Optional Adoption

So far, we’ve spoken much about adoption as a support to those we know who have adopted or are considering it already. We expect that there are others reading this, but so far, we’ve not said much about them. You might be surprised how often we hear questions like, “It’s so great that you all adopted those kids” or “I can’t imagine ever doing anything like adopting” or “You all are so brave to adopt”.

I promise you it didn’t feel like bravery to us. Around the time we were in the thick of the adoption process, Bill read a book called Rich in Love: When God Rescues Messy People about a family who had birthed/fostered/adopted 32 children. This part stuck out in particular:

People have asked how we could have made such serious decisions about children so quickly over the phone, without praying about whether we should let more kids come into our home. When God says, “Don’t murder or steal,” I don’t have to pray about whether I should be involved in those things, because I already know his will. In the same way, God says in his Word that we should take care of the widows and orphans. I don’t have to pray to know if this is his will because he already told me it is. He wants us to do it. Period. And Domingo and I felt that as long as God kept bringing us kids, and we had room, we would keep taking them in.

It was never about bravery, just obedience.

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”(Isaiah 1:17)

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says… Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:22, 27)

So why did our churches so blindly keep ignoring the weak and needy, the orphans and widows? Why were we ignoring them? Why are you?

You know why: Your life is hard. You have small children. You both work. You’re can’t afford it.* You’re already dealing with special needs in your family. You don’t have your crap together. You’re unorganized, impatient, sick, disabled, anxious. Maybe you even just adopted.

And yet if any of you, in the same situation you’re in now, saw a child you didn’t know about to be hit by a car, none of those things would hinder you making your best effort to barrel the child out of the way to save their life. You wouldn’t pray about it first, ask your friends, read a book, have a long meeting with your spouse, research on the internet. You would run straight into traffic, not caring how much it might hurt you.

But when we have time to think, we become a faithless people.

Most of you who read this blog live in North America. That most likely puts you in the 1% bracket of the wealthiest people in the world. But with most wealth comes the most entitlement. We’re so wealthy we whine when we get paper-cuts and recheck our finger a dozen times throughout the day to see the wound again and feel sorry for ourselves. We don’t have to do the hungry thing, the exposed-to-elements thing, and we don’t have to do the “my child was just beheaded by ISIS” thing.

Many of you have truly suffered. Honestly, you’re probably the ones who are most likely to do bold stuff like adopting and fostering and opening homes to the dirty and unwanted. But the rest of us? We’re just running scared, worshiping ease and comfort, completely acting as though we have never heard a word Jesus said. We think this life is it, and we’ll ignore whoever we have to, like widows and orphans, in order to make it great.

“We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22b)

I’m sure my frustration is coming through my writing. I’m frustrated that I’m with you in your hesitancy. We keep talking about whether or not to adopt again–and it sounds impossible. My life has been so out-of-control since adopting the first time. One of my children doesn’t really care for me at all and acts as though her life goal is to defy me. I don’t get breaks anymore because I have to keep such a close watch to protect all of them. I never have a clue what I’m doing and fear constantly. I’ve been more anxious than ever. And all I can ever do–ever–is see what a failure I am. Please, God, don’t ask me to do this again!

But He already has. In His Word. And who am I to say no to the creator of everything, the salvation of my undeserving soul, the only one worthy to be glorified, the one who has faithfully promised to work out everything for my good even though I was once his enemy?

How could we adopt again? How could we adopt in the first place? Because he adopted me. The way my life is affected is irrelevant.

I have nothing to say about what your story should look like. God wrote each of our stories to be different. Maybe you should adopt over and over for the rest of your life until you die, maybe you should only adopt once, maybe you shouldn’t adopt at all. Maybe you should foster. Maybe you should open your home to the lonely kid who always seems a little hungry and a little smelly.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum you probably should allow yourself to be pushed far past what you’re thinking right now. Certainly not because I’m telling you to. I’m simply trying to remind you of the hard truth I’d rather ignore, too.

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says… Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:22, 27)

*We have a post coming on how to adopt basically for free.


Who Are You Calling Normal?

When Bill was trying to establish that the idea of healthy and normal change across time and culture, one argument we heard in response was that adopted children’s behavior is most certainly not normal, but sometimes downright odd. At first I agreed, though for different reasons. The more I reflected on this statement, the more I realized how backwards it is.

When children come into our home showing sinful behaviors, they are as normal as you can get. “As it is written: None is righteous, no, not one.” What’s abnormal is when I or any of my children actually do the right thing for the right reasons. And as parents, aren’t we working from birth to get our children to do the right things all the time? And when we do that, often even when our children do “good,” it’s tainted with selfishness. “I’ll do this so I don’t get in trouble, so I can charm others into liking me, so I can get what I want.” So we get pretty used to seeing kids do “good works,” even if they aren’t really good.

Many adopted children don’t come in with that same training from birth. So many don’t even put on the act. And to call that normal would be to admit that we’re just as messed up as they are. And that’s far too uncomfortable of a thought.

I know the gospel. I was raised in it and have had solid biblical teaching all my life. And even with that, most of the time when I do “good,” it’s for the same selfish reasons I listed above. We all live in our flesh (which biblically speaking is simply another way to say we all still have a sinful nature). The only possible way to actually do the right thing with no selfish motives, only concerned about God’s glory, is by the work of the Spirit. Only by grace.

If we have a family who looks put together, loves one another, and is fairly obedient, that is certainly not normal. That’s either grace or an act.

When our adopted kids came in, I despised them because they messed up my idolatry of having a normal family. I liked how awesome we looked. Then they came and peeled back the happy brochure to show the golden calf underneath. And I was angry because the act we’d been putting on became exposed.

I’ve trained my children to look like white washed tombs. It’s easy for me to see the sin in my adopted kids and believe they need Jesus more because I’ve made my other kids think their lifestyle has made them righteous. I speak of Jesus to them but put hope in my amazing parenting and how they receive it. I treat the children who don’t act like the rest of us (ya know, the adopted ones) as though they don’t belong. I can’t stand thinking they reflect my depravity more than any of my bio kids do. I refuse to believe they’re serving as a mirror for me.

But the insane behaviors I see in my adopted children are more normal than much else I see in my home. Because it’s the true nature of my heart, of Bill’s heart, of all my children’s heart. We’re all 100% depraved and evil. All the thoughts of our hearts are only sinful all the time. The Pharisee I love to be doesn’t really believe that. I think I’m a little bad but mainly good. I deny I’m really an old hag by singing a song in the presence of a magical golden flower. I see the best part of me–the illusion–and believe it’s true of all of me.

tangled-11 (1)

My hope is to see this clearly, to peel off the mask I paste on my face, to let the world see how normal we all are in our waywardness. My hope is to look with tears of joy at the One who is truly odd, the weirdest of them all–the perfect Savior who took my imperfections on himself, allowing the wrath I deserve to be poured out on him. I don’t want to be normal. I don’t want my kids to be normal. I want the life of our unusual, exceptional, unmatchable Redeemer, who is calling us into His abnormal life.

The Therapy Our Children Need

Like most kids from foster care, our adopted children had encountered some terrible events that put them into the state’s care in the first place. And the state, seeing a problem, prescribed therapy to treat the horrible things in their past. My then six-year-old was already set up with two therapists to help her understand/deal with her emotions. I cannot tell you how important the therapists were to our family. They each became my friend, someone I trusted, and basically my resource for all things adoption-related.

Much of my daughter’s therapy sessions were spent trying to make her feel great about herself, having her record all the things she was good at, talk about her awesome features, giving herself much praise. But almost every time the therapists left after a session, I found myself revising some of what my daughter had been taught.

I say I revised what she was taught because I agree that my daughter’s a pretty cool gal. She’s great at coloring, running, has some of the most beautiful eyes in the history of ever, and gets along well with her siblings.

But none of that is because of her. In fact, all of that is because of God working in her.

The therapy she was receiving was one of a cheap worth, putting our hope in us. That’s fine for about two minutes. Until we fail. Again. Then our hope is crushed. It’s like putting your hope in a chair made of crackers. Every time you trust it to hold you up, you’ll just find yourself hurt lying on the floor.

The therapy our children need is a hope better than a reinforced steel chair: solid and strong and sure. The hope is this: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved,through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

If my daughter puts her hope in her own accomplishments, she’ll find herself falling short every time. It’s a treatment that won’t last. But if her hope is in Christ’s work, she’ll understand she’s a daughter of the king, a princess who is higher than the angels, receiving God’s inheritance. She’ll not care as much about her failures because she’ll know Jesus was perfect in all the ways she’s imperfect, and his blood covers her imperfections in such a way that nothing will be able to separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Now that’s a therapy that’ll last.



After my hair appointment:

Ariana: Did they color your hair?

Victoria: Wait, they have markers there?!

Music to our ears?

Victoria singing a made up tune: My mommy and daddy said when they die I can do whatever I want except disobey.

Nailed it!

Josiah: I didn’t put my pants on backwards! I just put my wegs in the wrong holes.

Brilliant new drink:

Victoria: What does Dr. Pepper salt taste like?

On school:

Miriam: Am I able to do [math] drills on my own?

Court: Um, no.

Miriam: (grinning) Oh. Right. Because I’m untrustworthy.

Probably Smith…:

Victoria: What’s the Johnsons’ last name?

Stop Growing Up!:

Court: Will you please stay four forever? Please?

Victoria: Yep! But on my birthday I’ll turn five.

It’s all in the DNA:

Bill (to Court): Victoria has your eyes but Josiah has mine.

Josiah: No! Dese are MY eyes!!

I’m a few hours older:

Court: There’s another Courtney Bell in Indiana who was born the exact same day I was!

Ariana: Is she the same age as you?!

You’ll never find them:

Victoria: Guess where my flip flops are! But don’t look under my chair!

Ariana: I’m guessing they’re under your chair.

Victoria (bemused): Oh…

So big:

Aiden: (holding up four fingers) Look! I’m three!

Court: (holding up four fingers) Count again. How old are you?

Aiden: Five?

Just borrowing:

Court: Why do you have that? Isn’t that Victoria’s?

Ariana: (grinning slyly) Because she’s asleep…

When I was a bit under the weather:

Ariana: Say “Get better!”

Josiah: (looking at a toy) Get better!

Ariana: No, say, “Get better” to Mommy.

Josiah: (still looking at toy) Get better to Mommy!

Another Way Forward

Early on in beginning these critiques of The Connected Child/Empowered to Connect (TCC/ETC), I made a soft commitment to build up an alternative view to TCC/ETC. So far, I’ve not done much of that, wishing to simply push through the less-than-savory task of taking aim at a method advocated by brothers and sisters in Jesus that I don’t know, but also used and embraced by many brothers and sisters I do know.

Which is to say it’s hard to write a bunch of stuff you know is going to critique a bunch of people you care about. And I keep putting off each post because I find the task so undesirable. It may come as a surprise, but I do actually get tired of going against the grain…

But I still want to finish what I started and try to give a different vision for what we’re trying to do with our kids, especially as that relates to the two we adopted. Besides, Courtney has a ton of great stuff lined up that’s just been in a holding pattern waiting for me to wrap this up.

To attempt to counteract my perennial long-windedness, I’m just going to do my “rebuilding” in bullet points (as opposed to another 37 blog posts on the topic…) and if someone wants more detail on part of it, you can let me know.

  • The primary goal for all of our children is to know and be known by King Jesus. While we have zero control over the latter, we have much to do with the former. Proclamation is central to our time on Earth, because it was central to our King during his time on Earth. More than wanting my kids to be safe or happy or well-adjusted or connected or well-rounded or successful, I want them to know the Ruler of the Entire Universe. Of course, I’d be glad for them to be everything I just mentioned in the last sentence. But since suffering is not only part of this life, but also a gift from God, then I don’t count on a suffering-free or even suffering-lite life for my kids. Besides, the only thing that’ll sustain them through success or failure, through health or sickness is the unending faithfulness and goodness of a crucified and risen Savior.
  • I suck as a parent. One of things that goes along with most parenting resources (and TCC/ETC is no exception) is a quasi-guarantee that through such and such parenting technique, we’ll bring about real and lasting change and hope of our kids. Well, I neither promise anything that large or see that in my own parenting. My kids are a mess, I’m a mess, Courtney’s a mess, our church is a mess, our neighborhood is a mess. So while I want Jesus to be central to my parenting, my actions have a disturbing tendency to show an opposite desire for my kids. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” I say this because there is enormous pressure from any parenting resource to feel like we need to get it all right. Here’s an article from ETC basically saying, “We used to screw up, but now we’ve got it figured out.” Ugh. That’s only true till it’s not. Failure in parenting is the burden we bear alongside our successes. Which really just means that…
  • Parenting is by faith and not by method. I feel like I’m beating this drum all the time, but I really just can’t put the darn drum down. We parent our kids in faith that we serve a good God who wants good for his children. He’s not capricious. And he’s not some mysterious secret-keeper, withholding the key to the secret door of parenting knowledge. I’m inherently suspicious of the astounding claims of the snake oil salesman and I feel the same way about parenting resources that do the same thing. Sometimes I struggle to come up with anything to write on this blog, because it all just boils down to, “I suck. You suck. Our kids suck. We all need Jesus.” But then I think I’m kinda okay with that, because it’s better than empty promises and false guarantees. (Cue the drum solo.) But regardless of whether or not you agree with my assessment of TCC/ETC, it’s just a method. If you choose that method, then do it by faith in Jesus, not in the method. Or if, like me, you choose a different method, that’s not where to place our hope either. Whether TCC/ETC or Parenting with Love & Logic or Shepherding a Child’s Heart or Happiest Baby on the Block or whatever your Momma told you or whatever social pressure you feel the need to conform to, put your hope in Jesus as Savior and King. Methods come and go, but he never changes.
  • All my kids are weird, and so am I–and we’re also all the same. I have biological children and adopted children. They are all very different, they all have different ways of responding to situations, they all have different likes and dislikes (though I’m pretty sure they all agree Batman is cool). Bio or not, they’re all different from each other and from Court and me. So, we’re all weird. But we’re also all the same because we have hearts and lungs and brains and belly buttons. And with all that, we all have hearts steeped in selfishness and sinfulness. In that way, we’re exactly the same. “But you [all] were dead in your transgressions and sins.” So, if we all have the same symptoms and the same sickness, we all need the same soul medicine: Jesus. I don’t have a track for my biological (read: normal) and my adopted (read: abnormal) kids. Nope, one track here, with one poor dead horse that I keep beating. Good thing that Jesus can raise that pitiful horse up from the dead, too.
  • Because all the kids are different, we certainly respond to them differently. So, yeah, all my kids need Jesus, but they need him in ways that look a little different from kid to kid. I think this is one of the things missed a lot with adopted kids that TCC/ETC provides such an attractive solution for. Those of us who adopt (and foster, I would think) get firebombed with the sudden arrival of a child with incredibly different backgrounds, genetics, stories, patterns, rhythms. The temptation is to call this different “abnormal”, because that’s nicely packaged and separated. That’s why the whole category of “kids from trauma” is unhelpful because it’s less about “trauma”, and more about how vastly different kids we didn’t birth and raise from Day One are. So I can’t split my kids into the normal ones and the abnormal ones. But I will gladly acknowledge that the kids we adopted have had a far steeper learning curve, because we’re just as different for them as they are for us. So I’m fine with understanding that their path is probably more different than the six bios, but that doesn’t really mean much. At the end of the day, Court and I evaluate each child individually and differently: each kid, not just those weird, adopted ones…
  • Our battle is not against flesh and blood. That’s probably my tipping point with the neurological stuff and coming from trauma and brains being hard-wired. If we really believe the Scripture, then we have to acknowledge that we’re dealing with more than just physiology here. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Am I trying to drive a wedge between spiritual and physical? The opposite, actually. In fact, the unbelieving world and most of the adoption stuff out there are the ones doing that. They claim that if you can treat the body, the soul will be healed. And I say: Bull. Furthermore, in buying into this, we’re forgetting about a massive part of the ministry of Jesus: casting out demons. “Bill, are you saying that adopted kids could have demons?” I’m saying that any kid could have a demon. And the fact is that when we bring children in from Satan-ravaged circumstances, riddled with demons and spiritual forces, then I think we really ought not to be surprised if “kids from trauma” really means “kids with demons.” No, I’m not saying every kid. I’m just saying that we act like it’s a not even a possibility. Sometimes I think we just forget that as much as culture has changed over the past 2,000 years, perhaps demonic behaviors of self-destruction, seizures, and incredibly odd actions might have changed a bit over time as well.
  • The battle belongs to the Lord. Truly, we’re in the midst of a battle. Our own hearts and circumstances are sometimes in the crossfire. And sometimes our kids are, too. But we don’t fight a battle like we’re uncertain of the outcome. In fact, Jesus has already won the war and we’re just in the midst of the last desperate attempts of the enemy to maim us on his way down. And the same goes for parenting. We really need to repent of this “What if I ruin my kids?” mindset. The battle belongs to the Lord. We parent trusting that he will work all things together for good. And we need to repent of the idolatry that makes us masters of our kids’ fates.

Setting the Course

With all I’ve written about Empowered to Connect/The Connected Child up to now, I imagine that the question could be posed: “Well, who cares? What if it works? What if I’m following their methods and it’s making a difference?” On the outside, I will certainly affirm that good could come from using the ETC/TCC methods. I greatly appreciate the reminder to parent with compassion–anyone in our lives should be treated with compassion. I love the ideas behind simple, to-the-point instructions. I think setting a series of pre-taught, rehearsed language is helpful in stressful situations.

In short, I’m sure following their methods will help. As one Amazon reviewer said, “the book has some good suggestions. Things that any parent should be doing….being positive with your child, using eye contact, shutting off the TV, spending time with your kids, understanding their past, etc.” TCC/ETC is by no means a big bowl of ridiculous advice–it’s helpful and engaging and highly empathetic to the struggles we adoptive parents face.

It’s the course set by TCC/ETC that concerns me. I’ve already criticized the resources for having a shaky foundation and advocating a subtle form of idolatry. Even if you disagree with me in my questioning of the neurological misunderstandings they present, it really doesn’t change much. These resources are not grounded in Jesus and subsequently aren’t aiming at him either.

This is a problem of trajectory. When there are two lines starting at a single point, at very first, it’s difficult to see the difference between the two as they move toward their goal. But with time, the gap becomes wider and wider, until the point that it’s clear that one of the lines is veering way off target.

So, I look at these resources and I find myself unsurprised that so many have found them helpful and have clung to them as their lifeline, the miracle they’ve been waiting for. As my good friend Brian said, the authors are empathetic storytellers that connect with parents like Courtney and me who have agonized through the struggle of raising kids who don’t have a biological connection to us. They offer compelling answers to their odd behavior and why things don’t work right with them. Then they offer step-by-step solutions to fixing it and making the kids “whole”.

But that’s short-term gain, long-term loss. By addressing the kids this way, by trying to help remap their neurology and teach them to trust us before pointing them to God we’re already rewriting that neurology toward something other than Jesus. By refusing to see these kids holistically from any perspective geared toward eternity, it’s surely going to cause it’s own set of problems that we’ll need another book to figure out how to help our well-adjusted, “whole” adopted kids actually repent of the rampant selfishness and ungodly self-worth we taught them to have by finally pointing them to the selflessness of a crucified Savior and the only self-worth that can ever exist, which is being a child of God.

I’m aware that everything I’m saying hinges on each other. If you don’t buy my criticisms, then you certainly won’t see an issue with the trajectory set by ETC/TCC. But I think it’s all so attractive because of our desperate neediness in this whole adoption mess. The absolute sense of failure and bewilderment. The sense of “are we completely screwing these kids up?” The thoughts of “these kids would’ve been better off where they were than with us.” The end-of-the-rope desperation of “I just can’t do this anymore.” The whispered thought we can’t let anyone hear: “They are so difficult, so horrible, so disobedient, so manipulative, so different, so disruptive. I wish life could be the way it was before they came.” At the end of the terrible day where we’ve screamed or belittled or raged or wailed in failure, and there’s only one thought that screams in our head, “I hate them.” And then that morphs into guilt and self-loathing, “How could I think that? It’s not their fault that their lives are like this. They didn’t ask for this. I just can’t do this anymore. I’m too weak.”

And so, there we are, in our desperation, begging for some help, for some hope, for anything. And this attractive, empathetic book comes along that knows our struggle, that understands our pain. And not only that! It has the solution, the way forward,the step-by-step means of making it better. Hallelujah, our hope has arrived!

But it hasn’t. However well-intentioned TCC/ETC (and I know it’s well-intentioned), these resources don’t offer the hope that flows from eternity, the living water that only Jesus can offer. Our adopted kids are the products of sinful humanity, the brokenness that came from teeth breaking through the rind of sin’s fruit. And even apart from their horrible backgrounds, their little hearts were never innocent, but were “sinful at birth, sinful from the time [their] mothers conceived [them].” And us? Our parenting is riddled with the same brokenness and the same lack of innocence. We’re guilty of being terrible, horrible, no good, very bad people.

For us and for our kids (biological, foster, adopted, whatever), our only hope is this: “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

For the joy set before us, we endure the suffering of life, the effects of our sin, and–especially through adoption–the effects of the sins of others. And the weight of the crap of all of it grounds us into the dust of despair and weariness, till we feel we have nothing left. And in those moments (which sometimes seem to come day after day or even moment after moment), fixing our eyes on the neurology of our children and making sure to help them feel safe and building trust to make them a counterfeit version of whole will not lift the burden we’re carrying. Maybe those things will bring a little relief, like some morphine to help deaden the pain of the burst appendix. But at some point, you gotta let the surgeon hurt you worse by cutting you open so that you can actually heal, not just cover the pain for a while.

I don’t want to be a morphine addict. Nor do I want to jump from one pain killer to the next, as I build immunity to one after another and I have to keep searching for new methods of hiding the pain. I want the surgeon, scary though it be, to cut me open and fix me from the inside out. And I want the same thing for my kids, too. And even if it means more pain now, I know it means joy in eternity. The road is marked with suffering, but the city at the end will be a feast.

And I don’t want to miss it.

Idol Swapping

As a parent, I want one main thing for my children, whether bio or adopted: for them to know and be known by King Jesus. So any method I use as a parent has to fit inside that rubric to be helpful, especially when we start talking about healing and hope.

The Connected Child (TCC: the non-Christian source material) states their goal to be thus: “The good news is that there’s real hope for a better way. As research psychologists who specialize in child development, we have been delighted to watch adopted children and their families make tremendous gains once they begin using the philosophy and techniques outlined in this book. When parents really begin to understand this approach and put these methods into practice, they soon glow with delight at their blossoming child and newly connected family.” Thus the goal is happiness and connection, which are fine though not ultimate.

Somewhat better, Empowered to Connect (ETC) has this in their study guide: “We believe that as you work through these pages…you will better understand the philosophy and approach for the holistic model of parenting that we advocate, which has helped bring hope and healing to countless children and parents. As you do, our prayer is that you will develop a closer connection not only with your children, but also with your Heavenly Father.” Or perhaps this is more to the point: “By loving and nurturing our children in this holistic way we can give them the gift of “real hope”—an opportunity to heal and become whole—even as we teach them about and point them toward the source of everlasting hope in Jesus Christ.”

Hear what they’re saying: these kids are broken and need to be healed. But notice that the hope and the healing come before getting to Jesus. So who or what is doing the healing, if not God himself? “Fundamental to this real hope is an understanding that our children need a healthy and consistent balance of both nurture (affection, compassion, mercy) and structure (rules, limits, boundaries). Put another way, our children need a balance between connecting (nurture) and correcting (structure). As a result, the challenge is to identify what your child is really saying and what your child really needs. If we give a child structure (rules and correction) when she needs nurture (affection and mercy), we damage her ability to trust. If we give a child nurture when she needs structure, we limit her ability to grow. Therefore, we must learn to see our children and understand what they need in all of their being.”

Where’s the hope? Look at all the “we’s”: the hope is in us, as parents, as we try to make our kids whole.

And that, my friends, is idolatry. As the old hymn says, “What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

You see, because it’s so subtle, it’s easy to read the Christian veneer and think this is good, God-centered stuff. But it’s not. The only one who heals is Jesus. The only one who makes broken people whole is Jesus. And if we think that we have to fix people–child or adult–before we bring them to Jesus, then we’re placing ourselves in God’s place. We are setting ourselves up as an idol–on purpose! This is why I even bothered to make the point about normal and healthy: ETC & TCC are all about making our kids normal, so that we can then give them Jesus.

From ETC: “Out of this spontaneous, affectionate, connected dance between parent and child, this little one develops trust in the knowledge that his parent truly cares for him. In these arms of nurturing love, this child learns who he is, the meaning of unconditional love and his heart is being prepared to understand the eternal love of God.”

No! His heart is already prepared to understand the love of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Our kids do not need to pass through us to get to God the Father.

You see, all humans are dead in their sins and trespasses, even children. Thus, all of us are chasing after idols. The idols of the “at-risk” child might be a different set of idols, but they are still just worthless idols. If our goal is to get our kids to trust us, so that they trust God the Father, all we’ve done is say, “Get rid of those idols of control (or eating or manipulation or fear or anger or shutdowns or whatever) and replace them with Daddy and Mommy. Once we’ve done that, then you’re ready for God.”

That’s swapping idols. And I don’t want my adopted (or bio!) kids to swap idols. I don’t want to be their god. I want to over and over and over and over again point them to the one, true, and living God, the creator of the universe. I want to show them how he sent his Son to be the perfect Lamb of God, the great King who makes all things right and good. I want to love them and nourish them and cherish them, while always pointing them to the only one that will truly love them and nourish them and cherish them. And you know why this distinction, which might sound like splitting hairs, is so important? Because I will let them down. It will never work to point them to me first. I’ll be teaching them to believe a lie, which is the very definition of an idol. Their only hope is for me to continually point them to the only one worth trusting in.

The Sins of Neurology

Up to this point, I’ve been writing an extended critique of The Connected Child and the related Empowered to Connect (ETC) that I’m trying to develop one step at a time . I hope you’ll bear with me as I try to show the connection between what I’ve said about their approach to “normal” and their foundations, and how that leads to some more specific problems.

An element that comes up over and over again with ETC is that kids from trauma have been hardwired into their behaviors by their experiences, thus their brains don’t work normally. “The deprivation they suffered early in life has hardwired their primitive brain to believe that starvation is just around the corner.” “Research shows that motor memory can trump cognitive, thought-based memory for very young children.” Here’s a longer quotation:

Thinking in terms of our children, we must recognize that for many children from hard places, fear is their best friend. Due in large part to their past, fear has ruled their lives—their mind, emotions and behaviors—for so long that it has become a familiar, and even oddly comforting, companion. Rather than having more brain activity in the frontal regions of the brain (i.e., the part of the brain that can process thoughts such as, “I can communicate my needs,” “I can communicate my wants,” “I can tell you that I am hurt or afraid,” etc.), children from hard places often operate in the more primitive part of the brain, called the amygdala. As a result, their behaviors and interactions are more likely to be driven by more primal thoughts such as, “How do I get food?” “How do I get safe?” “How do I get what I want?” and “How do I get my way?” They are stuck in survival mode and, therefore, they are prone to misinterpret communication (both verbal and nonverbal) as threatening and respond in ways that are unacceptable

Let’s put aside this idea of “primitive” (hearkening back to an evolutionary understanding of the brain, which is problematic in its own right but not central to their points) and deal with what they’re really saying: these kids have brains that are hardwired differently and that’s why they act differently.To which I say, “Sure, I agree. Different experiences will lead to different wiring and different responses.” If that were it, I’d be fine.

But they don’t stop there: “But remember, inappropriate behaviors are driven by old traumas, neurological limitations, and the appropriate urge to survive.” “When your child appears physically perfect, it’s easy to erroneously assume that his or her poor behavior is willful and intentional.” “[Y]our child…is controlled by his primitive brain…”

And this is where I can’t follow that logic. According to ETC, “inappropriate behaviors” and “poor behavior” aren’t wrong–they simply need to be retrained. More than that, their behaviors are outside their control. They can’t help it! Their brains made them do it! But biblically speaking, sin is sin is sin, even if there are environmental factors at play (and there almost always are!). It’s not possible to drive a hard wedge between volitional and involuntary responses–at least, the Bible doesn’t permit that division, even if we like it.

Let me address this a few different ways. Let’s say I grow up in a house that’s stable and loving, but very little is expected of me. My parents do everything for me so that I never have to work, never have to try. So, I’m hardwired at this point toward low effort. Now my circumstances change–maybe I’m at school for instance–and I’m given a project. I’m hardwired not to work hard. So is my laziness and failure to complete the project not my fault since I was raised and wired that way?

Maybe that’s too anecdotal. Let’s use pornography. This article shows how persistent viewing of pornography leads to neurological changes. So if the hardwiring of their brains are changed, does that mean lusting via pornography isn’t a sin?

Or perhaps that feels too volitional since those individuals made the choice to get in that position. This article suggests that there might be a link between genetics (a.k.a. non-volitional hardwiring) and negative thinking. So would we say that if these folks are genetically geared toward anger or faithlessness or hopelessness, then it’s not a sin? I mean, they can’t help it, right?

Understand that answering “yes” to any of these questions means that there are sinful behaviors that aren’t really sins. And that, my friends, is not how God has revealed himself. Let’s take the last example: who made that individual’s genetic makeup? God did. Did God make a different set of right and wrong for these people than he did for those to whom he gave cheerful personalities? Nope.

Let’s expand this one step further. Is God sovereign over everything that happens, “working all things together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose”? Absolutely. So doesn’t that mean that he was even sovereignly guiding the circumstances that led to the “hard places” of these kids? In fact, doesn’t the Bible tell us that suffering will be part of the story God weaves for all who believe in him and follow him? You bet your tushy it does.

Thus these behaviors are sins, even if they are responses to the things that happened to these kids that were outside their control. Does that mean that we should ignore their past and treat them like they ought to know better? Of course not. And when I start buildling back up everything I’m dismantling right now, I hope to demonstrate that.

But just because kids have brains that process differently than our white-bread, middle class, American easy-peasy lives does not mean that their behavior stops being sin. And thus (and I’ll build more on this later), it’s not that these kids need to be treated differently than “the normal kids”, it’s that their sin needs to be dealt with in a way that knows how they were formed (Ps 103:14). But it is sin and it should be corrected as such, even if that method of doing so might be tailored differently.

ETC has no category for sin. Just “unhealthy”. An unhealthy person just needs a new diet. A sinful person needs a new heart. That’s apples and oranges.

A Matter of Foundations

In my last post, I drew attention to the ways that Empowered to Connect (ETC) and most other adoption resources label the backgrounds and behaviors of these kids as not “normal” or as “unhealthy”. My criticism of any resource that uses those terms is that it has to ground them is something objective, something timeless, an authority that stands outside of our foolish selves. As followers of Jesus, the only thing that could be that objective rule is Scripture.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. -Matt 7:24-27

Now, in saying “these words of mine”, Jesus certainly means all that he taught, which is in harmony with the full testimony of Scripture. Thus the words “breathed out by God” are useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training.” God’s word is our objective truth, the standard or the ruler by which everything else is measured.

To press the parable from Jesus a bit, the two houses built both had nice floor plans, all brick with lovely shutters and a spectacular back deck. So, you understand, the two houses end up looking quite similar. But after a while, you realize the second house looks a little crooked. And some of the mortar is starting to crack. And then the first big storm comes and waylays the whole house. See, it’s an easy thing to confuse lives (or in our case, resources) that have a lot of the same appearances of biblical truth and living that a follower of Jesus has with an actual follower of Jesus. But the foundations are incredibly different and that makes the difference between a house still standing and a pile of rubble. Just give it a little time…

The trouble with ETC is that it explicitly states that The Connected Child (TCC) should be the main resource to consult: “I believe you will gain most from this resource if you spend meaningful time reading and reflecting on what we have written in The Connected Child (from the Study Guide).” In fact, the study guide “Created to Connect” at ETC states that its purpose is “to illuminate the biblical background and parallels that support the guiding principles set out in The Connected Child” and “is designed as a companion to The Connected Child.” To be clear, TCC is not a Christian book. There is no mention of anything even remotely religious in it, much less Christian. So the main guide here is TCC and ETC stands as a “companion to” TCC. Thus the foundation is the content of TCC and from that the biblical explanations follow.

That sounds completely backwards. TCC literally has no solid foundation to it because it’s not rooted in the timeless truth of Jesus as the Word. Furthermore, every single bit of justification or grounding in TCC is based upon the understanding that “these” kids haven’t had the “normal” upbringing they “should have had” and thus they must have those “needs” met. But that only works so long as we agree on the “normal” and the “should have had” and the “needs”.

Now, perhaps I misunderstand their intention. Maybe the biblical truths were always there and always part of the foundation of both ETC and TCC. And perhaps they removed that biblical undergirding in order to make a book that would appeal to both Christian and non-Christian audiences. Two responses here: First, that sounds a lot like giving a baking recipe book to a friend, but saying, “I removed flour from all the ingredients because of your gluten intolerance.” Except that removing such a foundational ingredient destroys every single recipe and the only option to salvage anything is substitution, which will never match the quality of the original. Second, if TCC can stand alone without any biblical basis then Jesus is really nothing more than an add-on, the “optional” ingredient in the recipe that some take and some leave behind. And I just don’t get how the king and lord of the entire cosmos (and beyond!) could be an optional ingredient when he’s supposed to be the core element of the approach.

Either way, ETC comes across like taping Bible verses to methods. Instead, we should be looking for the principles to come from Scripture through which we discover our methods, even if some of those methods come out looking pretty similar in the end. The foundation sets the course for the rest of the house and if that foundation isn’t firm, the house will eventually show it. So while I have no doubt that many have found the perspectives and methods of ETC/TCC helpful, I think the trajectory being set is troubling. Because of that lack of grounding, I see some glaring problems which I’ll highlight in the next few posts.

Normal and Healthy?

distribution-159626_960_720What does a normal child look like? What does healthy development look like? How normal is normal?  This article and this article both highlight how the idea of “normal” is a relatively new construct and, aside from that, incredibly difficult to nail down. Especially since “normal” floats from culture to culture, decade to decade, region to region, even research sample to research sample.

What in the world has this got to do with adoption and Empowered to Connect (ETC)? One of the fundamental principles that goes into ETC and the broader world of at-risk/trauma kids is that they didn’t have a normal (or healthy) development. Here’s one example:

Reactive attachment disorder is a rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. (Mayo Clinic)
And another:
In an ideal world, a newborn is laid in his mother’s arms and cradled within minutes of birth. Soon the mother is feeding him while he rests on her breast and gazes into her eyes. If he is hungry or uncomfortable, his cries will elicit her attention and care. In this way, the child learns to trust adults and begins to explore the world through his physical senses. From the hour of birth, a well-tended baby is immersed in a soft and nurturing sensory bath. He feels the warmth of his mother’s body and hears the joy in her soothing sounds. He sees her smile, mirroring back his own preciousness, and they engage in the dance of emotional bonding. This is enormously important to his healthy development. She cuddles, feeds, and carries him, and his senses are awakened. They coo and smile at each other, and he discovers the joys of bonding and attachment and how to behave in synchrony with other humans. Through this simple shared activity, his brain begins to build the neurological pathways of learning and healthy social connections. (The Connected Child)

 What’s implicit here is that there is a normal, healthy, ideal way to raise children and an abnormal, unhealthy way to raise children. “So what?” you say. “Isn’t that an obvious thing?” Well, yes and no. Yes, that these kids have had a different upbringing than, say, me or my bio kids. And yes, because there are definitely differences between good and bad parenting and childhoods (more on this later). But also no, because the definition of “healthy” and “normal” is assumed and never proven. I mean, don’t we all know what a good, healthy, normal childhood looks like? If the Mommy Wars are any indication at all, then no, we can’t at all agree on what a normal, healthy childhood should look like. And that’s just in the US.

Let’s be honest here: “normal” means whatever the heck we want it to mean. Individually, it usually means whatever we’re used to, whatever we have decided is the right “normal”, what we’ve accepted (consciously or otherwise) as culturally “normal”, or, most often, a combination of the three. For something like the Mayo Clinic, it’s a socially driven construct (again, see the article at the top).

When you boil it all down, I’m pretty sure “normal” in most of these circles means “what most white, middle class Americans do and think.” (Maybe we could stretch “Americans” to “Westerners”.)

So, here’s the rub: most of what I see in ETC and related psychological material is an effort to take your abnormal child and make them normal. That’s not terribly explicit, but it is painfully implicit. These children have been raised in “unhealthy” ways and have learned “unhealthy” means of behavior. But what happens when our definitions of normal/healthy shift (as they do all the time)? What happens if we change cultures? What happens if we’re not white and middle class?

The approach is essentially grounded on a moving target with a particular cultural bent to it. And I find that highly troublesome, to say the least. For instance, Dr. Spock’s writings were revolutionary when they came out. Since then, some have carried on, some have been debunked, and some have simply been altered by the winds of time. Even over the last few decades, there have been significant shifts with family structures, self-esteem, discipline, and quality time, to name a few items.

So in approaching adoption, these kids all get labeled as “at-risk”, or from “trauma” or  “unhealthy” upbringings or “hard places”, but none of those labels are grounded in an objective standard of truth. And without an objective standard, we’re aiming at a moving, debatable target.

“But, Bill, don’t you think that children who were beaten severely or not fed or left in their own filth or used as sex slaves have had unhealthy childhoods?” Of course I do! “Don’t you think it’s unhealthy when children have learned to be perpetually scared or be manipulative or be violent or hoard or steal or defecate in the hallway or prey sexually on others?” Without a doubt! But I can also tell you why and it has nothing to do with socially acceptable behaviors or the most recent scientific survey or the latest parenting trend. If the Mayo Clinic (to use one example) and I end up agreeing from time to time on what “unhealthy” looks like, it’s because of common grace and not because we’re coming from the same place.

I expect nothing less from an unbelieving world. When there is no objective truth, standards have to be created instead of received. But with ETC, I don’t see any substantial difference. The main emphasis seems to be on fixing broken kids (though to be fair, it’s never labelled that crudely). But in so doing, they’ve adopted the definitions of an unbelieving world to set the standard of what is normal and what isn’t.

I’ve already hinted at it, but this is indicative of a larger problem I find with ETC regarding their foundation. And that’ll be the subject of the next post.