Friday, March 1, 2013

Godly Parenting May Be Different Than You Think



When I had my first child, lots of my friends were following a parenting philosophy that was popular with Evangelical Christians at the time. I think a lot of people still use it today.

It goes something like this. With newborns, parents are encouraged to establish a sleeping and eating schedule. You put infants down at night and for naps while they are still awake so they can learn to go to sleep independent of nursing or snuggling or rocking. Because feeding is parent-directed, it's done on a schedule and not in response to a crying or fussy baby. Instead of picking up a crying baby, the goal is for them to learn to self-sooth, making them happier in the long run.  And the big claim is that by following this plan, babies will quickly sleep through the night.

With so many American Christians swearing by this program, I can't help but wonder what happens when many of these same Christians later add to their families by adopting kids from hard places. Does this type parenting work for children with backgrounds of trauma?

I've been observing families for a long time.

Because I didn't marry until I was 36 and didn't have a baby until I was 37, I had a lot of time to watch my friends marry and become parents. I literally took pages and pages of mental notes. Many of my new parent friends were eager to share with me what they were learning.

And since most of my friends were Christians like me, I saw lots of this Christian parenting in action.

Once while visiting a friend, I was surprised to hear her baby screaming in the next room. It went on for over an hour. My friend shared that the baby had to learn to put herself to sleep. She said, "We want our baby to learn that although she is a welcome member of the family, she is not the center of it." Problem was, we weren't even in my friend's home. She was visiting from out of town, and the baby was trying to go to sleep in a strange room. It seemed to me that this might be a time for an exception to the rules -- that the baby could use some snuggling and comfort in a strange place.

Years later, I witnessed an almost identical scenario in another friend's home when she and her family had just returned home from an international trip. Her jet lagged baby screamed and screamed and screamed in the adjoining room, but my friend didn't want to go in and pick her up. "This is the only way to get her back on schedule, " she explained.

When I finally had babies of my own, we found somewhat of a middle ground that worked for us. I held and rocked and nursed my babies as much as I wanted. I'd waited so long; I couldn't imagine not holding them. Many nights our babies fell asleep on Mike's chest. We found the rhythm, the routine, the schedule that worked for our family. And along the way, I came to believe that good parenting is more art than science. I don't think it can be reduced to a formula.

And yet, we all long for a formula, don't we?

"Someone, please tell me the exact steps to take to do this parenting thing right. This is too important to mess up."

And someone comes along with a formula and calls it Christian, and we all jump on the bandwagon.

Don't get me wrong. Schedules are good. Kids, especially our kids from hard places, thrive with the predictability of a schedule. And both my friends described above went on to raise great kids. Really great kids! So obviously a little crying didn't hurt them.

But here's my fear. I fear that sometimes in our quest to get everyone on a schedule, we harden our hearts to our children. We ignore their cries. When we place our highest value on babies sleeping through the night and children having "room time" by themselves, we miss God-given opportunities to connect with our kids, all the while believing we're doing the right thing.

Kids from the hard places come to us hurt. They've got self-soothing down pat, although their methods may look strange to us. What they don't know is how to trust a parent to meet their needs. They need to be drawn close to us, not pushed to be independent. Even when it comes to bedtime. Maybe, especially when it comes to bedtime.


Mike and I both agree that we've made the biggest strides in connecting with Wenxin in the drowsy moments right before he drifts off to sleep. It's when he's the most relaxed, and it's the only time he's ever talked to either of us about his life in China.

To this day, Mike puts him to bed and prays for him. Then he stays with him as Wenxin falls asleep. Some evenings when I sense Wenxin could use a little extra connection, I ask him if I can hold him as he falls asleep. He runs to get his blanket and quickly joins me on the sofa. I stroke his hair and tell him how happy I am he's my son, holding him much like you would a newborn, even though he's ten.

This would be hard to do if we believed that the only godly way to parent was to teach a child to sleep on his own -- right from the start.

But you know, even if we believed that, we could still re-evaluate. We could still change.

The most common comment I heard at the Empowered to Connect conference was, "I thought I could parent my adopted kids the same way I parented my biological kids. Now I see I need to make some changes."

I have a lot of fears in writing this post. I fear people may feel attacked. I fear I'll come across prideful -- like Mike and I have this parenting thing all figured out. I fear I'll discourage parents who are in the trenches -- giving it all they've got, doing the best they can.

It's not my intention to do any of those things. My only goal is to encourage adoptive parents -- and prospective adoptive parents -- to choose parenting methods that help you connect with your child -- even if it doesn't look the way you always thought Christian parenting would look.

Some of you may be thinking, "What in the world is she talking about? Christian what?" Others may think I've gone all hippy, baby-wearing on you. Leave a comment. I'd love to know what you think.

For more on godly parenting and older child adoption, read this follow-up post on spanking.
Shared at WFMW, Emily Wierenga, Missional Women, Mercy Ink, and. . .
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Found the Marbles

41 comments:

  1. Dana...Babies do not come with instruction books. I think it is common for everyone to try and give you advice and tell you what worked for them and that is o.k. BUT every child is different. Natural instincts kick in with parents and you do what works best for your family. Adopting an older child like Wenxin who has not had the benefit of bonding/cuddling and other natural things a mother does makes him like a newborn. Follow your instincts. From reading your blog and seeing the smiles on all your kids faces makes me think you and Mike are doing o.k. in the parenting department!

    Judi Peters

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  2. I could not agree with you more. We had our first babies while everyone else was learning about 'god's way' to raise children. It didn't sit well with me then, and I'm so grateful that we rejected that system way back when because I cannot imagine a worse way to parent my traumatized, safety-compromised, love-starved foster and adopted babies. I don't think this is about criticism of that method as much as it's about embracing what the children need- even if it comes at the expense of our idealized notions of how families should function and behave. I wrote about this a couple times in the past. Here's one: http://www.expectinghope.com/2012/03/best-parenting-advice-i-ever-received.html

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  3. I think "Christian Parenting" is such a relative term and can't be so restricted as the way the Christian community has made it out to be. In other words, I'm with you. lol

    Christian parenting should begin from love and be Holy Spirit lead. Love is patient and kind. A lot can be used with that alone. Good stuff. :)

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    1. Love is patient. . . love is kind.

      Agreed. We could just camp out on that, and it would take us a long way in being godly parents.

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  4. What child (of ANY age :) ) doesn't like to fall asleep being held?

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  5. This was such a great post...... I couldn't agree with you more!

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  6. I'm so with you on this Dana. I love to hug and cuddle my kids -- from my teenagers down to my littlest (who's 9) and I really couldn't let my babies cry much. They all got on a somewhat decent schedule pretty quickly without forcing them. Wenxin is learning his relationship skills from you -- what a great husband and father he'll be one day! I thought you might like to read this post of mine from last year, on the same topic: http://sunshineparenting.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/nurturing-babies-and-big-kids-too/
    And, by the way, I think you're an amazing mom and I thank you for sharing with all of us!
    Audrey

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  7. I'm Catholic, so I haven't run across the godly parenting paradigm within my tradition. I often find it online, though, and while I don't mean to be critical of other people's reading of Scripture, it seems selective to me. I particularly like those who say that we should let our children cry it out because God left his son to cry on the cross. Yes, there is "raise up a child.." and "spare the rod..." but what about verses such as these where God is portrayed as a nurturing mother or parent?

    Hosea 11:3-4 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms . . . I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them.

    Isaiah 66:13 As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

    Revelation 21:4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

    Isaiah 49:15 Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

    Hosea 11:4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them.

    Psalm 131:2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

    I think that children need discipline and thrive on routine. Yes, parents can be over-indulgent. But God is surely a God of love and compassion and we should model that as parents, using prudence to know when we should stick to the rules or routine, and when it is better to be flexible.

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  8. Dana
    I'm not a mother of adopted children, only the mother of nine, but I like to cuddle my little ones to sleep, great moments of connection time then. I wrote a post a while back about 'Savouring the Moment', the truth is, these years go by so quickly (my 2nd just left for college) and we really need to savour the moment more. Something I've only really heartfelt in the last few years
    http://sevenlittleaustralians.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/savouring-moment.html

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  9. Hi Dana

    Your description of 'Christian parenting' horrified me. In what world has that anything to do with a religious outlook? I hope it quickly loses that tag and becomes clear for what it is - near enough abuse.

    I recently read probably the best book ever about child development (having had a decade studying childcare and development and having come across lots of crappy theories) by Margot Sutherland, called 'What every parent needs to know', which takes data from scientific studies and explores the process of raising children from the point of supporting their neurological development.

    At a young age, babies haven't the cognitive development to 'be naughty' or 'just do it to be difficult' - if they cry persistently, they NEED warm, responsive caring. Ignoring them will just show them no-one cares. Brain scans have shown lack of development in areas of the brain in children who are left to cry. In some cases (e.g. some of the worse Eastern European orphanages) these retardations are severe, with children's heads being significantly smaller than children the same age who have received care. All these (however severe) can have long lasting psychological and emotional impact, which can last til adulthood.

    I'm so glad to hear you advocating a 'do what works for your family' approach, along with the recognition that each child will have different needs, but what they all need is reassurance, physical contact and warm, responsive care. Please continue to spread the word through your awesome blog, and if you see those people again, please recommend the book to them - ignorance is no excuse for damaging children and neglecting their fundamental needs.

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  10. Dana, great post. There is such freedom available to us parents when we parent according to the unique calling and needs of each child. I have seen God lead us over and over to parent our children as He is parenting us. And often when we take His lead we end up not responding the traditional Christian parenting way. It's a bit messier, but I think that is the difference between the Law and Grace. Grace places the relationship above the rules. And relationship is messy! What a lovely nurturing home you have. Blessings!

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  11. Dana, this is so well-written. I remember so many friends jumping on that bandwagon...I felt "not Christian enough" because I didn't buy it. Mine turned out ok, too! I miss those snuggle times, rocking times, "hold me cuz I'm scared" times. They are fleeting. Don't miss them, moms!

    Lisa Joiner

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    1. Thanks Lisa. You know we came from the same place, so I would've thought you were on the bandwagon, and you'd probably think the same thing about me. Although there were some good points sprinkled in, I just couldn't buy the whole thing either.

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  12. Yes and Yes. Though we did not adopt an older child (5 months old when we brought him home 6 years ago), we fell victim to the Christian parenting! AH! If only we could go back and have a re-do with our parenting! Empower to Connect changed our lives. I'm borderline obnoxious about it and things TBRI. :)

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    1. Amy, love the borderline obnoxious part! As I was writing this, I was wondering if I'm in danger or turning TBRI into a "parenting formula, calling it Christian, and inviting everyone to jump on the bandwagon."

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    2. :) Well, I feel like everyone parenting a child from a hard place (adopted) should jump on the bandwagon if they want to see healing and deep deep connection! Even when they think they are already connected! My husband and I are just finishing up the Adult Attachment Interview therapy (surely Purvis talked about it at the recent ETC?) with a local TBRI trained therapist. I will tell you that it has been so amazing for us. Looking back at our whole stories... integrating and healing our whole brains. I might become equally obnoxious about the amazingness of it as well. :) Three cheers for Purvis! :)

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  13. I'm not sure that what you describe as "christian parenting" can be reserved for Christians alone. There are many NON Christians who follow this method thanks to the ever popular "Dr. Ferber".

    That said I lean towards Attachment parenting as do most of my friends and we are all Christians. Attachment parenting has been amazing for my 2 adopted children and 2 birth children.

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  14. Dana, such good words! Unlearning old parenting styles and learning new ones for our children from "hard places" is absolutely necessary if we want our children to thrive. Not only do they need loads of intentional nurture, but they need different forms of discipline.

    Speaking of the "holy grail" of Christian parenting, I'm going to say this loud and clear, I don't believe that children with trauma and neglect histories receive any benefit from spanking (some would argue that no children do - but that's a much bigger topic). Discipline is meant to disciple, teach, and train our children. Our children have already experienced enough pain in their lives that spanking does not instruct - it puts every cell in their little bodies on high alert and they switch into self-protection. There is no learning going on. Yes, we may be able to force them into submission, but I hope that is not our true goal - we want them to be more like Jesus and to grow to love and serve them.

    I could go on and on - but this is your blog - not mine! One of these days maybe we'll get to sit down, drink coffee, and have a long discussion about parenting our kids from "hard places".

    Lisa

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    1. Lisa, I would love that. Your blog and The Connected Child have shaped my parenting more than anything. I love your heart and am praying for your family.

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    2. Dana, here again. I'm choosing not to publish a comment that just came in responding to Lisa. My reason is that instead of responding to the content of Lisa's comment, this anonymous commenter launched into an unkind personal attack of Lisa that went far beyond the scope of this post. I want my blog to be a place where we can respectfully discuss differing viewpoints, but I won't let it be used as an outlet for mean-spirited personal attacks. It's one of the reasons I moderate comments.

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  15. Great post! While I mostly followed the scheduling thing you refer to (esp with twins and a toddler--I had to for my sanity), I was always uncomfortable with referring to it as "godly" or even "Christian." The Bible does not address scheduling and in fact, given the times and cultures it was written in, I'm pretty sure it didn't even exist back then! God rarely spells things out exactly for us; instead we are to use our intellects to look at our specific situation and our ongoing relationship with him and his Word for guidance.

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    1. That's a great point, planetnomad. While I don't think that we need to recreate Biblical culture, you can find a reference to co-sleeping in Luke 11:7 where it says "Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed." And of course, in the King Solomon story, although that didn't turn out so well.

      One of my favorite stories is in 2 Maccabees 7, so you will probably need to do an internet search if it isn't in your Bible. A mother and her seven sons are arrested for not eating pork. The king has the sons killed one by one in front of the mother. When only the youngest is left, the king tells the mother to urge him to eat the pork. She says “Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age. I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way humankind came into existence. Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers.”

      Co-sleeping and extended nursing were part of the Hebrew culture, and that is probably how Jesus was raised himself. I wouldn't argue it is the "Biblical" way any more than any other, but it can serve as an interesting contrast to the idea that strict scheduling is the "godly" way.

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  16. My heart aches to think of babies who cry and cry and no one comes. Thank you for speaking up and out...I know this is a risk for you. But I'd like to emphasize that ALL babies and children deserve to be treated with dignity and respect- not just ones from hard places. Cries must be answered. Babies must be soothed. We are raising a culture of avoidant, overly independent, disconnect people. "We turned out fine" or "I raised my kids this way and they turned out fine" is just not acceptable. Fine? Let's strive for more than fine. Teach kids their voices matter. Let us not teach kids to turn off their emotions so that when they are adults they are unable to trust their own instincts that say "GO TO YOUR CRYING BABY!!"

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  17. I love this post! Can I link to it on Sunshine's Blog?

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    1. Sure, Debra. I'd love for you to share it.

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  18. This one speaks to me so much and I'm not proud of this story. We adopted back in the 1980's. We followed "the formulas" so we thought. It wasn't until I read The Connected Child that I understood. I just didn't know that so many of the "misbehaviors" were really learned survival techniques. I disciplined when I should have reassured. I believe I honestly did the best I could do with what I knew....I just didn't realize. I am so thankful to have the tools and the "permission" to parent a different way with our two who are soon to come home from a hard place. Keep posting, friend! We need to hear it!

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    1. Randi, Thanks for speaking up. There's grace for all of us. It's hard to write about parenting because none of us do it perfectly. But we can keep learning. And we can keep growing. And we can keep changing. So thankful that God's Spirit works in the hearts of my children in spite of my imperfect parenting.

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  19. Connecting with any child takes time, sacrifice, and perseverance. In fact, the cries of all of my children look different. My hardest child just walked away with hunched shoulders, anger at me, and rage against the unfairness of her world. I wonder if that is any different than my baby crying and stuck in his crib, mad about his dirty diaper. Both need me for safety and connection but I must be aware of the call.

    I also wonder if the selfishness perpetuated in our world (I am gearing up for a rant on technology with so many teens in my house) is an obstacle to the real human connection that so many of our kids desperately yearn for.

    As parents for over 20 years, we have tried lots of "methods" - like someone else said, we do the best we can with what we know at the time.

    But Lisa Q. said it well - "we want them to be more like Jesus and to grow to love and serve them." That is the ultimate goal.

    How we get there? Let's keep learning. Thanks, Dana for a thought-filled post.

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  20. You said it all beautifully! And you have such truth and wisdom with experience to back it up. Thank you! I have so often felt like I was doing something wrong by struggling with some of those principles you mentioned. I haven't been a perfect parent, but I do miss those moments of rocking and nursing and drifting off to sleep. Those were good memories. But I also appreciate the independence my kids now have. Somehow we have made it work.

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  21. We are just recently home with our 6 year old son from China. We are blessed in many ways including a a very smooth transition. I have been amazed at how bedtime has already become his talk time......this is when he tells me about his former teachers and the friends he misses...things that scared him and what he is thinking about his home. Some of this conversation invovlrs charades as he is still learning English but that usually adds some giggles in ....leading to bedtime getting off schedule.....I have to remember that the connections we are making are infinitely more important! Thanks for the blog post!

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  22. Oh, I think this is true across the board. Abuse and neglect are never ok, but so much of the rest is (and should be) up to the parents. I've never done a thing just b/c someone else did, or even thought I should. My toddlers are on a loose schedule, mostly b/c they chose and choose it, but my baby sleeps (and doesn't) when he wants, and I don't much let him cry for any reason, ever. I hold him all the time. I sleep w/ him in the bed, too, and don't give no nevermind what people think about it. I don't cloth-diaper or process baby foods. I do nurse for nigh about 14 months. We watch watch too many cartoons. I do my own thing, and the beautiful thing about being older and having 4 kids is that, at this point, I'm pretty durn confident. Coming to you via IP.

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    1. (laughing at this and loving you, Brandee Shafer. :) )

      i'm glad i read your words here, Dana. we have some friends making the adoption-transition with a boy from China (!). i am sending this to her right now. thanks for sharing!

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  23. Your love for your "babies" (even when they are 10) shines through. I'll be praying for you and your kids when I rock my baby to sleep and curl up with my three year old. So glad I found you from Em's place!

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  24. I agree, but I think this applies to biological parents as well :) I often wonder, where is the grace? There are too many people who live under God's New Testament grace, but parent under God's Old Testament legalism. Our kids are people. Too many strategies seem to forget that. I mean, obviously we have to have discipline, we have to have structure because our kids need that. We have to do what's best for them in spite of them sometimes, and I get that. But at the same time, our kids deserve love, grace, and respect as human beings. We need to find a balance that honors their person, and loves and builds up their spirit.

    Those babies crying--your stories and the ones I've witnessed as well, just break my heart.

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  25. I just stumbled onto your blog and I'm thankful for your honest sharing. We've welcomed our first child (biological) last year and regularly converse about adoption. This parenting topic is very encouraging for a first time parent. Thank you!

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  26. Hello, I came upon your blog not because I have adopted children but because I hope to adopt older children someday. That being said, I can't speak for what it means to create a healthy home and systems for an adopted child.

    I have one living son, and one more on the way. My husband and I chose the cry-it-out method (back to Ferber, not specifically a Christian method) to help our son learn to sleep well. I've experienced insomnia ever since I was a child, and I really wanted to help my son do better than I do with sleeping (other concerns are also involved - all of this is much more complex than I could explain in a few words). I also am concerned with having an ordered house, because to me order is godly.

    We started putting him in his crib and leaving him to sleep when he was about 3 months old. He only cried for 3 days, and not longer than 10 or 15 minutes. It wasn't the angry, terrified heartbreaking cry that some of you are probably imagining. It was more along the lines of an "I'm not ready to go to sleep" cry... And make no mistake, it is IMPOSSIBLE to harden your heart to your baby's cry. IMPOSSIBLE. My husband and I sat outside his door and cried along with him... and continued to cry long after he stopped crying. We prayed a lot about our methods, and we prayed for our son, that God would be his comforter, let him feel His hand, and just teach him to rest internally.

    We read a lot of different books that talk about many different kinds of putting-to-sleep methods, including those based on attachment parenting, and what we ended up with was a kind of amalgamation of all of them. You could say we chose balance. Yes, we put our son down awake... sometimes. I would nurse him, and if he fell asleep, he would go down asleep. If he wasn't yet asleep, he would go down sleepy but awake. (I would do this for night wakings, too, so that going back to sleep became easy for him).

    There were other things we did to alleviate anything that may have been negative about his experience. He was watched closely for signs of tiredness, so he never struggled alone while wide awake. We started working on a bedtime routine 6 weeks beforehand, so his body and mind could get accustomed to an overall routine (then he would have cues to follow). And you could say we practised attachment parenting during the daytime, including baby wearing, and feeding at the first sign of hunger before crying even started. All in all, he rarely EVER had reason to cry. Some of those attachment methods morphed into allowing him to try all kinds of things physically without too much hovering. That's the independence part of things. And we were constantly watching for signs of emotional withdrawal or upset. (We never found any.) The sleeping thing is the only real challenge that he had to face alone, and technically he wasn't really alone. I think he somehow understood that he was safe, because it didn't take him long to adjust, and he sleeps very well now (at 18 months), both at night and in the day.

    (to be cont.)

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  27. (cont.)

    I think it all worked as well as it did because of how early we started. In the same way that a 3 month old does NOT understand anything about human nature and not much about his relationship to you and CANNOT figure out the right way to throw a tantrum in order to manipulate you, he also is NOT developed enough emotionally or mentally to be able to understand the idea of abandonment. All he knows is that Mummy or Daddy's presence gives him pleasure, and he's not pleased if you take your presence away. That WILL NOT scar him for life. If anything, that can become the root of self-control (as in the fruit of the Spirit), and with praying parents covering him and putting a hedge around him with their prayers and their own lives, it is a safe place for these foundations to be built.

    To some extent, we had to use the method we did because our son actively resisted sleep. He still does. We'll go on 2-3 hour drives to the countryside, and he will not fall asleep. He just doesn't. He didn't fall asleep from rocking, and after a certain age nursing didn't work either. Luckily, we had put the structures in place early, so that there would always be a context in which he understands that sleep is good and needful, and that it is okay for him to let go and give into it. His body knows the time of day, and he's very comfortable in his room and in his crib. We also have certain things that we do and say that also provide cues and consistency, and make him feel comfortable. When our second son is born, he might be an entirely different personality. He might enjoy sleep. Who knows? He might get on a schedule automatically. I don't know, but all of this has to be organic... and balanced.

    One thing we believe God has said to us as parents (you could call it an overarching standard that also helps us to understand how God views His fatherhood to us) is that delight MUST be mixed with discipline. You cannot have one without the other. So, that thought underlies every decision we make for our son, everything we do with him, and everything we expect from him. You have to go with what you know of God, both from His word and from what He says to you in your heart, and that is how you will know what to do.

    Just thought I'd give you all a view from "the other side"...

    Happy parenting.

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    1. Shala, Thank you so much for taking the time to comment so thoroughly. It sounds like you found the "style" of night time parenting that was perfect for your son, and that's really what it's about - not a formula. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience. Hope to hear from you again.

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    2. Thanks, Dana. I do like your blog and appreciate how you've shared, so I will be back.

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  28. Stumbled upon your blog as I was searching for blogs with first hand experience of adopting an older child from Taiwan. We are in the early part of the process and will bringing home a 4-5 year old...I was shocked to discover how difficult it was to find older child adoption blogs- still searching for Taiwan specific. Anyway, have enjoyed reading and I guess I am in the dark about what is considered "Christian parenting"...but I guess I am more the baby wearing, hippy kind of Christian:)

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