Earlier this month, B.J. and I had the privilege of 'attending' the Orphan Summit at Saddleback Church online through streaming video. This was a three day conference that featured speakers like Dennis and Barbara Rainey, Rick Warren, Carolyn Twietmeyer, and Karen Purvis. Fortunately for us, Karen Purvis' breakout session happened to be scheduled in the main conference auditorium, so they streamed it. She was fascinating to say the least. As a researcher with an earned PhD in Child Development, she has studied children from 'hard places' as she refers to them. These are kids who didn't have the advantage of a parent to nurture and care for them as infants or those children who suffered trauma and/or abuse. These are your typical adopted kids. She spoke about the different brain transmitters and how they are completely out of balance in these children. She talked about how children who have come from hard places can't access their whole brain because they are living in 'fight or flight' mode and only have limited access to anything other than the brain stem. We could have listened to her for hours.
Of great interest to me was her talking about the attachment cycle where an infant expresses a need (i.e. cries) and the caregiver responds and soothes the child (meets the need - food, change, comfort, company, etc.). She talked about how this happens over 100,000 times in the first year of life and the child then learns that the world is safe, that adults can be trusted, and that they can be relied upon. This is the foundation for healthy attachment. Children in orphanages or abused/mistreated children don't have this cycle being met. Instead, they have a need and they express it (cry) and they are either ignored or hurt which teaches them that the world is not a safe place and that they can't rely on anyone but themselves. It also causes them to spend most of their time in fight or flight mode which actually destroys brain connections (from the constant flood of cortisol and other stress hormones).
The reason I was so fascinated with her teaching, besides the fact that we are adopting a little girl from an institution where she probably has not had her early needs met, is that I see a lot of similarities in the maladaptive behaviors of children from hard places and children from ordinary families. Our society has moved away from parenting children the way God parents us and instead has moved towards a 'plastic parenting' model where babies are scheduled and every attempt is made to allow the parents' life to continue as 'normal' even after the arrival of the newborn.
How God parents us is dependent on what life stage we are in. As newborn Christians, God is responsive and near. He doesn't go silent on a new believer. He doesn't let them struggle through a difficult time without a sense of His nearness. He is there. He responds. He meets the needs.
As we mature as believers, how God parents us changes, much like the shifts that parents need to make as children grow older. Just like a preschooler working on a challenging puzzle, sometimes, we are struggling through something in our life. We ask God for help, but no help seems to come. God is there, but we aren't getting the help we thought we would get. Just like that preschooler who asks mommy for help and mommy encourages the child to keep trying and to remember how he/she did puzzles in the past with mommy's help, God sometimes lets us struggle and doesn't rescue us because He knows that because of our foundation in Christ, in the struggle, we can grow. He is there and He won't let us struggle beyond what our maturity is capable of, but sometimes, He allows us to be tested.
So much of parenting today is about us. We want our kids to sleep through the night – so we can finally get some sleep. We want our kids to eat/nurse well – so we can get a break. We want our kids to self-entertain – so we can have some time to ourselves. We want our kids to go in the nursery at church – so we can 'worship God without distraction'. We want to continue to live our lives in the same way we did before our children came along and we get annoyed at this little bundle of demandingness so that when someone/something comes along that promises to make this whole parenting thing easier, we jump right in. We excuse it by saying that to be 'good parents' we have to meet our own needs. We buy the swings, gliders, bouncy seats, vibrating toys, exersaucers, bumbos, car seats, strollers, educational videos in hopes that these will deliver on the promise of 'normalcy', but there is nothing about parenting that is normal. Or maybe we buy these things so that we can help our child to grow and reach their full potential without realizing that what our children need is us. Just like we need a relationship with God – not just religion, our kids need us – not stuff. God uses our children to refine us, grow us, show us our selfishness, and allow us to become more like Him. God doesn't take a new Christian and put them in a fun youth group and then sign off. He doesn't pass that responsibility off on others. He is God the Father and He parents us, tenderly, wisely, intentionally, so that we can grow and mature as believers.
Much of what Dr. Purvis deals with in her book is how to reach children who have not had their early needs met. It is a powerful book and many of the behaviors that she deals with and explains in her book match up to ordinary kids in today's society as well as kids from hard places. It makes you wonder if there is so much similarity in behaviors between both groups of kids then maybe we as parents need to take a hard look at our parenting approach and see if it is truly lining up with a Godly parenting model or if we have bought into the modern parenting that is destroying this generation of children.
I think every parent should read "The Connected Child" - whether they are adopting or not. It provides invaluable information about the way the brain forms and why interactions with parents are the foundation for a lifelong ability to learn and connect with others. Mom and Dad are more important than they realize and this book helps to show why.
If you want to read more about how to interact and play with your child and the importance of those early interactions, I also recommend "Bright from the Start" which also discusses the need for the parents to play with and interact with their children and gives lots of ideas to get you started.