Dawn Friedman MSEd LPC
therapist • writer
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You know how Jane Brown famously said that internationally adoptive parents are a fifth best choice? (And I’ll assume that domestic transcultural adoptive parents are a fourth best choice.)
The first, she believes, is for children to remain with their birthparents; second-best is for a child to be adopted by, or remain with, a member of the extended family; third-best is to be raised by people of the same race in the country of one’s birth, and fourth-best is to be raised by members of the same race outside the country of one’s birth.
(quoted from The Pain of Adoption)
What she’s talking about are the levels of adoption loss — the loss of a biological connection and then the loss of a cultural connection. If we adopt transracially/transculturally, our children become biracial/bicultural regardless of their biological roots. A Birth Project wrote about this several years ago.
(Note: I know that it’s hard for adoptive parents to read a quote like Jane’s above and I include it not to make transracially/transculturally adoptive parents feel bad but to galvanize them to confront the unique challenges their children face. Information is power and I believe in empowering parents so that they can make their own best decisions.)
The transracially adoptive parent’s goal can’t be to do “as good a job” at nurturing her child’s birth culture in in the same way that a parent who shares that birth culture could because that would be an impossible goal. We can’t understand the nuances of that culture the way we could if we had grown up there. We can read, we can visit (as an observer, as a tourist) but we can’t live it.
It’s kind of the same thing when people say that doing a white child’s hair is as difficult or as important as doing a black child’s hair. No, it isn’t. Even if the two children have the exact same hair texture, if one child has pink skin and one has brown, the state of their hair has different cultural connotations. There’s an extra layer to the discussion. We can exchange hair tips, talk conditioner, and trade beads and baubles but when we send our kids out into the world, they bear a different weight in their curls.
There are a lot of challenges in being a transcultural parent (and I include bio parents who are transculturally parenting — especially if they do not have a co-parent who reps the culture of the child) and one challenge is trying to make sense of when our values are more or less important than the values of the child’s birth culture.
This is ongoing work and it will look different for different families and different at different time in our children’s lives.
I know that for lots of people it’s scary to bring your child to a counselor. You’re already worried about your son or daughter and then you have to bring them to a stranger in the hopes they can help. It’s never fun coming to experts and saying, “Hey, I’m stuck and I’m scared and I need help.” But it’s even harder when we’re looking for support over something as emotionally fraught as parenting. Especially since most of us already get criticism from friends or family or teachers or some know-it-all magazine or Dr. Phil.
I want to reassure you that I don’t look at parents with an eye to catch them out doing something wrong (and none of the child therapists I run around with do this either). I mean, I’m a parent, too, and I know how judgment feels (lousy and unhelpful) so why would I want to visit that on my clients?
Besides even if I know exactly the right way (mostly) to raise my kids that doesn’t translate to knowing exactly the right way for you to raise yours. No, I meet with parents to better understand their goals, their hopes, their values and then I mix that all up in the things I’ve learned about kids in general and their kids in particular and what the research says and some practical tips I’ve learned along the way so that together — together, mind you — we can help you build something better.
There is no one-size-fits-all for parenting. What works great for one family would never fly in another because we’re totally different people raising totally different kids in totally different circumstances.
Does that mean I won’t have opinions? Of course not. I love to have opinions and I’ll share those opinions with you but I’ll do in the context of my understanding of your unique experiences. So if I think your discipline techniques are causing you problems, I’ll tell you that but I won’t try to get you to become a totally different kind of parent. I’ll try to help you figure out ways to do things differently to help you discover your best parenting self.
I won’t judge you. I won’t sit around trying to figure out how wrong you are. (In fact, one of the most important thing I do with parents is find out what they’re doing absolutely right so they can do more of it!) I certainly won’t blame you for all of your child’s problems even though you might be blaming yourself.
I know that parents aren’t always at their best. I know that they make mistakes. I know this because I’m a parent and I make mistakes (ask my kids, I’m sure they have a list running). But I don’t believe in perfect parenting anyway; I believe in pretty darn good parenting and I believe that is plenty. I believe in celebrating your strengths and forgiving yourself your weaknesses even as you work to shore them up. I believe that chasing down perfection makes it harder for us to be pretty darn good. I will not judge you. I will be honest and encouraging and I’ll give you lots of tips. And I’ll listen a lot because I know that you are the expert even if you’re not quite sure about that just yet. I’ll help you get there.
I went and got myself a smart phone so I can take credit cards in the office (thank you Square!) so I decided to try out this new-fangled Instagram the kids are doing. You can follow me here. The above is a picture of the sand tray after a play (versus a therapy — the child present in the office was not/is not a client) session. Those are Playmobil horses. The blue paint in the sand tray lets kids see the space as the whole world surrounded by sea and sky.
I’m still getting the hang of Square. It’s a little bit tricky and having a lower level (i.e., basement) office means my reception isn’t all that great. We tried sharing wifi with Gabe Howard on the third floor but it wouldn’t reach all the way down to me. So after thinking on it and comparing costs we decided our best bet was for Building Family Counseling to invest in an iPhone. Which also means I can now get texts, which is a whole new thing for me. (I’ll need to rewrite my social media policy!)
In any case, I can now take cash, checks AND credit cards for payment in the office. This will be much more convenient, I know!
“I’m not making you put your socks away because I like bossing you around; I can’t wash them if they aren’t there to wash,” you might say. “Listen, the cookies just aren’t in our budget; I don’t like saying no.”
We explain and we explain and we explain because we want them to not only understand but to believe us. We want them to see our point and quit whining about laundry and lunches. We want them to both do the thing we want them to do (put away socks, quit whining about cookies) AND be happy about doing it.
That’s not really fair, is it?
We need to keep our eyes on the prize. The goal isn’t cheerful understanding, it’s understanding period. Weirdly, kids — like the rest of us — are more likely to come to understanding when no one is desperately trying to make them understand.
Remember this: nobody — and I mean nobody — likes to be lectured.
So explain it once, that’s it. Don’t get trapped thinking that if you can only explain it exactly right your child will light up and say, “You know, now that you’ve explained it so well I really understand the value of picking up my Lincoln Logs.” Because that’s extremely unlikely to happen. In fact, I can say with certainty that it has never ever happened in the history of parent-child relationships. (On the bright side, older kids have been known to say to their parents, “NOW I see the point!” but that’s years in the making.)
Fortunately most children will figure out the value of clean underwear and clear floors on their own eventually. It may take a very very long time. Until then we need to appreciate that what makes sense to us doesn’t make sense to them even when we spend a lot of time and effort trying to talk them into coming over to our way of seeing things.
And we need to give up on the idea that if we are very reasonable and very clear in our explanations that our children won’t be disappointed about the lack of cookies in the house or be thrilled about doing laundry.
Sometimes people get afraid of feelings so we deny them or try to ignore them or explicitly tell our kids to shut those feelings away. But how children feel and how they behave are too different things.
There’s being angry and then there’s yelling or hitting. It’s ok to be angry with your little sister but it’s not ok to hit her. It’s ok to feel frustrated with the Legos that won’t work right but it’s not ok to kick them across the floor.
When we correct or redirect our children to express their negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, guilt) appropriately, we need to make clear that we accept their feelings even when their behavior is unacceptable.
For kids, feelings may be so overwhelming and painful that they have to act them out in their bodies. We can give them appropriate ways to show their anger in their bodies. They can punch pillows instead of punching brothers. They can go outside and yell instead of screaming inside. They can stomp their feet instead of knocking down blocks.
Help give kids words to describe their feelings.
“You are so angry!”
“This puzzle is so frustrating!”
Sometimes sad or worried or scared look like angry so if you see that, say it.
“I think you are sad that we have to leave the bouncy castle and that’s why you don’t have the patience to tie those shoes. Leaving can be so hard!”
“I wonder if you’re feeling worried about the big swimming pool and that’s why you’re snapping at me.”
However we feel, it’s fine because feelings are morally neutral. How we manage our feelings — how we treat others, how we treat ourselves — is what matters. The more we find acceptance for all or our feelings, even the yucky uncomfortable ones, the easier it is to manage them.
One of the things we talk about in therapy is how our growth and change affects the other people in our lives. Or more specifically, we talk about how to grow and change without placing undo responsibility on the other people in our lives. We can’t expect people to change with us or to understand our journeys. Sometimes relationships improve as we get healthier and sometimes they get worse. It can be hard to keep our feet on the path we must walk when we feel ourselves pulled back by the people we care about and who won’t come with us.
To change is to upset the balance of our relationships; everyone tilts whether they want to or not.
Let’s say that that a woman (who we’ll call Joan) decides to practice health at every size and she chooses to give up dieting. Joan and her best friend have always gone on diets together. They take turns looking up new menus in women’s magazines or go to weight watchers meetings together. Now when the friend calls to give Joan a run down of her daily eating diary Joan doesn’t listen like she used to. Now maybe Joan tries to convince her to try HAES, too. Maybe they argue about it. Maybe Joan confronts her friend about behavior she interprets as enabling or her friend confronts Joan for behavior she interprets as condescending. (Remember the post I wrote about Truth vs. truth? How you behave and how someone else interprets your behavior is out of your control and vice versa.)
Even though Joan is the only one who’s decided to change, her decision is forcing change on her friend, too. Change knocks the relationship off balance and the system — the relationships — want balance so either Joan will learn how to accommodate her friend or her friend will learn how to accommodate Joan or the relationship will end.
Accommodation can look like a lot of different things. It doesn’t mean that Joan has to go back to dieting or that her friend has to stop; it means that the nature and the content of their friendship will need to change. To do this, they will both need to respect the other person’s right to do things differently and not everyone can do this.
We don’t live in a vacuum. Our choices impact the people we love and the people we live with just as their choices impact us.
Change can be lonely.
Finding people who support our changes — friends who have been through something similar, therapists who can validate our growth — is an important part of getting through the challenges of disequilibrium in our relationships. They can remind us that we’re not crazy for wanting something different or that the stories we’ve been telling ourselves can make way for new, better stories.
Growth and healing comes with learning how to be the person we need to be even when other people want us to stay the same. It’s figuring out how to navigate our changing relationship when we don’t really understand how they are changing. It means standing strong in our own truth when other people don’t see things the same way.