Monday, January 9, 2012

the E word

I sold work ethic for peace, and now second guess the deal I made.  If you've adopted a child who has experienced complex trauma from bouncing around in foster homes, being institutionalized or both, you know exactly what I mean.  You pick your battles, and at times, you cling to sanity and let everything else fall by the wayside.

We adopted our oldest son at age 17.  He had been in foster care for 8 years bouncing from home to home and school to school.  His math and writing skills weren't great but he could do the work if he wanted.  Only he didn't want to.  It was the biggest point of contention in our family.  Anytime grades, homework, class participation, etc. came up, confrontation, overreaction and a veritable windstorm of senselessness ensued.

So, we let it go.  We decided that our son's emotional attachment to us was more valuable than our control over his school work.  We try to parent in a sort of Love & Logic kind of way and believed that the consequences of his work ethic at school would catch up to him leaving him with two choices: dropout or work harder.  He had led us to believe that dropping out was not an option for him, but we were unprepared for what was hidden behind Door #3.

On multiple occasions, he chose to not do homework, turn it in half-done, or simply ask what extra credit work he could do at the end of the semester.  (Procrastination is the mother of invention... isn't that how the saying goes?)  And, on multiple occasions, teachers would not just give him a break but pass him along.  How do we address systems in our society that build a sense of entitlement into our kids?  Somewhere along the way what our culture commonly holds as an expectation became an entitlement.  I don't think his school felt he was entitled to graduate.  I guess they had other motives, but that was the message that was delivered.

He eventually graduated high school in a self-paced program that turned out to be more work than he thought.  And now he's faced with college, independence and keeping a job that he is dependent upon to pay a few bills.  And this will be a much harder lesson to learn as an adult without any enablers around to fall back on.  I suppose that every parent goes through something like this on some level.  Will they learn to budget their money?  Will they get overwhelmed by debt and ask me to bail them out? Will they stick with it or give up?

At some point, as parents, we have to stop looking in the mirror for our children who are no longer children and let them do it.  We have to let them see who they are and what they are made of.  My increasingly wise wife is a bulwark against entitlement.  So we may shed some tears for his struggles, but we won't be extending any bailouts.  In the next 5 years, the mantras we incessantly chanted about work ethic, integrity, stewardship, and faith are going to echo with all the truth reality can muster.

We don't know if he'll get it together, stick with college, or keep a job.  But, we move forward.  We teach our kids that they can carry around their baggage if they want, or they can forgive and move forward too.  And for my son and my peace, that is where we are...moving forward.  He is now entitled to bear my name, be unconditionally loved by his family and work for everything he gets from here.

If I had to do it all over again, I'd do a better job of holding my son's school accountable.  I'd be more proactive when my son got overwhelmed with his school work and took it out on his mom...and I'd probably still make the same deal.  If you're in the midst of this, there's no such thing as a win-win.  School isn't the pinnacle of achievement in life, but it's certainly a training ground for things that matter.  Attachment in adoption is a goal, but it doesn't happen overnight or even in the way you expect it.  So strive for work ethic and attachment, but don't presume either will come easy or that you'll find some peace if you sell one for the other.  It's not a storybook ending...but then again, my son's only 20, so the story isn't even close to being over yet.

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