Why Do Missionary Kids Have Such Good Social Skills?

This post is premised around a single observation: missionary kids have better social skills than the rest of us.

Don’t worry, I have some half-baked theories on why this is true. But first, the mostly-true story of how I discovered this.

Mostly-true story

When I was twelve, my mom’s whole side of the family gathered around the shores of Lake Michigan for the Anderson family reunion.

It was the last evening, and I was playing in the lake with my brothers and cousins. Or at least, my brothers and cousins were playing, and I was floating around feeling self-conscious. Our second cousins—my mom’s cousins’ kids—were playing soccer on the beach, and I was sure they were staring at me.

This certainly wasn’t true. They were too busy with their game to notice me, and I should have just enjoyed myself in peace. But I was nearing that age when other peoples’ opinion of me was the most important thing in the world.

And I really wanted my second cousins to think I was cool.

There were seven of them. They were all boys, the sons of my great Uncle Will’s three sons. The youngest were my age, the oldest were in their late teens, and they were all cool.

And because they grew up in Venezuela, they were great at soccer. They were kicking and cutting and running along the sand. They shouted in a jumble of English and Spanish, laughing at inside jokes and slapping each other on the back. Blonde boys emerged from the jungle like a troop of young Tarzans.

My dad noticed me staring, and suggested I go over and ask to join. That was out of the question.

I had hardly ever touched a soccer ball, and knew zero Spanish jokes. Dad pressed, but I kept shaking my head. Then he nudged my back to start me walking over. I dug my heels in the sand and yelled “Stop!” This actually did make the second cousins look at me. I jerked away from my dad and tried to hide in the water.

If I was born a missionary kid, I stewed, this never would have happened.

Background

If you read my earlier post, you know I think the Hero Missionary is misused by both evangelicals and cynics. But for cynics, the myth leads to some wild theories about missionary kids.

Cynics imagine missionaries as self-styled saviors: zealots delusional enough to think some Bible verses will enlighten the starving masses into abandoning their own cultures and accepting American conservatism. Their children, therefore, must be cut from the same fundamentalist cloth1–segregated, brainwashed, and weird. The awkward kid stumbling back to America in ankle-length skirts, who isn’t sure what MTV is.

I’ve met a lot of missionary kids (or “MKs” to people in the know). From elementary school through high school, they were some of my best friends. My college was a popular MK landing spot. And of course, there were my cool second cousins.

On average, these MKs have better social skills than the rest of us. There was hardly a ankle-length skirt to be found.

And once we’re out of the realm of The Poisonwood Bible and Tim Tebow jokes, it’s easy to see why:

Half-baked Theories

As the MKs at my college liked to say, they’re “third culture kids.” Their family raised them according to their home culture, but they’re living in a second culture. This “third culture” that results is its own separate thing.

Living in the Third Culture teaches them social lessons:

  • They learn how to blend into different environments–often in areas where they have to pick up new social cues and expectations as they go.
  • To help their parents gain the trust of the locals, they have to be intentionally friendly and sociable.
  • When they come back to America–either on furlough or permanently–they have to reintegrate themselves into another culture they have little direct experience with. Once again, they learn to blend into another group while picking up the social cues and expectations as they go.

With that experience, it’s hard to avoid getting a high EQ2.

That’s also a reason why my missionary cousins were so cool and intimidating: because they had learned how to be cool in a myriad different South American contexts, being cool in an American context was simple. By the time we met on the shores of Lake Michigan, they were worlds cooler than me.

Of course, being cooler than me in middle school didn’t mean much…

Has anyone else noticed the MK social skill phenomenon? Any other explanations for it?

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1  And that cloth is used to make modest dresses for the native women.

2  For those who haven’t taken the same internet personality tests as me, EQ means “emotional quotient.”

Photo here

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