Parenting in Grace: Identity
Defined by Behavior?
We speak a lot about identity on our blog. One of the most important roles we have as parents is to recognize and call forth our children’s identities. Now, it takes no effort at all to do this if we define an individual’s identity by his or her behavior. If our child lies repeatedly, then we may decide she is a liar. Or if we have a child who is filled with anger and angry outbursts, then we identify him as a child with anger issues. There is a certain logic to this approach, and it certainly yields some benefits as we seek to parent our children well. None of us want our adopted child to remain defined by their behaviors learned in an orphanage! So, we patiently (or not!) focus our attention on these behaviors in the desire to set them free.
Stephen and I have found that parenting with our focus on the negative behavior is limited in its success, however. I see it as parenting backward, in a way. I mean by this that when I focus on my child’s anger, for instance, I become so easily absorbed and enmeshed in the issue of her anger, how it originated in her past, and the depth of the problem, that I find myself struggling with feelings of anger myself, along with anxiety, frustration, and even hopelessness. Being clever, I realize pretty quickly that the problem is far too great for my parenting skills! The pain, lack, neglect, abuse and rejection our adopted children have experienced is far beyond my own experience and understanding.
Over the years, we have become increasingly focused on our children’s identity in Christ and have learned to parent forward, so to speak. Our goal is the same—to bring our children into freedom from the coping behaviors that were born out of–distrust, pain, and the need to survive. With this approach, however, we identify the problem (never too hard to figure that out!), we acknowledge the connection to the past in our own minds and occasionally with our child, and then we begin to speak aloud to ourselves and to our child his identity in Christ. We call forth his righteousness in Christ and parent into his future, rather than parenting into the issues of his past. In other words, we choose to make decisions regarding our child based on what God has to say, rather than on the sometimes compelling evidence of their behavior. We are careful to speak these truths publicly (even if it is just at the dinner table) and often. As our children have gotten older, we have found that texts, emails, facebook messages, letters left on their pillows, etc. are also good ways to “call forth.”
For instance, we believe that one of our sons has a strong leadership gifting, but we often see him waiting to be led and in a place of passivity. Stephen and I have encouraged and even at times required him to take leadership roles as we work at parenting him according to his identity in Christ. When he has failed, we work it through, allowing him to face the consequences, and then try again. This has been a long process with some painful times and mistakes on our part, but one that is now bearing clear and recognizable fruit in his life.
Focus and Answers
This approach is not always easy. It is counter intuitive for most of us not to place our full focus on a problem in order to solve it. Many of us have even been trained to do exactly that—looking intently at the problem in order to find the solution. But, I believe in the Lord there is a better way! As we look intently at our beautiful savior and focus on His words about our child, we will find the true answers to the complicated and difficult issues our adopted children face. Paul did this when he addressed the issue of blatant sin in his letter to the Corinthians (1Corinthians 6). In the midst of dealing with their sin Paul says, “do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?” Do you see how Paul declared to them their identity in Christ here? He did not say, “do you not know that you are sinful fornicators?” Rather, he called out that which was good and true, reminding them of their identity and pointing them to the future, not the past.
Transfixed by the Problem
This parenting forward can only be done as we parents set our thoughts and affections on Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I find it quite difficult to do at times. Have you ever been in a situation where you find yourself drawn to look at something you really don’t want to look at and you know you should wrest your eyes away, but you just can’t? I remember when I was in elementary school our family was in a pretty bad car wreck with a hook and ladder fire engine. In the end, we were all fine; however, my youngest sister had gotten pretty beaten up. I’ll never forget hearing my mother call out, “Don’t look at Pammy. Don’t look at Pammy.” (She was covered in blood at that point and my mother wanted to protect us from fear.) Well, you know where this is going! Of course, I couldn’t help it—my eyes were drawn as if by a huge magnetic pull to her. I have recently realized that that is exactly the way I am sometimes with my children. I become aware of a behavior that needs our attention, a gaping wound not unlike my sister’s in a way, and find myself transfixed by it and it’s connection with such a complicated past, as well as my inability to “fix” the problem, and I think to myself, “You’ve got to tear your eyes away from this. It is not helping to gaze steadfastly at this problem. Rather, it is producing fear, anxiety and even emotional distance from this precious child.” I sometimes find it so difficult not to dwell on the problem. I know enough about our amazing God to know that when I pull my eyes away from the problem and intently look to Him, that anxiety falls away with ease, solutions come, my heart is warmed again to my child as I catch again some of God’s thoughts about him or her. I am able to parent forward into the beautiful, freeing and whole person.
Transfixed by the Answer
Our faith cannot be in our parenting nor can it be in our child. Our faith must be in Christ alone. I have found that when I mistakenly put my faith in my child to behave a certain way, to display a certain amount of progress and healing, then I open myself to be blindsided by disappointment, frustration and even anger. All of these emotions lead quickly to anxiety and emotional distance. However, when I place my faith in Jesus, in what He has called us to and what He has declared over our family. In essence, when I become transfixed by Jesus, the answer, then I can remain standing, even when the storms rage around me.
Beth has been married to her husband, Stephen, for 25 years. They have seven children, ages 16 to 22. Several years after giving birth to three girls, God called their family into the adventure and blessing of adoption. In 2000, they brought home a brother and sister, ages 5 and 10, from Russia. Then they returned to the same orphanage 18 months later and brought home two more brothers, ages 7 and 10. Currently, three of their children are in college and four are in high school. Stephen and Beth serve as leaders in their local church. Beth leads a ministry to mothers and has a passion for communicating the joy, peace, and victory available to us as parents. This fall, September 23-24, they are a part of a wonderful opportunity for adoptive families called Hope at Home 2011, going beyond the traditional conference and providing a time of equipping and restoring parents of adoptive and foster families. Consider joining them, and click here to learn more.