Editor’s note: When God begins to pull your hearts in an overseas direction, that potential decision is inevitably a life-shifting chapter of your kids’ calling and story, too.
We’re pulling this post from the vault to help you navigate.
“When Should We Tell Them?”
I’d say–and most sites agree–as soon as possible.
Your goal? Well-adjusted kids with ownership in your decision, and who can eventually follow God courageously in their own life decisions.
If your kids keep secrets as well as mine did didn’t, it can be hard to discern (“What if they tell people in Sunday School and our cover is blown? We’re not ready to tell the whole church”).
But even before you tell-them-tell-them, you can start planting seeds in your kids’ heads.
The more kids feel “brought along” in the process, being able to ask their questions, process, understand how and why you’re thinking this way, the less they’re likely to feel excluded and out of control.
This can start small.
Take advantage of times when a conversation at the dinner table turns to events around the world, or your church service brings up missions. (Or get a little sneakier, and bring up age-appropriate world events yourself.) You could ask questions like,
- “Do you think you could ever live overseas?”
- “Do you think we could ever be missionaries?”
- “What do you think it would be like to be missionaries?”
- “Why do you think it’s important for people to be missionaries?”
When praying at bedtime, talk about how your heart hurts for people who don’t know Jesus.
Let kids choose a country each night, and perhaps look up a few facts or pictures about those countries. Eventually, start to talk more about how many people in your future host country don’t know Jesus, and the specific needs.
Show them pictures.
Look up videos and photos, and read kids stories and blog posts (missionary stories work, though realize many are told to demonstrate missionaries’ sacrifice–and kids may get the idea you’ll be in a mud hut with no other kids around and asked to die for Jesus. Use discernment, m-kay?). See if missionaries you’ll be with can send a video or photo of their child and their house.
This may sound weird–but after my husband and I returned from our vision trip to Africa, I started telling my kids about a pair of fictional siblings. They will always remember “Shiloh and Summer stories I told as we drove somewhere.
These kids just happened to be my kids; age–and just happened to be moving to Uganda. (This site suggests using toys–perhaps a plane and some dolls?–to tell younger kids.)
Without overselling it, get excited about a new “adventure.”
I talked about how the kids had to go through airport security, had to sleep under a muggy mosquito net but were thankful they wouldn’t get sick, and realized people around them looked at lot different now, but were mostly really nice.
These fictional characters missed grandparents, and yet made new friends. They counted down the dates till Grandma and Grandpa came to visit, when the kids got to be the hosts.
Kids can have an uncanny “you’re not for real” radar. Let them know they can trust you–that there will be no spin on the truth when they want to know how things really are. That’s not to avoid optimism, but let kids no that no questions or answers are out of bounds.
Bring Older Kids (especially teens and tweens) along on the vision trip–and into as many conversations as you can.
A friend was overwhelmingly glad she made this decision.
Older kids are rightfully growing more independent–and are more likely to feel the threats of moving. They can keep secrets, generally.
So as you wade through this, show them the respect of communicating openly about the pros and cons; the questions you’re asking.
Demonstrate how you make godly decisions. Ask your child’s opinion, as long as they understand you’re the one with veto power. Hear their hearts. Shepherd them through their hearts’ most profound questions without resorting to spiritual platitudes.
Don’t let them feel written off. Help them feel like a valuable member of your team–and that if God’s calling you, he’s calling them, too.
Give them a head start on language.
They’ll have relationships to establish, too. Help eliminate some of the weirdness by getting them a tutor, an app, a class.
Let them know what will stay the same.
Kids, having no framework of life overseas, might envision leaving everything.
- Start a running “wish list” of items they’d like to pack with them, helping them feel they have some sense of control (though you’ve got list veto power).
- When you tell them they can’t, in fact, bring their bike or your minivan, let them know they’ll probably get to help you find a new one in your new country.
- Don’t forget items that simply help your child feel at home: their special plate, a poster from their wall, etc.
- And try to make establishing kids’ rooms a priority once you move, to help them feel like it’s home.
Help Kids develop a vision for life there.
Try to make it as long-term as possible. (“We’re going on a plane and watching movies!” isn’t much consolation when your child is missing his old home and tired of mosquito bites and power outages.)
- Could they play soccer in your new country, too?
- Will the weather be nice year-round?
- Will there likely be a big yard, or a park nearby?
- Is there a food they’ll get to try that you loved?
- Will there be a beach nearby?
- Are there cool animals in your host country?
- Will your child probably get to go on safari?
- Is there a great tree to climb at a new friend’s house?
- As you get to know what other kids might live in your country-to-be, see if one might become a penpal. Tell your kids what those kids like (Legos! Books! Barbies! Sports!), and help them get a little excited. Maybe you could even pick out a small toy (Legos are light and often expensive overseas) to send or bring with you as a gift.
- Are you thinking you might be able to get a pet?
Grieve with Your Kids.
Don’t gloss over mourning by just propelling your kids forward. Sit with them and cry a little about leaving cousins, grandparents, and the friends they have here.
- Make real plans about your first Skype appointment with a friend overseas.
- Make a network of kids who will pray with your child.
- Perhaps get some parents in cahoots with you to send a letter (or a series of penpal letters) or small care package to greet you upon arrival, or cards to stick in your child’s suitcase as a surprise.
- Consider establishing an email account under your supervision for your kids, where they know they will get “for kids only” emails from back home.
- When kids complete hard parts of the journey–like saying goodbye to a friend–create “white space” in your (no doubt packed) schedule for emotional needs, too. I admit to distracting my kids a bit during our massive garage sale by letting them have a lemonade stand.
- Have reasonable expectations in your own mind. You might hear that six months after is often the low point when you move. Expect that your first year will be tough, and frought with a lot of highs and lows. (Duh, right?)
- Don’t miss this post on The Art of Saying Goodbye.
Make a photo album. Get an app.
Ask friends to contribute photos; save Christmas photo cards. Download Marco Polo or another strategic way to connect with friends. (Just remember you will likely no longer live in the land of free wi-fi.)
Make the discussion ongoing.
As you progress through your journey, continue to ask questions about how kids are feeling, what questions they have, what they’re scared or excited about, etc.
Consider recruiting family friends to take your kids out individually and ask questions/listen to them talk, in order to give kids other arenas in which to discuss their feelings and thoughts.
Remember most kids are super-resilient.
With the exception of preteens and teenagers (at least one missions org has been rumored not let you move with kids around this age), my kids were bouncing around Uganda in about two minutes. (Their parents took considerably longer.)
In general, remember kids are taking their cues from you.
If it’s home to you and you’re there, kids will feel like home. If you’re willing to try new things (roasted grasshoppers. Boom), they might, too. (Don’t miss 8 Ways to Help your Family Flourish Overseas!)
That doesn’t mean you slap on a happy face. We can talk with kids age-appropriately about times we feel sad or afraid. But in general, where your family is together will eventually be home sweet home.
What would you suggest for preparing kids for the big move? comment below!
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.
Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Harvest House) releases in October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.
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