I look at that dark, out-of-focus photo from 1993 and shake my head. There I sit in the Atlanta airport, holding our four-week-old daughter in my arms, waiting while my husband, Len, picked up our boarding passes for the first leg of our trip to Costa Rica and a year of language school.
Seriously, what were we thinking? Leaving the country with a one-month old baby? What did we know about raising a child, much less raising one thousands of miles from home and family?
Nonetheless, emboldened by the ignorance that attends most first-time parents, off we went. Now countless flights, several countries and two more kids later, we’ve learned a little about navigating airports, life, ministry, and parenting while serving on the mission field. So while I will be the first to admit we aren’t experts (just ask our kids!), here are seven keys I’ve discovered to loving your children while on the mission field.
1. Remember who was called.
Obviously infants can’t help make informed family decisions about moving overseas. But as our children grew older, we did consult them about potential changes. Ultimately, however, we, as their parents, made the decision as we sought to follow God’s call on our lives. It’s easy to project that “called” perspective on to our children’s experiences, but it’s misplaced. Generally, they aren’t called, they are carried. Let your kids feel the gamut of emotions accompanying transition and love them through it. Show them that the God who called YOU loves them enough to reveal His care, plan, and purpose for them as well.
2. Make them a priority, in life and ministry.
Life and ministry are intertwined, but sometimes not in a healthy or balanced way. Let your children know that they are a priority for you. Invest intentionally in their spiritual growth. Pour God’s Word into their lives. Disciple them on a daily basis. Serve them by showing up at ballgames and performances. Love them by finding out what motivates them, what frightens them, what interests them, what makes them laugh. These years are short. Make them count.
3. Affirm their individuality.
All Missionary Kids are not alike. Be careful not to measure your own children by what you see, or think you see, in your coworker’s children. Instead, spend time learning about your child’s unique strengths, talents, and interests. Publicly and privately express your gratitude for the original and immensely valuable individual God has created them to be.
4. Connect them to family back home.
Make sure your children know they have family both on the field and back in your passport country. Display family photos around your home. Spend time with extended family during furloughs. Keep your children connected to their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins through social media and online communication. Though they may at first think grandparents are six-inches high and confined to a screen, they will soon learn that the network of those who love them reaches far beyond borders.
5. Encourage them to engage where you are.
This may be easier for some of your children than for others due to temperament, personality, or age. But don’t confuse their reluctance to immerse themselves in the culture with your reputation as an incarnational missionary. Help your children find ways to get connected but don’t push too hard. Do lead the way in prioritizing relationships, in valuing the culture and people. Explore and travel together. Yes, that means you should take family vacations.
6. Teach them about your passport country.
Chances are your children will end up spending a significant amount of time back in your passport country, even if they weren’t born there. Whether for furloughs or education, your children are going to need a working knowledge of how to navigate relationships, finances, travel, shopping, and medical care. Television, movies and the internet certainly provide an introduction to current cultural norms across the world, but not enough. Help them prepare.
7. Protect your children.
Whether you live in an urban or rural setting, there are always obvious dangers from which to protect your family. But we must also be on our guard against other insidious and unseen dangers. Spiritual warfare is real and our children are often targets. People can betray our trust through their actions towards our children. Our children are not immune to temptation and sin. Fervent prayer and zealous discernment must be any missionary parent’s constant companions in raising children on the field.
Parenting anywhere is hard. It requires perseverance, intentionality, and grace…lots of grace. But if, as Psalm 127:3 tells us, “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” (NIV) God will grant us the grace we need to parent them well, even on the mission field.