Just four days after my family moved to Nairobi, Kenya, I was ready to jump on a plane back to California with my young son.
I spent the day with him at his new preschool, attended almost entirely by local children. My introverted and cautious child behaved exactly as I expected. He clung to me, refused to participate in activities, and looked terrified whenever someone spoke to him. When his teachers finally pried him off of me and kicked me out of the classroom, I could hear his wails from the other side of the school.
Later that day, I lay down in the fetal position and decided I was a horrible mother. What had my husband and I been thinking, asking a three-year-old to simultaneously adjust to a new country, culture, and school?
Over my son’s protests and my own fears, I took him to school again the following day. And the next. When I dropped him off on the third day, he said goodbye to me with a smile and ran off to find his new friends.
As many other new parents have experienced, I was stunned by the quick adaptability of my child. I was still struggling mightily to adjust to life in Kenya, but my pint-sized offspring had already hit his stride on a new continent. Perhaps coming here hadn’t been such a bad parenting decision after all.
When I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my parents sheltered me as best they could. They carefully shuttled me from school to home to church and back again. We stayed in communities they knew, with activities—such as Cantonese-language school and church fellowship meetings—they were familiar with.
As immigrants in a foreign land, my parents wanted to protect me from anything that might cause me harm. But the message I internalized was that the world was a scary place. I grew up believing I couldn’t handle the different and the unfamiliar; avoidance was my best option.
When, later on in life, I found myself in new environments—a secular liberal arts university, low-income neighborhoods, ethnically diverse workplaces, foreign countries—I realized how poorly equipped I was to adapt. All that sheltering had not prepared me for the challenges of adulthood in these new contexts.
Recent psychology research has demonstrated how stress can be good for us. Stretching ourselves beyond what we’re comfortable with actually builds resilience and self-confidence. We’re tested in new ways and find that we are okay, that we can do more than we realized.
As Christians, challenges help us discover that God is more present and faithful than we previously grasped. Our trust in him grows when we put ourselves in situations that force us to depend on him. It’s not always easy to recognize this when I’m in the midst of hardship. But God has shown up so many times when I’ve been in extremely stressful situations that I now have a long record of his mercies and his provision to encourage me when I feel overwhelmed.
The younger we are when our circumstances stretch and shape us, the better off we may be. Children who experience tolerable levels of distress develop brains that are better at managing fear, improving impulse control, and increasing positive motivation. While parents may be tempted to put off overseas living or other adventures while their children are elementary-school-aged or younger, there are good reasons not to wait if the opportunity presents itself.
There’s an important distinction between trauma and stress. Children who are victims of abuse, neglect, and severe poverty do not benefit from their suffering. But allowing our kids to be pushed in their everyday lives, beyond even what we as parents are comfortable with, gives them the opportunity to gain new tools, skills, and levels of fortitude.
While the desire to protect our children from distress is a positive thing, it’s possible to shelter them so much that we do them a disservice. In the bestseller The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, clinician and educator Madeline Levine explains how children who grow up in privileged homes, where they are well protected and challenged only in their academic and athletic endeavors, often struggle when they enter adolescence and young adulthood.
“While many of these teens are verbal and psychologically aware, they don’t seem to know themselves very well,” Levine writes. “They lack practical skills for navigating out in the world; they can be easily frustrated or impulsive; and they have trouble anticipating the consequences of their actions.”
When faced with a trial—academic or professional failure, relationship troubles, or lack of meaning and purpose—these young people can slide quickly into anxiety, depression, or self-harm.
Jesus modeled how to intentionally place ourselves in unfamiliar and challenging contexts, regularly traveling into hostile territory and interacting with people from vastly different backgrounds.
He sent out his disciples to preach the gospel with this stark warning: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard…” (Matt. 10:16–17). There is no question that he loved his followers dearly, and yet he knowingly sent them into danger and guaranteed them hardship and suffering. He knew the courage, strength, and faith that such experiences would provide them, preparing them for even greater ministry after his ascension to heaven.
In the nearly four months since we moved to Kenya, my son’s maturity and self-confidence have grown in leaps and bounds. The same little boy who used to hide behind me every time someone said hello to him recently gave a short speech about his career ambitions (to be a soccer player) in front of a group of 60-plus adults.
Even more importantly, my son recognizes that almost everyone here is different from him, but they are not to be feared or avoided. His teachers, his classmates, the colleagues in his dad’s office, and our fellow worshipers in church all have brown skin and speak with different accents. But they are his friends and his neighbors, people he trusts and enjoys being with.
Our children will experience hardship no matter how hard we try to protect them. They will encounter people who are very different from them no matter the communities we try to keep them in. So while they’re still young, and while we as parents can still offer guidance, support, and a safety net, why shouldn’t we give them the opportunity to be in environments that stretch them?
As a preschooler, my son has already experienced many of the daily realities of the developing world. We have regular power outages in our home; hot water does not come instantly from the tap; our favorite foods regularly disappear from grocery store shelves for weeks at a time. My husband and I, as adults who grew up in the US, feel burdened by these inconveniences. Our child takes them all in stride, excited to use a solar light, turn on the water heater, or try a new food item.
I know that living overseas is not an option for every family. But we can each choose to bring our children to churches and neighborhoods that expose them to new people and new cultures. We can befriend others that are different from us and take our children with us when we serve those in need.
Such experiences will shape the adults they become. By adolescence they will have already learned that God is faithful and they need not fear the world or the people in it. They can live with courage, emboldened by the experiences they have already had, wherever they end up going.