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.
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.
Ever since I was a little girl, reading has been a great joy. The words take me to far away places and times. I get to help solve mysteries, walk in the shoes of others and think and learn about things that don’t readily come to mind. Books challenge me to ponder deeply and see things from another point of view. In my recent reading of Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, these words jumped out at me – “that book taught me that by reading, I could live more intensely”. That describes so accurately my own longstanding relationship with the written word.
There came a day in my parenting journey when I said “Dorothy, or Tricia, we aren’t in Kansas any more”. I was forced to acknowledge something pretty uncomfortable – despite the then 18 years of parenting experience under my belt, I was in over my head. So where was I to turn? A bibliophile like me being forced to walk down an unfamiliar path would of course start reading about this new place. So for those of you walking a similar path, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my new friends.
The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis – this was a book that I read before we adopted our daughters but I have probably re-read it 4-5 times since then. We can’t often put things we have read about into practice until it is game time. Reading Dr. Purvis is like having a wise mother or grandmother whisper gentle life giving instructions into my ear on the most difficult days.
The Post Institute – www.postinstitute.com – Bryan Post is one of my favorite guys. The biggest thing I have learned from reading and listening to his work is that on this journey of parenting, I am the one that must address my own issues and be the one to make the changes. So many of the traditional parenting tapes running through my head call out that I must control and make my child change, when in fact the only person I can truly change is myself – we all know that but often forget that in the role of parent. From Fear to Love is a short book that is an introduction point to Bryan Post’s perspective.
Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline and all things written by Becky Bailey – Becky Bailey is truly my parenting paradigm shift hero. I am grateful for a friend who invited several moms to meet weekly this past year for an incredible time of encouragement and support as we traveled together through a very powerful workbook called Conscious Discipline. Though written for teachers, it is SO applicable to raising all children, and particularly children who have lived through trauma. Becky Bailey has given me the practical tools to live out a different approach as a parent.
Gotcha! Welcoming Your Newly Adopted Child Home: A Guide for Newly Adoptive Parents by Dr. Patti Zordich. This is a great and quick read for anyone who is thinking about, planning or in the early stages of an adoption. It gives very practical steps on how the needs of adopted children are different and how to meet those in the earliest days together.
If you have walked this parenting road, I’d love to hear what resources have offered light and hope to you. There is always room for new friends on the shelves of my library.
For over 25 years – a quarter of a century, half of my life – I’ve been actively parenting children. Our first three children, all amazing boys, came to us through birth. Our next two, beautiful girls, came by adoption. Though there are definitely things I would have done differently and mistakes were made (!), for the most part, our parenting journey with the boys rolled along with the mostly typical bumps in the road. I somewhat brazenly and naively felt fairly prepared, adequate and up to the task.
I was comfortable with and familiar with a “traditional parenting” model that I heard much about in Christian circles. This paradigm mostly demanded respect and obedience with an emphasis on control and left little room for emotional expression – this was my comfort zone. I had confidence in the parenting toolbox in my possession – it seemed adequate to the task. Those who taught and espoused this method made sense to me, for the most part. I spent some years reading such authors until one day I read a book called “Grace Based Parenting” and there was something deep in my soul that resonated with that text. On completion of that particular book, I resolved to take a hiatus from reading about parenting. I needed to experience and impart more grace to myself and others.
This was the beginning of a crack in my parenting paradigm. But things were rolling along in reasonable fashion, so there was no impetus for real change. Enter our daughters. They came to us, via living in an orphanage, at the ages of 18 and 22 months. Though our adoption agency had responsibly educated us and challenged us to see that parenting children who have experienced early relational trauma requires different skills, we still weren’t so sure about that. Love is enough is a very common misconception for adoptive parents – well, that and the parenting skills I already possess.
Critical crossroads – I very clearly remember the moment. There had been a big rage and tantrum that had gone on for hours. I had pulled out all of the tools in my parenting toolbox, and things were escalating. It was as if God Himself whispered, or probably screamed, into my ear, “you can change yourself and your parenting or you can dig in, cling to your old ways and in the process destroy two children – this is your choice”. That was holy ground.
This blog will be an attempt to share the now 7 year, and still ongoing, journey of the pursuit of new, different and more life giving tools to fill up the toolbox. It is quite a ride.