Monday, March 25, 2013

Going fishing...

...for answers ~ 

Last time I wrote, I shared a list of "intangibles:" questions that I've been using to help bring closure to this term and to figure out if there are any things we need to focus on "finishing" well these last few months, in that intangible sense of the world. They are those items that cannot easily be put on a checklist and then crossed through once accomplished; they are still subjects that need to be addressed - by my husband and I, but also by our children.

  • "What has/have been the high point/s of this term?"
  • “What were some of the most difficult experiences?”
  • "Where do I feel I've succeeded?"
  • "How do I feel I have failed? Is this failure due to sin?"
  • “How have I spied God working in my life personally, professionally and spiritually?”
  • “What did I hope to achieve - long term goals and short term objectives?" 
  • "Did I accomplish them, have I not yet achieved them, or are they currently in progress?”
  • “The activities I have been involved with during this term - would I describe them as satisfying or fulfilling? Are they consistent with my reasons for becoming a missionary in this particular place? Am I doing what I told our partners back in my home country I'd be doing? Do my activities apply to my specific responsibilities?"
  • “What did/is God accomplish/ing through me?"
  • “What have been the greatest roadblocks and frustrations I have encountered?"
  • “Are there unresolved on-field relationships (expat and local colleagues) I need to reconcile before leaving?”
  • "What goodbyes need to be said, how do they need to be said and what memories do I hope to make in the time remaining? How do I say goodbye well?"
And so we've been talking - the two of us, as a family and then taking opportunities to talk with our kids individually, to listen and to really hear what they are saying.

There has been a key idea come clearly to the forefront in these conversations. Each one of us (with maybe the exception of the littlest two) began this term in Niger with certain expectations and those expectations impact our perspectives and evaluations of what has or has not happened throughout the course of this term. There are many types of expectations, and the following is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a jumping off point to encouraging further reflection.

Some expectations are ones we set for ourselves. I knew this term I wanted to help the local international school for TCKs initiate and establish a program/department to help address the needs of students with special needs. A significant amount of my time and attention has been directed towards that goal. 

Other expectations we control very minimally, if at all. One year into this term, our mission organization back in the States began the process of dissolution (the nonprofit's option - similar, but different - to filing for bankruptcy). This has left a pile of "externally determined" expectations sitting on the shoulders of my husband as field director, some of which he's been able to meet while others are still in process and their completion will most likely have to be handled by whoever steps into his role when we fly out in June.

There are those expectations we've intentionally or unintentionally laid upon the shoulders of others. Intentionally, my husband and I asked our older children to help with the Sunday School program at our local church. Unintentionally, this developed into the two of them actually coordinating and leading the program - and a lot more responsibility for them to carry than we had envisioned in that initial expectation.

There are also those expectations that are assumed - and often unspoken, never very clearly spelled out or "habits" that no longer need spelling out, but that are, nonetheless, important. Often that happens within the family unit (i.e. I expect my children to launder, hang out, fold and put away their laundry without specifying all of those steps every single load - often times I'll simply ask who needs the laundry machine next and they know what is expected), but it can also occur where cultures collide and one person assumes something is automatic while the other remains clueless.

When I expect something good to happen, I look forward to it and call it hope. The opposite is expecting something bad, resulting in feelings of anxiety, avoidance and dread. And, of course, there is the whole continuum in between those two expectation extremes. High expectations can produce great effort and hard work in the attempts to achieve them. Or they can result in a greater sense of failure and worthlessness when a goal is not achieved. Low expectations sometimes feels safer, but they also minimize any sense of accomplishment after achieving an objective.

I've been using this idea of expectations to help myself and my children process some of these intangible questions. 

How does this work? 

I've been having a conversation with my first grader about her experience of first grade. She has no problem saying that she wasn't excited about starting back to school this year except for four things: 1) She knew she liked her teacher because one of our other daughters had had her the year before - she thought her teacher seemed nice and was really pretty and so that was cool, 2) She is an extrovert and loves making friends and being with other people, 3) She also wanted to learn to become an independent reader but wasn't sure if she'd rather learn at home or at school, and 4) She new first grade came before second grade and all of her older friends have loved second grade. When it comes to seeing how well her expectations have been fulfilled, she has expressed several things. 
  • Her teacher has been really nice and she still thinks she is pretty so she likes being in her class every day. That expectation has been met. 
  • In her class, she met a little Australian gal who could be her identical twin personality wise, and the two have a blast together, sometimes too much. Again, that was a hope beautifully realized. 
  • She has learned to read this year. Although she isn't presently reading at the level her teachers would like to see, my girl feels good about how she is doing. She is reading, she likes to read, her little sister likes to sit and let her read stories to her and she can see that she keeps getting better.
  • The last key school expectation is that she will complete first grade ready to move to super fun second grade - which is clearly still a work in progress.
Thus, in my first grader's eyes, first grade is well on its way to being a complete success, in every way... 

What about a similar conversation with an older child? Our oldest daughter has been taking horseback riding lessons on and off for the last several years - including until just recently this year. Because of the institution where she believes she wants to start her post-secondary education, she returned to Niger planning to take these lessons to better prepare her for this school. We weren't on the ball the first year back, however, and she missed the enrollment period and was only able to ride sporadically. Last year and up until a month ago, she was taking lessons, usually 1 per week. But she came to us and said that she was tired and wanted to stop last month and we respected her decision. Ultimately, it came down to a few things: 1) She wasn't progressing as quickly as the other kids in her group because we can only afford for her to go once a week; thus she felt she had plateau-ed and was tired of feeling like she never measured up, 2) Her friends are important to her and she didn't really feel like she had friends at her lessons - her classmates all attend a different school and the only time their paths crossed was during that class. She would enjoy talking with the girls, but it never went beyond that casual conversation and it wasn't satisfying her need for someone to share the whole experience with her. 3) She is beginning a period of intense examinations for 9th and 10th graders that occur each year and she was already feeling tired. She felt that to do well, she would need more rest and riding was the thing she was most willing to remove from her schedule. Thus, that block of time every Thursday was not meeting her expectations and was, in some way, conflicting and preventing her from working towards other goals and expectations she had set - so stepping back for a time seemed to be a wise decision. 

Clearly, we agreed. Recently, I asked her about her choice. She has discovered that she does miss those lessons and the opportunity to interact with the horses and is looking forward to having that opportunity again someday in the future. She didn't expect to miss the class, but she is... but this whole experience has cemented (at least at this moment - she still has 2 years to go) her original thoughts in regard to future schooling.

Thus, building a discussion centered on expectations is helping me to walk my children through those intangibles. We're fishing for the answers to those questions with the expectation that they can reach a good point of closure as we finish, maybe permanently, our family's time in Niger.


How about you? How would you approach helping your children work through the types of questions listed at the beginning of this article?



  1. I always love your insights, Richelle! I wish Niger were a bit closer to Russia so we could sit down and chat in person someday! =) These are great and timely questions for our family. Our closest friends and teammates who have been with us for our entire time overseas, and whose children are best friends with ours are about to move back to the States next month. This comes with other major transitions too as our family will now be the only Americans on our team and my husband's role will also be changing. Oh, and we're having a baby any day now too... lots of change. We've been trying to talk with our kids about some of these changes, especially with their friends leaving. Your thoughts are really helpful as far as helping them reflect a bit (though on a simpler level as my kids are younger) and also to process through some future expectations as our life changes. Thank you for sharing what you've been going through in order to encourage us!

    1. Thanks, Ashley. I'd love that chat as well. :-)

      Clearly, using expectations isn't the only tool to help our kids talk about experiences and things that are going on. But using some sort of a ramp or vehicle to get them going without sounding too therapeutic or artificial does seem to help with our crew. and it can easily be adapted depending on their age/maturity... "did that work out the way you wanted it to?" or "is that what you thought might happen when you decided to..." are ways to ask younger kids what they expected that they'll most often get and be able to answer, in my experience.

      glad you find encouragement in these words.