This post originally appeared on the Assist News website in February 2015.
We are on our way back to Ukraine after a two-month furlough in the United States. Before having kids, we usually only spent a month at a time in the U.S., but we would travel there every other year, and sometimes more frequently when important family events required it. Since having kids, however, we have settled into a schedule of visiting for two months once every three years.
Scheduling our furloughs three years apart allows us to focus on our ministry in Ukraine without too many interruptions. At the same time, these furloughs are frequent enough to give us regular opportunities to gain valuable perspective on the work we’re doing and hone our vision in all areas, from church planting, to discipleship, to marriage, to parenting. The latter especially interests me, since most of what I do from day to day revolves around our four young children, and honestly, sometimes it all feels overwhelming.
We’re in an unusual position as we navigate the joys and pitfalls of raising third-culture kids, children who grow up in a culture outside their parents’ home culture. We know a few other American families with kids in Ukraine, but most of our friends are Ukrainian. While many of the issues we face with our kids are the same, there are differences based on the fact that the language of our home is mostly English, and the culture of our family is predominantly American. So from time to time, it can be helpful to talk to other American moms and and learn things like the best educational children’s shows or whether the newest Bible story book is worth purchasing or not. This furlough provided plenty of opportunities for exchanges like this.
One topic that came up frequently was homeschooling. I was asked the same question numerous times. I say it was a question, but the way it was delivered usually made it sound more like a foregone conclusion. “Do you homeschool?” as in, I already know you do, but I’m just asking to make small talk. I think I surprised more than one person when I answered in the negative.
The unspoken assumption that we must be homeschooling our kids made me feel a little defensive, as if I needed to justify why we have chosen to send our kids to Ukrainian public school. We have no idea what the future holds, and we certainly are open to the idea of homeschool. However, despite the fact that we know our kids may face serious challenges in the Ukrainian public school environment, we still believe that it is the best place for them at this point.
The first and primary reason we chose the public school route was for the sake of the language. Ukrainians often ask us why we don’t speak Ukrainian at home. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is because we want our kids to be able to speak English! But we also want them to be able to speak fluent Ukrainian (and Russian too, if that opportunity presents itself). Since they won’t be learning these languages at home, we had to find another option.
Children are the world’s best language learners. Up until a certain age, they have the unique ability to learn any number of languages with mother-tongue fluency, and they do it seemingly effortlessly, simply by being exposed. However, we found that casual exposure like playdates at friends’ homes, Sunday school at church, or having Ukrainian-speaking babysitters was not enough. Even regular Ukrainian lessons did not do the trick. What they needed was daily immersion, and Ukrainian public school was the obvious answer.
We sent our eldest son to kindergarten for a year before he started first grade. Being a contemplative type, he didn’t say a word to his teachers or classmates for months, although he showed all the signs of understanding what they said to him. However, by the time he started first grade, he was carrying on conversations, and now in second grade, he chatters happily with his friends in an authentic Western Ukrainian accent.
Our second son has had a semester of kindergarten so far. Our most talkative child, he was not going to allow a little thing like a language barrier to get in his way, and he is already astonishingly fluent. Sometimes I even hear him teaching Ukrainian words and phrases to his 4-year-old brother, and I have no doubt that before long he would be able to pass himself off as a Ukrainian, if it weren’t for the slightly Asian slant to his eyes.
If language were the only reason we had chosen public school for our kids, one could argue that it has already nearly achieved its purpose. However, we want more for our children than simple language acquisition. We believe that God has called us to live overseas indefinitely. We don’t know if that will always mean Ukraine, but we’re pretty sure it won’t mean an American context. That being so, we think our kids will be better off if they can learn to think and operate within the framework of another culture. Even if we don’t stay in Ukraine, this ability will make it easier for them to adapt to the norms and expectations of a new country, should God lead us elsewhere.
Although my husband and I understand Ukrainian culture and have learned to function well within it, we can’t impart an insider’s view to our children, so once again, public school is the obvious answer. Where else could they not only learn the local fairy tales and folk songs, but also the insider’s perspective on the themes and sentiments of each? Where else could they come to comprehend the depth of feeling behind the Ukrainian national anthem? Where else could they get a partial grasp on what it is like to grow up Ukrainian?
Although our children will never be fully Ukrainian, we have reason to believe that their experiences in Ukrainian public school will give them common ground with anyone of their generation in this part of the world. My husband was a missionary kid, and he and all eight of his siblings attended Ukrainian public school. Some even graduated from the system and went on to get degrees from Ukrainian colleges and universities. Today a number of them are missionaries to former Soviet countries, and each of them attests to the advantage they have in being able to relate to the locals in the countries where they are serving because of their experiences in Ukrainian public school.
Beyond the merely practical aspects of language acquisition and cultural understanding, we also hope that the challenges posed by being in the less sheltered environment of public school will build character in our children and teach them to rely on Jesus from an early age. While no parent wants to see their kids struggle, I would much rather allow them to encounter difficulties and temptations early on, while their father and I are still nearby to provide support and counsel, than shield them from all danger only to see them laid flat by the first thing to come along after they leave home.
The final piece to the puzzle of why we’ve chosen public school for our children is because of the connections it allows our family to make with the people around us. We’re career missionaries, so it’s essentially our job to make these sorts of connections. Don’t get me wrong; I believe every follower of Jesus is called to this, but my point is that even though my husband’s and my specific calling makes us extremely focused on this goal, we still found it a difficult task prior to having kids. We’d smile and try to strike up conversations in the elevator, we’d bake cookies and take them to our neighbors, we’d even do street evangelism, but it all had limited success. But once we had kids, it was the easiest and most natural thing to befriend other parents.
Now that two of our children are attending kindergarten and school, we have even more opportunities to build meaningful relationships with the people in our community, and we’re excited about the possibilities! Even our kids are starting to catch the vision, which is yet another reason to have them in public school right now.
When my husband and his siblings were attending school in Kyiv, Ukraine, it was largely through their friendships with other students that the church their parents started there came into being. It truly was a whole-family effort, where God had placed each member where he or she could be effective for the ministry. We hope to see God do something similar through our family as we seek to live for His glory in every aspect of our lives here in Western Ukraine.
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