Raising “drafted” kids on the mission field
My mum has always said, “We were called; they were drafted.”
Raised by full-time missionaries, my brothers and I grew up knowing that my parents had been called by God to the life we lived in Quito, Ecuador. I, however, certainly felt drafted! It was not my choice to leave my beloved grandparents in Canada for the mountains of Ecuador. I did not feel “called” to live in a house with bars on the windows, nor did I choose to endure earthquakes, military coups or tear gas drills at school. And I certainly did not feel “called” to live with lizards in my bed or scorpions in the bathroom!
Canada was home, and Ecuador was where I was drafted.
So, how do you raise “drafted” children? How do you prepare them for the mission field? How do you ensure their experience is a positive one, while struggling in your own way with the adjustment?
While your approach depends on the age of the child, here’s some advice from my own experience that I hope will you help raise healthy, happy, well-adjusted “draftees”:
- Put your family first. One of the main reasons I believe my brothers and I thrived on the field was the simple fact that my parents put us first. Armed with the firm belief that God would never call them to something that would harm their family, my mum and dad made it very clear to us that if ever their ministry started having a negative impact on us, they’d pack us up and take us back to Canada. They tried to ensure that their work never interfered with our activities, they were always there for every concert and game we were involved in, and they protected our family time carefully. As a result, I never felt like I came second to what God had called them to. This was huge for me and my view of God.
- Walk the talk. You can live in service to God, preaching in churches, evangelizing the masses, and being the hands and feet of Jesus to the people of the country you have been called to, but if you fail to practise what you preach at home, your kids will notice. I am grateful for the integral way my parents lived out what they said they believe, both in their ministry and at home. Their example drew me closer the Lord and deepened my faith in a powerful way.
- Your attitude means everything. Your children will take their cue from you as to how you feel about the move, the new culture/country and its people. If your attitude, love, respect and desire to embrace the new place and people is sincere, they will hear it in your voice and sense it in your body language. If you are double-minded in your attitude and approach to your new home, or if you carry a veiled sense of superiority to your new neighbours and surroundings, your kids, without realizing it, may well do the same.
- Be a safe place to talk and share the experience. Make your home and their time with you a comfortable place to voice their concerns and fears. What they feel is real, and though it may be an unrealistic concern to you, it is real to them. Talk about your experiences and be open to admitting to them your own struggles and feelings. Laugh together about mistakes made, such as linguistic gaffes, and inspire a spirit of adventure as together you try new foods and see new sights.
- Not everyone fits the same mould. Each child will adapt at his/her own speed. This is not a one-size-fits-all kind of situation. And the child who adapts the fastest is not necessarily doing better or worse than the one who is struggling. Each personality type will absorb the new culture in a manner and time unique to their individual maturity and experiences they encounter along the way. Be patient and sensitive to that.
- Bring Canada with you. On a more practical side, ensure you bring simple things from your birth country with you. Special toys. A favourite blanket or wall hanging. Even foods they love can create a sense of familiarity in a new land. My mum always ensured we left Canada with several boxes of Kraft Dinner, a box or two of our favourite cereals, or even candy she knew we couldn’t get in Ecuador. These were special treats on the field that helped ease the transition.
- Protect them from the unrealistic expectations. While a missionary family might be called to a level of service that seems holier or more devoted than others, the truth is they are no different and no more “holy” than any other family. However, there are still going to be those in your churches and support base that, while well-meaning, will have a level of expectation on your kids for how they should behave, talk or dress. Prepare your children for this, and ensure they know that that is not your expectation. Then diligently protect and defend them when necessary. Gently remind those who make comments or raise eyebrows at the tantrum they just saw, or the sulky teen in the corner, that your kids are no different than theirs. A four-year-old tantrum is a four-year-old tantrum no matter what the parents do for a living. Just like the sulky attitude of a 16-year-old is no different for the child of a doctor or teacher than the child of a missionary or pastor.
- And finally, but perhaps the most important advice my parents heeded: Choose your close friends wisely. Becoming close to other missionaries who harbour negative, complaining attitudes, especially early in your mission experience, will negatively impact both you and your children. Heeding that advice helped our family avoid what could have turned out to be a very negative experience on the field.
While I certainly felt drafted when I left Canada for Ecuador, by the time I left the field 10 years later, I cried harder about leaving than I ever did the day we arrived. Thanks to the wisdom of my parents and how they handled things from day one, I thrived on the mission field and treasure the memories of that time.
Now, as a pastor’s wife and mother, I see applications in this for our life as a ministry family in Canada as well. While our call to serve the church did not necessitate a huge move to a new country and culture, it did pull our daughter out of a church she loved into a new church that was vastly different than the one we left, and much of what I learned as a missionary kid (MK) is now playing a significant role in how I raise our pastor’s kid (PK). I am grateful for my drafted life and am now trying to practise what I learned for the sake of my own drafted kid.
- The MORE Network, a ministry of Outreach Canada, exists to strengthen and encourage Canadian missionaries and their children in times of transition. You can learn about their retreats for families, high schoolers and young adults at More.Outreach.ca.
- The Missionary Health Institute (MissionaryHealth.ca). Their purpose is “to instil self-care essentials, empowering missionaries and their families.”
- Article: “What pastor’s kids need from their parents” by Luke Campbell
Shari Lau is an MK who was raised in Ecuador and for 25+ years has served in various roles at Focus on the Family Canada. She is also a pastor’s wife and mom to a PK.