I wish I had learned this a bit earlier in my parenting journey – one size/method/approach does not fit all children. Though I would have nodded intellectual assent to the idea that all children are different, in practice I relied on a narrow parenting paradigm. Some of the books I read, people I listened to, and classes I attended when I was a younger mom proclaimed a fairly formulaic parenting style. A + B = C – if you have situation A, respond with B, then down the road, you will get behavior/child C. My experience is that this is a huge over simplification – raising children is nothing like elementary mathematics.
Recently, I was reminded of this in a very real and applicable way as I listened to Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book “Kids, Parents and Power Struggles”. Replacing the more traditional parenting approach that is wired into my brain requires a fair amount of repetition, reading and different ways of overlaying the entrenched message. The volume of the old tapes running through my brain is often LOUD. It is my quest to rewire my brain and have new thoughts and ideas rise up in discipline encounters with my children. At the suggestion of a seasoned veteran of a local parenting education center, I have been popping “Kids, Parents and Power Struggles” cds as I drive around town. Yesterday I had a big “aha” moment as I did so.
It is not news to anyone who has met our daughters, even briefly, that their personalities and temperaments are on extreme opposite ends of the spectrum on just about every dimension. One clearly comes at the world from the position of a thinker and the other a feeler. I am primarily a feeler and my husband a thinker. We all need to incorporate both facts and feelings into our approach to life, but most of us have an initial “go to” during times of conflict. It was like a bolt of lightning in my brain when I heard Kurcinka talk about best ways to approach a feeler and thinker in times of conflict – facts first for the thinker and feelings first for the feeler. Wow – as a feeler, I had been approaching the thinkers in the family from my own preferred perspective. That might explain the recent observation during a time of conflict by our thinker daughter, “I just don’t like your style” – facts first kids can’t jump into talking about feelings at the onset of a discipline encounter. Any thinking dominant person wouldn’t want to start there. What an empowering and enlightening piece of parenting wisdom.
And as for our sons who grew up with a younger more energetic yet not as thought out in the parenting role kind of mom, I have some regrets. I wish we had this information when raising them. Thankfully, we have fairly communicative and authentic relationships at this point, and it is never too late to shift a relationship. The reality for many of us is that the more challenging the family dynamic, the more impetus for seeking change. Today I am grateful for the dynamics that have led us to grow, reconsider and seek new ways to do this thing – we are learning so much.
I turned to my companion Wikipedia to help define a human herd. This is what I found: “Herd mentality implies a fear-based reaction to peer pressure which makes individuals act in order to avoid feeling “left behind” from the group. “ I don’t know about you, but I’ve lived in a herdish place on many occasions. We can be part of a herd that is defined by race, political bent, religion, school, civic group or even family. There is a feeling of protection from outside threats and a level of comfort and ease in such a place. Judgment and fear of “other” are commonly held values to keep everyone in check. There are definite rules in place – whether written down or not – and to remain a part, we must adhere to the common code. We don’t have to look very far during this political campaign season to see that the way of discussion and consensus are out and the way of the herd is dominant. Disturbing the status quo can lead to dismissal from the herd. This can happen overtly and directly or in more covert ways that lead a person to slowly drift away. Choosing to leave a herd can result in living in a very isolated and lonely place.
But there is another way – the way of community. To commune with others is a critical need within all of our human hearts. God created us to be in fellowship and communion with one another. We aren’t created to go it alone. Rather than a connection based on fear and being against, community is an invitation to join together for common purpose. There is joy and freedom, along with a lot of hard work, involved in being in community. Diverse thoughts and approaches are honored and worked through in a place of discussing and sharing life together. There is a vulnerability and willingness to look beyond the shallow and surface place of life and wrestle with and share profound thoughts and experiences. It can be an uncomfortable and raw place yet it is so worth the discomfort and effort required. It is a place where one can be authentically known and yet fully loved – a place we all long to be.
About 4 years ago, a mom realized that due to the challenges she was facing with her adopted child and the judgment felt from others, she was isolated and feeling very alone. She began reaching out to other adoptive moms and very quickly experienced that she was not in fact alone. A group called Amazing Families was born. I imagine that many a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-anon, GriefShare, etc. had similar beginnings – a person in pain, feeling isolated, reaching out to connect with others on a similar path who can travel through life together. Sometimes sharing life for a season and sometimes for a lifetime. This community of amazing families has been a safe place to laugh, to cry, to learn, to encourage, to admit defeat and celebrate victories, and to be honest as we all journey to shift our parenting paradigm and do our best with our children. Due to our family demands, it is often challenging to meet face to face but sometimes a quick call out to the yahoo group is sufficient. People respond – in word, prayer and in deed. This past year a small group of moms got together to study Conscious Discipline by Becky Bailey. I missed this community over the summer and was a bit more adrift in my parenting on many a day. So, on this day, I join in with the apostle Paul in saying to all those who are a part of the many different parts and pieces of genuine community in my life – “I thank my God every time I remember you”. Thanks for showing me the way to true community.
It can happen with all children. Something goes wrong and the response is to blame another – that other often times is Mom or Dad. For children who have experienced trauma, the intensity and nature of the arrows let loose during such an exchange can sting acutely and sometimes come flying at a very young age. It can feel like they are expert sharpshooters and the bulls eye is dead in the center of the parent’s heart.
In reality what is usually happening is that their harsh words are triggering something in us– a past hurt, a feeling of deficiency, a buried fear. The goal – and may I say loudly and clearly, a very difficult goal indeed – is to not take these angry expressions personally. I, for one, can testify that this is extremely challenging and way easier said than done. Receiving the emotions of frustration, sadness and happiness is a lot easier than receiving anger. It just is. Most parents would literally lay down their lives for their child, so sharp words and searing accusations can feel ludicrous and hurt deeply.
There is another way to view this. We as parents are the safe haven – a kind of sanctuary where all emotions are allowed and the child is still beloved. Children from hard places often feel the need to control –in response to the fact that a significant part of their lives have been completely out of their control. They can feel shame and sometimes see themselves as worthless. Rather than let those very deep feelings into their consciousness, they need a safe place to target them. That secure place is often right at home in the midst of those who love them most. Deep down they may be testing to see if we are really, really going to love them and stick by them through “come what may”. Can we tolerate all parts of them – the good and the bad? Anger often covers up a deeper feeling of fear, shame or sadness. They, like all of us, have a desire to be truly known and yet unconditionally loved.
King David is one of my very favorite guys. He was passionate, raw and a master of extreme emotional expression. He got into big messes, called out to God in such authentic ways and fully asserted a great range of emotion. He was chased and often running for his life– he was an unjust target. He also made others unjust targets of his own desires; think Bathsheba and Uriah. But he always knew God as a safe haven. “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” He flat out voiced all kinds of things to his refuge/shelter/ always there God. And God received it all. David was known in a way that I wish to be known -as a person after God’s heart.
With time and patience, we can begin to discipline and teach our children how to express angry and fearful feelings in healthier ways. It is a moment by moment, day by day, looking toward the long term goal kind of training. To get there often requires a lot of target practice.
It started as a fairly innocuous dinner conversation about my hair – coloring my hair that is. I do that about every 10 weeks and this was that day. Our older daughter was checking it out up close and noted that she couldn’t see the gray any longer. This moved into a discussion on how long I would color my hair. I said something about wanting to keep it up while young children are in our family. Our younger daughter requested that I do it at least until they were teenagers. We chatted a bit about wrinkles and the options for addressing those and then the conversation took a turn.
Around the corner of talking about parents aging, in the hearts and minds of these daughters, is the often present theme of death. Deeply imprinted on our girls’ hearts is a fear of losing a parent. We have had countless conversations of “what if” – Mommy dies and Daddy doesn’t, Daddy dies and Mommy doesn’t, both die and….you get the point. They want to know specifics about what will happen to them, who will care for them, how in the world would we manage this thing? It is a consistent fear in their young, impressionable hearts and minds and often a topic of conversation.
This was certainly not a focus or repeated conversation that we had with our sons. There are probably several reasons for that. One may be that we did not encourage the same depth of emotional expression that we do now. But a professional once told me that “typical” children do not allow themselves to go there. I don’t think our boys spent a lot of mental or emotional energy in this sphere. Yet for any adopted child, the scenario of losing a parent – to death or some other force – is not theoretical or “could happen” stuff. It is a part of their story.
From my observation, at a very young age, this knowledge is present at a cellular level. They KNOW that the loss of parents is well within the “could happens” of life. It has in fact happened. And as they grow cognitively, they know this truth of their own story on an even deeper and often more confusing level. We have friends who have indeed lost a parent, and I’ll never forget the day that the reality that a child can also die entered their realm of possibilities. Despite a desire to shelter them from these pains, that isn’t possible or healthy. Walking a line of being trustworthy and truthful and meeting their great need to feel safe is a tricky one.
So, my response on that day was that it is unlikely that I die soon, but if that did happen, Daddy and I have plans and provisions in place to take care of them. We have family and friends who would step up and in to help us through. At the end of the dinner, our youngest said, “Mom, keep coloring your hair, and everything will be just fine”. If it was only so simple.
My deep desire is to imprint something new onto their hearts – “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. “ We are on our way, but it is a long, slow journey.
The journey of moving from a parenting paradigm based on fear to one based on relationship and love leads to much soul searching and thoughtful introspection. For many of us, the hardest part is the “looking in the mirror” part that is required. It was a heck of a lot more comfortable back in the day when I could look at my child and his behavior as totally his responsibility. Shifting to a perspective that looks at my own stuff and issues and how I am involved in the fray is challenging.
A good number of us want to believe that for the most part, we are in the right and that others are in the wrong. Our way is best and we have it all worked out and justified. It is so much easier to look at all of life from our own perspective. Self reflection and questioning are tough. Sure, we will make the occasional apology to our child when our behavior crosses into obvious hurtful and out of line behavior. But to truly examine ourselves to see what role we have in our family dynamic and the difficult interactions with those we live with takes some guts. It is a slow process and can’t be done all on one day – in fact, if we go down this path, it is a lifelong journey.
One temptation when there is a child in our midst who displays extreme behaviors is to make that child the scapegoat. The origin of the word scapegoat comes from the Hebrew word azazel. Around the Jewish Day of Atonement, this goat was sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of God’s people. A dictionary definition for scapegoat is “a person made to bear the blame for others”.
The reality is that in a family, we are all intimately tangled up together. The way that we respond to and approach the world affects our children, their felt safety and the way that they respond and behave in the world. If we adhere to an a+b=c formulaic parenting method and one of our kids isn’t jiving with this formula, we often want to cast the blame onto them. How can we ask a child to own responsibility for their own behavior if we aren’t willing to do so ourselves? We are the adults – the burden is on us.
I’ve heard several mental health professionals refer to the “identified client” – code word for “the kid whose behavior is wreaking havoc in the family and got them in my door”. This kid might be identified, but we parents in the mix need to take a long hard look at ourselves and figure out how we need to change and flex in order to lead our families down a healing path. We may not be identified, but we are nonetheless a part of a system in need of change. Some of us need to get ourselves into a therapeutic relationship where we are indeed the identified client. The quicker we are willing to admit our own need for help and embrace the process of change, the better for the whole.
Caution: If we choose to walk this path of self examination and owning our own family dynamic role, a tempting place to sink into is one of guilt, defeat and a feeling of helplessness. The good news is that God puts us together in families for incredibly redemptive purposes. It is never too late to work on relationship. If we will begin to loosen up, look closer at our selves and work to change where needed, it can lead to healing words and actions with our children. Each family member, those identified and those not, has more space to “own our part”. We can begin to accept the grace that comes as we travel this parenting road, the need for a scapegoat will disappear and new life can flourish.
Coming off of a week’s vacation in a beautiful South Carolina beach town seems like the appropriate time to address this topic. There is something deep in my gut that kind of hitches whenever I hear others telling me or just espousing the idea of the importance of taking care of self. Something in my brain screams “selfish”, “you don’t deserve that” or some other degrading negative message. That gut check message has come from different places and voices. Well, like with so many things, I am challenging that line of thinking.
To be clear, what I am not talking about is a lifestyle that mirrors the Vogue or Cosmopolitan covers that I walk by and read over in check out lines. Somehow American values have led us to a huge emphasis on SELF, and admittedly part of my hang up is the conflict I see between faith values and the worship of self. But on the other extreme, there is an uber Puritan work ethic that we have embraced that says he who is busiest and sacrifices most is superior. A recent New York Times blog written by Tim Keider (to read full blog, click http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap) expressed it this way. “Puritans turned work into a virtue evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment”. The God I know and love is the one who though gave us an ability to find satisfaction in work, also commanded the Sabbath.
Anyone who is involved in intensive and stressful caretaking – that could be with an aging parent, a troubled child, a sick family member, etc. – needs the cushion and space in their lives to be able to do extreme care. As human beings, we have limits and needs. We can’t do it all. Self care is important throughout life, but in the intense care giving times, it becomes critical.
For all of us, there are the non-negotiable areas of care – diet, exercise and sleep. None of us gets a pass on these areas of caring for self – we will pay a price if we don’t do them. It is simply how our Creator made us. But there are also the elective areas of care. What is the thing that really brings life to us as an individual? It could be art, gardening, reading, massage, intense practice of a physical activity, walking through the woods or a myriad of other pleasurable pursuits. We have to find what it is that de-stresses us and make time to do it.
If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, the flight attendant has no doubt said, “in the case of an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on before you place a mask on your child”. We don’t have the capacity to take care of another if we don’t take reasonable care of our self. Philippians says “in humility consider others better than yourselves”. This is impossible to do if we are exhausted, cranky, and living on the edge. From a great deal of experience, I’ve learned that I am much more patient, calm, loving, kind (fill in the blank), when a portion of time has been spent in Sabbath periods and caring for myself. Something I used to view as selfish I now see as critical – not only to myself but also to those in my care.
A while back, I saw a Humane Society bumper sticker that caught my eye – it said “who rescued who?” Bumpers are a place where many philosophies, beliefs and theologies are proclaimed. That one got me thinking – in particular about adoptive parents of children who come from difficult places. Sometimes from fellow adoptive parents, I hear things that make me shudder inside – things like, “we saved them from this terrible place”, “we can save one more”. Pretty much any sentence with the word save and a child is extremely disturbing.
We are not asked to be saviors and our children should not be looked upon as charity cases who now owe us a huge debt. Any child who ends up in foster care or living in an orphanage should be honored and admired. The spirit and inner strength necessary to survive are admirable indeed. They know a hardship deep down that most of us will never experience. They are strong.
Anyone who has even stepped foot into an orphanage or looked into the face of a foster child quickly knows that a family is where children are meant to grow up and settle. But those who invite these children into their homes and lives must be willing to walk alongside this child through the good and bad, happy and sad, and all the ups and downs of life. If they expect a posture of gratitude from their child all along the way, there will be great disappointment and disillusionment. We have to desire to parent and share all of life together. We can’t set up a savior/grateful recipient kind of relationship. If that is the expectation, then it will surely implode at some point.
As parents we must be mindful and thoughtful about the gifts and grace that our children bring to us. Even, or maybe more accurately especially, on the most difficult days, there is a deep down exchange of life and hope. Parenting calls us to reach way up to God, way down inside and to be better human beings. One of my parenting mentors, Bryan Post, says it something like this – when your child triggers something in you, turn to them and say “thank you for forcing me to deal with my own issues”. I am not going to say that is easy or that I am even remotely “there”, but my heart resonates with this truth.
So who saved who? In my experience it is a mutual exchange of life giving and receiving. We don’t need to be or see ourselves as saviors – that’s God’s business. We need to walk alongside and embrace the full range of life together with our child.
I have a new friend named Emily. Emily is 23 years old, full of life and is currently pursuing a doctorate in psychology with a special passion for working with children and families who have experienced trauma. It was so exciting to read an email from her a few days ago communicating news of a grant she received to do research on “resilience in traumatized children”. This small part of her communication speaks volumes:
“Basically: why do some girls come into our program, and thrive, and are able to recover from their traumas and horrible backgrounds and live full, joyful, healthy lives with purpose and stable relationships- and others we just can’t reach no matter what we do? I’ll be giving the girls some assessments (with permission) to measure their overall resilience, and then looking at various factors to see what the girls who did come out as resilient have in common. The ultimate goal is that I’ll find some significant results indicating factors which correlate to high resilience. Hopefully with this increased understanding, Mosoj Yan and other organizations working with street kids with similar backgrounds will grow in our ability to reach these kids and enable them to live the happiest, best lives possible.”
This mystery of resiliency has been on my mind a great deal recently. I’ve been hearing heart wrenching stories of parents raising kids from hard places – being at church, a place where most of us hope to receive compassion and support, and told that their struggling child should be doing better, because look at how well child x,y or z who also has lived through some trauma is doing. This type of comparison is like a kick in the stomach to a parent who loves and lives daily with this beloved child. And the child surely picks up on this comparison stance – this just leads them to feel more unworthy and reinforces a deep belief that they are just not good enough. We can’t do that to children or parents – each individual child is truly a unique soul from God knit together in a one of a kind way. Which of us hasn’t parented or just casually observed two or more children in a family who are different in almost every way – it is the old nature vs. nurture dilemma that is still passionately debated today. I imagine that the answers to such questions are not easily found and highly complicated.
There are so many facets and factors – known and unknown – for a child who has experienced some type of trauma. Many of us only have fleeting glimpses of our child’s story before the day we embraced them into our families. Months or years have passed with daily experiences – some life giving and some traumatic. We have no clear picture of what did or did not happen for them in their early years. Each individual is born with a temperament and the way we respond to and approach the world is shaped a great deal by this part of our being. Some children were exposed to toxic substances in utero. Some did and some did not have a caring person in their lives who took a special interest in them as an individual. And the list of variances could continue. It is a highly complex situation and judgment can be so very painful and harmful. The arrogant expression that we somehow know from afar what another should be doing as they face their own struggles must be silenced. We must honor the stories and experiences of each child and family. There is so much that we just don’t know or understand.
On this day I am truly grateful for the Emilys of the world who are researching and pouring their lives into better understanding the pain and resilience of children. I can’t wait to hear which pieces of the puzzle she discovers.
Something has been bugging me. As I’ve been challenged to open my eyes and heart to more closely examine what I will call a traditional parenting paradigm – the kind that says children must obey at first command and there is a subsequent harsh punishment if they do not do so immediately – something isn’t adding up. Now, I must admit that I did my level best to practice this type of parenting for quite a few years. Like I’ve said before, I just kind of rolled along with what I knew and didn’t ask too many thoughtful questions of myself or those I was looking to for parenting tips.
A major tenet of the Christian faith is that humans have free will. God doesn’t force us to love, follow or obey. Though I acknowledge that there are natural consequences to deciding to go our own way, God rarely, if ever, flexes big muscles and forces us to walk a certain path. Grace is the over arching story.
So why do we insist that our children meet a standard that none of us is able to meet without the gifts of mercy and grace? I am not talking about permissive, anything goes kind of parenting. But why is any kind of “negative” emotional expression immediately deemed as disrespect and something to be squashed ASAP? Why do we seek to control rather than lovingly teach and mold our children’s behaviors? Why do we default to shame and fear tactics to keep children in line? Sure, children who are immediately compliant make our lives easier, but aren’t we trying to model and teach something much more profound to these precious souls in our care?
The myth that we can control anyone other than ourselves is quite prevalent as we look around at the voices and practices in much of the parenting advice world. Control by definition requires a level of fear and intimidation. Is that really what we want – fear based compliance? I have come to believe that there is a much better way- a simple, yet far from easy, way to express this change in parenting perspective is a shift from fear to love. In John’s first epistle, he said it this way. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us.”
I, for one, surely am grateful that God doesn’t use a traditional parenting method with me. I need all the grace I can get.
NPR is where my radio dial mostly hangs out. It offers a rich menu of topics discussed in an in depth way. Many times it captures my imagination and what I hear helps me to live a deeper more thoughtful life.
About a week or so ago I heard Amanda Bennett, author of The Cost of Hope, being interviewed by Diane Rehm. Bennett’s love story memoir chronicles her life with her husband, focusing on the last years of his life battling cancer and pursuing life extension in all possible ways. She talks honestly about and wrestles in detail with the financial, emotional and relational cost of pursuing all possibilities and extremes of medical intervention during his last years of life. This is a topic that makes many of us squirm – how can we make judgments and decisions on the “reasonable” price of extending the life of those that we love? Even thinking about it is an emotional kick in the gut – can’t imagine living it.
Listening to her and pondering the many angles and complexities of this question led me to think about the cost of hope for those who are raising children with any type of special need. As parents, we all desperately want our children to live life to the fullest extent possible. But we also have to be realistic and honestly look at the big picture of our own individual family – we must consider the cost of hope.
There is a great temptation as a parent of a struggling child. We can spend a lot of time, energy and passion seeking the “magic bullet” – that thing that will normalize our child and our family. And the places to seek that kind of magic are numerous – many different types of mental health therapy, occupational therapy, nutritional supplements, medications, neuro/bio/etc. feedback, special diets, expensive brain scans, doctors of many persuasions and the list could go on and on and on. We could literally fill up our entire lives with evaluations, appointments and therapies. It requires wisdom, a great deal of discernment and a trust in God’s grace and guidance to navigate this pathway and choose wisely for ourselves and our children. Which of us would not figure out a way to pay the price, whether the currency is money, time or energy, for anything that we are convinced will truly help our child? The sorting through of promises and dangled hopes can be completely overwhelming.
So in a very real and sometimes gut wrenching way, we must come to terms with the “cost of hope” and which particular emotional, time and financial resources we have available in each of our families to meet the needs of our children in the best way possible. This will be different for each family. There will most likely be second-guessing and some level of “what if” as we walk this road. We have to learn to live in that uncomfortable space.
The honest truth is there is no “magic bullet”. This life together is a marathon and there are no quick fixes and easy answers. Yet I can rest well and be at peace with my God at the end of the day when I can with integrity say, “ we love our child with all of our hearts and we are doing the best that we can”. That is sufficient.