The night I sat down to write this post, I had just wrapped things up for the evening and shut off the bedroom light, when I heard a thump and a whimper just outside our bedroom door. Moments later, there was the pitter-patter of little feet up to our bed followed by the sounds of our three-year-old scaling the side of our bed to burrow in deeply between my wife and I. For the next hour, we took turns consoling our oldest son, who seemed to be upset for no reason. He wasn’t scared. He wasn’t sad. He wasn’t sick or hurting. He’d sit there and fidget and fuss, wedging himself in as tightly as possible, only to clamber back out and reposition himself a few moments later. After rubbing his back, smoothing his hair, whispering comforting words, and holding him tightly, he finally began to calm when my wife gently reminded him that he was our boy, that he was safe, and that he didn’t have to leave us. He drifted off to sleep at some point before midnight, which is when I finally took him back to his own bed. We slept relatively soundly ourselves until he came back in around 5:00 in the morning.
That was just another night in the life of adoptive parents. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen regularly. We’ve adopted two children from foster care and are in the process of adopting a third. They’re all toddlers, and anybody who has raised a family knows that toddlers can be a handful no matter what time of day it is. During our days, we deal with fussy, hungry children and our share of tantrums and behavior issues. We also deal with some things that are not-so-standard, though.
Like Much-Afraid in Hind’s Feet in High Places by Hannah Hurnard, our children deal with an unusual amount of fear. Our three-year-old has been with us for three years now (he’s nearly four, actually), but he panics for no apparent reason. That’s what was going on last night. From somewhere deep within his soul, a sense of loneliness and fear of being “taken” welled up within him. He’s seen foster children removed from our home before, and it always results in nightmares– giant hands dropping from the sky, ripping him or a foster sibling away, or tentacled monsters grasping at him from underneath his bed. The nightmares go away in time, but the fearfulness comes and goes. Our two-year-old son has night terrors and phantom pains in his legs, the consequence of a biological parent who broke his legs in four places when he was just two months old.
This fear leads to other behaviors as well. There is anger sometimes, a powerful emotional reaction when they feel like they’re not in control of the situation or not “a part of the moment.” While our oldest is a very social person with a broad vocabulary, he struggles to connect with new people or peers. He’s a bit hyper, possibly the result of being born exposed to a variety of drugs that his mother took illegally.
Like so many other adopted children, our kids face unique challenges. They can’t be treated like biological children, we’ve learned. Spanking works in many, many homes in America and numerous other cultures around the world and throughout history. It doesn’t work for us, and we don’t use it as a tool in our home. Victims of abuse, neglect, and abandonment don’t understand the “rod of correction” because they subconsciously mistrust the intentions of most adults. They’ve been failed, hurt, and given up on by adults in the past, and some portion of that memory continues with them into the future. Besides, spanking is sometimes used as a fast-an-easy method of getting results rather than a method of instruction. We’re simply not convinced it is as essential as some would have us believe. Another tool that isn’t in our child-rearing toolbox is “time outs.” Getting sent to your room may be a favorite in homes across the USA, but it backfires terribly in adoptive homes. What does a “time out” demonstrate to a victimized child? It makes them feel unloved, unwanted, and alone. They aren’t thinking about what they did wrong. They’ve been driven back to the land of fear and anger.
My point is that adopted kids need to be repaired and rebuilt. Adoptive parents are- in the human sense- called to be surgeons of both psyche and soul. It’s a daunting task, but one my wife and I cherish. As we have come to learn this truth, we’ve also learned some surprising things about God’s love for us. We are- after all- adopted children ourselves. The world, the Flesh, and the Devil have ravaged our souls. We are born into a fallen world, and we at times feel forsaken. Surrounded by addictions, we sometimes fall prey to them ourselves. We have felt the sting of abuse, even if we are our own captor, dwelling in prisons fashioned by our own hands. The memory of the past haunts us long after we have moved on.
Our Heavenly Father knows that He is not simply a Divine Parent, but He is also there to be a Healer. Have you ever wondered how He justifies being so merciful and gracious? I mean, what’s the basis for treating us so lovingly in spite of failings? To be certain, one answer is that His basis for doing so lies within Himself. I don’t mean to take the significance of that away. There’s another answer, though, that is also founded within Himself. He already knows what adoptive parents discover sooner or later. He knows that we are sinful because it is our nature to sin, just as foolishness is bound in the heart of a child. He further knows that we act- and react- because of fear. We get angry and push Him away because that is what the wounded do sometimes. We struggle to trust even Him because we’ve never known what it is like to trust before. Intimacy without fear or shame is a foreign concept. He can afford to be merciful and gracious to us because that’s the only way healing can happen.
So how do we discipline our adopted children? Rather than “time outs”, we have “time ins.” That’s not something new-agey, and it includes a subtle-yet-important difference. Rather than sending our children away for misbehavior, we keep them close. If they misbehave at the dinner table, they sit in a chair close to the table where they can calm down before continuing their meal. Instead of sending them to their rooms, they “get” to help us with a chore or some other task. To be sure, we establish ourselves as the authority, but our home is much more pleasant- and our children are much more obedient- when we do things in this way. Is this not the sort of thing God does for His children? He establishes His authority when necessary, but He also draws us closer to Himself. He disciplines us and matures us by spending time with us, not by sending us away until we’ve learned our lesson. He uses pain as a megaphone to rouse us from slumber, but only when absolutely and perfectly necessary. He has other far more gentle methods to bind up wounds, free from prison, and nurture and admonish His children.