Third World Kids in a First World Family

Adoption of older children is always challenging. Adopting older children from another culture results in some frankly bizarre situations. Lately, our kids came home with a very exciting story about how at school, they were told to put their heads down and put their hands over their heads. “It was a tomato drill!” they exclaimed.

Much of our children’s history is still a mystery to us. Stories are slowly coming, but the difference between truth and fiction is hard to discern, especially knowing their deep desire to protect their past. The clouded memories of childhood are fading quickly into a mixture of wishful thinking of how things should have been and denial of what really happened.

What were they like as infants? Where did that scar come from? How can they come with the same history and have such different capabilities, nutritional status, and memories? What happened to them before they landed at the doorstep of an orphanage in Kinshasa?

We will likely never really know.

As we’ve been getting to know our kids from a completely different culture, I’ve appreciated that there are so many wonderful things that their culture has instilled in them. There’s always a fear of taking a child out of another culture that they will lose some important sense of self, the values of their culture, etc. But at the same time, leaving children in orphanages in third world countries just for the sake of “maintaining their culture” is hardly the answer either. There must be a careful balance of maintaining the best parts of their culture with the nurturing only a family can provide.

Here are some of the things I appreciate and want to preserve about my children’s culture:

1. Their appreciation for “real” food. When given a choice between a french fry and fresh fruit, the kids will typically pick fresh fruit every time. They LOVE water and milk. They never leave the table without drinking every drop. Every grain of rice is cleaned off a plate. Meat– and especially fish–is a real treat.  They didn’t really like candy very much when they came to America — they much preferred meat or bread. We didn’t offer them candy often, but they would refuse it more often than not. This is in stark contrast to what happens today in their new American lives. Almost every day, they come home with candy or candy-like treats. Do I take candy from my children? Heavens, yes! We didn’t even participate in Halloween, and we didn’t give them candy for Christmas or Valentine’s day, but we still have a never-ended supply of candy in a jar on our counter that we’ve confiscated from them. We find bags of candy stashed away in their toy drawers, in their backpacks, and stuffed around their car seats. They actually do like candy now, and I feel like the Candy Police trying to preserve their appreciation for real foods.  It seems like Americans give candy to kids for every occasion, and especially as a reward for good behavior. We should not wonder why children are developing Type II diabetes. We started giving it to them when sugar replaced love and praise.

2. Their lack of dependence on technology. Our kids do not play video games. Out of a moment of desperation, Ken showed Palmer how to play Angry Birds shortly before Christmas, and it became immediately apparent that video games were not a good thing for our kids. The addictive and absorptive nature of technology was unhealthy and unnecessary.

While there are some very good learning apps, I’m sure, I teach the first generation to be raised on technology-dependent education, and I can see the pitfalls. There have been some very interesting studies about how technology-dependent learners can learn more, but they think less. They can memorize lots of bits of information, but truly struggle when trying to put it all together. They have never had a college lecture without Powerpoint, so they have a hard time teaching themselves capture significant information, draw diagrams, pull information out of textbooks. But this is how real-life critical-thinking occurs. It’s not linear and spoon-fed.

I want my kids to learn to read real books, have real conversations, play board games, make forts in the living room, ride bicycles, and play hide and seek. They have an amazing ability to entertain themselves without technology “stuff.” I like that their culture has given them imaginations and a strong desire for physical exercise every day. To introduce them to the “stuff” of the technological world seems contradictory to what we are trying to accomplish in establishing bonds as a family. They haven’t had technology before, so they do not have a sense of what they are missing. And I’m thankful for that. They will have plenty of time to gain computer skills. Wii controller skills are even further down on the list.

3. Their dependence on God to provide. This one probably scares me the most. Let’s be honest, in our culture, we don’t “need” God much. We know where our next 7 days worth of food are coming from. Even the homeless and jobless population in our city can get 3 free meals a day, 7 days a week. Contrast this to the culture where our kids come from where parents and children alternated days eating. That’s right. Not everyone could eat every day, so they switched off. Kids eat one day, parents eat the next. And not three meals a day. One meal every other day. This was NORMAL for the culture. Their homes were collections of refuse strapped together that would hopefully keep the rain out. Every drop of water was a gift. Clean water was a treasure. Running water, unimaginable. Shoes were worn until they disintegrated. They slept in the same clothes they played in. They shared a bed with 5 other children. They sang worship songs without a full band and coordinating Powerpoint with reflective backgrounds.

We bought our kids some $2.95 shoes at Children’s Place a couple of weeks ago, and Palmer brought them home, looked in his closet and said, “Mommy, I have too many shoes.” So together, we chose shoes from his closet that he could give to children who don’t have any.  Oh, how I always want him to remind me that we have more than enough.

In our culture, I think we often have to create need for God because we have so much. Too much. I continually find myself asking: what am I doing that would be impossible to do without reliance upon God? I always want there to be an immediate answer. In America, during the season of Lent, we identify with our Lord’s suffering by giving up things like fast food, forks, and Facebook. Our children come from a culture where dependence on God doesn’t have to be so manufactured.

4. Their love for work. They love to spread mulch. Cleaning the bathroom? Better than watching cartoons. They bicker over who gets to vacuum. There is crying if one child gets to do a chore, but the other does not have a comparable one to do. Sometimes I run out of chores for them to do. I know that child labor is a real problem in the Congo, but that very strong work ethic is amazing. I’m very torn about this. They know the satisfaction of working until their muscles are sore and they collapse into sleep out of exhaustion rather than boredom. They are much better behaved when they are busily productive in the life of our family.

And no, you may not borrow them to clean your house.

At first, I wanted to undo much of what our kids had experienced: too much deprivation, too much work, not enough fun. But I’ve come to realize that they are in some ways very blessed to have had the experiences that they have had. They appreciate good food, because they know what it is like to be hungry. They like to work, because they have been too malnourished to have the energy. They know what it’s like to praise God out of poverty rather than excess. They value trust because they know how much it hurts when promises are broken.

I worry that giving them the excesses of American culture will promote spiritual poverty.

My children are living Beatitudes. They are beauty from ashes. They are resilient in ways that they shouldn’t have to be. They have brought just as much to our family as we have brought to theirs. And we are thankful for the culture they carry with them and how they teach us more about Him every day. Thank you, Lord, for bringing Third World Kids into our First World Family.

Palmer did this matching game all by himself!

Palmer did this matching game all by himself!

Addie practiced writing her numbers. She's getting good!

Addie practiced writing her numbers. She’s getting good!

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2 thoughts on “Third World Kids in a First World Family

  1. Thank you for sharing the journey of how your kids are teaching you such wonderful lessons in a culture that keeps one from understanding contement. It was so beautiful to read this post. I was a single parent with my son for almost eight years. While, we did not experience the alternate eating plan, we did struggle financially and we were classified as a below poverty household. However, the things we did without taught my son so many valuable lessons (and me as well, as I ached that I couldn’t provide the ‘things’ I wanted) that I wouldn’t have been able to teach him. Just like with your children. It is a beautiful thing to rely on the LORD for everything and see Him provide. May God continue to give you wisdom on how to raise, love and instill the hope that is found in Christ alone. My son is now 17 years old and still does without much. Others would see his bedroom and think why does this kid’s room not have many things? The answer is because he doesn’t need them to be happy. He doesn’t have a dresser or a bed frame. One bookcase to hold his belongings and his mattress. I didn’t let him have a video game until 7th grade. Looking back, I should of held out longer but his other Christian friends from his Christian school kept pressuring him and even called us Amish because we didn’t and still don’t have cable, only one TV, one computer and so on. Many rich blessings to your family. A friend of mine posted your blog on FB, so glad I took the time to read this.

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