I am Brainwashing My Kids

Recently we marked the anniversary of my daughters’ baptism into the Christian Church. I thought of the commitments my wife and I made as parents to nurture and raise the girls in the Christian faith as best as we can, with the help of our congregation. As I shared before, the faith of my kids at times consumes my thoughts.

Living in the Bay Area of California, I regularly hear adults (parents and otherwise) say they don’t want to force religious beliefs on children and instead want their kids to choose their own faith, or non-faith. Some take this line of thinking further and claim a parent raising their child in a specific faith is akin to brainwashing or, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, “child abuse.” Similarly, I have heard it argued children only believe in God because they are taught to do so. While this point is debatable, I will entertain it for purposes of my argument.

We chose to have our children baptized well before they could ever have made that decision for themselves. According to the perspectives I detailed above, my wife and I are brainwashing our children. I am comfortable with that.

Let us set aside the idea that a child would not believe in God unless she was taught about God somehow diminishes theism’s validity. There are a lot of things children (and adults) believe that they would not had no one taken the time to teach them: washing hands prevents disease, carrots are healthier than cookies, humans are more closely related to humpback whales than they are to ravens. That assent to these facts may not come naturally to young children does not make the truths any less true.

I brainwash my children on a host of matters. I put carrots on my son’s plate far more often than cookies, despite his protests that cookies are actually nutritious and will make him just as healthy as any vegetable. I don’t present my children with a series of options concerning safety around water or cliffs. My children will not draft their own moral codes. We teach them stealing is wrong. Punching other kids is unkind and hurts community. It goes against our nature and self-interest to tell the truth when doing so will get us in trouble. All the same, we implore our children to tell the truth even when it hurts. I hope one day they will internalize these ethical values as their own. Until then, we will remind them several times a day to be kind and think about how someone else is feeling.

As a parent it is my responsibility to choose things for my children they might not think of for themselves, or even want. My wife and I will decide whether they go to school. (They do.) We will ensure they have vaccinations so they won’t die from a rusty nail scratching them. And we will tell them over and over again those inoculations, however painful in the moment, will keep them and their communities healthy for a long time.

So we read the Bible with our children. We recount the stories of the Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus, Jesus and Zacchaeus, and the Apostle Paul, as our family’s stories. We tell them God made them and had a great time doing so. I want my children to know Jesus loves them more than my wife and I ever could. We tell them Jesus died because he loves everyone, even the Roman soldiers who killed him. We have to take God’s example, respecting and loving people even if they disagree with our faith or want to harm us. My wife and I practice forgiveness and invite our kids to participate. We join in the life of our church community to show faith in God is not individualistic. We want our kids around other folks who also show God’s love to them. We bake cookies and buy beanies and socks to hand out to our homeless neighbors, in part to foster generosity and compassion in our children. We take our kids to the local Women’s March even if they won’t remember it because we want them to care for the well-being of everyone in our society. We pray with them every day and tell them the Holy Spirit loves to hear their thoughts and questions. My wife and I pray regularly for wisdom in parenting our kids. We know we need help.

The day will come when my children will need to make up their own minds about the Christian faith. I pray they will continue to believe and explore the riches of God’s grace. But I know they may reject what we tell them about God just as they might reject what we say about vaccinations or the ethical boundaries we placed around them regarding stealing. For now we will make choices on their behalf, teaching them the specifics of the Christian faith, praying that these children will be people who “do justice…love kindness, and…walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6.8)

Change Agent Podcast, First Episode

The first episode of Change Agent, a new podcast hosted by Carey Watson, MD is now available. This week she interviews Dr. Brigid McCaw about the creation and evolution of Kaiser Permanente’s innovative Family Violence Prevention Program. I’m very excited for this podcast and am really proud of Carey’s hard work putting this together.

You can listen above to the episode. You can stream the podcast on her website or on Soundcloud. You can also subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher. New episodes will be available weekly on Wednesday. Please leave some comments and reviews to help get the word out.

Announcing the Change Agent Podcast

I’m excited to announce a new podcast, Change Agent, hosted by Carey Watson, MD. (Carey is not only my favorite gynecologist, she’s also my wife.) Each week she interviews social entrepreneurs in the field of family violence prevention and advocacy. These leaders are creating new ways to bring wholeness and justice to families in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You can listen above to the first season’s introduction. In the future, you can stream the podcast on her website or on Soundcloud. You can also subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher. New episodes will be available weekly on Wednesday. Please leave some comments and reviews to help get the word out.

The Damn Shoes

A prose poem about parenting.

Nothing has humbled me as much as becoming a father. Not my deficiencies as a husband when I see my selfishness firsthand. Not my inability (unwillingness?) to be a good long-distance friend. Not my failures as a pastor when the congregational leaders said they wouldn’t talk with me—and what else did I have to use as a pastor, but words? No, being a dad has revealed just how short my fuse is. How sensitive I can be—a three year-old’s smile fuels me for days, but his rejection is like having someone cut the power to our home. All my skills I pride myself in—responsibility, analysis, reason—mean nothing. I cannot convince him to put on his damn shoes. He screams and writhes about having to put on his damn shoes. And I’m about to throw my own tantrum about the damn shoes. As I go to bed, I pray the examen, and shudder with embarrassment that my desolation for that day is the argument over the damn shoes. And how I stewed throughout the drive to the park, the spins on the tire swing, the tumbles through slides, the return home, about the fight over the damn shoes. I could not calm down. I began to harbor a festering grudge against my son and his damn shoes. When two days later I ask him to put on his damn shoes (minus the profanity) and he does so gladly. And I rejoice, nearly in tears, as if I were watching Neil Armstrong step on the Moon. I pick him up, smother him in hugs, and say a prayer of thanks for those damn shoes.

Adopting the Twins, Part 5: Home, the Miracle of Court Dates, Reflections

We came home on August 4 to begin our new life as a family of five all under one roof. I won’t go into many details here as it is a story still being written with fits and starts, successes and failures, and very little sleep.

God has blessed our kids with some extremely generous grandparents. For the first six weeks home, one or more of our parents stayed with us, helping with the day-to-day operation of the house as well as childcare. That childcare took mostly the form of playing with Elijah while Carey and I tended to the twins’ needs. I don’t know that we will ever be able to adequately express our gratitude for the grandparents.

While we signed agreements to care for the girls and received all the legal permissions to bring them home, we still waited to begin the next step of the adoption process: foster parenting. This could not happen until the courts filed relinquishments of birthparent rights. Again, I’ll spare you the specifics since there are several directions this journey could have taken. The short of it was once we had the needed paperwork, our lawyer instructed me on how to file it at the court. I went to the Contra Costa County Court in Martinez one Monday morning, papers in hand, waited in line, and prayed for helpful clerks. Thankfully the clerks I dealt with gave this novice patience and detailed assistance. I filed the papers and took and sent the needed copies to Independent Adoption Center (IAC) and our lawyer, respectively. Within a few days we officially became foster parents for the girls.

Twins

Until the relinquishments were signed and filed, all parties could change their minds about adoption. We therefore still refrained from using familial language with Elijah. Carey and I would cringe whenever an understandably excited and well-meaning friend would ask him if he was excited to be a big brother. Again, we did not want to confuse him more than necessary in case the adoption did not work out. We found this aspect of waiting for relinquishments especially difficult. We wanted to fully embrace being a family. Once the relinquishments came through, we celebrated. We could not tell Elijah enough that he was now Bethany and Joy’s big brother. A weight had been lifted.

We remain in another holding pattern waiting for the adoption to finalize, which will probably take about six months. During this time social workers from IAC will visit and interview us. They will file a report assuring the court of our competence as parents. At the end of this period I will go back to Contra Costa County Family Court to wait in more lines and file more papers. We will then receive a court date for our family to appear. Carey and I will then sign further paperwork and a judge will ask us to legally swear that we will care for the twins. I know, the miracle of childbirth. Except for the bureaucratic labyrinth, the finalization is truly beautiful in its own way. At Elijah’s finalization the judge told us he loves such cases because it is some of the only happy work he does as a family court justice. Normally the court intervenes to prevent abuse or neglect, often making the awful but necessary decision to remove children from their homes. With adoptions the judge helps to legally create new, loving families.

At first we could not convince Elijah to pose for pictures with the girls. This was a symptom of his adjusting to the new family reality. He also initially wanted nothing to do with a stuffed dinosaur we said came from the twins. (He eventually welcomed and named the dinosaur Pickle.) Then when we prepared to shoot the girls’ one-month photographs, Elijah asked to be in the picture with them. He beamed with pride as he held his baby sisters. He proclaimed, “I love them!” Ever since he has been a doting big brother, giving them kisses on the head and wanting to help when they cry. Granted, much of his “help” needs vigilant guidance, but we are grateful for his excitement and love.

Three Kids One Month

IAC reminded us each adoption is unique and we can attest to this fact. We matched with the birthmother beforehand instead of having a last-minute placement. We’ve had contact with the twins’ birthfather all along. These are singular relationships with individuals and we are all learning to be family together. Caring for twins is not merely twice the work, but an exponential increase in energy and resources—the speed with which we go through diapers is staggering. In many ways it feels like we are doing this for the first time.

Some similarities between the adoptions remain. I want to include a couple of paragraphs from my reflections on Elijah’s adoption, updated for the girls. I think they are relevant to our experience this time around.

Having heard the stories of birthmothers who have placed their children for adoption, I know that it is not an easy choice. I also know the way our society views the participants in our situation discourages women who do not want to parent from placing their child with another family. Adoptive parents are often seen as heroes, rescuing innocent children from the jaws of poverty and neglect. A birthmother is viewed as immoral and unfit and clearly does not love the child growing in her womb because no good, loving mother would never abandon her baby. Birthfathers are talked about even less and are seen as deadbeats at best. Abortion thus becomes a more attractive option because it can be done with greater secrecy and seemingly with less societal shame. But the stereotypes of birthfamilies are not based on much reality. The fact is Bethany and Joy have been surrounded by love their entire lives from their birthfamily to their adoptive family. Their birthmother made sure they received prenatal care and prayed for them regularly. This is not to make adoption a pollyannaish process, but to say that though this situation was born out of difficulty, the people involved truly love Bethany and Joy and express it in unique ways.

Having gone through two adoptions, I can say there are many disincentives for adoptive parents along the way. Private adoption, either domestic or foreign, is expensive. We were subject to background checks, financial checks, fingerprinting, and home inspections. All of these are reasonable, but as we proceeded in the process, I kept thinking, birthparents never have to do any of this stuff. A pregnant couple’s custody of their child does not depend on correctly answering questions about their philosophy of discipline or making sure all their medicine is in a locked box. Adoption agencies in most states are non-profit corporations and ours certainly earned their fees, but I could not help thinking that while adoption was an excellent use of our money, a good portion of our fees could have started a college fund for my child. In our research of which adoption route to take we also looked into the public foster-adopt system, which is even more difficult to navigate. There are similar background checks and home studies. While it is less expensive, the bureaucratic maze is worse than the private option. There are mandatory classes held over several weeks, each offered only once a year, meaning it could take years for parents to be considered ready for adoption if their schedules do not line up with the local government’s. There are groups in America working hard to ensure abortions are available regardless of ability to pay. I wonder why there is not a similar cry for making adoption available regardless of ability to pay. How many incredible parents are out there who would gladly adopt a child who needs a home but cannot because they are unable to afford the high costs? Health insurance plans often cover infertility treatment, but offer little help with adoption. With the large amount of kids in foster care and the continuing high percentage of unintended pregnancies, why do we not support adoption and adoptive parents with more resources?

I am more exhausted than I have been in years. The incessant childcare can consume my thoughts and I run the risk of losing my appreciation of this season. Strangely, Elijah, in his sweetness and excitement toward Bethany and Joy, reminds me just how miraculous these girls are. Gratitude overcomes me those moments I can stop, breathe, and simply hold the girls. Such moments seem to be increasing as the girls’ schedule has stabilized. They have both just started to smile. They can focus their eyes more and we can gaze at one another. I can say I am grateful to God for making us a family together. I cannot believe Jesus allows us to know these amazing people when they are so young and fragile. I am awed the Holy Spirit has given us the gift of knowing these girls as they grow.

Tyler and Joy