Teenagers in the Village

By Pam Gentry1

We heard the stories about families who tried to raise their teenagers in the village where they worked. The stories usually had a negative outcome. I imagine you have heard some of them too.2

Family History

When our family went overseas more than 15 years ago to do translation work in an extremely remote allocation, we knew we would be facing “the teenager question” before long. Our children were ages 10, 8, 6, and 3 when we arrived on the field. We had only three years before they would be entering “the danger zone” in terms of their age.

Due to the remoteness of our allocation and the lack of a support system within the country, we knew we would have to be our children’s teachers. Having a personal commitment to keep our family together and raise our children, we decided to take one year at a time. We would teach them as long as we could.

Travel to and from our allocation was undependable, so we spent the majority of each year living in the village. This is where our children grew up. During the morning, they did household chores and school work. Most of the afternoon they were free to be off with their friends. I rarely saw three of the four until dark. They hunted, fished, played, and worked with their village friends. Sometimes they were gone during meals as well, but I always knew they were being fed by someone.

As the children grew older, their interests and activities paralleled those of their village peers. Our son wanted to stay out all night at the beach with his friends; I often saw him with his age mates helping to unload the cargo ships that periodically came to our village. Our daughter joined the church choir, played volleyball, danced with her friends on the beach, and helped their mothers carry water from the well. Our children lived a dual life, part American and part village.

In that dual life we had plenty of opportunity to face the usual tensions of having teenagers in the house. We set curfew hours for them and were confronted with their vocal disagreement to having limits placed on their freedom. At times we struggled to get them to do their schoolwork and household chores. There were also power struggles over freedom of movement outside the village.

We talked a lot about peer pressure and negative influences in the village. Our son had more than ample opportunity to get drunk, gamble, and smoke with his friends. He consistently chose to resist those temptations. Our daughter’s integrity was tested repeatedly by her sometimes frivolous relationships with her girlfriends. Premarital sex and children born out of wedlock are common in the village where we work.

It seems to us that life with teenagers in the village is not too unlike the lives of our American contemporaries living stateside. The only real differences are that we do not have the pervasive influence of the media and we are with our kids a lot more because of home teaching.

We have been able to keep our oldest child in the village with us through the end of tenth grade. When he was 17, we decided it was time for him to reenter American culture on a long-term basis so he could find where he fits in while he is still developing his identity as a young man. We planned a year of furlough to be with him during his adjustment back into life in the U.S.

He will now stay in the U.S. with family friends for his senior year while we return to the village. Upon graduation he will return to our allocation for a visit. At that time,
we hope the language project will be completed so we can return to the U.S. and help him into his next stage of life: post-secondary school.

Our sixteen-year-old daughter has decided to stay in the U.S. with her brother. Realizing she is at a crucial age where peer relationships are so important, we gave her the choice of whether to return to our allocation with us at the end of furlough. She had been extremely well connected in the village and made a painful leave taking when we left.

However, she has now become extremely well connected in our home town in the U.S. Though her decision to stay has not been made easily, she has been completely involved in making it, and we are satisfied she feels ownership for it. She is not being forced into something she is uncomfortable with.

Leaving two of our four children in the United States while we return to the field for a year is a painful prospect. However, I imagine sending your children to boarding school for their full secondary education is equally painful. We think we have found the solution to our family’s educational needs that best meets the personal goals for our family as well as the unique situation in which we work. We hope God will honor our desire to follow his leading.

Keeping Teens in the Village

We feel a number of factors have enabled us to keep our children living with us in the village well into their teenage years. These factors include the social structure of the culture we work in, our children’s temperaments, and our family’s communication style.

Social Structure

Separation of the sexes is firmly held in the village where we live, and it is unusual for boys or girls to walk around alone. Thus we could encourage our kids to stay in groups all the time; there is safety in numbers.

There are only a few socially acceptable forums for teenage boys and girls to mix. These opportunities are during church activities, group work assignments, sports activities, and dancing on the beach where boys dance with boys and girls dance with girls. These forums provide opportunities for our teenagers to interact socially with members of the opposite sex, but in a context where they will not be compromised.

The acceptable age for marriage among the people we work with is in the early 20s. This means our teenagers had plenty of peers to relate to who were still single and there was little pressure on them to get married.

Children’s Temperaments

Though our children are clearly independent-minded, they are basically well-behaved kids. We have not had extraordinary problems of rebellion with them. Had any of our children begun “acting out” on a regular basis, we would have reconsidered the wisdom of staying in the village.

The degree of commitment to their faith varies from child to child, but they each basically wish to honor God with their lives. This has certainly been a key factor in our ability to give them freedom in the village. We also carefully monitored our teenagers’ attitudes toward the opposite sex. If at any time coed social interaction had become a focal interest for them, we would have become wary.

Communication Style

I seriously doubt that my husband and I always succeeded in listening to our kids; however, we did make the effort to be aware of what was going on in their worlds. We had a family habit of sitting around the breakfast table to discuss village happenings. This helped us to stay tuned on a daily basis to the issues our teens faced.

Included in open communication must be a willingness to compromise and be flexible. This was perhaps our greatest challenge as parents. When our sense of “the way things ought to be” conflicted with realities of village life faced by our children, we often had to make compromises.

One compromise came when our son wanted to stay out with his friends until two or three o’clock in the morning. This is a common practice for everyone in the village because the night air is cool and one can always catch up on sleep during the hotter hours of the day.

However, we were uncomfortable with our son developing the habit of being out so late at night. In addition, he had school work to complete each day that required him to be alert and focused.

After listening to him, considering the realities of village life, and evaluating what was truly important to us, we realized the bottom line was twofold: We wanted him in the house at a somewhat reasonable hour, and he needed to complete a certain amount of school work each 24-hour period.

The compromise we settled on was for him to be in by 11:00 each evening and to keep on track with his school work and chores. As long as he did that, he would have freedom in the village at night. Since he did not want to miss any opportunity to be with his peers, he chose to do his school work from 11:00 at night until three or four in the morning while the village was quiet and the air was cool. Then he slept till 6:00 a.m. when we had breakfast, did his chores, and went to hang out with his friends during the rest of the day. Invariably they would crash under a coconut tree somewhere before the day was done.

Additional Issues

In addition to the social structure of the culture someone works in, their children’s temperaments, and their family’s communication style, we have found additional issues a family might consider as they evaluate the wisdom of keeping their teenager in the village.


As our children entered the teenage years, I was taken by surprise. I had been coasting along on the parenting skills I had developed during their early childhood and suddenly found I needed to do some fine tuning. During their early childhood, I had read books on child development and parenting to equip myself to raise them. When they entered early adolescence, I realized I had entered new and unexplored territory. It was time to re-equip. The following books have been helpful as we have sought to parent our teenagers appropriately to their level of development:

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