Parents, why be a helicopter when you can be a launch pad?
November 2012

By Anna McShane — When Jack and Sarah* went to Taiwan with their little daughter, Sarah’s parents went along. Not in body, but in every other way they could.

With a need-to-know desire for every detail in Sarah and Jack’s life, they called, they wrote, they came to visit. Then, when Jack’s co-worker, a local pastor, helped them choose a name for their daughter, Sarah’s mom went into action. She talked to the only woman she knew from that part of the world. Soon Sarah was informed they’d picked a bad name! The fact that Mama’s neighbor, an unbeliever, was Cantonese while Jack and Sarah were learning Mandarin was ignored. Mama knew better than the local pastor!

Eventually, to keep family peace, Jack and Sarah chose another name for their daughter, but it was the beginning of the end. Sarah’s parents were so deeply entwined in their daughter’s life that they simply could not handle her living abroad.

There are three kinds of missionary parents: Helicopter, Kite, and Launch Pad. Sarah’s were classic helicopters.

Helicopter parents

Helicopter parents, a term used by colleges, are parents who hover so closely over their adult children that the new missionaries have difficulty connecting with their adopted language and culture. Technology makes it easy. Email, internet phone calls, inexpensive airfare, Skype or FaceTime, international texting or other messaging apps. It’s like they never left! But “never left” is bad news for new missionaries learning to minister cross-culturally.

Kite parents

Kite parents set their kids loose with their blessing, but there’s a long string attached. Parents can yank it when they feel too disengaged from their children and grandchildren. It’s subtle. Comments like, “We praise God you are serving him but we do wish you were closer,” heap guilt on new missionaries.

Launch pad parents

Launch pad parents believe that God called them to raise missionaries and blast them off to impact a lost world. They don’t love their children and grandchildren any less, but they feel privileged to be the “Houston” support staff.

One woman wrote of her mom, “My mom’s letters were the link that helped keep me connected with folks at home. She worked until she was 68 so she could support me. She faithfully prayed for ‘my people’ and sometimes shed her own tears when one of my friends died because she had come to know them through our correspondence.”

Another woman wrote that her parents were “deeply involved without demands.” Half a world from each other, they wrote often and came to visit. When the grandchildren went back to the USA, the grandparents continued a nurturing relationship with them despite the fact they had grown up so far apart.

Was this because technology wasn’t as easy as today? No, this missionary says. “My parents set boundaries. Today many Christian parents have had excellent teaching on parenting but some Christian families are very ‘tight’ and stick closer together geographically and emotionally than they did even a generation ago. I don’t know that it’s intentional on the part of parents, but I think some Christian parents discourage their kids from looking at ‘the other side of the world’ as a viable career option.”

How can you be a Launch Pad parent? Let your children “fly” with the Lord. Pray fervently for them and the people they serve. Love deeply and communicate both the good and the bad well — it’s equally frustrating for missionaries to be shielded from bad news. They need to know when folks at home are struggling so they can pray too! Yes, use the new technology to see their faces and hear their voices. Yes, go visit them. But respect them as adults adjusting to a new job. Wait till your missionary children are well established in language and culture before descending.

Meanwhile, keep the home fires of prayer, logistical and moral support burning between their visits to you.

We appreciate the sacrifices that families make when their loved ones serve as missionaries. Prayer can help bridge the gap. Download a free bookmark with daily themes to help you pray for your missionary family members. 


*not their real names


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Anna McShane
Anna McShane's long career in missions included living in the Philippines and serving in other parts of Asia.