4 Things Missionary Kids Won’t Tell You

Parents, supporters, and pastors can gain the trust of third-culture kids by treating them as normal children—because they are.

Sometimes, missionary kids (MK’s) and third-culture kids (TCK’s) have an indescribable yearning to just be normal.

And sometimes, we don’t know how to explain this feeling. We want to live where we belong. We don’t want to be different or feel like outsiders. Several factors keep us from feeling like we fit in.

Far too often, children in ministry have a hard time articulating how they feel. It is my hope that our missionary parents, supporters, friends, and pastors back home would understand what we experience so they can more effectively love and minister to the MK’s and TCK’s they know.

Consider these four things most MK’s usually won’t say out loud.

1. “I just want to be normal.”

We feel as though everyone expects us to know, live for, and long for our passport country, even if we haven’t lived there in years. We’re told things like, “You’re American—why you pronounce that word differently?” and, “You should know how to play baseball—you’re American”. These comments frustrate us because we didn’t grow up in America.

We are reminded daily that where we currently live is not our home either. Many times, we are the only Caucasians on the street. Or we are unable to do seemingly simple things like order dinner, because of the language barrier. The constant reminders that we don’t fit in slowly wear down our confidence, and we become self-conscious of our “abnormalities.”

We’re often given an extra title whenever we’re introduced—the “kid who grew up in Africa,” or “that missionary’s oldest child.” These labels are suffocating. We don’t want to be different. We just want to be normal kids.

We may talk differently because of where we grew up. We may not understand American sports. We may eat our burgers with forks and knives. But we are still kids who want to belong. Our fear of never fitting in may seem irrational, but continually pointing out our differences only feeds this fear.

But, our parents, supporters, friends, and pastors have the power to make us feel welcome, by accepting us no matter how different we may seem.

2. “I don’t know where I’m from.”

Many of us have grown up overseas never really knowing where to call home. We have acquired friends, customs, and worldviews from several different cultures. We were born in our passport country, but we don’t have any strong ties to it. Yet we are still expected to call it our home, constantly reminded that we are not “from” the country where we’ve lived much longer.

If you are a parent of an MK, I’d urge you to consider making your home a “no-man’s land.” Our home is the one place where we shouldn’t feel pressured to pick a country. Many MK’s appease their parents by calling their passport countries “home,” never expressing the battle that goes on within them whenever they say it. Please, don’t guilt us into claiming your home country. Show us that it doesn’t matter what country we choose to love.

And to our supporters, friends, and extended family: try not to ask us where we’re from, because we likely don’t have an answer. We aren’t going to say “I don’t know”, because we know that immediately halts the conversation. So more often than not, we will give you a vague, half-hearted response before we change the subject.

Instead of asking us where we are “from,” consider starting the conversation by asking:

  • “Where have you lived?”
  • “Where do your parents call home?”
  • “Where are you currently living?”

3. “I might not be a missionary when I grow up.”

When asked if we’ll follow in our parents’ ministry footsteps, and many of us MK’s will awkwardly stammer our way through an answer before looking for the nearest exit. We feel pressured to say “yes”, and inexplicably guilty if we give an adamant “no”—but we also know that a weak “maybe” just doesn’t cut it.

You have every right to ask us what career we’re interested in. But please, try to avoid making us feel like missions is the only correct answer. Every calling from God has dignity and purpose. You don’t need to add missions into the “future career” question—if we truly do want to go into ministry, have no doubt that we will tell you!

4. “I want to know that I’m more important than the ministry.”

Thankfully, this isn’t an issue I’ve ever encountered in my own home. But I have known many MK’s that do struggle with a sense that, when it comes to their parents’ ministry, they take the backseat. Many MK’s have seen ministry take precedence over family dinners, vacations, sporting events, even illnesses. They feel guilty asking for more time from their parents, even though that’s all they really want. They feel like they’re asking their parents to choose between God’s calling and their own kids. Oftentimes, this guilt leads to MK’s resenting their parents’ ministry.

If you are the parent of an MK, show us that family comes before ministry—whether by simply asking us the hard questions or visibly putting your work aside for us. You may not like the honest answers we give, and it may be hard to say “no” to ministry at times; but it will prove to us that we really do take top priority.

To supporters and friends interacting with MK’s: take care to not always associate us with our parents’ ministry. We already feel as though we are on display 24/7. Instead of asking us questions about our parents’ ministry, just ask us regular questions. We love to talk about our pets, hobbies, and interests just like every other kid.

You will win our hearts if you treat us like normal kids—because we are.

Abby Farran

Sometimes they are a simple “see you tomorrow,” while other times they are forever. Many times, those “forever goodbyes” are associated with hugging friends before airport security or kissing our pets one last time. David Pollock, a pioneer in TCK research, wrote, “Most TCKs [Third Culture Kids] go through more grief by the time they are 20, than mono-cultural individuals do in a lifetime.”

Unfortunately, for Missionary Kids (MKs) and TCKs, the goodbyes go deeper than that. We must give up our favorite foods, the culture we adapted to, and sometimes even a language. My family moved to South Africa when I was four. Fast forward 13 years: I’ve given up three countries, and each one has brought different heartaches with the goodbye.  Instead of simply saying goodbye to people, we must give up every single familiar aspect in our lives. To say “goodbye” means the loss of a world to an MK, and I want to help people understand the blend of pain and beauty that we are left with. “MKs just learn to love and leave,” in the words of Linda Kelley, a mother of MKs.

No one really talks about what happens afterward. No one shares about the months they cried themselves to sleep. No one mentions the heartbreaking feeling they got when something so precious to them was no longer in their life. No one wants to come to grips with how much those goodbyes broke them.

I’m here to tell you that they broke me—that they broke us.

Even though MKs struggle with this grief daily, we never talk about it. It feels trivial to bring up how we cried that morning because the air smelled different, or because there weren’t any birds outside our window. We don’t want to complain or seem ungrateful, especially when our families are in the middle of transitioning to a new field. Our entire world has changed—with a new language, culture or atmosphere—and every single encounter we have reminds us of our loss. And yet, we don't want to make our parents feel guilty about the move. Instead, we stay quiet and push those feelings aside.

“I learned to squelch the grief over the loss of that person in my daily life, with their warm smile, hearty laughter, and comforting hug,” said Debbie Warren, MK from Nigeria. “A phrase I heard often—‘We’ll see them in heaven’—told me to stuff the ache and stop complaining.”

In one sense, this is true—we will see some of those people again. But our tears aren’t just for the people. They’re for the colors of the native fabrics, the taste of our favorite foods, and the smell of sea salt in the air. I don’t go a day here in Portugal without longing for my old home in Tanzania, even though I moved over a year ago. MKs don’t simply mourn the loss of people; we mourn the loss of a country.

The pain and loss continue to build as the grief begins to overwhelm us. Unfortunately, most MKs are never taught how to properly handle grief. Instead, it grows in secret until it starts to affect every part of us. Some of us never move on and simply choose to numb the pain. We cut ties with our old lives, but we never attempt to build a new one. Others develop a constant fear of loneliness and loss, throwing themselves too quickly into friendships and relationships in the hope that they won’t ever have to say goodbye again.

The fear of goodbyes is very real. It’s a natural tendency to try and avoid the same type of pain in the future. While some MKs have no problem saying goodbye, others struggle with the concept. They find different ways to word it, or they avoid goodbyes altogether.

Another MK from India, Joy Ziemann, said, “I have a hard time saying goodbye. It is easier to say ‘see you’ and pretend it is not really goodbye.”

I’m trying my very hardest to show churches, family members, and supporters what being an MK truly means. I want you to know that, while we may seem strong, or emotionally detached from the moves, we struggle with the loss of countries, cultures, and customs. It’s not as simple as moving states or school districts. We feel the grief from these moves for years.

However, I can say that over the years the pain fades. It gradually shifts to a dull ache that comes and goes. And you know what? I wouldn't trade those memories for the world. I wouldn’t change a single second of my past, even if it would’ve made the goodbye less painful.

Goodbyes never get any easier, but they eventually turn into bittersweet memories that remain with us forever—a closing point in that part of our lives which ended a wonderful chapter. These goodbyes slowly morph from painful experiences to melancholy memories that are never forgotten.

This is the beautiful art of goodbyes.