fascinated by literature on missionary kids. Discussions of change, separation and loss, MK schooling, and the formation of a “Third Culture” among MKs have helped me. Yet I have never seen a discussion of the effects of the receiving culture on the MK, particularly when it is a negative emotional environment.
I do not intend to minimize the Third Culture concept or the “brotherhood” of MKs. Once my husband Bruce and I were talking to another missionary couple about how our future plans could affect our children. John, who was raised in Africa half a world away from me, said to me, “We know what it’s like for the kids.” And, momentarily, we shared an understanding that neither my husband nor John’s wife had.
SOME CULTURES MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS
Insufficient attention has been paid to the specific cultures MKs experience. The Third Culture concept—which holds that missionary kids constitute a third culture distinct from their sending and receiving cultures—may have diverted attention from the receiving culture. Perhaps a stronger psychological reason to avoid this discussion is the desire missionaries have to bond and identify. Yes, we need to identify with a culture if we are going to reach it for Christ. Our ministries should be incarnational. Yet in order to identify, we often uncritically accept the cultural anthropologists’ proposition that all cultures are equal, that the receiving culture is as “good” as our own.
While acknowledging that there are many sinful elements in our own culture, and that many neutral customs in a culture do not carry a moral value, I submit that cultures are not equally good. Cultures with a long Christian tradition have been favorably changed by the gospel. Especially in completely unreached groups, the people are not simply in danger of spiritual damnation, but are living their lives in dysfunctional and evil cultures. In their corporate bargain with Satan, they have not received earthly happiness and stability, but a preview of hell.
The degree of subjectively experienced evil varies from group to group. In Indonesia, for instance, MKs who grew up in the tribes generally enjoyed it. Sally,* an adult MK, says, “Indonesia is my home. I am a Dani.” On the other hand, many MKs, like me, who lived in urban Muslim areas disliked the country and never felt at home. An important consideration is whether the sinful and sick aspects of that culture directly affect MKs.
This article may not be relevant to missionaries serving in some areas. For parents of MKs like Annie, who never wanted to leave Italy, or Marilyn, who could have passed for a French teenager, dealing with the receiving culture is mostly a problem of initial adjustment. But this discussion may help those serving in areas where children face serious problems.
MKs may be exposed to emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In places where it is hard to be white, low-level emotional abuse—touching, poking, crowding, laughing, and teasing—is like constant background radiation. Not all of this is intentional. People may not understand that your child does not want to be closely surrounded by 40 onlookers as he builds a sand castle, or be forcibly dragged away from his mom or dad for a social encounter. A child may cry when spectators throw spitballs and mud balls during the soccer game, and he may be even more indignant when people, delighted by his emotional reaction, redouble their teasing.
Some of this happens to most MKs. Parents need to be sensitive about how much a particular child can take. Richard is shattered, and cries, “Mommy, they laughed at me when I hurt myself!” Joshua, his little brother, tells off the bystanders with panache, and wins their respect.
People in the culture may have social controls based on shame and codependence. In one upper-class setting, a bratty little local boy was held out of a second-story window and threatened, laughingly, until he behaved in a socially appropriateway. People operating out of this mindset truly cannot understand why they should not tease, or tell lies, or threaten with demons and ghosts.
While physical abuse is generally at a low level, it can elicit a strong emotional reaction. Martin was held down and his neck was burned by a stinging caterpillar. Another time his head was cut open by a thrown rock. Paul’s parents reported another incident of rock-throwing to the local government official and were able to stop it. Paul’s little brother Doug, though, has never forgotten the fact that their dog was deliberately poisoned. Tangible physical abuse is usually easier to control, partly because nationals often agree it is bad.
Sexual abuse can be a problem in certain Islamic and Hindu areas. Unfortunately, some parents prefer to avoid the issue, such as the family whose 3-year-old girl was allowed to go home with the helpers. (She began playing some very graphic games with her dolls.) Two parents serving in a Hindu culture refuse to let their little boy go alone to visit the neighbors, who had played with him sexually. One of my own preschoolers complained about the helpers pulling his genitals. A Christian national friend to whom I turned for advice said she was a Christian for five years before realizing there was anything wrong with masturbating a small child to calm him down. In some Muslim areas, mild sexual abuse—obscenities, and touching or pinching the bottom and breasts—is common. At one point during my adolescence, I carried a stick whenever I walked on the streets. This constant (though not severe) abuse, annoying and humiliating for a grown woman, can have a grave impact on an adolescent girl.
WHAT CAN MISSIONARIES DO?
There are a number of options. Sometimes our children have to be more sheltered. Unfortunately, this can hinder bonding, but when the neighborhood children call, “Joshua, come to the gate and pull down your pants,” perhaps Joshua had better not play with those children. One begins to understand the rationale for the mission compound.
Sometimes boarding school is a possibility when local conditions are too difficult. Ellen’s parents sent her to boarding school in her early adolescence when the family moved to a Muslim area known for sexual harassment. When Ellen came home, she never left the house without an escort from her father or brothers.
Sometimes simply moving locally can take care of a problem. One family in a major city lived first in a neighborhood where the children were being mocked and scorned. But after moving across town family members found that their new neighborhood was friendly and gentle.
At times, you may need to return your child to his home culture, or you may need to minister in a completely different culture. It does not depend only on the culture, but on the child. Some children are far more sensitive than others. I used to think that my children were almost unique in living for a long term overseas without learning the language. An expatriate teacher told me that he had seen a number of similar cases. It was interesting that he had worked in Egypt, another hostile Muslim culture. Evaluating a troubled child psychologically while on furlough may help determine the impact of a culture.
I believe going to a hostile culture is worth the risk. Nevertheless, children are God’s first vocation for parents. You may be called to the field, but you are certainly called to raise your children well. God has given today’s parents more information about MKs and child-rearing principles than early missionaries had. We are responsible to use this knowledge. If a missionary knows his child is being damaged, it is not right to continue without making changes. As my friend John says, “You never get over it.”
Lynn Dixon Sidebotham, who grew up as a missionary kid in Indonesia, spent two terms as a missionary in Sumatra, homeschooling four boys. Now she assists with Operation Reveille (Colorado Springs, Colo.) encouraging Christians in the military to support missions.
We Must Look Through Two Filters
By Janet Blomberg
The Great Commission is not a call to reach a few cultures, but a call to reach the world. Each culture bears the marks of sin and the Fall. However, there are also spiritual strongholds and spiritual warfare in every culture.Sometimes they are more apparent; other times more subtle. There are cultural practices and differences (resulting from political oppression/repression, social and economic injustice, philosophic and religious systems, etc.) that may make it easier or more difficult for families to enter and work there. The author rightly points out that none is perfect and all need redemption. Moreover, we need to be raising MKs who are able to critique each culture from a biblical perspective. But what does this mean for missionary families and for their ministries overseas?
There are two filters through which we must view this question. One is theological and the other is cultural. Looking through the theological filter, we Christians acknowledge that nothing is beyond God’s power. When asked by Satan to hurl himself off of the temple pinnacle, Christ replied that his Father could send angels to protect him, but that he was not going to jump and put God to the test. In missions, we must ask ourselves, “Is it wise to send this family to that particular assignment?” Are there risk factors present (either because of the location or the family itself) that in essence cause us to inappropriately put God to the test by that placement? For example, is this location better suited for a single person or a couple without children than for a family with young children.
Looking through the cultural filter, we must recognize that over the last few decades, a pendulum has been swinging in missions. There is danger in the extremes found at either end. On one side, sacrifice and commitment are prized at any cost, even to the point of serious and/or lasting physical, psychological, or spiritual harm. On the other side, family rights and well-being are elevated to the point that no risks are taken. Amid the pendulum swings, at times we have allowed circumstances to shape our understanding of God’s call, his sovereignty, and his ability to protect. Obstacles are sometimes seen as reasons to leave when sometimes they are God-ordained opportunities to display his power, character, and sufficiency.
Dave Pollock and Kelly O’Donnell talk about seasons of ministry. Families may serve in different ways or places in the course of their ministry. For example, they may begin ministering in an isolated village, move to an urban setting as their children get older, leave the field for a year or two to settle students in high school or college, and then return to their original tribal location.
Missionary families, who have been called by God, sometimes face situations which cause them to ask, “Is it time for a new season of ministry?” Historically, when missionaries confronted these questions, the challenges of the culture and the needs of the children were downplayed. Rather than talking about new seasons of ministry, we assumed the resilience of MKs and their ability to cope. Yes, MKs are flexible, adaptable, and can stretch. However, like rubber bands, MKs also have their breaking point. Sometimes they face circumstances that, instead of building strength and resilience into their lives, may threaten them physically, scar them emotionally, or cause them to become angry with God and alienated spiritually.
The author, Lynn Sidebotham, seems to indicate that MKs may be exposed to emotional, physical, or sexual abuse only in certain hostile cultures. However, children from every culture are potentially at risk, and MKs are not exempt. It is a painful reminder of the sinful world in which we live.
Dr. Marjorie Foyle, psychiatrist, author, and missionary, addressed this issue in an article for Interact entitled, “Suffering: When Does It Become Unethical?” She noted that “we cannot protect our children from all suffering. . . . It’s a part of our life and our growth experience.
Therefore, when we think about the problems of our children, we must be careful to understand that it would not be right if we sought to protect them from all harm, danger, peril and suffering.” Sometimes these situations allow parents to truly modelfaith for their children and teach them important spiritual lessons that couldn’t be learned any other way.
Suffering becomes unethical, according to Foyle, if the family platform is inadequate. If the family is healthy and adequate, children have a basis from which to handle suffering and trauma. “However,” she adds, “if the platform is grossly inadequate, then our children have to start from scratch. If you add on the pain and trauma of daily life it becomes too much for them. It’s a cumulative thing. All stress is cumulative. We can cope and cope and cope, but there comes a last straw. If the family’s platform is adequate, it gives children a greater ability to cope.”
Foyle identifies five ingredients of a healthy family platform: (1) caring and love (including predictability and discipline); (2) communication with and affirmation of the child; (3) an understanding of the child (his strengths, weaknesses, needs, etc.); (4) an understanding of the way plans and preferences (including educational decisions) impact children and their potential for experiencing struggles; and (5) balancing the needs of family and ministry.
Foyle concludes the article by describing the danger of blinkers (blinders). “When horses race, they sometimes get confused by the horses coming up on either side of them. The solution is to put them into blinkers so they can’t look to the side, but only straight ahead. Unfortunately, parents sometimes put on unhealthy blinkers and they see only the work. The problem is that sometimes the work satisfies the parents’ inner needs, which becomes the driving motivation for what they’re doing. That is one danger situation.”
“The other danger situation concerns selection,” she adds. “Over the past five years, I’ve seen children moved out of the home country who really ought not to have been. They were sacrificed to what the parents felt was their calling. Believing in God as I do and in His unit, the family, I doubt if God would call us into an area which demands the sacrifice of our children’s needs. Hence there’s a need for care of children in selection. I think parents must be committed to pulling out of any work situation if the children are in serious trouble.”
Where those lines are and when they are being crossed are hard to pinpoint. Parents always juggle their children’s need to identify with and participate in the national culture with the need to prepare children for reentry and protect them from harmful elements within the culture. There are no absolute rules for balancing these needs. Situations and responses will vary greatly.
Much depends on the culture itself, the nature of the struggle, the family as a unit, and the needs/personality of the child involved. For example, constantly being touched by nationals when in public may frustrate or annoy one child, but may cause anger and hatred to develop in another child.
Sometimes what may not seem harmful or stressful to an adult, truly is to a child. Sometimes the educational option chosen by the parents may expose the child to potential risks. Often parents assume that a child’s silence indicates things are going well. Some MKs, however, have not shared painful incidents with their parents in an effort to protect their parents and the ministry, even at great harm or pain to themselves. Parents must be proactive, ask questions, assure the child of their importance, and not assume things are going well.
The author suggests four steps parents can take to protect their children: (1) shelter the child further; (2) use a boarding school to educate the child; (3) relocate; or (4) leave the field and/or ministry. In making these decision, parents need to prayerfully: (1) identify the cause of the problem (personality issues, cross-cultural issues, spiritual warfare, etc.); (2) evaluate the needs—of the child, the siblings, and the family unit; (3) consider the changes they can make; and (4) identify the resources available where they are.
The issues Lynn Sidebotham has raised must be taken seriously andcannot be ignored. Risk and sacrifice are always part of carrying out the Great Commission. She points out that parents must be good stewards of the information we now have regarding the care and education of MKs.
The same, however, is true for mission agencies. In the missions community we often take great pride in our financial accountability and in being good stewards of the money we receive. I trust that we are being equally good stewards of our people resources. Missions must make sure that the research on MKs and missionary family well-being impacts their screening, placement, ministry expectations, and ongoing care of their families.
God has placed MKs under the protective umbrella of their parents and their mission agency. Our MKs are looking to them for protection from destructive forces and for help in facing challenges that can produce resilience and spiritual growth. Yes, God can protect MKs! Sometimes he protects them in spite of poor decisions made on their behalf. However, he desires that we serve as his agents of care and protection.
Janet Blomberg is associate director for educational services for Interaction (Houghton, N.Y.) and director of prefield training for S.H.A.R.E. (Services, Helps and Alternative Resources in Education, based in Budapest), which provides help to missionary parents serving from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. She also edits the quarterly journal Interact.
EMQ, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 300-306. Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.