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.

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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