Saturday, July 07, 2012

Institutionalization, large families, and expectations

I'm a bit hesitant to write this because I don't want to appear ungrateful for the care my daughter received before she came home. But because I think it has broader implications, I'm going to anyway and make it a bit more generic.

I have been reminded constantly of several things over the past four months. 1) There is nothing that can replace a loving family in a child's life 2) The presence of long-term committed parents in a child's life trumps the number of children in the environment and 3) A child is able to intuit the expectations of the adults around them and will live either up or down to the those expectations.

I do not doubt that many of the adults who care for children in institutions love the children they are caring for. Let's get that out of the way first. Short-term care workers are needed and provide love and care which a child desperately needs, but the children these workers love are not their children. To know you will be caring for a child for the rest of his or her life is to care for a child in a very different way than if you know you will be caring for a child short-term. A person can provide love and care to a child, yet without the long view, the care and expectations will be very different. There is an immediacy to what is expected versus taking a longer view and a set of very different expectations.

It is easier to dress a child who may struggle a bit with this task yourself rather than taking the time to wait for the child to do it themselves. It is easier to hand the child a toothbrush, see the toothbrush enter the mouth, and consider the teeth brushed. It is easier to not insist a child learn a new task if that task is not picked up quickly. If the child seems generally happy and is not making trouble, it is easy to assume all is well and not notice if the child has never jumped or run or hopped on one foot or has difficulty climbing up on things. The path of least resistance is always easier, especially if the care giver has many children to care for.

That's always the excuse, isn't it? The caregiver is overwhelmed and has too many charges to really give the love and attention each child needs. It makes sense, and is often true, and is consequently used as an excuse why large families should not add more children. Someone will always get lost in the cracks. To make a large family work, some people assume, the path of least resistance must always be taken. It would not really be an improvement in the child's situation to move from institutional care to just a different version of it. Those are the assumptions of many people as well as many states' governments. And those assumptions are wrong.

What is missing in institutional care is parents. Parents are what a child needs and it really doesn't matter how many other children those parents have. I know some of you with smaller families struggle to wrap your heads around this, but parents of larger numbers of children know each of their children as individuals, know their strengths and weaknesses, miss them when they're gone, know when each of them is happy or sad, know how to encourage them, and know when to push each of them a bit... and when not to. We are not parenting a large litter of indistinguishable children, but a large group of individuals. We know our children just as well as parents of smaller families know their children and we love each of them as fiercely. Our love is not diluted between our children because love is not in limited supply; the more children you have the more love you have to give.

And because we love each of our children fiercely, we will be sure that each of them gets what he or she needs. If that means a mother sits and waits for 10 minutes for her daughter to buckle her seat belt, she will. If a father has to review a son's colors over and over and over until he finally learns them, he will. Parents will take the harder road over the easier one because it is best for their children, regardless of whether it is slower or more difficult or less efficient. Some days it is very hard to do this, but parents are willing to make the sacrifice because they love their children that much. And if we have more than the usual number of children, we make this work by sacrificing other things... outside activities, a perfectly neat house, extended leisure time... we do not make it work by sacrificing our children's well being.

Because parents love their children sacrificially, we have a greater sense of who each child is as an individual and what they can do. Parents have high expectations for their children because they love them and want what's best for them. If carried out in a positive way, these high expectations help the child succeed. The converse is true as well. A child knows if an adult thinks she cannot do something, and that low expectation becomes a part of who the child is. Other adults also will pick up on  each other's perception of a child's abilities. Suddenly, there is a child who cannot do anything or learn anything because adults have made that assumption and the child complies. Whether that initial diagnosis had any basis in reality to begin with, it becomes self-fulfilling. It is a dangerous thing to assume a child cannot do something.

When H. came to us there was a lot about her that we were told; she had picked up multiple diagnoses for various things along the way and pretty much the only thing that has proved accurate is that she has facial tumors and seizures. Among the list of things 'wrong' was the statement that she was unintelligent and would never be able to function on her own. She has a lot of catching-up to do (no doubt because of these low expectations), but she's doing just fine, thank you very much. I alternate between being thankful we have her home now and being incredibly angry at what she missed out on because of it. Because really, it is very hard to take it seriously when I just heard the child play Old MacDonald had a Farm on the piano. By herself. Yes, she was using simplified note reading, but she did it. And she is learning piano in a language she has been speaking for less than four months.



1 comment:

Shonya said...

I'm grinning in appreciation of the fierce love the Lord is giving your for your daughter and cheering on your underlying message in support of "larger families".

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