(Warning: Long post ahead!)
I think I've blogged before about this topic but I wanted to address it again because I think it's a tough issue for most parents and because we've been seeing some of the fruits of our labour in certain areas of our family life.
Shortly before Seth and Lizzie came home more than two years ago, an online blogging friend who had also adopted older children from Ethiopia, said to me that some of the best advice she'd received from another adoptive parent was not to let the kids have whatever they wanted when they joined our family. It is very, very easy, she explained, for children who have had nothing to suddenly experience a feeling of Nirvana when they come to their new home and country where everything is seemingly available. That euphoria easily develops into a sense of entitlement and it's understandable from a child's perspective: When you have no possessions of your own whatsoever and then come to a new home where you have your own room/bed/toys/teddies/lots of food/grocery stores/a car/etc/etc/etc/etc (which we who have been born this way consider to be staples), a child readily adopts a perspective that they can choose what they want just like their new mommy might pick apples from the produce department instead of mangos.
I took this other mom's advice to heart. For months and months after my kids came home, I gave them very little that they asked for. I felt a little on the mean side for doing it, but I was determined. When we went grocery shopping Seth, who was utterly astounded by the aisles and aisles of food, would point to something that he wanted and fully expect that I would simply take it off the shelf and we would put it in our car and take it home with us. There was no concept of money...all he could see was the availability of things that they had done without for their entire lives. I said "no" every time. He wanted grapes, I put melon into the cart, even if grapes had been on my list. Lizzie wanted bread, I bought buns. Seth wanted xyz for a snack and I would say gently that I was sorry but I was serving abc for snack.
Really, for months and months I did this. I guess my reasons were really threefold. First is what I've already stated - I was determined that they would not develop a sense of entitlement. Second, I knew early on that the relationship between Seth and me needed to be worked out in such a way that I was the alpha in the relationship. This was a boy who was terrified to relinquish control and be dependent on anyone - and it's easy to understand why this would be the case. But still, he needed to learn that Geoff and I would take care of him and that we would provide for his needs - not necessarily his wants, but his needs. The third reason I'll discuss in a few moments.
It was very hard to be so strict because we'd waited so long for our beloved new children and because they'd been through so much. We wanted to give them everything, wanted somehow to 'make up' for the trauma they'd been through. We had the means, and we had the will, to give them whatever we could. It was hard to say no.
But say "no" I did...a lot.
When this experience of Mommy being in charge sunk in after several months, I expanded my repertoire. When Matthew needed clothing or something else that I had to buy for him, the kids and I would go shopping together for whatever it was that Matthew needed, and I bought only for him. When Seth needed something, we all went out and I bought what was needed only for him. Same with Lizzie. Even if two kids were in need of something at the same time, I bought for only one at a time, and saved the other child for the next week.
Frankly, it was hard on me to do it this way. First, because I ended up having to run more errands because I refused to combine errands for different kids. But second, and more challenging for me, was having to deal with the screams and cries of unfairness from the kids for whom I wasn't purchasing anything that day. I was sympathetic and would comfort that child(ren) in need of comfort, would acknowledge over and over that it wasn't fair, and emphasize simultaneously over and over that no, I would not be buying anything for the other children that day.
I was also careful to not maintain a certain order of things. So let's say Seth had a need for new shoes; just because it was his 'turn' one week didn't mean that Lizzie would be the next to receive something and then Matthew, and so on and so on. In fact, if one child was struggling more than another with watching a sibling receive something, I was careful to ensure that the one struggling more was not the next recipient.
Does it sound harsh to you? I surely felt it at times. But here's comes the third reason why it was very important to me to say "no" a lot: I knew, knew, in my heart that they needed to understand that life isn't always fair and they don't just get to have something because we have the means to provide it or because their sibling received something. I wanted/want to help them learn, deep down, in these tender years, while I'm still their full time caregiver, that life isn't fair and that they will survive...and even flourish despite the lack of fairness.
You see, this was symbolic for me of the unfairness that had been dealt to Lizzie and Seth already (and, in a different way to Matthew, who had such a massive adjustment when his siblings came home). Life had already not treated them 'fairly.' And I knew, believed deep in my heart, that in order for my younger kids to be able to cope with their huge past losses and traumas, their past unfairnesses, that they needed to grieve the smaller things first, the smaller things in life that didn't feel fair...and know that they would survive.
In fact, the more I learn about the brain, the more convinced I am that this is a good approach. Did you know that when we grieve the smaller things in life that we cannot change (those things that we experience abject futility about and grieve), when we come to the point where we actually adapt because we have grieved and accepted that which we cannot change, our brain actually takes that experience and applies it to the bigger things in our lives. So by experiencing the futility associated with not being able to get what they want, by feeling the sadness over how unfair life is that sibling #1 receives new shoes and not siblings #2 or #3, my children's brains were actually also simultaneously processing the futility of life's unfairness in having been relinquished to an orphanage and having no choice about starting a new life, and on and on. The brain is utterly amazing in this way.
Experience of Futility -> Attempts to Change the Outcome -> If no change possible, Frustration, which hopefully leads to -> Grief/sadness (if enabled by caregiver) -> Understanding that one has survived -> Adaptation (true resilience).
It took well over a year...in fact, probably closer to eighteen months. It happened around the time that Seth started making strides forward in his attachment to us and in his adaptation to his big new life, when he started being able to tell me and show me that he loved me.
I remember the day clearly that I took the kids out one day to buy some pants for one of the kids. For the first time, there were no questions asked about whether the other two would be getting something, too. For the first time, there were no complaints by the two non-recipients. For the first time, there were no tears or cries of injustice. And for the first time, the two who were receiving nothing told the recipient of the new pants that the pants looked awesome...and it was a genuine expression of admiration accompanied by smiling faces. Unbelievable. That shopping expedition was my own little experience of Nirvana!
Over time, all three kids (but most notably Seth and Lizzie) had come to accept and truly understand that their parents would take care of their needs and that, when it was them who had a need, we would take care of them. It was amazing how that freed them up to be happy for each other. Truly.
I was reminded of all of this just this morning when we told the kids over breakfast that today Daddy would be taking Seth to the cottage for the weekend...just the two of them. This was something that all three kids would love to do and I was very curious to see how they would react!
My kids' responses brought tears to my eyes. I was watching Matthew when Geoff told the kids what he and Seth would be doing. Matthew's eyes lit up and he laughed with delight, looking at Seth.
"Seth!" he exclaimed. "That's awesome! You'll get to go kayaking to some of the islands and maybe make a campfire."
I looked at Lizzie. Her little lower lip was stuck out for a moment as she pondered the situation. But she was watching Matthew, too, and then she turned to Seth and smiled, a big genuine smile, and said that she hoped he had a great time. Later she said that she was going to miss Seth and Daddy, and later Matthew said that he was a little sad that Seth would be gone for two days. But neither of them asked why they couldn't go, and neither even said that it wasn't fair - I think because they know we try hard to do things for/with each of them when the time is right.
I said nothing to Matthew and Lizzie about their responses, because I don't want them doing these things because they think I want it. But I was so proud of them and I'll make sure that sometime this weekend I find a moment to pull them close and simply tell them how proud I am of who they are.
I was equally proud of Seth, who was so surprised when he heard the news that he let out a little shriek. He clapped his hands together once and his eyes sparkled, and yet I could see that he was restraining himself just a little bit. He told Lizzie and Matthew that he hoped they had a good weekend, too. Later on, he pulled me aside and told me that he was "so excited," but that he didn't want to make Matthew and Lizzie feel badly that they didn't get to go. I simply told him that I found that very thoughtful and that I hoped he had a great time with Daddy.
There was, quite simply, no better kind of outcome from my perspective. And it's not unusual for my kids these days to demonstrate these kinds of attitudes. They've been hard won but worth the effort. I hope we can keep it up.
Shortly before Geoff and Seth left for the cottage, I pulled Seth onto my lap and quietly reminded him of a moment that had happened yesterday...
Let me segue back to yesterday for a moment.
I'd asked Seth to fold a few large blankets that he and Lizzie had used to make forts in the family room. He got mad, and then sad, about how unfair it was that he had to be the one folding blankets when Lizzie had used them equally as much. I held him as he stormed and then cried his sad tears and I didn't correct him about the fairness. In fact, I agreed with him that it wasn't fair and that it was hard feeling frustrated and sad about it not being fair. When he'd come to place of rest in my arms, I told him that I could understand his feelings about things being unfair because when I was a little girl I, too, had a sister who was two years younger than me and sometimes I was asked to do things for her that I felt were unfair. Seth asked me immediately why, if I'd felt that unfairness myself, I would make it unfair for him in folding the blankets. I said that there were two reasons why I was ok with that: First, because he was older than Lizzie and because sometimes there are just going to be things that he will be asked to do and she won't be and it's simply because he's older; second, I said, it's because I know already that life isn't always fair and that as he gets older he's going to work and be friends with people who don't always treat him fairly and he's going to feel the very same things then - frustration and then (hopefully) sadness. He asked (smart kid) why life had to be unfair now if I already knew it was going to be unfair someday...couldn't he just wait for someday to happen and be mad/sad then?? I smiled and said that this was a great question. I said that while Daddy and I were still responsible for taking care of him, we wanted to help him get through the mad and the sad so that some day when he experience life as being unfair, he would already know that he would be able to survive the unfairness of life and he would know that after the feelings of frustration and sadness had passed, he would know that things were going to be ok. Seth was silent for a moment, then said "ok, then." He then asked if he still had to fold the last blanket and I said "yes." He sighed and said "ok" and went and folded the blanket. Minutes later, we ate our crappy little supper (remember the peanut butter toast scenario?). During supper, Seth crept his way over towards my chair and he ended up spending most of our table time on my lap...in fact I fed him a number of mouthfuls from my fingers. He got it and had grieved it and was reassured.
While Seth was crying in my lap during that blanket-folding unfairness situation yesterday, it had crossed my mind that I could easily resolve his feelings of frustration and sadness by simply telling him that the next morning he was going to have a special experience of going with Daddy to the cottage. He would have cheered up immediately and gone and folded the blanket and been as happy as a clam for the rest of the night. But it was just a passing thought for me, and I chose instead to let him grieve the injustice, for the same reasons that I've worked so hard to help my kids over the past two+ years understand that life isn't always going to be fair: The more they can grieve the little things in life, the more their brains will help them adapt to the bigger griefs in life...that's true not just for Seth and Lizzie, but also for Matthew and for Geoff and for me, and for every person.
So...back to this morning for one last thought. I pulled Seth into my lap in a private moment and reminded him of yesterday's experience of unfairness and reminded him of how sad he'd been and of our conversation later. Then I just simply said, "Seth, I could have told you yesterday that today it would be you doing something special with Daddy and I decided not to because I really want you to understand that life is kinda like a big wave." Here I used my hand to emulate a wavy pattern like the ocean. "Sometimes life feels awesome and you're on top of the wave and you're happy and life is just great. Other times, life doesn't feel very good and it's unfair and it sucks, and you're kinda at the bottom of the wave. But that's the pattern of life, Seth...there are ups and down, and we never know exactly when they're going to happen."
"Mommy," Seth said quietly with a smile. "Today and tomorrow are going to be the top of the wave."
Later, after we'd said our good-byes and Seth was walking out the door with Geoff, he ran back for yet one more hug and he moved his hand in that wave pattern and smiled. He knew. I knew. Even though yesterday he felt keenly life's unfairness, today he was riding the crest.
He understood both experiences in that moment...that life isn't always fair, that life is full of crests and dips...that life is all about learning to ride the wave.