27 November 2017

Are Missionary Children Special?

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 439-62:
The special circumstances of missionary children inspired widespread discussion within the churches beginning about 1930. A study of several hundred Methodist missionary children from India found that the sons and daughters of missionaries were much more likely to attend college and to obtain postgraduate degrees than other Americans, and that they “tend to become cosmopolitan in their interests.” More cosmopolitan, but also, it was often said, more traumatized by the cultural shock of adjusting to life in the United States, regardless of their age when they left the foreign mission field. From the 1930s to the present, missionary organizations have offered advice to missionary children on how to cope with the distinctive psychological traumas associated with a missionary upbringing.

It is far from clear that missionary children as adults were disproportionately subject to emotional problems and mental illness, more likely to be depressed or to commit suicide than others in their age cohort. Nor do I find reliable evidence that parental religious beliefs, parenting styles, the mission environment, encounter with “natives,” or any other specific set of factors correlate more than others with the psychological stress of missionary children. Yet that such risks were greater for them has been taken for granted. The memoirs of even the most successful of missionary children comment on the psychological challenges they experienced in adjusting to mainstream American life. Princeton University president and ambassador Robert Goheen felt his own experience was relatively easy, in part because he was a younger son and had the experiences of his older siblings to make the entry into American society less traumatic. So firmly established is this pattern in the self-representation of missionary children that John Hersey included the travails of an emotionally disturbed missionary son in The Call, a novel of 1986 designed as a panoramic commentary on the American missionary experience in China.

The literature on missionary children identifies a number of sources for this pervasive sense of psychological risk. Separation from parents to attend boarding school or to live with relatives in the United States was one. Another was the culture shock of immersion in American life as a teenager after having spent one’s childhood in a different environment. Alternating between one household abroad and another in an American community made some children feel that they lacked a single and stable home. Some missionary parents left the impression that their labors were so important (“I must be about my father’s business,” Jesus told followers who wanted his attention, according to Luke 2:49) that the needs of children became secondary.

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