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Raising Kids Overseas: Living in Two Worlds

Raising Children in the Mission Field (Part 1)

“While it is right to regard the family as called, we need to bear in mind that the children were not called as individuals, but as part of their parents’ family."[1]

How do we provide proper care for children raised in the mission field? How can we make their transitions – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually – easier? Yes, it sounds hard, but it doesn’t have to be if you are well-prepared beforehand!

Wycliffe Singapore’s very own David and Sharon have a wealth of experience with two daughters who have done this. We chatted with Sharon for a peek into this world:

1. What was most challenging about raising children while on missions overseas, and how did you tackle it?

I think the most challenging thing was helping the children live and thrive in two worlds – on the field, and in Singapore. We wanted them to settle and thrive on the field, but we were also very clear that they should regard Singapore as their eventual home. We had seen in others that not handling this well could pitch a child into a downward spiral of maladjustment, poor self-esteem and being unsettled, and this would affect them in negative ways psychologically, emotionally, socially and spiritually.

2. What preparations did you and David make before leaving? Unlike many people now going to the field, we had not visited the country before we made the decision to go. We told the kids that it would be an adventure, and things would be different! We constantly emphasised that “different” is not “worse”, and that every culture and country had their own ways of handling things. We were careful not to paint too rosy a picture, knowing that there would be times when we might be uncomfortable. Telling stories from our own past experiences helped – both of us had stories about changing schools and crossing cultures!

We made sure that they packed a few “comfort” toys and photos of family and friends. Long before, we had intentionally encouraged small favourite toys – no giant teddy bears or large doll houses! We also trained them to eat a wide range of foods as we didn’t want to cope with fussy eaters while travelling and being hosted by new friends. 3. How did the people around you help with your children? Other foreign families on the field helped with advice, and we tried to help our children learn some local language – simple conversation, recognising signs, etc. This helped them start to feel more “at home” in the host culture. For older kids, having at least a survival level of the local language is important for independence so they can move around, shop, hang out, etc. without their parents.

There was no social media back then, so communication with Singapore was difficult or the kids. But at home, relatives and friends would invite our kids on playdates and outings, and give them exposure to Singapore culture and language. The Sunday school teachers were also wonderful in welcoming them while we were back in Singapore.

4. How did your family navigate the return to Singapore? Some families don’t worry about re-entry till just before they return home, but we felt that that would be too late. Some of the ways we tried to keep them “in touch” with Singapore was through talking to them about Singapore culture, teaching them some Singlish, annual visits including a few immersion periods in Singapore school, watching the National Day Parade online and generally never letting them forget that although they were “at home” where they were at that moment, our intention was to eventually to return to Singapore. We also didn’t run down Singapore schools – some kids really fear returning because their main impression of education in Singapore is that it is very tough!

We returned to Singapore for good when our girls were 14 and 16 years old. Before leaving that “world” which had been our home for a decade, we visited places and people of significance to us, then returned to our other “world” to start anew. It was not easy, but our earlier preparations made it manageable. As our girls started school and youth group in church, we held debriefs over dinner to hear about their experiences, help them navigate teenage social life, explain Singapore customs and culture, and translate some Singlish terms. Having navigated so many changes in their life, they coped well with the transition.

5. Any words of wisdom for parents embarking on this journey? One question that we have been asked is whether the discomforts and challenges were worth it. Shouldn’t we have chosen a more safe and comfortable life, and a higher quality education for our children? Looking back, all of us, even the children, don’t regret what we did. Facing challenges together and sharing experiences has made our family relationship stronger. It has made our shared faith in God’s provision and guidance much firmer as well. Each one of us has learned and grown through these experiences, and we wouldn’t be who we are now if we had lived a different life.

Whether you are or know someone with children serving in the mission field overseas, for more helpful tips on preparing to live abroad, visits home and eventual return, check out Sharon’s and David’s book, This Is Home, Surely?.

Stay tuned for part 2 on raising children in the mission field, where we discuss preparing for the children’s education.

[1] This is Home, Surely? A Guide for Parents of Singaporean of “Third Culture Kids”, Sharon and David Tan

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