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
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