Friends, I just can't change who I am. So in true Katherine fashion, I'm going to start with the disclaimers. If you are like my husband and would just like to cut to the chase already, feel free to skip over these.
Disclaimer #1: I believe short-term mission trips can be a positive thing, but some have a history of being glorified “spiritual tourism.” Many others have written about the damage short-term missions can do if not done carefully, with right motives, and right perspective. Jen Hatmaker wrote in one of her books about an orphanage that got repainted needlessly year after pointless year. This is just one example of many, unfortunately.
Disclaimer #2: This is not a post detailing my entire philosophy on short-term missions (not that you’d even care to read that). But I will just say that I believe there are many healthy ways to do short-term missions with great benefit. This post is merely an observation about the eery similarities between parenting and leading short-term missions teams. So without further introduction...
Here are three things mission trips have taught me about parenting:
Lead without complaint.
Yes, it’s really really tempting to go ahead and state the obvious: it’s hot and we’re all sweating out our eyeballs. I showered with a congregation of cockroaches this morning. Everything smells terrible, including me!
But what purpose does that serve? It doesn’t change anything for those who were already thinking those things, and for those who were actually focused on the task at hand, now they’re distracted by these tiny "problems" instead.
Once I was on a team helping to lead a youth camp in a small village between Moscow and St. Petersburg. We were in the middle of nowhere, on a lake, and the mosquitoes decided to gang up on us. Thick, dark clouds of aggressive insects swarmed us and relentlessly sucked our blood. It was hard to see anything else, and some of us really got derailed by it for a minute. Had a few plucky team members not led the way in ignoring the mosquitoes and focusing on our program, we would’ve been done for.
That’s what we have to do for our kids. We have to shift our attention away from the distractions and problems that life throws at us, and instead notice the positive while making our goal the focus. We’re the ones who can teach them how to take the lemons and make the lemonade, so it starts with us.
As our family has experienced change after change these past few years, and the many challenges that go along with that, I’ve learned that the way I communicate really affects my kids. They’re watching me and how I respond to the things that are hard. I have found the most commonly helpful phrase has been “Isn’t this an adventure?!” Probably when they’re older they’ll have nightmares about this phrase, but I hope not. I hope it’s framed our many transitions in their formative years in a positive way, allowing them to see the opportunity for growth, learning, and strengthening that change brings. I hope that when they’re grown and life bumps them with hard things, they’ll be able to keep their eyes focused and not get derailed.
Parents (and leaders of any kind), you have people looking to you: when you complain, the problems seem bigger. When you stay positive and focus on the common goal, the problems become irrelevant, and you help others overcome their own distractions. Let’s be people who lead without complaint.
Get used to humiliation. It will happen, so you might as well prepare yourself now.
We’ve all had that person on the trip that, in the words of my Iranian sister-in-law, speaks “foreigner”. You know, reeeeeeeeeallly slowly and LOUDLY, thinking this somehow enhances communication. News flash, crazy Americans: slow, loud English is just obnoxious English.
We’ve also all had that person on the team that’s just generally embarrassing. There’s usually at least one on every team. Maybe we’ve been that person. (Now you’re all analyzing yourselves. You’re welcome.) They act over-the-top obnoxiously goofy, they flirt with everyone, they wander off and get lost, or they lock their roommate out on a balcony naked. (I’m not saying I’ve known anyone who’s done these things. Ahem.)
What I’m getting at is this: sometimes you can feel like the people on your team represent you in some way, and you WILL have team members by whom you do NOT want to be represented to the rest of the world. That is inevitable.
As parents, our children often feel like an extension of us. This is a misconception that leads to an unhealthy perspective, but I think it’s one that all us parents struggle with. We want our children to behave well, or at the very least, in a somewhat socially acceptable way. So when they throw a ginormous fit in a store, garnering the attention of everyone and making you look like a helpless, incompetent parent, you’re blindsided and outraged.
Here’s the thing: this will happen. You can’t get around it. So the only recourse is to brace yourself for the humiliation, and temper it by holding onto the fact that each of your children is his/her own person. He or she is not an extension of you, but a gloriously unique individual with his or her own choices (God help us all). Sometimes our kids will make awesome choices, and sometimes they will ask loudly why that man has a humungous tummy. Life is life. …is life is life is life.
You will come in with a plan. It will be a sound, well thought out plan, and you will have spent considerable time developing it. It doesn’t matter. Once you embark, or most likely even at the airport, you will have to scrap your plan and improvise the heck out of that bad boy.
The name of the game is adaptability. You’ll be fielding curve balls that are throwing curve balls. Roll with it, and just hope you maybe connect your bat with one or two. Consider that a victory.
Your luggage (or that of half your team) will get lost and you’ll be rinsing out the same pair of underwear in buckets of cold water every night. You’ll get lice, and you won’t have a clock, so you’ll have to count to sixty (one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand….) 10 times to make sure you leave the chemicals in your hair long enough to kill the little suckers. And then you’ll rinse it out the best you can with cold water in a bucket. There will be an airline strike in your destination country, and you’ll get stuck there for far longer than planned. Se la vie. Roll with the punches.
When you encounter these curve balls, the way you react as the team leader affects your whole team. If the leader panics, everybody panics, and things go south--fast. If the leader stays calm, acts decisively and generates a new plan quickly, all is well. We’re all fine, everybody’s fine.
Just like short-term mission trips, kids love to disrupt plans. For instance, I was an incredible parent once. I mean, I TRULY had it all together. I had a gorgeous plan all mapped out, and everything went swimmingly. That time just happened to be in my mind... before I had children.
Parenting becomes much messier once the kids actually arrive.
Remember those benefits of short term missions I mentioned in "Disclaimer #2"? One benefit is that they are an excellent training ground. The training for me, it turns out, was actually not for missions, but for parenting. See? Another curve ball. Se la vie, friends.