Building a RAFT

Safely Crossing the Chaotic Sea of Change

By Sara Eggman

As missionaries, our families experience change and transition at an exponential rate daily. Sometimes, it can feel like we are in a turbulent ocean attacked by rolling sets of waves. Just as we overcome one, there is another crashing down on us. Our love and commitment to serve God and the nations compel us to keep fighting and push through! This process of changing, adjusting, and adapting can be tiresome and impacts our entire family. As parents, we can feel at a complete loss as to how to help our kids when we ourselves are struggling to catch our bearings and keep our head above water. We need a RAFT that will keep our entire family fastened together and afloat as we encounter the chaos change and transition can bring. We all want to see our families adapting and adjusting to change in a positive way.

Leaving right is the key to entering right. As parents, we tend to put tons of forethought into how to help our Missionary Kids (MKs) enter right. We want to find a good and safe living situation, a schooling situation they will thrive in, great friends, a good church home, and, of course, a healthy team. This is all crucial, but some of the most important steps to helping our kids enter their new place correctly take place in the leaving of a previous place.  In order to get a healthy clean start kids need healthy closure.  In David C. Pollock’s Book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, he shares how building a “raft” is an extremely vital and helpful process that empowers our kids to have healthy closure and transition well. RAFT is an acronym that stands for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells and Think destination.

Reconciliation- The training GTN provides us on biblical conflict resolution is outstanding, and we can be intentional about guiding our kids through healthy conflict resolution. It is easy to ignore tensions in a relationship when we know we are leaving and the relationship will not continue as before, but the difficulties don’t go away after we move. Instead, when we leave, we carry along the mental and emotional baggage of those unresolved problems with us. Pollock lists three reasons why leaving with unresolved conflict is a poor choice. The first is that bitterness is never healthy for anyone. The second is that the old discontentment interferes with starting new relationships, and the third is that if we ever move back or meet up with these people again elsewhere, it will be much harder to resolve the issues then. Reconciliation includes the need to both forgive and be forgiven. We can help our children by talking with them about conflict resolution, and then by observing them with their friends and in their community to help them resolve any conflict they may have with a friend, classmate, or anyone else important to them.

Affirmation- An important part of closure is to let others know we respect them and appreciate them. The following are some practical ways we can help our kids do that: we can help our kids identify their special teacher or other favorite adults in the community, and help them create something tangible to share with that person like a card, a baked good, or a gift; we can encourage our kids to think of gifts they might like to give various friends, such as an item that has meaning to both them and the friend like toys, books, or pictures; as a family invite other families with close ties over or to go out to dinner and share stories of shared adventures, challenges, and laughter; when leaving our family members behind, we can help our kids write cards and notes of specific reasons why they appreciate being that person’s grandchild, niece, nephew, etc. There are countless other ways we can help our kids show affirmation. Acknowledging others helps our kids as well as those they affirm. In expressing what a person has meant to them they are reminded of what they have gained from living in that place. Part of good closure is acknowledging our blessings, both to rejoice in them and to properly mourn their passing. Another way to affirm relationships is to plan how our kids will communicate in the future with the people that are important to them. Is writing letters a possibility or is something more digital like Skype or Facetime more appropriate? This will depend largely on where you live and what is accessible.

Farewells- It is imperative to make lists as a family and give our kids time to think things through themselves as they decide whom or what to include in their farewells. As parents, we can be surprised to learn who and what are, or are not, important to our kids. Noting “lasts” can also help. This involves simply noting and stating that, “This will be the last time… we are going to be at the beach, or the last time we will be going to our favorite restaurant.” Our kids will need reminders when it is actually the last time they will be seeing their friends and relatives. It’s ideal to schedule times for these farewells weeks and days before leaving. Kids need time to say farewell to people, places, pets and possessions.

Think Destination- Where are we going next? Practical things like maps, pictures of the next house or school, details of the upcoming itinerary, and places that we may be visiting along the way are all helpful tools we can use to help our kids think and plan ahead. Neglecting to think through some of these issues will mean the adjustment for all members of our family may be rockier than it needs to be once we arrive at the new destination.

Every member of the family needs to build their RAFT during any leaving process. For example, the transition may take place as one child is graduating high school, but while another child is still young. BOTH kids need the same type of closure. Of course, building a RAFT will look different for every family member, and it will take time and effort to make it age appropriate. It will take a lot of intentionality on our part, but our kids are worth it! The amount of reduced stress and complications, as well as the benefits in transitioning well, make the initial time and effort much more than worth it.  

Six months ago, our family moved from Honduras to Texas. We as a family followed the RAFT principles listed above as we prepared to leave Latin America, our home of 6 years. I was amazed as I personally witnessed my 4-year-old son receiving healthy closure. He chose to give away his most prized possession, his bike, to his good 3-year-old friend. He donated the majority of his toys to his pre-school class at church. He was relieved to know his swing set was going to be used by kids at an orphanage, and he left his beloved pet dog with his 5-year-old best friend. We have been surprised and blessed to hear our son say things like, “I am so glad my toys won’t be lonely. All my friends at church are playing with them.”, “I sure miss my bike, but I am glad Aaron is taking good care of it.” and “I am so happy the kids at the orphanage have my playground.” Another thing we did was give our son complete control over one large suitcase and let him choose which of his belongings he wanted to fill it with. He looked at all his things and chose what was important to him. We were so surprised to see so many flashy toys stay and so many simple things like rock and sea shell collections go. We have found him crying and desperate to return to his beloved Honduras many times now. A Facetime call or sending video messages back and forth with his friends has helped so much. He knows that he can’t see or play with them every day anymore, but they are still a part of his life and not gone forever. Even his beloved pet Facetimes with him on occasion! It takes a lot of intentionality on our part to help our kids build RAFTs, but it is so worth it! There will be challenges and grief experienced in every change and transition, but by building a RAFT we can prevent problems of unresolved grief later on.

*NOTE: There is so much more great information on this topic in greater detail in the book Third Culture Kids by Pollock where the majority of this article came from. It has so many more ideas and suggestions on how to help your kids build a RAFT and more on transition.