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.

Here are all the posts in our adoption series:

  1. Getting Real About Adoption
  2. Loving the Unlovable
  3. Sin in the Adopted Child
  4. Support for the Adoptive Parent
  5. Broken-Hearted Parents
  6. Some Clarifying Thoughts on Our Adoption
  7. Examining Adoption Resources (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 1)
  8. Normal and Healthy? (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 2)
  9. A Matter of Foundations (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 3)
  10. The Sins of Neurology  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 4)
  11. Idol Swapping  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 5)
  12. Setting the Course  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 6)
  13. Another Way Forward (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 7)
  14. The Therapy Our Children Need
  15. Who Are You Calling Normal?
  16. Optional Adoption
  17. How to Adopt for Almost Free (And No Fundraising!)
  18. What About “Those” Kids?
  19. Trying to Make Them Lovable

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.

Here are all the posts in our adoption series:

  1. Getting Real About Adoption
  2. Loving the Unlovable
  3. Sin in the Adopted Child
  4. Support for the Adoptive Parent
  5. Broken-Hearted Parents
  6. Some Clarifying Thoughts on Our Adoption
  7. Examining Adoption Resources (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 1)
  8. Normal and Healthy? (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 2)
  9. A Matter of Foundations (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 3)
  10. The Sins of Neurology  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 4)
  11. Idol Swapping  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 5)
  12. Setting the Course  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 6)
  13. Another Way Forward (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 7)
  14. The Therapy Our Children Need
  15. Who Are You Calling Normal?
  16. Optional Adoption
  17. How to Adopt for Almost Free (And No Fundraising!)
  18. What About “Those” Kids?
  19. Trying to Make Them Lovable

Examining Adoption Resources

One of the reasons I encouraged Courtney to share her struggles (our struggles, really, but mainly her voice) was because we both saw a void in the world of adoption: adoptive parents could admit to the beauty of adoption but had to stay silent about the painful and ugly. Or if they admitted to it, it had to always be in the past tense or with a gloss of pseudo-spirituality to cover the despair we so often felt. In shedding light on our journey, our goal was that we would point readers–namely those with similar experiences–to the sufficiency of Jesus for their situation and the goodness of our God, who knows exactly what it’s like to take broken children into his family.

Along the way, though, we’ve been pointed to different resources that were meant to assist in this adoption path. The biggest resource we’ve been directed to is The Connected Child and the supplementary materials available at empoweredtoconnect.org. I’ve read the book and sifted through a great deal of the material on the website. I find myself grateful to Empowered to Connect (ETC) for their efforts to help out struggling foster and adoptive parents. I love their emphasis on compassion for the kids in our care, because it’s so easy in the thick of life to sin against our kids through anger and frustration. I also really appreciate their emphasis on clear, concise instructions to simplify the message of our parenting. Along with that, I like their approach of creating a script of phrases to use with kids that have clearly defined meanings so that our kids have the best chance of trying to understand the instruction we’re giving.

Having said that, it may seem strange that we’ve not mentioned ETC before. We’ve not spoken about those resources because we’ve simply not found them as helpful as others have. At first, we thought we’d stay silent about our dissent, but upon further reflection, Courtney and I agreed that it might be good to detail why we’ve not found the resources helpful.

This isn’t about slamming the efforts of brothers and sisters in Jesus. Like I said, there’s much I’m grateful about with ETC and the other adoption resources out there. But we also want to point out that perhaps the efforts and methods aren’t really taking our kids where we want them to go. Despite the many great practical reminders and suggestions, I can’t advocate for ETC’s overall approach. In the next several posts, I hope to give more detail to our objections.

I’m honestly nervous to do this, because I’m going to offer some critique of a well-known and well-loved adoption resource. That alone is shaky territory and I have no desire to alienate our brothers and sisters simply over methodology. But aside from quibbling with some methods, my main objections have to do with the foundation and mindsets behind ETC. And so I critique because I also want to tell my Jesus family when I think the prevailing resource has some serious deficiencies. I think we have more to offer our children, adopted or otherwise.

Of course, criticism is easy. It’s nearly effortless to tear down and so much harder to build up. It is my prayer that my posts will not just tear down, leaving another void. Instead I hope to build up along the way an alternative view, one I think is grounded and centered in King Jesus, crucified and risen, and offering a hope that is simultaneously present and eternal.

Here are all the posts in our adoption series:

  1. Getting Real About Adoption
  2. Loving the Unlovable
  3. Sin in the Adopted Child
  4. Support for the Adoptive Parent
  5. Broken-Hearted Parents
  6. Some Clarifying Thoughts on Our Adoption
  7. Examining Adoption Resources (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 1)
  8. Normal and Healthy? (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 2)
  9. A Matter of Foundations (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 3)
  10. The Sins of Neurology  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 4)
  11. Idol Swapping  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 5)
  12. Setting the Course  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 6)
  13. Another Way Forward (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 7)
  14. The Therapy Our Children Need
  15. Who Are You Calling Normal?
  16. Optional Adoption
  17. How to Adopt for Almost Free (And No Fundraising!)
  18. What About “Those” Kids?
  19. Trying to Make Them Lovable

Some Clarifying Thoughts On Our Adoption

Since starting this series, we’ve had a handful of concerns from friends, which is totally understandable since we’ve been focusing on the “hard” of adoption instead of the “beautiful” of adoption. I wanted to write a few thoughts to give some clarification and give a clearer, fuller picture of our adoption story and our family.

First, according to the state, we’ve had a “successful” adoption. The kids’ case worker, Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), and all four therapists shared with us over and over their confidence in how things were going. Two of those six told us it was the most successful placement they had ever seen. Two others told us they wished they could invite other adoptive families into our home to watch us for tips and encouragement. The five who knew our children before we did talked frequently about how unrecognizable our kids were from their lives before, namely their new joy and how relaxed they were.

I stated in a post earlier that I tend to focus on the bad because it feels easier, but my reasons for doing so here are deeper than that.

Though I was hearing encouragement from everyone around me,  I didn’t feel the truth of it. I only saw that things felt different than they did with our other children, and I hated it. I felt dirty and worthless, only able to see failure. And when I went searching for help from other adoption sites/books, I would at worst hear the words “struggle” or “difficult,” words which didn’t seem strong enough. Then I would read tips about how to make things better for me and the kids. It wasn’t what I needed because mere tips weren’t sufficient, and so I began to believe I was completely alone, the only adoptive mom who felt the way I did. No amount of telling me how “good of a job” I was doing was silencing the inner whispers Satan was throwing my way. I was convinced I was the least qualified woman to adopt.

Six months into our placement, I was at a Christmas party. Another mom who had adopted older children four years earlier approached me. She asked, “How are things going with the adoption?”

I stuck with my normal, safe reply: “Things are hard but okay.”

She looked straight at me, like she already knew there was more to that answer, and said, “It’s okay to say things aren’t going well. I always ask that question of other adoptive parents because I assume things aren’t going well.”

For the next hour and a half, I shared openly and wept. She wept with me and also shared her own difficult story.

It was the first time I realized I wasn’t alone.

After that, I started sharing more openly with others. And I found I really wasn’t alone. In fact, it was almost unheard of not to go through the emotional roller coaster I was riding.

So in my writing, I chose to focus on that side of adoption. The articles/blogs/books that give the “how-tos” or talk about the beauty and good are easy to find. And they’re helpful. But I didn’t think I needed to settle there. I wanted to write and share for those who couldn’t find hope in those resources.

This series isn’t for everyone. It’s for those in the trenches now, who–like I did–need to know they aren’t alone. It’s for those who are helped by seeing the real, raw inner workings of our hearts, and to read the truths that have been encouraging for us in the midst of mess and madness. I don’t want to write while looking back, but while being right there with you, less than two years into the process.

Second, we are aware of and have taken advantage of many of the most popular adoption resources out there. We have researched the psychological side of our children. We aren’t all discipline and tough love. We show much affection to our children, working to help them feel safe and loved. Having said that, our emphasis on this blog has been “raising kids in Jesus,” so our primary concern isn’t psychology but biblical truths rooted in the love of Jesus. Bill will be posting in the next few weeks about how we have tried to understand the relationship between psychology and the Bible in our parenting.

Third, you’ll read us referencing our daughter more often than our son. Our son was two when we got him while our daughter was six. Though we still see some effects from the adoption in our son, at this point his main issue is that he’s four, not that he’s adopted. 🙂 According to those closest to us, “He’s all Bell!” Though many of our feelings toward him are reflected in our posts and still apply, there’s been a vast difference between our child who doesn’t really have memories of his past and our child who has many. Both are a challenge for us on a variety of levels, but more of our emotional energy tends to go toward our daughter. She has three times as long of trauma as our son, and we often wonder if it will take her three times as long (or longer!) to really rest in her new identity.

Finally, as with all our posts, our goal is not to make us feel better about adoption. We don’t want to delve into what else we could do but remember what’s already been done through Jesus. We want to remember we’re loving these kids because we were first loved. And each and every time we mess it up, that screw-up was already paid for on the cross, utterly destroying any condemnation or guilt. We ultimately want to remember all our children already have a good Dad, and we want both our hope and theirs to be in Him, not us.

Here are all the posts in our adoption series:

  1. Getting Real About Adoption
  2. Loving the Unlovable
  3. Sin in the Adopted Child
  4. Support for the Adoptive Parent
  5. Broken-Hearted Parents
  6. Some Clarifying Thoughts on Our Adoption
  7. Examining Adoption Resources (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 1)
  8. Normal and Healthy? (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 2)
  9. A Matter of Foundations (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 3)
  10. The Sins of Neurology  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 4)
  11. Idol Swapping  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 5)
  12. Setting the Course  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 6)
  13. Another Way Forward (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 7)
  14. The Therapy Our Children Need
  15. Who Are You Calling Normal?
  16. Optional Adoption
  17. How to Adopt for Almost Free (And No Fundraising!)
  18. What About “Those” Kids?
  19. Trying to Make Them Lovable

Broken-Hearted Parents

In light of Court’s last post, I wanted to give an example of a friend—a brother—stepping up in our need and loving us when all we could see was our own failure. In a particularly low moment, I sent my pastor-elder Dan this text late at night as I was struggling with my own failures in trying to help direct this child after an especially challenging series of weeks with her. Here was my text: “Man. How do you love a kid who despises you and has only one life mission of worshiping herself–and thus continually coming up with new and varied ways to rebel? How can I love her when I despise her? What do I do when it feels like her heart is harder than the hardest stone and will never ever be turned to flesh?”

Dan heard my pain—not just this time, but every time I’d shared with him—and didn’t pounce. He didn’t latch onto my angry frustration at not being able to make a dent in steering my kid’s heart toward Jesus. He didn’t attack my clear self-righteousness and finger pointing. He saw the hurt and failure, and instead, emailed me this shortly thereafter (lightly edited):

My heart breaks for you, bro, really. I’ve hated that we haven’t been able to help you guys. I know things come up but also, we don’t know what to do and feel so ill equipped to really help. (Please don’t take that as us not being willing because we are completely willing to step in even though we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing.)

So first of all I want you to know that your daughter’s rejection of you is not a reflection of how “good” of a dad you are. Heck, look at Yahweh. Perfect Dad, providing just the right amount of “spoiling” vs. chores in the garden. The perfect amount of “family time” vs. free time. Perfect in EVERY way… boom! Rejection!!!  With Cain, God provided perfectly loving and wise counsel  which Cain rejected. Yahweh chose a people. Not a spectacular people of greatness but to the contrary and He adopted them to be His (see where I’m going with this ;)). He set His love on them and cared for them and provided for them but the norm for that people was rejection of their Father. But He kept pursuing them… HE would bless them with a good crop or pregnancy or some other blessing and they would run and praise Baal for it! The “dad” that used them and abused them and only took from them! The bastard that would leave them naked and beaten and he’s THE ONE THEY LOVED!!! Not the good Dad, the One that chose them for no other reason than to bring them in to be part of His family. But He didn’t give up on them. You know the  story… The cycles over and over… The relentless pursuit… The repetitive rejection… The ultimate rescue…

You know who we are in the story, bud. So the only way you’re going to love YOUR child that despises you is to be overwhelmed by Jesus’ love for you. I’m praying that for you right now as I type and my screen is a blur through my tears as I sob for you. Please, Holy Spirit, fill my brother with your love. Overtake him with the depth and width and height of your love. Help his heart break for his little girl who is rejecting him but far worse is rejecting YOU! Give him a love for her that is beyond comprehension because it’s rooted in a love that he received first. Use that love to melt her heart of stone.

I’m here for you brother, even if I don’t really know how to be. Please tell us. If it means taking the kids away sometimes or a combination of certain kids.

I love you. Be encouraged. You have not thwarted God’s plans and in fact He is working this for good. Hard to believe, right? Well, it’s true. Our Daddy’s electing love proves it day by day!

One final thought… Your little girl has had unthinkable things done to her by the people that were supposed to protect her. I’ve not dealt with abuse like that but my guess is that she has a mangled concept of trust, love, family, fun, etc.—a bunch of things we probably take for granted. I just say that to say that it could be a VERY long road but your hope is not in your daughter getting better. It’s that one day this will seem like a VERY light affliction because of the glory that will be revealed…

Here are all the posts in our adoption series:

  1. Getting Real About Adoption
  2. Loving the Unlovable
  3. Sin in the Adopted Child
  4. Support for the Adoptive Parent
  5. Broken-Hearted Parents
  6. Some Clarifying Thoughts on Our Adoption
  7. Examining Adoption Resources (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 1)
  8. Normal and Healthy? (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 2)
  9. A Matter of Foundations (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 3)
  10. The Sins of Neurology  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 4)
  11. Idol Swapping  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 5)
  12. Setting the Course  (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 6)
  13. Another Way Forward (reviewing The Connected Child, Pt 7)
  14. The Therapy Our Children Need
  15. Who Are You Calling Normal?
  16. Optional Adoption
  17. How to Adopt for Almost Free (And No Fundraising!)
  18. What About “Those” Kids?
  19. Trying to Make Them Lovable