Boarding School for Missionary Children

What is your opinion of boarding school for children? I've always thought that they were destructive to families. But recently my spouse and I have received a call to serve as missionaries overseas, and apparently this arrangement is part of the deal. I'm not sure this is best for our children and our family, but we don't want to forsake our responsibility to share the Gospel either. Any advice?

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We’re glad to hear that you’re taking time to struggle with this question now – before you’ve narrowed your options by actually taking your family out to the mission field. It’s a good idea to ask yourselves what you’re going to do about the kids’ education ahead of time. You can’t know exactly what your situation will be in another country until you’ve actually been there for a while. At that point it will be much harder to make a change if you decide that things aren’t working for your children.

We’ll start by giving you our short answer. If you have young children, we’d say that boarding school is simply out of the question. Little kids need to be with their moms and dads. If your children are junior high school age or older, boarding school may represent a reasonable choice for your family. A great deal depends on the personality of the child, the frequency and duration of home visits, and whether a strong parent-child relationship has been established and in place from the very early years. These are critical considerations that you ought to pray about and weigh very carefully before making up your minds.

That said, we should explain that most missionary boarding schools operate on a three-months-on/one-month-off schedule. That means that, if your children attend, they’ll only be at home with you for a total of three months out of the year. This isn’t much time for building strong parent-child relationships – though it’s only fair to add that we do know of cases where it has been done successfully, especially where the parental mindset is one of profound commitment to and investment in the lives of the children, and where the off-months are dedicated entirely to family-centered activities.

You should also be aware of the other alternatives that are available to you. Fifty years ago, missionary boarding school may have been your only option. Nowadays things aren’t quite so rigid. There are at least five other pathways open to missionary families. You need to weigh and balance the pros and cons of each one before moving ahead. Remember, every child is a unique individual, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all education. In every case all other factors have to be measured against the standard of what is best for this particular child. The options include:

  1. Homeschooling.
  2. Online schooling.
  3. International schools (schools established for the children of business people, diplomats, correspondents, and other expatriates living in a foreign country).
  4. Local national schools (probably the least attractive option, since your children would be facing all the pressures that go with being new students and minority foreigners in a school made up almost entirely of native-born kids).
  5. Mission agency schools in the field.

There is, of course, one final route you can take: If none of these options is capable of meeting your children’s unique individual needs, you can leave the mission field, come home for a while, and wait until they’ve finished their education before returning to fulfill your call.

If this last suggestion sounds shocking to you, we’d urge you to stop and give it some closer thought. There was a time in the history of Christian missions, not so very long ago, when everyone took it for granted that ministry comes first, family second. In the nineteenth century the attitude was, “You’re a missionary – God will take care of your children.” In the twentieth century it shifted to, “You’re a missionary – missionary caregivers will take care of your children.” In both cases the assumption was that, for parents, mission work automatically trumps family life.

We strongly disagree here at Focus on the Family. As we see it, your commitment to your children has to be your first concern during this season in your lives. When you made the decision to bring babies into the world, there’s a sense in which you also agreed to put your missionary calling on hold, at least until you can come up with a plan for blending the two in such a way that your children come out as the winners. Until they’re grown, they’re your number one ministry assignment. If you aren’t willing to stay home for their sake, at least temporarily, you may need to reevaluate your call and your priorities.

If you have additional questions or would like to discuss your concerns at greater length with a member of our staff, call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.


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