All parents are flawed. All parents are sinners. All parents make mistakes. All children experience pain. All childhoods are a mixed bag at best. No childhood is magical and perfect.
As a parent, you can’t protect your child from all suffering and hardship. Nor should you, as that is how children learn resilience and perseverance and grit.
But where is that line between allowing them to suffer and being inconsiderate of their needs?
How do you know when to shield them and when to stand back?
How do you decide what is too much for them to bear? And what is your responsibility vs. life just happening?
How do you make choices for yourself, your job, your calling when there might be negative repercussions for your children?
These are tough questions, and I don’t have answers.
My husband and I could have taken jobs overseas at different points but decided we wanted our kids to have the stability of growing up in one place. But many of our friends have made the opposite decision, wanting their kids to have the enrichment of living in different places. Who’s to say one choice is right and another wrong? Their kids are different from ours. Heck, our kids are different from each other. What benefits one could literally traumatize another.
Parenting is hard. We should all have grace for ourselves, our parents, other parents.
Having said that, I have some thoughts about parenting on the mission field. Of which I have no experience, to be clear. Just of being parented on the mission field and growing up with/being raised by other missionary kids.
When the novel The Poisonwood Bible came out, missionaries were incensed. “This book is unfair, it makes us look bad,” was the word on the street. The book centered around a missionary family in the Congo in the 1950’s. The father was zealous, extreme, abusive, unstable. The enabling mother and powerless kids suffered. Spoiler alert, one of them died. The surviving children ended up scattered, dislocated, wounded.
In the MK community, the response was different, at least among my friends. Although we could clearly see the book was an exaggeration (compared to most of our experiences), there were things that rang true.
Being dragged along behind “a calling.”
Being subordinated to that calling.
Feeling unsafe at times, physically or emotionally.
Sometimes actually being in danger.
And most of all, struggling with a morally unassailable parent. Because it’s one thing to have flawed parents who make choices that hurt you—we all have that. It’s another thing to be told by everyone around you, the entire culture in which you were raised that those flawed parents aren’t flawed at all, they are in fact saints, carrying out the will of God. How dare you get in the way of that. How dare you act out or be angry or have anxiety or any problems at all. You’re tearing down our heroes. You’re making them look bad. You’re hurting the gospel. You’re ruining everything.
The Southern Baptist Convention, which happens to be the organization in which I grew up, is in the midst of a reckoning right now over its handling of numerous cases of sexual abuse. Any organization or culture can have bad people in them, but when they aren’t held accountable, it becomes a systemic failure, a cultural rot. And that’s what has happened here, what is still happening, as the Executive Committe of the SBC continues to attempt a wagon circling.
The excuse is always–we can’t let this get out, it will ruin our witness. It will wreck all the great work we are doing for God. As if to say–Jesus won’t be able to survive this (HA!) So abuse victims are shunted aside and shut up and paid off and even intentionally destroyed. You’re ruining everything, they are told.
I’m not equating being an MK to being a victim of sexual abuse, although sadly, there are cases I am privy to of MKs being sexually or otherwise abused by their parents or other missionaries. The vast majority of MKs have parents who desperately love them and want to do right by them.
But they also believe they are called by God to go off and live a bizarre and sometimes difficult life. I’m not here to dispute anyone’s calling. Personally, I have a hard time discerning what God is telling me to do vs. what I want to do. And, yes, there is ego in a call to missions (or secular aid work/do-goodery) because there is ego in everything we do. It doesn’t mean we can’t do good things or have callings or follow those callings faithfully. It just means our motives are inescapably mixed. We all want to do things that make us feel important, righteous, amazing, extraordinary. And some of us also love an adventure. Missionary life, with all its harships, allows for that, especially when the culture surrounding missions is so exalting.
Missionaries, and other do-gooders, can have a hard time seeing their egos. And that can feed into unhealthy systems and cultures and families in which children and other vulnerable people suffer.
But again, I’m not here to judge someone’s calling. Just because I’ve never received a clear calling doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
But i do feel confident saying this: God will never, ever call you to deliberately harm your children.
God will never call you to take them to a war zone.
God will never call you to leave them in a boarding school at age 6.
God will never call you to live hand-to-mouth needlessly.
God will never call you to subject your kids to harmful cultural practices of your host country in order to build bridges.
God will never call you to deprive your kids of healthcare.
God will never call you to live with them in dangerously unsanitary conditions.
God will never call you to ignore their mental and physical health because it’s inconvenient for your ministry or your belief system can’t allow for it.
It’s one thing if you happen to be a native-born South Sudanese mother trying to raise your kids amid war, famine, disease, and extreme poverty. But you’re not. God in his mercy spared you and your kids that life, and I fully believe you don’t have to throw away those blessings, at least not for your kids, in order to serve him.
There are lots of ways to be a missionary that don’t involve child abuse (and to be clear, my own childhood did not involve abuse, I’ve just seen it). If you feel God is calling you to a life of “extreme” missionary work, maybe he’s not calling you to be a parent. Or vice versa. Jesus and Paul both understood that family and ministry aren’t always compatible. Check your calling. You may be more of a narcissist than a faithful servant. You get no brownie points or crown in heaven from me for “extreme” ministry, for what that’s worth (not much!)
Let’s be clear: Missionaries who put their kids in traumatizing or dangerous situations are not “heroes of the faith.” They are bad parents. Full stop.
And for the non-extreme missionaries–and all other parents of any kind–Buying into your own moral unassailability preemptively shuts your kids down and keeps them at bay. They won’t come to you with their struggles for fear of being judged or, if they are really indoctrinated, for fear of disrupting the Lord’s work. They will have low self-esteeem and anxiety. If nothing is ever your fault, because you are a saint, everything is your kids’ fault. That’s not great. Maybe they’ll act out or maybe they’ll act in. Maybe they will end up fine. But you won’t ever really know, because they won’t ever tell you. To protect you, your ministry, your image of yourself and the the life of service you’ve built.
Look, as I said, parenting is hard, and there are a million ways to screw up. I’m no doubt screwing up my kids with an over-privileged, indulgent upbringing. I agonize about that. And there are pros and cons to any childhood. I think on the whole most of us MKs cherish our childhoods and wouldn’t trade them for a life of more stability and belonging. If our parents had made different choices, we’d just have different struggles. Life is complicated. Few things are purely good or bad.
I think ultimately what we resented is being pawns in a system and a culture that insisted on a heroic narrative. That relentlessly draped spirituality and righteousness over what were still flawed people doing flawed things, just like everyone else. That didn’t allow us to say anything about it. That offered us no lifelines. That denied and ignored our experiences if they didn’t tell the right story.
This is changing, thank God. My boarding school in Kenya now has professional counselors with connections to a broader network of mental health services. It’s more acceptable for missionary parents, a lot of them MKs themselves, to change or curtail or end ministry when their kids are struggling. Some organizations are better than others, but I think there’s more reluctance to send families with kids into dangerous or extremely difficult situations. But I still know of families in war zones, sadly. I will never, ever find that acceptable.
My God is big enough to get His work done without traumatizing or endangering children. Without sweeping abuse under the rug. Without gaslighting people. Without making up BS stories and lies that make everything look better than it is.
Without saints. Because they don’t f-ing exist.