MKs…….What makes them tick?

Two anecdotes about MKs - missionary kids - serve to illustrate a different perspective.

A few years ago our local newspaper ran a story about a local shoe shop headlined ‘Rat in Boots’. Apparently a rat had been found in one of the pairs of boots displayed for sale, and this was deemed worthy of publication. When our youngest son saw it he described it as ridiculous. ‘That’s not a big deal. Just tip it out!’

The second is a reaction from an MK who had just started at university. Another new student commented on how much she was missing her Mum. The MK thought to herself, ‘Get a life!’

Why? Are these young MKs unsympathetic? No! They are just looking at life through different lenses. In the first case, the lens was life in a compound in Africa, where dealing with rats was a constant battle. In the second, the girl concerned had been sent thousands of miles away to boarding school, and had already learned to live without the constant presence of her parents.

We have met many MKs and had the privilege of seeing lots of them grow up into adulthood. Many are still following the Lord today, some serving in mission, but others are not. A minority have walked away from their MK upbringing. Some feel that life as an MK was unfair, and they are unable to see the positives. Others are simply more interested in another cause, whether it be career, family, financial security, or any of the many attractive-seeming ideologies of the day.

However, the majority of the adult MKs with whom we are still in touch are going on with God.

What defines an MK? Missionary kids form a subset of the larger group called TCKs or ‘third culture kids’. This term was first used by Ruth Hill Useem, and in 1989 David Pollock defined a TCK as a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parentsculture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCKs life experience, a sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. [Pollock, David C. and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third culture kids: growing up among worlds, 3rd edition, 2017, p.15]

This can apply to the children of diplomats, business people and those serving in the armed services. For MKs, there are additional factors. There is a Christian foundation to family life. The parents usually join a mission agency, which has its own subculture, and the family is usually supported by at least one sending church. Some missionaries are salaried but others are not.

MKs are not all the same. They are individuals with their own personalities, and it is unwise to stereotype them. However there are certain common factors.

They are not like their parents! They grow up in a different setting, and absorb a mix of the culture around them. When the family returns to the passport country for home assignment, this is not truly ‘home’ for the children. It is more complicated if the parents are also from different cultures.

Many MKs are bilingual or multi lingual. Attending a recent training course we were running for MK staff we had adult MKs who were fluent in three or four languages.

MKs are usually very adaptable, which is necessary because they often move a lot. And they face a huge adjustment when leaving the mission field and moving back ‘home’. Some MKs that we have known spend years longing to go back to their ‘home’ overseas, and some are able to achieve this by visiting, serving as a short-termer or even going back long-term.

Some families move frequently, and it is not always at the time that best suits the children. It can be difficult for MKs to settle anywhere, as they know that soon they will be asked to move again. So they develop a sense of rootlessness, lacking any real sense of belonging, except with other MKs.

In some mission agencies there is a high proportion of second, third or fourth generation MKs, some of whom attended higher education in their passport countries but never fully adapted to life there. The mission agency provides their sense of family and security, and so they want to stay within it. Other MKs want to serve but deliberately choose another agency.

The world of the MK has changed dramatically due to global technology. Even MKs living in developing countries are no longer cut off from current cultural changes and trends. Maintaining safe and responsible use of the Internet and social media is a challenge for them, just as it is for conventional families in their passport countries. It can be even more of a problem for lonely MKs who are being home schooled, or those who live in high-tech cities where opportunities for socialising, exercising or other leisure pursuits are limited.

Missionary Kid joel mott m NYL0sur Xh8 unsplash

MKs usually receive a lot of spiritual input, whether from their parents, their school or other sources. Alongside this they spend their growing-up years observing the work, demeanour and spiritual life of their parents. So for parents there is an awesome responsibility here. What do your children see? Do you have time for them, to develop and nurture them spiritually? Or is the work more important? How do you relate to the national believers, or those whom you are trying to reach? Your children will notice it all, and absorb many of your values.

Most of the adult MKs we meet are mature people who are globally aware and have a compassion for the lost. Many of them were exposed to serious poverty in the cultures in which they grew up, and this improves their sense of perspective. Younger MKs will also be impacted by this, and it will make a difference when they are seeking to adapt to the passport culture. They may not know of the latest TV shows or online games, but overseas they have seen people begging, doing manual agricultural work, carrying huge loads on their backs, or turning up at a clinic with a very sick child.

Often MKs are not sophisticated, but they have seen real life as it is. This is not always in a developing world context. It could be in a high-tech, prosperous Asian society, where people do not seem interested in the gospel but have a multitude of politely hidden problems. Or it could be in a restrictive society, where the girls are rarely allowed outside and need to wear appropriate local clothing when they are.

There are many more features of MKs which I could mention, but as a final comment I would say: love them, welcome them, give them a chance to tell their story, and don’t expect them to be perfect.

Gill Bryant, September 2020.