Telling My Kids Their Stories

All four of my children love to hear stories about themselves – particularly when those stories are relayed with joy and laughter. We all love the story about Atticus making pee dinosaurs on the couch (though we try not to tell it too often when he is around, for fear of encouraging future artistic endeavors of this sort!). We all find it hilarious that when I took the girls to our Mandarin teacher’s baby shower, FangFang was so excited to interact with other Chinese people that she approached all of them, saying, “Ni hao ma?” (“How are you?”)…but not being exactly fluent in Mandarin anymore, she had no idea what any of them were saying and followed up their responses with another enthusiastic, “Ni hao ma?” Miranda likes to hear about how, when we were traveling to China to adopt Madeleine CaiQun, as our airplane for our international flight taxied away from the gate in Detroit, she announced, “We’re almost to China!” We all laugh about how Matt used to pull Madeleine CaiQun’s pants up super high every time he changed her diaper, and she’d run back into the room, filled with glee, announcing to Miranda and me, “What Baba do?!?!”

(no super high pants – but I just couldn’t resist including a photo of my precious little Madeleine CaiQun from those early days home!)

Those stories are adorable and fun, but each of my children have deeper stories, the narrative arcs of their lives. For my two biological children, not only do they have big picture stories, but they have frequent photos, preserved “coming home from the hospital” outfits, favorite baby toys, and our recollections of their everyday moments. For my adopted children, it’s a bit different. In both of their cases, until they reached about 2 years old, I really have just a few pieces of paper and a couple photos for each of them. I can’t tell them what they smelled like as I snuggled their tiny newborn bodies against me, and I can’t tell them what their first foods or favorite toys were. And that makes the information and the photographs that we do have that much more precious. Those details are sacred.

FangFang asks with regularity, “Mom, you tell me my whole story?” And I walk her through it, in broad 4-year-old terms, from day one of her life until now, telling her what we know of her life. She delights in that and loves to hear it all, again and again. When I leave out details, she asks about those – “Mom, you tell me about the bed where I sleep when we were in China?” Some of the interest in hearing her story is, I expect, about seeking reassurance that we are permanent, and some of it is a straightforward desire to know and hear her own story.

And this week, Madeleine CaiQun asked, in a quiet moment, if I would tell her her whole story. “Not with everyone, though. Just you and me and Miranda. Is it my choice who I want to hear my story?”

“Yes, it is your story, and it is always your choice who you want to share it with.”

And so, as God would have it, my mom has been visiting this week, so I was able to leave the little kids downstairs, so I could sit upstairs with just Madeleine CaiQun and pull out that special folder, containing all of the documents I have about my precious girl’s first years. I got out her referral file folder, as well as the other sparse documents and photos we have from her life before us, and she and I sat together, just the two of us, and looked through them all. I read to her the description of her that the orphanage submitted with her file, all the details of her finding spot and what the orphanage officials shared about their impressions of her, what they wrote about the special need with which they had labelled her.

She has, of course, known her story from the beginning of her days with us. We’ve continually sketched out for her a developmentally appropriate outline of it. But this week was the first time we’d put all the pieces entirely together and spelled it all out for her precisely. And it was good. She needs to know, and she deserves to know, and, at almost 8, she’s ready for the details.

After we looked through the artifacts of her history, she and I snuggled in bed with Miranda joining us, too, and she asked me to tell her the whole story of what we know of her life and her coming into our family, from beginning to end, and I did.

She had some questions, as we talked about the particulars, and I answered them as accurately and as kindly as I could. She deserves those gentle, honest answers, and she deserves to have them from me. Her story is hers, and even I do not own its details. It is hers to know and to share as she chooses.

I expect that Matt and I will continue to talk through our girls’ stories with them in the years to come. We are all continually making sense of who we are and from where we came, and adoption adds another layer of complexity to that investigation. I’m proud to walk with my girls on their journeys and hope that I can honor them and their stories now and in the years to come.

Note: As my kids are getting older, we have increasing discussions about their comfort level with information and stories I share on my blog, and Madeleine CaiQun has authorized the sharing of this blog post.

FAQ – My Child is So Controlling and Manipulative! What do I do?!

In a large Facebook parenting group that I was recently asked to help moderate, we see certain questions come up over and over again. One of those questions is some form of the following: “My child wants to be in control of everything,” or, “My child is so manipulative,” or “My child is constantly engaging in control battles with me,” all followed by the query, “What do I do?!?!”

I recently wrote a post for that group in an attempt to provide a broad framework for understanding how to address that question, and I’m sharing the response here more publicly.

There are a couple key points to understanding how to respond and what to do. First – it is worth noting that control, in and of itself, is not generally a need. As one of my co-moderators pointed out, if you look at hierarchies of needs proposed in the field of psychology, “control” is not one of them. For instance, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists physiological needs (like food, water, and shelter), safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and finally, self-actualization. Nowhere in there is “control” listed as a need – but rather, it would be understood as a means to pursuing the meeting of those needs.

The obvious and important follow-up question would be: what need is my child attempting to meet by pursuing control? If control is not a need in and of itself, but rather an attempt to meet a need, what is the need our children are trying to meet? We need to be detectives and attempt to find the answer to that question. Our children are precious souls. One of our core values in this group is that, “We believe that every child is precious, infinitely valuable, and worthy of love and respect, regardless of their history or challenges.” Let’s really commit to viewing our children that way. When we tell their stories, even to ourselves, with words like, “My child is a manipulative jerk,” we are not honoring our children or their stories. We can, instead, ask ourselves what underlying need is beneath the behavior, working to view our children in the best light possible and understand them and their stories.

Many of our children have come from hard places. They may have learned, through years of experience, that adults are not reliable. They may have learned that there will not always be enough food. They may have learned that they can trust no one else to provide and care for them. Is it any wonder that they would crave control? It often takes years of consistency in our provision and care, years of building trust, before the strength of the messages we’re trying to send – “I will care for you. You are safe here.” – can truly begin to rival the strength of the messages our kids have internalized from their time before us. Even for children who are not from hard places, their desire for control has sources and reasons – and our job as their parents is to help them figure out what those are.

Then we can acknowledge our children’s fear. We can put words to their feelings. We can empathize with them. As they grow, we can help them to understand why their brains operate in this way.

We can also provide the combination of structure and nurture that begins to combat our kids’ feelings of lack of safety.

An essential part of that is sharing control. Our children need to know that they have a voice. Yes, you are the parent, and you are in charge – of course. But your children need to see that you will listen to them, that you hear them when they communicate what they need. Prioritize your “nos” and give “yeses” when you can. Whenever possible, reserve your “no” for situations in which safety is a true concern; and try to create an environment in which you can minimize the number of “nos” you need to give. Whenever possible, say yes. Yes, you may have that piece of gum. Yes, you may have a snack. Yes, you may choose your own outfit today. Yes, we can play outside. Yes, you may have a compromise. Yes, yes, yes. I am in charge, but I do not need to have sole control over every area of our lives.

As our kids grow, we can challenge them in small ways – set the bar low and begin to build their tolerance for a “no” – but that is always done in the framework of love and wanting to see our children grow, and it’s not the first step. We, as parents, are in a unique position of understanding and building relationships with our children and ultimately teaching them that they can trust, that they can experience safety, and that they can get their needs met without attempting to take control.

Last, and this is HUGE – is the observation that if there are control battles going on between us and our children, that means that we are also fighting to maintain control in these situations. We, as parents, are seeing whatever is happening with our children from a framework of control – and that means it is worth considering whether we ourselves are predisposed to view the world in general through a lens of control. That has nothing to do with our children – it’s about us. If this is true of us, before we can help our children, we need to do some hard work ourselves. How do I know? Because this is me. I crave control. It took a lot of self-reflection, prayer, and counseling to figure out why I like to feel in control, when that tendency is strongest, how to pay attention to my mind and body to notice when I’m feeling that desire for control, and what to do when it happens. In parenting, we have a responsibility for recognizing what we bring to the table and dealing with our own junk. As I do that, I am increasingly able to understand my children’s points of view and share control with them. Let’s let control be another area in which we work with our children, not in opposition to them.

Witnessing the Power of Connection

Matt and I have, for years, embraced the parenting philosophy often known as trust-based relational intervention (TBRI) or, to use more commonplace terminology, parenting with connection. One of the tenets of this philosophy relates to the idea that corrective discipline should be designed to teach, not to punish. That part is easy enough to grasp (though sometimes difficult to practice!), but one element of the philosophy that has taken us longer to really understand – and to implement – has been the importance of the work of relationship-building outside of situations of conflict.

If we want our kids to respect us and be willing to work with us when the heat is on, we have to make the investments in our relationships with them ahead of time – not to mention that relationship investment is just a huge part of loving someone. In some ways, we’ve been doing that from day one. Wanting to have relationships with our children is one of the primary reasons we homeschool, and I obviously have a great deal of time with all of our kids during the day. But the fact is that we’re also very task-oriented during much of that time together. During school time we are, obviously, doing school. I take one child with me each week to go grocery shopping, and we do get some good time together while we’re out, but the focus is still on the task of grocery shopping. Honestly, with four kids, it’s hard to make time for pure, individual relational connection, but we’ve known for a while now that it’s important, and we’ve been trying to make time for it. I’ve been doing some one-on-one dates with kids, and I’ve tried to find other opportunities for individual connection (or connection with smaller groups of kids) throughout the day, and that has been so good. Sometimes it looks like asking a child to go choose a book to read together. Sometimes it looks like playing our Teddy Bear Memory game together. Sometimes it looks like letting a child choose something to make with me in the kitchen.

And it has brought me so much joy recently to see growing moments of connection between Matt and our kids and to witness the fruit of his growing pursuit of them. One night, as he and I discussed ways to cultivate empathy in and connect with our big kids, Matt proposed that we start reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with them, as he remembers reading those books as a touchstone of his childhood. As he reads, Madeleine CaiQun curls up next to him, and both girls are so excited for all four of us to be reading these great books together. They’re really into the stories, and they love that connecting time.

And the other day, one of our kiddos was having a difficult time after really working hard on some challenging math concepts. She was totally dysregulated, unable to play well with the other kids, and uninterested in engaging with me or working on her own in any suggestion I made. Matt asked her to come down to the studio and make some artwork with him. Half an hour later, she emerged, totally regulated, with artwork to distribute to everyone as gifts.

We are seeing more spontaneous affection, more willingness to work through periods of dysregulation – and more connection in general. Those moments of investing in relationships with our kiddos are so precious and so important!

Access Matters

I’m sorry to have to admit that, for most of my life, I was pretty oblivious to issues of accessibility and disability rights. It took exploring adoption through a special needs program to begin to open my eyes, and it took adopting a child who actually has a medical need that is considered a real disability for me to begin to truly see. And I’m still learning – but I see more than I used to see.

Everywhere we go, everywhere we look, there are barriers to access.

Do I want to go to a park? Do I want to take my kids to play at a playground? Do we want to go to church (did you know that churches are exempt from the ADA?)? Do I want to sign my children up for a group or activity? Do we want to hire a baby-sitter to watch our children? Do we want to take advantage of the childcare advertised as being provided in conjunction with an event?

Because one of the members of our family has a disability, none of those activities are ever straightforward for us. Every single one requires advance planning, maybe scouting out a location, maybe explaining our situation to whoever is in charge.

Even the language that we, as a society, use to talk about disability and access is often awkward. I cringe when I hear the phrase, “wheelchair bound.” Does this look like a child who is “bound” to and restricted by her wheelchair?

I’d argue not. FangFang’s wheelchair is an amazing tool that allows her greater access to the world around her than she would otherwise have. Without it, she would have almost no “social mobility” – the ability to move herself around in public places. At home, she is quite mobile – she can butt-scoot or crawl to get herself almost anywhere, including up and down stairs – but butt-scooting down the aisles of Target isn’t exactly within our social mores. It’s true I could put her in a stroller, but in that situation, I’m pushing her around, and she has no control over where she goes. At four, just like other four-year-olds, she wants to have some freedom to explore her world, and it’s entirely appropriate for her to have that. That is what her wheelchair offers for her.

FangFang knows there are things that other kids her age can do that she can’t. She doesn’t often communicate that it bothers her…but when we find ways to facilitate her participation and her independence, her excitement is palpable. She has been potty trained for months, but because she doesn’t walk independently, and she’s so tiny, she has always relied upon me to assist her in the bathroom, even as she has seen her younger brother use the bathroom on his own. This week she received a custom-made step-stool, a modified version of this one, that allows her to be almost entirely independent in the bathroom. She is beyond thrilled.

It’s true, providing for access is expensive. It’s almost never efficient. But don’t the lives of people with disabilities matter? They’re people, right? My daughter who doesn’t walk independently is still a person, still an image-bearer of the Living God, worthy of respect and dignity, right? And my friend’s daughter, who is deaf? And another friend’s son living with HIV? We, as a society, should not be setting up systems that perpetuate exclusion. None of us benefit from that situation. Right? Do you believe that with me?

I hope you do. But sometimes I wonder. Maybe other people don’t? If they did, would it be this hard?

It breaks my heart that I am going to have to, at some point, teach FangFang to advocate for herself in a world that, in so many ways, is not built for her. I am so thankful for the ways in which we as a country have grown in inclusion – for the ADA, for IDEA, and more. But we still have so far to go. And as hard as the mental back-and-forth is for me, the mother of a child with disabilities (I need more help – I literally cannot do X unless someone else helps me; but who am I to request additional help, beyond what everyone else gets, when I know people already have a lot on their plates; what should I do here?), I am committed to the fight, for my child and for those who come after her; would you like to join me? I don’t want them to have to fight so hard. And I wear my new shirt to remind myself of the future for which I’m fighting.

 

Spring Break Excitement…Or Not

You may be wondering what a family of six that is saving money for a fun summer trip (as well as continuing to rebuild the emergency savings account that was wiped out with the last adoption!) chooses to do for spring break. It turns out…not much. Well, that’s not exactly true. We’ve been doing a lot – it’s just that none of it is particularly exciting.

In fact, with the exception of a blissful 36 hours in which everyone in our home was fever-free, we have had at least one sick child every day for the last 11 days. We’ve had runny noses, coughs, and fevers, and yesterday we added a confirmed ear infection to the litany of afflictions. The downside of having a lot of children is that illnesses can slowly make their way through them, one at a time, rendering at least portions of the family home-bound for long periods of time. We’re thankful it’s not worse, but this is getting pretty old!

In a way, it’s been nice that the weather has been so yucky – 40s, maybe 50, cloudy, rainy, and muddy. At least we haven’t felt like we’re missing out on much! Even though this week is Matt’s spring break, the kids and I are plugging away at school. We may as well do school now, when weather is yucky and everyone feels bad, so we have more time to enjoy the fun, warm, sunny days when they arrive.

dinner table school

We also have a number of medical needs in our family, and poor Matt is at my mercy this week, as I’ve scheduled as many appointments and meetings as possible to try to avoid having to drag all 4 children to everything. So far we’ve tackled an eye doctor appointment for one child, a meeting about access to our church’s children’s programs for one of our kids, an unexpected pediatrician appointment to confirm the ear infection, a cardiology appointment for Matt, and we tried to do an endocrinology appointment for two of our kids…but, for the first time (which actually might be impressive, given the number of appointments we have? or maybe it’s still just depressing) I had the day wrong, and they told us our appointment is actually tomorrow. Sigh. Tonight I’ll meet with another adoptive mom to talk some adoption stuff, and tomorrow we’ll do the actual endocrinology appointment and hit a physical therapy appointment. It’s all stuff that needs to be done…but it’s not exactly Disneyworld 😉

I am thankful that we live in an era in which medical care is readily available. I’m thankful for our high quality health insurance that allows us to pursue that care without worry. It has not escaped my notice that not everyone has that right. My child who woke up with an ear infection doesn’t have to suffer longer than necessary. And since we need to take care of all of these specialist appointments, it is so nice to be able to do it during a week when Matt is around. This is part of what life with a medically complex child and others affected by various medical issues is all about. We knock out the appointments, do some school around them all, and try to get in some bits of family fun, as well <3

I hope your spring break is more exciting than ours – but also that if you are a family who has weeks like this, filled with a never-ending stream of appointments, that you can see the grace in the ability to do that, too.