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Taking the Kids

A Guide for Families on the Field

By Joyce Bowers

Editor's Note: For tips on finding a family-friendly mission group, see Family Mission Trips.

Soon after we arrived in Liberia, my three-year-old daughter asked for a story at bedtime. She often asked for stories, but on this night, I was too tired to think of a plot. Feeling uncreative, I began, “I know a little girl who eats Cheerios…” and described a day in the life she’d just left in America. She squealed with delight and jumped to correct me. “Cornflakes!” she said.

Afterward, my daughter asked for more installments of the story. As time went on, I talked about life in Liberia, and included her Ghanaian, Liberian, and German playmates in the story.

It took a lot of time to help our daughter adjust to life overseas. That’s one reason relatively few families with children undertake short-term assignments. Uprooting, moving and adjusting to a different culture and lifestyle take huge investments of time and energy for a family. Assignments that last less than one year may be too short. Service overseas costs a lot, but it pays off, too. The rewards of family enrichment last a lifetime.

If you have children older than eight or nine, the whole family should make the decision to go. It’s unwise to burden a very young child with an adult decision, but it’s a recipe for disaster to forcefully uproot a child, especially a teenager, against his or her will. If the process of information gathering along with your own growing enthusiasm doesn’t engage the interest and willingness of a child, it may be better to alter plans. On the other hand, an excited, informed, and prepared child may receive lifelong benefits from the cross-cultural experience.

Preparation

If there’s one thing that spells the difference between a successful adjustment to overseas living and a family disaster, it’s preparation. Make it a family project to learn about the history and geography of the country, and about the customs of the people with whom you’ll share your life.

Finding out the specifics of your living arrangements is more critical for families with children than for adults without children. What kind of house might you live in? What variety of food can you buy? How do you shop for it? Can you drink the water? How will you wash and dry diapers? How about medical care? Is public transportation available? What kind? Are there telephones? Do they work? Is mail service reliable? What should you bring and what should you purchase locally?

In some places, whether or not to hire a household helper is an important concern. Shopping can take half the day, and cooking the other half. But having a helper who speaks a language you don’t share and who finds your way of doing things incomprehensible may bring as much bane as blessing. On the other hand, “inheriting” well-trained household help or baby sitters from other expatriates can lead to increased comfort with the local situation as well as, in many cases, warm and strong friendships with your worker and his or her family.

If your children will attend school, be sure to investigate what education is available. Like long-term missionaries, you may have to decide among local, international, or missionary schools; home teaching; and other alternatives. Don’t assume that because a school is there it will accept your child, especially midyear; some schools have waiting lists. Also, find out how your child will get to and from school, and whether you need to bring supplemental books from home.

Another vital element in preparation is developing cross-cultural awareness and skills. Children easily learn cross-cultural sensitivities, but if they’re living in a mono-cultural context, they must be taught. Look for specific family activities designed to prepare children for cross-cultural living. An excellent resource for anyone considering or preparing for service in another culture is Ted Ward’s Living Overseas: A Book of Preparations. Ward gives advice on developing the kind of insight that makes for a successful experience, including such nitty-gritty issues as how to handle bargaining and beggars, and lists excellent resources for further information.

Making the Transition

As you leave your family’s familiar surroundings, anticipate a process of grief. To a child, even six months away seems like forever. Talk about this as a family. Involve children in decisions about which of their possessions go with you and which stay home. Good-bye parties and rituals give a sense of closure.

While in transition, preserve as much routine and predictability as possible. Conduct a daily orientation session, perhaps at breakfast. Go over the events of the day in the context of where you have come from and where you are going. Even if the child is too young to understand the details, he or she will have the comfort and security of knowing that things are happening with some degree of predictability.

Young children enjoy bedtime conversations. You might keep handy a small photo album of familiar people and surroundings to provide comfort, along with favorite security blankets, toys, or other cherished objects. And the more you can relax and enjoy the adventure, the easier the transition will be for your children.

Living in a New Setting

Overseas, your family time will probably increase. Enjoy it. Maintain family traditions. Invite neighbors to join you for a game night, an unheard-of pleasure in our overscheduled society. As you begin to settle down, and as the magnitude of the change sinks in, expect young children to regress temporarily, possibly wetting the bed, having problems sleeping, getting sick more often, or being cranky or irritable more often. As an antidote, spend time giving “TLC,” cuddling, stroking (physically and psychologically), and talking about what was left behind and what is facing them now. It takes an enormous investment of time and energy if the first four to six months to enable a family to adjust to a new culture.

Children don’t need to be protected from contact with nationals. In fact, children can become one of the best bridges to relationships in your new setting. On the other hand, respect a child’s own personality and individual pace. Older children can learn to use public transit, bargain with peddlers, and become quite independent and well-integrated into the host culture. They often adapt more easily than parents if given the chance.

Expect the needs of the children and the home to consume all the time of an adult, especially in the first six months. In most countries, you’ll need to expend a great deal of effort on the essentials of living. If both parents expect to share the ministry, then both must share the responsibility for the home and family.

If one of you has a specific assignment such as teaching, and the other bears most of the responsibility for logistics and parenting, anticipate that the “unemployed “ one may have the hardest job and the most difficult time adjusting. The “employed” spouse has a ready-made structure, social context, and a support group of colleagues. The at-home spouse has to cope with the child’s adjustments; repairs; procuring goods and services; and dealing with vendors, beggars, or others who come to the door. This spouse may have an undefined role and no clear sense of purpose. Again, communicate. That may provide the key to making it in your radically different setting.

Reentry

The more deeply your family becomes involved in the host culture and the more emotionally significant the experience, the more readjusting you’ll have to do when you return. Children may find a shrunken circle of friends that doesn’t appreciate new global perspectives. When reentering, put into use the same kinds of skills and activities that prepared your family for the separation, loss, and cultural change of going overseas.

You’ll probably bring back more than you realize: a wealth of family experiences, new friendships, a broadened world view, and an appreciation and acceptance of differences.

Back in America, teachers often remarked on how creative my children were, a remark often made about missionary kids who grow up where amusements such as impromptu stories aren’t a thing of the past. My eldest daughter, now an English literature major, carries those bedtime stories and Liberian friendships with her still.

Reprinted with permission from Stepping Out: A Guide to Short-Term Missions. Copyright 1992, 2010 by Short-Term Missions Advocates, Inc. Updated and expanded edition in 2010. Published by YWAM Publishing.

Joyce Bowers and her husband, Louis, spent eleven years as educational missionaries to Liberia, West Africa, where their two daughters were born and spent their childhood.