A young mother talked to us after church and shook her head. “I don’t know how you do it How could you take your children away from all that we have in Canada?” 

As missionaries, both my wife and I hear the same statements repeated by other parents. We’ve had to answer these questions – sometimes from those closest to us – as we’ve dealt with the issues of raising our children outside of Canada. It has caused us to take an honest look at our life as missionaries and consider if our children have somehow "missed out."

However, more than dwelling on the negative side, this has led us to a deeper understanding of the positive aspects of raising our family overseas. It has shown us the upside of international living and the cultural training our children received for the global community we live in.

Challenges and rewards

Parents who anticipate living overseas need to be aware of the challenges faced by a globally mobile family, but they also need to weigh the blessings afforded to children who grow up with international exposure.

David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken’s book, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, is considered the pioneer work featuring the unique challenges of families in cross-cultural settings. The phrase "third culture kids," or TCKs, was coined by the authors to describe the common experiences of international families. They studied the children of missionaries, military personnel, diplomatic staff and international business people and prepare the TCK family to maximize their international exposure.

Pollock and Van Reken observe that the children of missionaries share a common heritage and confront similar issues of other TCKs. Schooling of international children remains a complex issue, even with the advances of online teaching and home school programs. TCKs often feel a lack of identity with their home culture and extended family. Their parents’ mobility can lead to a longing for roots, especially for older children and teens, which end up never feeling at home in their host culture or in North America. Family who go overseas for an extended period must be prepared to deal with these issues.

But membership in the TCK club has its rewards. Few children raised in North America can boast the same opportunities of travel and language acquisition. TCKs have a global perspective of the world and appreciation of other cultures. Their interaction with people of different races and nationalities often makes them colour and culture blind, helping them to relate to the minorities around them. These traits are valuable skills as the world becomes a global village, and as Canada embraces more and more immigrants.

Identification with host culture

A child’s ability to adapt and relate to the people in their surroundings is the envy of many international parents. TCKs learn a language and pick up on customs quicker than their educated and sophisticated parents. Younger children do not need to be lectured on how to develop coping strategies for transition, they just do it. These life-skills are a valuable resource and prepare children for an increasingly international and complex world.

Our son was born in Porto Alegre and was automatically granted the status of a Gaúcho, a person born in the southern regions of Brazil. He was a part of all aspects of Brazilian culture and at an early age learned to eat their beef BBQ and drink chimarrão, the green tea of the south. He learned to speak Portuguese and English simultaneously; without an accent. He was expected to wear the national colours of the seleção brasileiro during the World Cup and learned his first Bible verse in Portuguese in the Sunday School of our local church. He was readily accepted because he was one of them.

Our children also opened doors that were not afforded to others on our missionary team. Countless friendships were developed with neighbours as our children played in the local park. Deep partnerships were formed with our Brazilian and Mexican brothers and sisters in Christ as we spent time together on our knees, praying for our families. Sincere trust was built with people as they participated in raising our children as adopted uncles, aunts and grandparents. Our ministry was enriched because we served as a family and included our children in every part of our lives.

Transformed Christian families

In developing countries, the church is experiencing exponential growth and many people who come to faith have complicated family backgrounds. There is a need for the Christian life to be modelled at practical levels. The presence of a missionary family makes a strong statement and provides a living illustration of how God’s transforming power is worked out. This example is part of a healthy discipleship process which tackles the real issues of life, and is one of the great advantages a family offers in an international ministry opportunity.

Transformation does not only occur in the lives of people who receive a missionary family. Many short-term missions participants will tell you that their lives were changed for the good because of time spent outside of Canadian culture.
It has been 12 years since Gerry and Shirley Malnis of Vernon, B.C., with their two adolescent sons, went to work for nine months at the Rift Valley Academy in Kenya.

"We look back after 12 years and see the many ways that our experience shaped us and intertwined our lives with others to affect God’s purposes," explains Shirley.

One of the Malnis’ sons recently returned to Africa. He and his wife plan to work with an agency which is re-establishing faith-based education with Christian morals in the genocide-ravished nation of Rwanda.

Our children have faced some unique challenges as TCKs, but there is no doubt that they are richer for their experience. They participated in our ministry and developed deep ties to the people who became our second family. They may not have always appreciated it, but our children’s lives were molded by their international upbringing. It is part of who they are.

Dwayne Buhler and his family lived in Surrey, B.C., at the time of publication. They served as missionaries for 15 years before coming “home” to Canada.

© 2007 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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