“Here are three things we’ve learned while parenting on the field.”
“Why haven’t you shaved your baby’s head yet?” our local friend Fatima demanded when we took our baby Samuel to visit her. “You should, or else his hair won’t grow well.” My wife and I came to the field as a couple with no children. Visits to our friends seemed simple back then. All that changed when Samuel came along.
All our friends wanted us to visit so they could see him. But as insecure new parents, we had no idea that each visit with locals would be so stress inducing.
“Why do you not have enough clothes on him?” they would ask. “You should dress him more warmly. Why does he need to nap? Why isn’t he going to sleep? Why is he crying? Here, give him this to drink. Why not? Well, then give him this biscuit to eat. No? What do you give him to eat? Oh, you shouldn’t give him that; you should give him this. No, you shouldn’t tell him not to do that; just let him do what he wants.”
On top of all that, it seemed like each visit would bring out the worst behavior in Samuel, probably because his poor parents were so stressed out! We started to feel like making visits as a whole family was the last thing we wanted to do.
However, our friends kept inviting us and they always wanted our whole family to come. If I showed up without my wife and baby, their first question was, “Where are they?” and then, “Why did they not come with you?”
Besides our friends’ continued insistence, the main reason we kept visiting as a whole family, despite the struggles we initially faced, was our conviction that God wanted us to bless and minister to whole families. In order to see Muslim communities around us transformed by the power of the Gospel, we must focus on families and their extended networks, not just on winning individuals to Christ. Because unlike our American culture back home, individuals here do not make major life decisions apart from their communities.
When our second child, Adrianna, was born, we faced the same line of questions and cultural differences in parenting. But this time, we were a little more prepared. We kept visiting, kept learning, and kept helping our kids (and ourselves) be prepared for what to expect.
Today, seven years since beginning this cross-cultural parenting journey, we’ve realized that making visits as a family is much more natural and enjoyable than it once was. We delight in watching how Samantha, our youngest child, has become everyone’s favorite little baby, gladly held by anyone, rarely fussy, and full of twinkling eyes and dimpled smiles.
We relax and enjoy watching our friends love on our children, and their questioning doesn’t bother us like it once did.
Here are some of the things we’ve learned along the way as God has poured out his grace on us:
1. Perseverance: We pressed on in visiting our Muslim friends, which gave us frequent experiences that helped us and our children learn what to expect. Sitting on the floor, drinking sweet tea, and eating snacks or meals became normal for them. Adrianna especially likes when we go for a meal at a friend’s house because she knows she’ll get to eat with her hands!
2. Preparation: Before going on a visit, we’ve role-played greetings with our children and let them know that they’re going to be hugged, kissed, and pinched on their cheeks as signs of affection. Before heading out, we pray together for the family we’re about to visit.
3. Language: Our children have seen us learning and speaking the local language during visits, and now they find it normal to also want to communicate in the language. They are very determined communicators, and our local friends greatly appreciate this.
Answer from a father who has been serving in the Muslim world for more than seven years.
“I found there was no such thing as time off.”
I think raising small children anywhere is difficult. One has to establish where one is going as a family and then stick to it! A small child’s energy is twice that of his/her parents. And as a young parent there is always the looming question “Are we doing this right?” or, worse yet, the lingering doubt, “I am not doing this very well.”
Many of our decisions made on behalf of these small precious beings are based on the Word of God, but if we are honest we really see that probably just as many are made subconsciously based on the community we are part of or the community that we honor, e.g., our hometown, extended family, church, or mission organization.
The most difficult thing for me was having no one to trust the care of the kids to. This meant that I had the kids 24 hours, 365 days a year. There were no dates with my husband. No going out and leaving the kids with a sitter. No moms’ day out. My kids did everything with me. I shopped with my kids, I cleaned with my kids, I invested in my kids, I visited with my kids, I did office work and planning around my kids’ naps and sleeping schedules. I was sick; my kids and their needs were still there. I was tired; my kids and their needs were still there. I was grouchy; my kids and their needs were still there. There was no such thing as time off.
On top of this I was jealous of the lifestyle that I imagined my peers had in my country of birth. I remember once reading a magazine article advising that parents do things to keep their relationship strong. There was a list of suggestions, none of which could be fulfilled in my context. I threw the magazine across the room.
The fruit of this situation? I was forced to make decisions which moved me to a less selfish lifestyle. I was forced to see my sin and deal with it. Ugh! I had/have a lot of influence in my kids’ lives. My kids grew up doing/living ministry. Today, as adults, they flow in a lifestyle of service to our Lord Jesus which comes much more naturally for them than it ever did for me at their age.
My heart flows with thankfulness for God’s grace. No longer do I have that lingering doubt. Truly, there were many things I just did not do very well. But he who is able to keep us from falling and to make us stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing is at work in us and through us. May he receive glory majesty power and authority before all time and now and forever.
“Dealing with health, food, and sleep may top the list for many.”
My daughter was a little over three months when we went to West Africa, and my son was born in a West African mission hospital. Both of my children are alive and well today and have children of their own. I will share some insights, but realize that the challenges of rearing small children will vary according to the location.
Health Issues: If you live in an urban area, you will probably have access to some good medical care. If you are in a rural area, you will be probably be limited. When our children had a fever, we didn’t know if it was malaria or some other infection. We would call the mission doctor on the radio and describe the symptoms and start the treatment. But as any mother will tell you, when your children are sick, it is a challenge no matter where you are.
Food: You may have a limited variety of food. But let’s face it, children are capricious connoisseurs who can humble even the most talented chef. To overcome those picky palates, we can even resort to tactics like grinding up liver to put in muffins so that the child will get some protein, as one mother did. The good news is that children survive, although perhaps it should be described as a class B miracle.
Sleep: When children are sick, teething, not eating, or feeling hot due to rural living, they do not sleep. So the parents do not sleep, and then the parents’ immune systems are depleted (as parents everywhere with small children will testify!)
But we should also ask the question, “What can I expect to be the blessings of raising children on the field?”
Finding help can be difficult in some places. But in other areas, it might be easier than in your home country. In some areas, you might have trusted local mothers or teenage girls who can watch your children to give you a break. One family had a special needs child which was entrusted to care of local women during certain times of the day.
Having small children can open doors for you. It can help you build relationships and allow you to interact with other mothers for mutual encouragement. Our son would have porridge at our house and then walk down to the married students’ apartments and have a second bowl of porridge. Another time our son greeted a soldier at the check-point, and the soldier waved us through the check-point without a problem. When we left Nigeria, some of the Nigerian married students thanked us for letting our children play with their children. We were completely surprised, but this demonstrates that you are always communicating something by the choices you make.
Answer from Kay, who served with SIM for 22 years in Nigeria, Liberia, and Eritrea.
“Consider communication, continuity, and expectations.”
Moving to the mission field and acclimating to a whole new culture and way of life puts stresses on all aspects of the family, including child-rearing. I would say the following are essential elements to making a smooth transition:
All children benefit from knowing what’s coming up, talking about some “if/then” scenarios (even role-playing), and getting plenty of lead time when changes are going to occur. For example, prior to leaving, we trained our eight children to line up and walk with their wheelie bags behind them so we would be sure to make our tight travel connection. We talked about having no electricity or running water; what could we/they expect to be different? We got Swahili language-learning CDs. We researched and tried out some foods we might find locally, and so on.
Keeping children’s routines as much as possible is helpful during transition and once in the new home environment. Of course, there will always be exceptions to routines, but if you have a daily family time, particular times for naps, meals, etc., or homeschool routines, try to keep them, at least for an initial settling-in period.
Being realistic about expectations helps in every phase of missionary life. Expect interruptions. Depending on your location, you should probably expect things to be more time- and labor-intensive: shopping, cooking, etc.
Expect everyone to react to the transition and changes in different ways and be prepared to communicate and give lots of grace. Expect challenges of various kinds. Depending on your location, your children should expect to be objects of much attention. They should receive training in giving proper greetings and anything else relevant to social situations.
Answer from Cindy in Kenya, who has served with Kingdom Driven Ministries in Kenya and Uganda for four years.