Adoption Is Not About Me
How Adopted Children Are Perceived
When I tell people the story of how we got the boys, I've often heard this odd comment in response: "They must be so grateful."
Every time I hear that it stuns me a little.
I've had to reflect on why this idea leaves me speechless because it seems so normal to many other people, and here's the best I can make of it:
- It implies that adopted children are not as deserving of a good home and family as biological children. (After all, would you expect biological children to express constant gratitude that you allowed them to live in your home?)
- It suggests that adopted children would have the emotional awareness and intelligence to consciously compare where they've come from to where they are now, and in response, render a posture of gratitude. While less insidious than the previous notion, it demonstrates some naivety about how children, let alone children who've been victimized, tend to think and behave. I would go so far as to say that most people, regardless of their upbringing, do not think this way.
"They must be so grateful."
Emotional Needs Are Not Always Rational
During one of my first years of teaching, many years ago, I had my 6th graders start the year with a short autobiography. One of their first tasks was to map out what they intended to write in an informal outline, and they were able to draw pictures if this helped them express their ideas in the early stages of planning.
I'll never forget one girl's picture, illustrating the day she found her mother strung out on drugs and lying on the floor. The picture was complete with needles and all. What might you expect the corresponding narrative to convey? Her anger at her mother's selfishness? Grief that her mother had failed her as a parent? Fear of not having a responsible adult to look after her?
Actually, the essay was a tribute to the wonderful person she perceived her mother to me and reflected a desperate longing for her mother to improve so she could live with her once more.
I learned a few lessons then that I've seen repeated many times since:
- People naturally want to love their parents, flaws and all.
- Sometimes, it's easier to remain blind to their faults than to consciously deal with the consequences of reality.
- When you're a child with no frame of reference for "healthy", really messed up can seem totally normal. When I was very young, we did not have a lot of money. But I never considered myself "poor" . . . I didn't even know what that was until somebody told me.
Validate Their Story
Sometimes adopted children are not overly grateful because they don't realize that anything was wrong with their prior circumstances.
This brings me to the first important conclusion when it comes to parenting children who've been orphaned, and that is the importance of validating their background, no matter how abhorrent it seems to you (or it actually is).
This is not to say that the child doesn't deserve justice, and of course, the first step to creating justice is to name the abuse for what it is—saying, "What happened to you was wrong, and it's OK to feel sad and angry."
The approach depends on what the child is emotionally ready to handle at a particular stage of development. My second son was born with a hole in his face and was left on the street as a baby, as are many children born with special needs in China. In my mind, is it horrific? Yes. But when the time comes for this discussion, I can present this in a way that honors his parents and allows Michael to maintain dignity. I can emphasize, for example, that he was intentionally placed in a front of a hospital because his parents wanted him to be found by people who could help him.
And this will help him to feel valued.
Do Not Expect Anything in Return
If I am looking for gratitude, I need to examine why.
Now I want to be careful here—I am not saying there should be no expectations for a child's behavior. I want my boys to be polite and grateful in all aspects of life because it is part of being a decent human being.
No, here I'm talking about specifically expecting gratitude (and we can lump in with that affection, adoration, and obedience) from an adopted child just inherently because s/he is adopted. Adopting because we believe a child should or will feel or act a certain way that meets some emotional need we have as adults is a disaster waiting to happen, and it's not fair to the child. Kids are kids, and they behave as such. They can be sulky, self-absorbed, entitled (yes, sometimes even my adopted children at badly behaved moments "expect" burgers, fries, and ice cream), impolite, and disobedient. Now, when this occurs, it is met with a consequence . . . because I care about the kind of humans I am raising. But the point is that adopted children are free to experience the range of a child's feelings and behaviors because they have the comfort with us as parents, knowing that our acceptance of them is unconditional and not based on playing the role of "grateful orphan."
With that said, I can tell you that now, our children actually lavish us with affection (though for David it happened much more slowly because of his attachment disorder). This came as a complete surprise because, again, we had no expectations of grateful children. We just practiced responsive parenting to the best of our ability, and the results showed up naturally.
They also demonstrate tons of gratitude in different ways: Michael overflows with joy whenever he acquires some new trinket (a Happy Meal toy will entertain him for hours), and David panics whenever one of us is out of sight...not the healthiest form of gratitude, but there is no doubt that he wants to be with his mommy and daddy and does not want to go back to life without us.
We were created for unconditional love.