MKs Thoughts on Being an MK

Saturday, April 12, 2014

1992 in Flam, Norway
Here I go with the acronyms again. In a previous post I wrote about my thoughts on being a TCK (Third Culture Kid), now I would like to share with you some insights on being an MK (Missionary Kid).  Missionary kids, or as one beloved missionary I know likes to call us, "Kid Missionaries", live lives that are even more different than other TCKs whose parents are involved with business or the military.  Yes, like other TCKs, MKs live abroad, move around a lot (sometimes to multiple countries), and in general face all the challenges and joys of being a TCK.  However, we also experience different challenges and joys that are very unique to being an MK.

Being an MK is a life changing experience that people seem to be interested in hearing about.  I have spoken at a couple of conferences, sharing my experiences and answered many questions from many different people in many different situations.  Psychologists have also conducted studies to better understand and help us and there are even classes that many missionaries take to better understand their children. To help me provide insight on being an MK, I have asked quite a few MKs to give me their thoughts so that I can share them in this post.

You may now be asking what makes MKs different from other TCKs. First, I would like to share the different challenges that we face.  For starters, if you are a PK (pastor's kid) or know one, you may have some idea of the high expectations that are put on an MK.  Sadly, we are often held up in some kind of high esteem as if we are expected to be perfect and when we mess up (like any human does) we are severely judged.  Not only are we judged, but are parents get judged as well.  "How could missionaries raise such wild, unruly children?" We are burdened with the pressure of carrying the reputation of our families, our faith, our mission boards, and our "home" countries on our shoulders.  That is a lot for a child to deal with, so it's no surprise that some crack under the pressure once in a while.

1996 First day of school in Bornem, Belgium
A second challenge is the constant moving.  Yes, other TCKs move around a lot too, but the constant
moving back and forth between countries can be emotionally and psychologically tiring and confusing.  Every few years missionaries go back to their "home" country to raise support and share the mission work that they are doing.  For my family this meant that every three or four years we would move back to the United States for about seven months.  We never lived in the same place twice when we came back to the US, so we had to start making friends and get adjusted to a new school from scratch every time.  These months are also often filled with a lot of traveling to speak at different churches, conventions, and camps.  I remember on one of our "State Side Assignments" that I never even bothered fully unpacking because I just didn't see the point.  Then once you've finally gotten comfortable, its time to pack up and say goodbye to return to your "mission" country where you will have to play catch up on all the things you've missed during the months you were "home".  Like I said, it can be pretty emotionally taxing.
"I think my biggest struggles came during the times we were on [State Side Assignment]. Just having to fit back into different churches and youth groups every time, and not having set friends when we came back [to the States]. Also constant goodbyes to family on the [mission] field." -Callie
Thirdly, as missionary kids we see and experience things that most people in America don't understand.  We see real poverty, despair, devastation, sickness, and spiritual warfare.  With ignorance of these things, it is easier for people to make light of these things or even joke about them.  Sometimes, as MKs we get frustrated with people who are ignorant and we find it difficult to relate to them.  I distinctly remember two different times when I shocked (and probably offended) my college friends when I lashed out at them for their ignorance.  The first time I got mad was because they were making AIDS jokes (I'm not sure why, but they were a "thing" my freshman year in college).  Now that I better understand American culture, I see that it is easier to put the blame on people with AIDS as "their mistake" or "bad life choices".  However, living in Africa taught me that way too many innocents are infected with this disease as well and that it is not something to be made light of.  The second time was when some of my dorm mates thought it would be fun to play with a Ouija board and summon some ghosts.  My friends thought I was crazy for freaking out since there are no such thing as ghosts, but having witnessed demon possession first hand, I was adamant about them not playing around with the demon realm.  Looking back now, I realize that I came across extremely intense and that I could have handled both situations better.  Although I have explained myself more clearly on both accounts to my friends, I still think they don't really understand where my strong emotions come from.

Christmas 2004 in South Africa 
Now, even though there are challenges to being an MK, there are also some great benefits that I think others are really missing out on.  The number one benefit that I think MKs have is all the extra family that we gain.  Yes, we do miss out on our actual families back "home", but the mission field is full of "aunts, uncles, and cousins".  And better yet, we completely understand and relate with each other.  In  the mission board that my family served with (International Mission Board) we had bi-annual mission meetings where are the missionary families in our region got together for a week.  It was like a really big family reunion every year.  We also had an MK camp for all the missionary kids in Southern Africa to get together at the end of every year.  Unlike many TCKs who may feel alone, most MKs are blessed to have the love and support from people who understand them.
"Most of all I loved the mission family…. My missionary aunts and uncles are family and are so dear to me!" -Hope
Another benefit is the opportunity to travel and see the world.  I have learned that ignorance is often not a choice, but rather comes from a lack of opportunity to learn and experience.  This is a flip side to the challenge of experiencing things that many Americans haven't.  Yes, we have seen some difficult things that others haven't, but as a result, many of us have learned compassion; to open our eyes and our hearts to see, accept, love, and serve those who are poor, desperate, devastated, sick, and under spiritual attack.  To love, accept, and serve others are not actions that come naturally and are often difficult to develop, but many MKs have had the benefit of being brought up to hone those traits and see first hand how important and needed they are.
"My favorite thing about being an MK is just the general, broader view I have on the world and life in general. People are already selfish by default. Add a narrow world-view and you've basically set yourself up for more self-centeredness.  I hope I'm not sounding arrogant, I'be just seen the effects of others that aren't TCKs.  Its not something that gets fixed by reading the "International News" section of CNN or browsing foreign newspapers. Living in another country literally changes your mindset and reasoning. I believe this changes the motivation of everything you do." -Steven
2006 South Africa.  My sisters didn't want me to move to the US for college without them.
A third benefit to being an MK is that we are often really good at forming friendships.  Because we move around a lot and are surrounded by others who move around, we are constantly making new friends and saying goodbye to other friends. While the average teenager has all of high school to bond with friends (and often had all of their childhood too), we often only have a few months with friends.  Because of this, we often open up quickly, love strongly, and hurt deeply when we have to say goodbye as we try to cram years worth of friendship and bonding into a shorter time frame.  You may think this is sad and feel sorry for us, but the truth is that we are good at making friends as a result, we don't like to be fake or play games like many others, and end up with friends all over the world.  Some friendships that are formed in just a few months even last a lifetime despite the miles (sometimes oceans) between them.

These challenges and benefits seem to be viewed by the majority of MKs who helped me with this post.  However, it is important to remember that we are all human and everyone has their own views and reactions to different situations.  This is a good start to understanding MKs on a surface level, but each MK is impacted differently.  An kid who grew up an MK from birth might have a completely different experience as someone who only became an MK in later childhood or even adolescence.  Even among my siblings, our experiences are different, even though we all grew up as MKs from birth.  My older brother decided he didn't like being an MK and wanted to find his identity as an American, so at the age of sixteen moved to the US to finish high school while living with our grandmother.  My younger brother and I love being MKs, embracing our multiculturalism, and find that despite the challenges, we wouldn't change anything.  My younger sisters are actually South Africans adopted and since the age of seven have lived in the US, so they are now trying to find their own identity as former MKs.  I also have friends who didn't become MKs until they were older so they identify more with American culture, while their younger siblings who were born in their "mission" country identify more with that country.

To sum it all up, I think that MKs face many different challenges that other children do not face growing up.  However, they will also experience benefits that often completely out weight the challenges.  Both the challenges and benefits are an innate part of who we are and how we see the world.  For parents of MKs (or future MKs), I encourage you not to worry about the challenges or shy away from them, but rather be aware of them, try to understand the world from your child's perspective, and emphasize the benefits.  Honestly, I don't know a single MK who truly regrets their life or is ungrateful for the opportunity to grow in awareness of different cultures and people.
"MKs live full lives, and are often times constantly in motion. I loved being raised this way. But there are plenty of times when I wish I could have had something more normal or stable… then I snap out of it. :) " -Mark

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