MKs live in a rich mixture of cultures, but often wonder whether they fit in or are misfits. As parents we see the struggles and may find it hard to know what will really help. We sometimes feel badly that they are missing out on a normal childhood. But when we were called to the nations, He also called our children for a special purpose. Their identity will develop through a beautiful combination of multiple cultural experiences.
Our children face challenges their peers in their home culture never face. When we understand the difficulties MKs face, we can better guide them into successful adjustment. God has a plan for our children. Their cross cultural experiences can enrich their lives and make them a blessing to many people.MK Challenges:
Where is Home?
While living overseas, our children usually answer that question with the name of a town in their passport country. It is a safe and quick answer understood by the locals around them. In reality, they may feel home is really on the field. Some were even born overseas, so it is the only home they know.
While home on furlough or for school the question, “Where are you from?” starts a process of assessment. Is this a person I want to spend the next thirty minutes explaining my childhood to? Would they even care? Am I feeling too guarded to let this person in on my trans-cultural complex secret? In the blink of an eye, the decision is made. They do not intentionally avoid sharing their stories; it is just safer and simpler to stay quiet. It is strictly survival. They learn quickly that although their stories are interesting to a few, they are generally misunderstood or too complex to many. It is a challenge non-MKs never face.
Who are My Real Friends?
Virtually all MKs have lost some best friends along the way. Like everyone else, they have special people close to them. When those special friends leave, intense feelings of loneliness can occur. They may protect themselves from future pain by refusing to form strong friendships in new places.
Most MKs form more superficial friendships than other children. They have learned to cleverly hide who they are and what they are, from both themselves and from others. This leads to loneliness.
Some MKs were rejected or abused while on the field, when they were lied to, made fun of, abandoned or rejected. Others perceived rejection that was not intended. Whether intentional or unintentional, they were hurt. When our children have experienced verbal or psychological hurts, they may develop defensive walls to protect themselves. They may shut themselves off from both the people who can help them and those who may harm them.
Sometimes MKs feel as if they are “a black pearl in a box of shining jewels.” They feel like a misfit, someone unlike the rest of the crowd. Very often they try hard to be like everyone else. They want to be normal instead of standing out and being rejected because of their difference.
Re-Entry to Home Culture
MKs are raised physically and culturally different. They have a vast amount of rich cross-cultural experiences, but then eventually are expected to return permanently to live in a country that they do not feel is home. MKs feel comfortable being different in a foreign country. They are supposed to be different. They may be the only blonde among their black-haired classmates or the tallest student in their class. But feeling lost in the place they thought was home is very unsettling.
They are not cool! They may not understand the jokes. They cannot relate to the way of life experienced by everyone around them. The things they care about seem irrelevant. Their speech and mannerisms are considered odd. They even use their knife and fork differently. They don’t seem to fit in the land they had come to idolize as home.
Some MKs have false expectations about home. At first going home is great, seeing relatives and eating pizza. But soon differences pop up. Their classmates can drive cars and use slang they don’t know. Classmates have no idea where the MKs have been living and they seem so wasteful and shallow to MKs. Something is just not right with these people! They don’t meet the MKs expectations and our children don’t meet their expectations either.
MKs can be afraid of losing their identity in their home culture. They may refuse to learn the new ways or adjust to changes. All of these conflicts may be acted out as anger, rebellion, or isolation from peers.
How Parents Help
While on the Field:
Parents can help their kids grow strong and confident in the in-between world that is their culture. We can help our children name a place as home. We can teach them to say, “My hometown is _____, but I live in _____.” They must have an internal connection to a place that is permanent, that is home. MKs are expected to return to their passport country as young adults, and having a place to call home makes the transition easier.
Communication is so much better than it used to be. Our children can talk to family and friends back home and more easily keep up to-date on current trends. Be careful, however, not to allow internet relationships to take the place of personal relationships with local friends.
Parents should resist trying to meet all their child’s needs. If you are trying to be teacher, friend, coach, mentor, and parent; re-examine your roles. Even if you must fill all those roles from time-to-time on your field, do all you can to help your child build relationships with other adults. You, alone, cannot teach your children all they need to know. Allow other adults, local and foreign, to help your child develop fully.
Help your child engage in healthy behaviors. Urge them to choose activities with other children instead of playing alone. Invite local and foreign kids their age for social events in your home and community. Sports and music can expose them to others they may enjoy having as friends.
When on Home Leave or Re-entry:
Parents can help their children identify and make new friends. Making friends is an art we can teach. When we make new friends each place we go, our children learn from our example. Positive relationships relieve loneliness and enrich our lives.
Encourage your children to learn about their home culture just as they would a foreign culture. Help them discover a mentor, a friend, that can guide them through the culture they are discovering. Age isn’t as important as their connection and ability to teach and share the culture. You can’t be that mentor because the culture has changed while you’ve been overseas.
The most important thing parents can do is to keep the lines of communication open! Take the time to open many conversations about who they are, what they are feeling, and how they are relating to their peers. Help your child laugh and cry about their experiences. Acknowledge that what your MKs are going through is a normal process, and allow them to work through it. Let them know it is ok to feel lonely, but it is not ok to keep feeling lonely all the time. Teach your child coping skills to deal with their emotional loneliness.
Talk to your children openly about the issues they encounter. By talking about who they are and discussing life’s confusing experiences, we teach our MKs not to question their individuality but to be confident in what or who they can be in Christ.
With a strong foundation, our kids will use their trans-cultural experiences in each new situation they face in life. They will allow Christ to use them in circumstances and roles that no one else could fill. They will show each person in their presence that they are special and loved. Each new person becomes a unique companion on their journey.
We are parents of intricate special people. It is our responsibility to guide our children through the maze of cultural adjustments, but we must remember that whoever they are, wherever they are, they are still just kids.
I am indebted to Kim Holland, an MK from South America, for much of the content of this newsletter. This is a compilation of several articles she has written on the MK experience. Kim currently works as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner in Oklahoma, USA.