Raising American Kids in the South Pacific

By johanna kennedy

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children.

One is roots; the other, wings.”

-Hodding Carter, Assistant Secretary of State

to President Jimmy Carter

One of Joy Johnson’s children was delivered at a hospital where she was expected to bring her own sheets. The delivery bill totaled $9 U.S. dollars. Obviously this price did not include an epidural, room service or a post-delivery victory latte.

When they left the States in 1981 to be missionaries in the South Pacific Islands, James and Joy Johnson had four children and one on the way. Joy and her family began their ministry in Samoa. They lived there for 15 years before transferring to Fiji for 9 ½ years. The last 3 ½ years of their career took place in Cairns, Australia. Hearing Joy’s story will soon have you feeling like the product of an industrialized, Western culture.

Joy’s family lived in a European style home with running water (most of the time) and indoor plumbing. She assumed the role of traditional, full time mother. Her days ran much like many mothers, except on the days when the water stopped flowing. When this happened, Joy spent the day obtaining enough water for basic household tasks, like washing the diapers. There were times it took a month for the water to start flowing through the pipes again.

“We have many Mothers”

The Samoan culture’s family unit is much different than most American families, in that it is extended. This extended family may include the entire village. In Samoa, each mother is responsible for the kids in her home and yard. This responsibility includes feeding, bathing, clothing (in your children’s clothes) and disciplining any extra children as long as they are in your home. Joy and her husband didn’t always agree with this philosophy. Their children would bring their friends home with them, easily doubling their numbers to 14 little ones around the dinner table. The disadvantage to this way of living was often a lack of responsibility with one’s own children because the mother would assume her children were fine wherever they were. The benefit of this sort of existence led to a respect for all adults.

“You have to Respect your Olders”

Joy often heard her older children using this phrase on their younger siblings. Respect for all those older than oneself was of extreme importance- even if that person was a sibling. Children did not interject themselves into an adult situation. If walking by an elder, it was customary to duck so that one’s head was not higher than that person’s. When speaking with someone who was sitting, the person would sit or kneel next to him to be at or lower than eye level. Children were taught to never point fingers or feet (many gatherings had people sit on the floor) at anyone. Children served the adults out of respect. For instance, at a church dinner the children served the meal. This respect has taught Joy’s children to be very caring and hospitable adults.

Two Pairs of Shorts

When Joy told me how generous the Samoan and Fiji Islanders were, I could not help but feel pangs of longing. Joy explained that this culture raised their children to always look out for the comfort of others before their own. If someone was in need of anything, it was the responsibility of the person who noticed the need to help. If Joy needed to buy a pair of shorts for her son she would pick up two pair because there was always a child at her house or a neighbor boy who needed them. The people of this culture were not afraid to be involved in each other’s lives. It was normal for Joy’s family to know all fellow villagers. She explained this was part culture and partly because of their ministry. The communal way of life is based on everyone looking out for each other.

Tea Cups

With regard to possessions, the basic premise was not to own everything needed, but knowing who owns the necessary object when the need arises. For instance, if Joy was to host a tea party with 10 guests but only had four tea sets she borrowed six sets from a woman in the village rather than purchase her own. My favorite illustration of this communal culture involved a pair of Joy’s sandals. When entering someone’s home it was customary to remove one’s shoes at the door. Joy left her sandals at the door hoping they would be there when she was ready to leave, which was not always the case. Anyone leaving was free to take whatever shoes they wanted on their way out. It wasn’t considered stealing; everything belonged to everyone. James, Joy’s husband, shared the account of when their family was in the States, he purchased a candy bar for one of his daughters. She took it and stared at it, confused. She did not know what to do with a whole candy bar. She grew up sharing everything with everyone around her. He had to tell her she could eat the whole bar herself.

Items of Secondary Value

Items we accumulate in our American homes such as clothing, toys, and various media entertainment were of little value in Samoa and Fiji. While living overseas, her boys had a few trucks and her girls had a few dolls. During free time the children simply ran out to play with the other village children. They played ball games, hand games, Tip Top (a unique form of jump rope) and read. Television wasn’t available until 1995 and it only featured one government channel. In terms of clothing, each of Joy’s children had three school uniforms, a few nice things for Sundays and some play clothes. When it came to extra curricular activities, the Johnsons allowed each child to pick one activity once they entered junior high. A few of the children took piano lessons before this age, but they were the exception to the rule. James and Joy kept the activities outside the home to a minimum. Success in these activities was secondary to the child’s whole development as a person.

At the end of our time together, Joy admitted, “We loved our children at every age and stage of life although they exhausted us at some stages.” She says she regarded her children as a blessing from the Lord and attempted to raise them with all the intent and responsibility that phrase warrants, regardless of where they were living. She is thankful for the communal way of living her children experienced while living in the South Pacific Islands and both parents agree it was a great place to raise kids. SFM

Johanna Kennedy resides in Billings with her husband and two daughters and is anxiously awaiting a third child. She divides her time between the honorable jobs of house wife, mom, potty trainer, counselor, teacher, friend and a self-proclaimed aspiring writer.