By Heidi Thulin
A third-culture kid (TCK) is an interesting and precious kind of human being. The term, coined in the 1950s by an American sociologist, refers to children who accompany their parents into another society. “They are pulled away from everything,” Jill, a mentor to university students in Uganda, explains. “They don’t get organized sports, they don’t get cool swimming pools, they don’t get Christmas with grandparents.” And yet, while TCKs do miss some things, they have the unique opportunity to create and live in a “third culture”—a blending of their home and host cultures—that gives them a more well-rounded worldview than their age-mates who grow up in the West.
A third-culture kid realizes that there is a wide world around them, one rich with ethnic foods, unique languages, multiple ways of doing things, and different ways of seeing things. That appreciation helps them develop deep and lasting friendships with people from all over the world, but most closely with those who have had similar childhood experiences. Things like race and ethnicity are not an issue for them; they just don’t see it. Steve, a team-leader who has served in Mozambique for many years, mentions that his son is more likely to say, “This friend is great at rugby, and this friend likes to eat hamburgers,” than to reveal that these two friends are of two completely different nationalities.
A third-culture kid’s life is one filled with transitions. Their parents’ ministries oftentimes move them to new cities or countries, their friends come and go, and furloughs bring them back to their home countries only every two or three years. “Transition is major on little hearts,” Sharon, wife to Steve and a TCK herself, says. “And yet, there’s a flexibility that says ‘I can go wherever.’ We are resilient.” In fact, this resilience and flexibility is one of the reasons several missionary TCKs come right back out onto the mission field. They’ve learned, by watching their parents’ lives, that they can thrive in all sorts of situations and with all kinds of people, if it’s where God calls them to be.
Though the constant transition can be a great resilience-training experience for these children, it can also leave them feeling rootless. They don’t know what to call “home”. For one high school senior, he found the hardest part of his college application was not the essay section but rather having to answer one of the basics of his life—his address.
Getting the education they need
These same transitions can make education decisions difficult. Ellen Hargrave, a member of Africa Inland Mission’s TCK Education Consulting Team, explains that “in the United States, most people make their decisions based on their education philosophy. But here in Africa, most people make their decisions based on where God has called them to be.” Which is where the difficulty lies.
It is every parents’ desire to give their children a quality education and to understand what does and does not work for their children, but thanks to the TCK Education Consulting Team’s expertise and guidance, missionaries do not have to face this daunting task alone. Through formal and informal counseling, the team, parents, and children walk this road together as they search for the best solutions. Formally, the team annually hosts an Educational Support Week at Rift Valley Academy, where children complete standardized testing, visit classrooms, use the library, and meet other children their own age. During this week, the parents also attend workshops and obtain materials to empower them to excel in whatever education choice they’ve made.
Informally, Ellen, along with the rest of the TCK Education Consulting Team, works with individual parents to place each specific child in the best educational environment possible, whether that be in a homeschool (with Mom as teacher or with a volunteer Homeschool Teacher), private school, or boarding school environment. “We are committed to helping our families have the best education they possibly can,” Ellen explains, “and that these children mature to be well-rounded individuals: emotionally, socially, academically, and spiritually. However the family wants to accomplish that, we want to help them do it.”
A common trend in the AIM community is for children to be homeschooled in their elementary years and then to attend either private school or boarding school when they enter junior or senior high. At the elementary level, school topics are easier for parents to teach, and since private schools generally stretch a missionary’s budget and parents are hesitant to send their children to boarding school at such a young age, homeschooling is the best (and oftentimes, only) option.
In big cities like Nairobi, access to resources and curriculums is much easier, because school materials are more readily available, there’s a more reliable internet connection, and homeschool co-ops have been formed. But in the remote areas, like the rural Kenyan village where church workers Rick and Carrie lived, obtaining those resources can be much more challenging. “We brought materials from overseas in a variety of ways,” Carrie recalls. “People coming out to see us would put some in their luggage. We’d bring some out ahead of time. And one time, we even had it shipped, though that wasn’t a very easy or cost-effective option.”
Despite the lack of school resources, though, these remote areas develop children’s life skills and give them a unique worldview. Rick and Carrie watched as their children witnessed poverty up close and saw them realize that just because a person is poor doesn’t mean they are impoverished. “It was great to have our children living and serving in the same community with us,” Rick remembers, “so that they could learn that valuable lesson.”
Homeschooling is also oftentimes the only way for a family to stay together as a unit. When Steve and Sharon lived in Mozambique, Sharon homeschooled their children in order to keep them at home. They built a small schoolroom in their backyard to make a clear distinction between “home life” and “school life.” This separation helped the parents succeed in their ministry and gave the children the freedom to be normal kids while in the house. The schoolroom also had the benefit of helping their village neighbors understand the concept of “homeschooling” and to respect the “learning hours.”
Using a Homeschool Teacher
For many mothers, however, homeschooling does not come naturally. In fact, some women admit that teaching their own children is one of the hardest things about being a missionary, which is why the role of a dedicated, volunteer Homeschool Teacher is growing in importance.
Being a Homeschool Teacher is one of the newest and least-known positions within Africa Inland Mission. As a short-term position, it’s a great way for a person to gain ministry experience and to bestow a valuable blessing on a missionary family. Raising children and keeping a household functioning is much more difficult in an African context—stresses are completely different—and it’s not uncommon for missionary moms to become strained and ineffective in their ministry and family roles if they have the added stress of homeschooling their children.
Jill, who mentors university students in Uganda and homeschools her two older children at the same time, has personally experienced this burnout and has seen a great change in both her own ministry and her childrens’ learning and behavior since her Homeschool Teacher, Lesley, came out to help the family. With gratitude, Jill says, “[Lesley] is pouring into a people group that very few people pour into. It’s been so wonderful having her around. I have the ability to be a part of my children’s education, but it isn’t solely my responsibility. Having a Homeschool Teacher gives me the confidence that my kids are learning the right things at the right time and allows me the freedom to be involved in the team leadership and ministry outside the home.”
And for Lesley and the children, the experience has been just as wonderful. “Out of my seven years teaching, this is by far my favorite year,” Lesley says. “I know these kids better than anybody else other than their parents. When I say something to them, they don’t just ignore me; they actually listen. When I tell them I care for them and want them to be successful in their future, they believe me. And so they try. Hard.”
For many TCKs who grow up in remote villages, there are very few people who speak their native English and even fewer who live out a Christian witness. Having a Homeschool Teacher mentor, disciple, and relate to these children is a priceless gift. Lesley has had many missionary mothers seek her out, proclaiming, “Of all the ministries out here, I’m so glad that yours is for our kids.”
Enrolling in a Private School
In many African locations, national schools abound, but because of the high class ratios (upwards of sixty students to one teacher), a school system that does not transfer well into the American system, the possibility that English won’t be the first language of the classroom, and the implementation of corporate punishment, many people find it difficult to consider these national schools as viable options for their children. However, there are sometimes international and Christian private schools available, if a family is able to afford the relatively high school fees.
For one pilot family in Nairobi, that higher cost is completely worth it. “It’s been great for [our son] to be a part of all the extra-curricular activities,” his mother says, “and to have someone besides Mom teaching him. He has this positive peer pressure to get out and try new things, things I never would have expected him to try.” But the most valuable thing about their decision to send their son to a local private school is that he receives a solid education and still gets to spend time with his family. Cost in dollars versus cost in life together is, unfortunately, something many families on the mission field have to prayerfully evaluate.
Attending a Boarding School
Boarding school, especially during a child’s middle and high school years, is the most commonly chosen education option of AIM missionary families, and Rift Valley Academy (RVA), which is operated by AIM, is the usual choice. According to the school’s vision statement, “RVA seeks, within the African context, to disciple, nurture, and educate students toward Christian maturity for the glory of God.” The school empowers missionaries to serve effectively in their African countries by providing a quality education and safe environment for their children.
But the decision to send a child to boarding school is not an easy one. In fact, one missionary father who served in rural Lesotho calls the process heart-wrenching. “It was very unpleasant,” he recalls. “We missed out a lot on our kids’ development, missed out on a sense of family. The one redeeming factor, though, is seeing your kid grow. If he has really grown physically, spiritually, and in his character, that redeems all of it, all the mourning.”
Jill and her husband, Joel, are currently preparing themselves for this decision now that their daughter is reaching eighth grade. Because of their daughter’s age, she often finds herself trapped between two worlds: the adult one where she attends ministry functions with her parents and the child one where she plays with or babysits children many years her junior. Her attendance at RVA will give her a chance to see what other thirteen-year-olds are doing, how they live out their faith, and how they interact with each other. “To be able to worship with people her own age, to be fed by other people and not just by us, is huge,” Jill says. “It gives us the courage to obey God’s calling for our continued ministry in Uganda.”
Besides offering companionship with their age-mates, Rift Valley Academy also provides an accredited American-based education for third-culture kids. Rick and Carrie were delighted to learn that, because of their daughter’s education at RVA, she was accepted into a harder nursing degree program in the United States than she ever would have had they continued homeschooling her. “She was surviving there [in the village], but not thriving there,” Carrie explains. “But she thrived at RVA, and they walked her through the process of getting ready for university in ways we never could have done.”
Despite the pain of sending children to boarding school, most parents who choose that route agree that it was one of the best decisions they could have made for their children. Boarding school gives children the blessing of being able to be children, gives them the opportunity to pursue their interests in sports, art or music, offers them mentorship in a caring Christian community, and exposes them to a traditional academic environment, all things that better prepare them for future university education. A board member from the school explains it beautifully: “The best case scenario for most parents is that they don’t send their kids to boarding school at all but rather that the motivation comes from the youngster. To let your child go to boarding school rather then to send them makes a huge difference, for both the child and the parents.” The attitude of the parents makes all the difference.
Making It Work
Because of the nature of mission work, education is an ever-evolving process, one that calls for much prayer from parents, friends, and family members and requires honest communication between parent and child. With each passing year, as the school subjects get harder and as the children get older, the education decisions get more complicated. “We play it by ear,” Sharon emphasizes. “We need to really see what our children need and what is best for them. And those are huge questions, because what if our decision leads us to leave the field? Or necessitates a move to a place where there is a school? These are massive family decisions.”
TCK education is a complex and serious dimension to the missionary life, but part of the call to serve and trust God in distant lands is the challenge to trust Him with the most precious treasures—including missionary children. God is faithful; He provides for and guides families through these tough decisions, and year after year, as another successful graduating class of third-culture kids—from home schools, private institutions, or boarding schools—emerges into the world, families learn that growing up in Africa is one of the richest blessings a child can experience.