Raising Children in a Foreign Land—The Challenges and the Rewards
MILLIONS of people migrate in hopes of making a fresh start in a new land. Europe now hosts over 20 million immigrants, the United States is home to more than 26 million foreign-born inhabitants, while more than 21 percent of Australia’s total population was born overseas. Often, these immigrant families must struggle with a new language and must adjust to a new culture.
Frequently, children quickly learn the language of their new country and will start to think in the new language. For their parents it may take longer. As children grow up in a land foreign to their parents, language difficulties may create a communication gap that is not easily bridged.
Not only does the new language affect the way children think but the culture of the new country may also influence how they feel. Parents may find their children’s reactions hard to understand. Therefore, immigrant parents who are trying to raise their children in “the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah” face unique challenges.—Ephesians 6:4.
The Challenge of Reaching Both Mind and Heart
Christian parents have the desire and responsibility to teach their children the “pure language” of Bible truth. (Zephaniah 3:9) Yet, if children have only a limited knowledge of their parents’ language and if parents are unable to express themselves effectively in the language that their children have become accustomed to, how can the parents inculcate Jehovah’s law into their children’s hearts? (Deuteronomy 6:7) The children may understand the words their parents speak, but if what is being said does not reach the heart, the children may become strangers in their own home.
Pedro and Sandra moved to Australia from South America, and they face this challenge while raising their two teenage boys.* Pedro says: “When talking about spiritual matters, the heart and emotions are involved. You need to express deeper and more meaningful thoughts, so there is a need for a greater vocabulary.” Sandra adds: “If our children don’t have a comprehensive understanding of our mother tongue, then their spiritual life could suffer. They might lose the feeling for the truth, not grasping the principle behind what they are learning. Their spiritual discernment might be stunted, and their relationship with Jehovah could suffer.”
Gnanapirakasam and Helen migrated to Germany from Sri Lanka and now have two children. They agree: “We think it is very important that our children speak our mother tongue while learning German. It is important for them to be able to communicate with us about their emotions, to speak from heart to heart.”
Miguel and Carmen, who emigrated from Uruguay to Australia, say: “Parents in our situation must work harder. They must either learn the new language so well that they can comprehend and explain spiritual matters in that language or teach their children to master the parents’ language.”
A Family Decision
Fundamental to the spiritual health of any immigrant family is deciding which language the family will use to be “taught by Jehovah.” (Isaiah 54:13) If a congregation that speaks the family’s mother tongue is close by, the family may choose to support this congregation. On the other hand, they may choose to attend a congregation that speaks the dominant language of the country to which they have migrated. What factors will influence this decision?
Demetrios and Patroulla, who emigrated from Cyprus to England and raised five children there, explain what affected their decision: “Initially, our family attended the Greek-speaking congregation. While this greatly assisted us parents, it proved to be a hindrance to the spiritual development of our children. Although they had a basic understanding of the Greek language, they had difficulty with the finer points. This became evident in their rather slow spiritual development. As a family, we transferred to an English-speaking congregation, and the good results for our children were almost immediate. They have been strengthened spiritually. The decision to move was not an easy one, but in our case, it proved to be a wise one.”
The family still maintained a grasp of the parents’ mother tongue and reaped rich rewards. Their children comment: “Having a knowledge of more than one language is an asset. Although English is our first language, we have found that our knowledge of Greek has made possible strong and close family relationships, especially with our grandparents. It has also made us more sympathetic toward immigrants, and it gave us the confidence that we could learn another language. So when we grew older, our family moved to assist an Albanian-speaking congregation.”
Christopher and Margarita also moved from Cyprus to England, and they raised three children there. They chose to support the Greek-speaking congregation. Their son, Nikos, who now serves as an elder in a Greek-speaking congregation, recalls: “We were encouraged to join the newly formed Greek-speaking congregation. Our family viewed it as a theocratic assignment.”
Margarita observes: “When the two boys were seven and eight years of age, they joined the Theocratic Ministry School. As parents, we were somewhat concerned about their limited understanding of Greek. However, each assignment was a family project, and we spent many hours helping them to prepare their talks.”
Their daughter Joanna says: “I can remember Dad teaching us Greek by writing the alphabet on a blackboard at home, and we had to learn it thoroughly. Many people spend years studying a language, but with Mum and Dad helping us, we learned Greek without spending too much time on it.”
Some families will support a foreign-language congregation because the parents feel that to develop “spiritual comprehension” and to progress, they need to be taught in their mother tongue. (Colossians 1:9, 10; 1 Timothy 4:13, 15) Or the family may view their language skills as an asset to help other immigrants learn the truth.
On the other hand, a family may feel that it is in their best interests to attend a congregation where the dominant language of the country to which they have immigrated is spoken. (Philippians 2:4; 1 Timothy 3:5) After discussing the situation with the family, it is up to the family head prayerfully to make the decision. (Romans 14:4; 1 Corinthians 11:3; Philippians 4:6, 7) What suggestions might help these families?
Some Practical Suggestions
Pedro and Sandra, mentioned earlier, say: “We have a Spanish-only rule at home to make sure that our mother tongue is not lost. It is a hard rule to keep, since our boys know we understand English. But if we didn’t keep this rule, they might soon lose their comprehension of Spanish.”
Miguel and Carmen, also quoted earlier, recommend: “If parents conduct a regular family study and each day discuss the day’s text in the mother tongue, then the children will learn more than the basics of the language—they will learn to express spiritual ideas in that language.”
Miguel also suggests: “Make witnessing fun. Our territory covers a large section of a big city, and much time is spent traveling by car to locate people who speak our language. We use the time to play Bible games and to talk about important matters. I try to plan the witnessing trips so that we make several good return visits. Then, at the end of the day, the children have been involved in at least one meaningful conversation.”
Coping With Cultural Differences
God’s Word encourages youths: “Listen, my son, to the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother.” (Proverbs 1:8) Difficulties may arise, though, when a father’s standard of discipline and a mother’s “law” are influenced by a culture that is different from the one in which their children find themselves.
Of course, it is up to each family head to determine how he will preside over his own household, and he should not be unduly influenced by other families. (Galatians 6:4, 5) Still, good communication between parents and children may open the way to accepting new customs.
Many of the customs or practices prevalent in developed lands, however, are harmful to the spiritual health of Christians. Sexual immorality, greed, and rebellion are often promoted through popular music and entertainment. (Romans 1:26-32) Christian parents cannot afford to abdicate their responsibility to control their children’s choice of music and entertainment just because the parents have difficulty understanding the language. They must set firm guidelines. Yet, this may present a challenge.
Carmen says: “We often don’t understand the lyrics of the music our children listen to. The tune might sound all right, but if the words have double meanings or if there are slang expressions that are immoral, we would not know.” How have they coped with this situation? Miguel says: “We spend a lot of time teaching our children about the dangers of immoral music, and we try to help them choose music that would be approved by Jehovah.” Yes, vigilance and reasonableness are needed to cope with cultural differences.—Deuteronomy 11:18, 19; Philippians 4:5.
Reaping the Rewards
Raising children in a foreign land requires extra time and effort. There is no question about that. But both parents and children can reap additional rewards for their effort.
Azzam and his wife, Sara, emigrated from Turkey to Germany, where they raised three children. Their oldest son now serves at the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Selters, Germany. Azzam says: “A great benefit to the children is that they can develop qualities that are strengths in both cultures.”
Antonio and Lutonadio moved from Angola to Germany and are raising nine children there. The family speaks Lingala, French, and German. Antonio says: “The ability to speak different languages helps our family to witness to people from many countries. This brings us great pleasure indeed.”
Two children of a Japanese couple who moved to England feel that it is to their great advantage to know both Japanese and English. The young ones say: “Knowing two languages helped us to obtain employment. We have benefited from the large English-speaking conventions. At the same time, we have the privilege of serving in the Japanese-speaking congregation, where there is a great need.”
You Can Succeed
Raising children while living among people who do not share one’s cultural values is a challenge that God’s servants have faced since Bible times. Moses’ parents succeeded, though he was raised in Egypt. (Exodus 2:9, 10) A number of the exiled Jews in Babylon raised children who were willing to return to Jerusalem to reestablish true worship.—Ezra 2:1, 2, 64-70.
Likewise today, Christian parents can succeed. They may have the reward of hearing their children say what one couple heard from their children: “We are a very close family because of the loving care of Dad and Mom, with whom we have always enjoyed good communication. We are happy to be a part of the earth-wide family that is serving Jehovah.”
Some names have been changed.
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Speaking only in your mother tongue at home gives your children a basic knowledge of that language
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A common language preserves the bond between grandparents and grandchildren
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Studying the Bible with your children develops their “spiritual comprehension”