We Were Missionary Kids. Here’s What My Parents Did Right

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missionary kids

Recently Go. Serve. Love has enjoyed a flood of traffic and dialogue from our post, 10 Realities a Missionary Probably Won’t Tell You. One of its tenets? “We feel like our children are getting shortchanged by our choices.” Here, contributor and Third Culture Kid (TCK) Rebecca Skinner explores ways her parents succeeded in nurturing Rebecca and her brothers as missionary kids. 

Pistachio or Rum and Raisin?

I faced a decision every Sunday on our walk home from church. Whether we took a bus or taxi, we always got off near the ice cream shop to purchase ice cream to eat on the walk home.

I’m not entirely sure how this tradition began. Maybe it was a reward for us kids sitting quietly for two hours in a warm church building listening to a sermon in a foreign language or maybe it was just my dad’s love for ice cream. Either way, a big scoop of this sweet, cold treat before lunch on Sunday was always a welcome indulgence.

They framed our lifestyle as an adventure.

Sunday after-church ice cream is just one of those small traditions that my parents incorporated into our lives as missionary kids that I have fond memories of and am grateful for. My parents did a great job of framing our life on the mission field as an adventure, inviting us into the journey and being mindful of our needs growing-up cross culturally.

Months before boarding a plane for our international move, our family preparations made it all seem like an exciting exploration we were embarking on together.

We practiced our Spanish numbers and basic vocabulary by jumping on a little trampoline. We made flash cards with magazine clippings and labeling items throughout the house. Together, we researched the country we were moving to; we had things that we were looking forward to once we touched down in Costa Rica for a year of language learning.

They encouraged our cultural interactions and love of our host country.

In-country, my parents granted a weekly allowance encouraging us to regularly visit the local pulperia (corner store) to practice our Spanish, find our favorite local snacks and become proficient in money transactions. We celebrated getting out and interacting in Spanish with locals by awarding weekly prizes for the family member who made the funniest language blunder or discovery.

I can still remember the feeling of dismay as the store clerk poured my Coca-cola out of the glass bottle into a plastic bag! On another occasion the store clerk got quite a laugh when my brother asked for five floors/stories of gum instead of the five pieces of gum he actually wanted.

Our escapades continued with monthly outings as we explored attractions that our new home country had to offer: a museum, an orchid garden, a weekend at the beach or a volcano hike.

Life in a new country with a new language and a new culture was a grand adventure to embrace and explore!

They included us as missionary kids in decision-making processes.

My parents also invited us into the journey along the way by keeping us informed, asking for our input on family decisions, and inviting us to participate in ministry. 

We regularly held family meetings, keeping tabs with each other and talking about big decisions as the need arose. When we evacuated from Colombia in light of security concerns and decided where to relocate, my parents invited my brothers and me to wrestle with and provide input on the options.

I am so grateful these decisions did not happen behind closed doors and only later announced to us. Instead, as a family, we discussed and prayed. We considered the pros and cons of where God would have us go next.

Handling big family decisions this way allowed us kids the ability to process and prepare for the changes ahead. It gave us as missionary kids a little sense of control, and the chance to be heard.

We felt like part of the family instead of just pawns moved around with life-altering decisions made for us.

They shared with us their heart for ministry–and the reasons behind what they did.

My dad would invite me to be a part of his Sunday school teacher workshops. I would make crafts out of recycled or simple items to give them ideas and I helped him with activities.

This allowed me to see firsthand the ministry that brought us to a foreign country. I heard the impact, awe, and appreciation of national lay leaders. They were eager to learn how to better disciple children in their churches and communities.

Being invited into the journey gave reason and meaning to our adventure. It ultimately allowed me to embrace the value in the sacrifices our family made by living in an international country.

They anticipated and provided for needs we had as MISSIONARY kids.

My parents weren’t the only ones learning a new language. A language tutor came to the house and worked with our whole family. We practiced language learning in hands-on, practical ways that we could all be involved with together.

Together, we weighed decisions about education with visits to various schools in country. We evaluated the long-range impact of decisions to switch to the local school calendar and system, or stick with a Western or international school system.

As time went on, all three of us kids returned to the U.S. for our senior year of high school. This allowed us to complete our secondary education with a U.S. diploma, take college admission tests, and explore college options. Before the tidal wave of college, we acclimated back to American culture with the support of a surrogate family. This also granted the opportunity to get our first job, open a bank account, and acquire our U.S. driver’s license before we started college.

I imagine this required no small degree of sacrifice, loss, and even grief on their part. They released us to the care of trusted friends a year earlier than most American parents.

My parents recognized the need for discipleship and Christian teaching in our mother language.

They made accommodations for us to be involved in international youth groups, AWANA clubs or small group Bible studies. On home assignment, Dad and Mom purchased new Christian music to fill our minds with.

They prioritized our safety, within reason.

As a fair skinned, blond young lady, I received more than my share of attention in Latin America. My parents quickly dealt with my first marriage proposal at the age of 11 (!). We established secret hand signals to indicate if I felt uncomfortable or needed help if separated on a crowded bus etc.

Whether through language learning; schooling; physical, spiritual or emotional needs, I knew my parents had my back. Through conversations and ministry together, I knew they were doing their best in looking out for us as missionary kids–and just as kids.

Hey, Mom and Dad. Thanks from your Missionary Kids

Sometimes a few negative or critical voices can drown out the vast majority of missionary kids. We’re missionary kids who will tell you we’re grateful for our experiences growing up overseas . . . and if we could do it over again, we wouldn’t change a thing.

I am one of the 90% that, while I acknowledge certain inherent challenges to being a third-culture kid (TCK), I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. (Phoenix Survey of Adult MK’s)

I am so grateful for the adventure afforded me and all the things we saw and experienced living internationally as missionary kids. That experience makes me who I am today.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for following God’s lead in your lives. Thank you for being brave and bold to take your family on an international move–and to walk in obedience to His calling on your lives. I am a better person today because you said, “YES!” and took the time to invite us kids on the adventure of cross-cultural Christian ministry.

You allowed us to be a part of the journey. And you saw our needs as well as Kingdom needs along the way. My heart is full of gratitude and awe at the way you handled so many obstacles, challenges and moves, taking things in stride and trusting in the Lord.

I love you both, and am so proud of you.

10 thoughts on “We Were Missionary Kids. Here’s What My Parents Did Right

  1. Celina Holliman says:

    Rebecca, I love your perspective! I will always thank you for introducing me to the concept of TCK, it brought me great freedom and helped me embrace those things that made me different as strengths! Having seen your family dynamic first-hand in one of those nations, I can truly say your family was close-knit and very healthy. You guys were a breath of fresh air, and now I understand why! Behind the scenes, your parents were very integral in their approach to who you were and what you were doing. Together. Certain of the sacrifices your parents must have made to swim upstream, for I can certainly attest to that with how many missionary families blew in and out of our country, those sacrifices have certainly paid rich dividends in having no greater joy than to see their kids living for Christ… and the countless lives they impacted whilst there. Me being one of them!

    • Rebecca Skinner says:

      Your comment is full of sweet compliments and testimonies of God’s faithfulness and goodness to our family. Thank you so much for your kind words. What a treasure it is to still have interactions with others that we shared the mission field with and to witness the multiplication of ministry and Kingdom fruit from what our parents sacrificed and invested. Many blessings to you and your family.

  2. Shannon says:

    What a great article! As a missionary kid myself, I can identify with many points Rebecca makes in this article! My brother and I grew up in a couple of foreign countries, and no matter where we went, “home” was where our family was and where we felt secure and included in the sacrifices and decisions made too! I can remember my parents calling family meetings to pray for the finances we needed, or to make a decision together. We got to see God come through for us as kids, and it’s made me who I am today and laid the foundation for the trust I have in God now! I can also identify with the little special things that Rebecca’s parents did to make life fun in the midst of the challenges of culture stress! We used to have “family day” most Saturdays, when we often went swimming together or had a special outing. Life was always a fun adventure as a missionary kid, and always full of community and being on the go! So many fond memories for me as well!

    • Rebecca Skinner says:

      Shannon your definition of home reminds me of a summer we were on home assignment and someone asked one of us kids where home was. The answer we gave was, “the car!” You’re right, for the MK, home is wherever family is. I love how God used the faithfulness of your parents to set a foundation of expectant faith in your own life. What a great testimony!

  3. Lynn Newhouse says:

    What a helpful perspective Rebecca! It’s great to read about all the things your parents did well! As missionaries, we hoped to impart some of those same values to our children. I know there were hard things for them growing up as TCKs but I hope the positives are what stand out for them as they are for you.

    • Rebecca Skinner says:

      Thank you for your service overseas Lynn. It is encouraging to know that God sees our hearts as parents and that we desire the best for our kids growing up even when we don’t know what we are doing. I have been reading in James this week and love the exhortation that if any of us lacks wisdom that we just need to ask and believe. Thank goodness that God gives parents divine wisdom even when we have no experience in an area of need.

  4. Sarah Ball says:

    I like the “adventure” framing of your story. I don’t really remember our move overseas when I was young, so for me, our life overseas felt most normal. The adventures happened when we returned “home” on furlough. Those brief periods in the U.S. helped us better understand our parents’ families and hometowns. Like yours, my parents recognized the importance of conversation and having secret family signals to navigate the more stressful moments. I would say many of these are great skills that a lot of parents – missionaries or not – can practice doing intentionally in their home cultures.

    • Rebecca Skinner says:

      Sarah great insight on where those “adventures” happen depending on what you considered the new country as a child. In my case we didn’t move overseas until I was 10 so my perception was different than what it would have been growing up internationally from a young age. Gotta love those secret hand signals and yes I agree that many of these same principals are good parenting practices as a whole.

  5. Nancy Kintsel says:

    Love your article!! There are difficult things about being a missionary kid, but the positives are far greater than the negatives. I grew up in Brazil and my parents were with Wycliffe Bible Translators. I don’t think any of the MKs that I grew up with would trade living overseas and being part of the missionary community for anything in the world!! We had a lot of freedom to roam and play as young children that my kids here in the US will never have. We had a great, small school with teachers from the US who taught us in small classes and we loved our school. Later I went to boarding school and that was tough to be apart from family but also fun to be with friends. The only bad thing for me about growing up as an MK is that now my community and family is scattered all over the globe, and I don’t live near any of them. That is truly the only hard, sad thing about my life as an MK in Brazil.

    • Rebecca Skinner says:

      Nancy I agree with you that having friends spread out all over the world is a challenge. An added benefit to heaven will be the great reunion with friends from my MK days!

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