Monday, March 4, 2013

Dear Christian Parent Adopting an Older Child

Adopting an older child is different from raising our bio kids.

Dear Christian Parent Adopting an Older Child,

I want to plead with you not to spank.

I realize you've parented your biological children well. As you've taught and trained them to love and follow Jesus, spanking has been one of the tools in your toolbox. You've seen it bear fruit in their lives.

But when you adopt your new child, it's going to take a long time to build trust.

Think about it. You didn't spank your bio kids when they were infants. In fact, by the time you got to the point of using corporal punishment, even just a swat on the bottom, you had consistently been meeting their needs for many, many months.
"Yes, I'll feed you."

"Yes, I'll change your diaper."
"Yes, I'll comfort you."

Before you ever said, "No," you said, "Yes," about a gazillion times.
They knew you. They loved you. They trusted you.

You will not have that same love and trust in the beginning with your newly adopted older child.

What's more, you probably won't have it for a really long time. This child you're adopting has experienced trauma and loss. She has been repeatedly let down by adults who were supposed to care for her. You're going to have to work hard to gain her trust. You would never spank an infant. This child is an infant in your family. So please don't spank her.

Use the other tools in your parenting toolbox. Pick up some new tools along the way. And always, always, always view her behavior (and misbehavior) through eyes of compassion. You'll never be more like Jesus!

I'm cheering for you,


Wenxin's Gotcha Day. He was 7 1/2 years old. Does he look like he trusts me yet?

My purpose in this post is not to debate the pros and cons of spanking in general or to evaluate whether or not it is commanded or even endorsed by the Bible. I acknowledge that good people, including many Bible-believing Christians, have different opinions about corporal punishment.

My purpose is to reach out to Christian families in the process of adopting older kids.

My purpose is to encourage you not to spank.

Here are a few more reasons why:

1. Your older adopted child may have been a victim of  physical abuse. 

I would never spank a kid who has a history of physical abuse. Never.

Even if I spank with restraint and even if I comfort the child afterwards, it's likely that the act of being hit by an adult will trigger memories of the abuse.

The scary truth of older child adoption is that there are a lot of unknowns. A lot of a child's history never makes the official paperwork. The older child you're adopting may have been a victim of abuse whether you know it or not.

2. Your older adopted child can't learn when they are operating from fear. 

On my last post about Christian parenting of adopted kids, Lisa made a comment about spanking children who come from a background of trauma and neglect.

"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 Him."

3. A lot of our older adopted kids have sensory issues. 

I haven't noticed any sensory issues in my son, but it's something I hear discussed over and over again in online adoption forums. Here's a short video where Dr. Karyn Purvis discusses sensory processing disorder in adopted kids.

In my opinion, if your child doesn't process sensory information normally, it just doesn't make sense to spank them. Sensory processing disorder is not the adopted child's fault. It's just one more way the fallout from their early abuse and neglect continues to follow them long after they've been adopted.

4. You can still discipline your new child.

At first, because of the language barrier, we had to get creative with how we taught Wenxin about living in our family.

As Wenxin learned our expectations, we often had him simply stop playing and sit in a chair near us when he disobeyed. After a designated time, usually about five minutes, we'd let him try again. This gentle approach established that we were in charge and reinforced our house rules.

The Connected Child offers more suggestions for correcting behavior along with simple scripts that help you communicate briefly and clearly.

I'd love to hear from my readers. How do you correct misbehavior besides spanking? What works for your family?

To spank or not to spank. . . that is the question. I guess everyone knows where I stand now. What about you? Shared at Titus 2 Tuesdays, Tending the Home Tuesdays, Missional Women, and . . . 

Ni Hao YallOpen Letter Campaign


  1. In theory - before I had kids, I used to think a swat was ok. I even swatted a bottom now & again to get my point across. (Notice - my point!) Now - after therapeutic parenting for a while - there's no need to ever spank a child. Any child. A child behaving badly is a child feeling badly - figure out the "why" and the need to spank disappears. It is "easier" and "quicker" to administer a spanking than dig into what is really going on -

    It's the same with us and our sin - we sin because somewhere a need isn't being met. We sin because somewhere we are feeling badly about something - we gossip because putting others down makes us feel better about ourselves for a moment. New testament theology - God never administers physical punishment. He comes into our sin, gives us grace, meets our needs. Yes- there are natural consequences to our sin - but spanking isn't a "natural" consequence nor does it address the trigger in that child that causes the mis behavior.

  2. I did spank our bio kids and now that my toolbox is expanding, I regret that. If I could turn back the hands of time....I would never spank. And for kids from hard places - older or younger - they can't tolerate it. You have made all the points. Thanks!

    1. I too wish I could turn back the hands of time - so there with you!

  3. Good for you. Corporal punishment is never the way - it only teaches that it's ok to say you love someone and use violence to control them. No freakin' way.

    1. Corporal punishment is the only way to set a child back on the right path!

  4. Guess I'll chime in here and say that I'm not advocating that everyone spank their bio kids and use other methods of discipline with their older adopted kids. I'm trying hard not to make this about spanking across the board. I decided to write it this way because I know that a lot of churches and Christian parenting classes teach spanking. Many families choosing to adopt older kids from hard places have heard those sermons and taken those classes. Many have used spanking with their bio kids. I chose to especially address these families because I know they want to do what's best for all their kids, but may simply be unaware of how this method of discipline could be hurtful to their new adopted kids.

    1. Dana - I applaud you for tackling the arena of "Christian" parenting. I had a therapist once tell me that the current "Christian parenting" philosophies were rooted in old testament theology - forgetting that we now live under the new covenant of grace. I am the biggest advocate out there for well behaved and "well trained" children - but we somehow have lost dight of the fact they are children - not little adults.

  5. I agree with you so much in theory. I was SO sure I would never use any type of swatting on my adopted child (home at 2.5 years old). I have to say that I didn't follow through on that they way I had imagined. And yes, I did TONS of research before she came home, mostly Dr Purvis. The problem was, it didn't matter what technique from any book I had read I tried - she only laughed at me. Unless it came with a small swat on the hand or rear, then suddenly it "clicked" that I was disciplining her. Now that she has been home for 7 months, that is rarely, if ever necessary. I realize that I may have made the wrong decision in disciplining her the way I did, but thankfully she is now very happy and secure. It's still a work in progress of course. I know that she was loved and cared for in her orphanage, but they did use corporal punishment. It took some time for her to realize that other types of discipline meant she was being corrected as she always related discipline to a swat. With the language barrier, and her being at the age she was, I didn't find Dr Purvis' material working until she could at least understand some English. Like I said, I agree with you completely in theory, but if there are other mothers reading this who also didn't follow through on good intentions, know that it can still be redeemed.

    1. Thank you so much for speaking up. One of my favorite sayings about parenting is that it is more art than science -- you really do have to find out what works for each child. Thanks so much for sharing what worked with your daughter.

  6. I think that you are absolutely right on in this post, and I would take it further to include infants. I adopted my son when he was nine months old, and he had experienced trauma. I knew that, but I am still... more then three years later... learning how severe and pervasive the effect of that trauma, which I do not believe included any sort of hitting, spanking or violence, is and how it has left him so profoundly rooted in fear. It doesn't always look like fear, but it is. From a Christian point of view, I hope my son will be inspired to follow Christian teachings out of a love of Christ, not a fear of punishment. And I want him to cooperate with me out of love too, not out of fear. If my son obeyed me out of fear of a punishment, I suspect that obedience would disappear as soon as he felt he was out of my sight and wouldn't be caught. There is nothing of love or commitment or attachment in that. Just fear. No thanks.

  7. Such good advice Dana. We have felt the same way about spanking. Thanks for tackling a delicate subject with such grace! Blessings!

  8. This is a very good post! Thank you for linking up at Tending The Home Tuesdays at Road to 31. I will be featuring your post in my Weekly Wrap Up Tomorrow.

  9. Since our adoptions have been through state foster care, we have actually signed forms as part of our home study to swear we will never use any sort of physical punishment. Nearly every kid in the system has either been abused or has seen abuse. And you make a great point aside from the specifics of spanking: parenting an adopted child with an existing history and personality before they came to the family will always be different than parenting a child you've raised from birth.
    My first visit to your blog; lovely to "meet" another adoptive parent.

  10. My husband and I adopted a 13 1/2 year old boy who had been terribly abused in every immaginable way. Although we had a three swat rule at home with our large family, it was rarely implimented as there were so many other options to redirect behaviors or allow natural consequences to become the tool of discipline. However, one day, about a year and a 1/2 after his adoption, this boy set me up! With defiance and anything he could stir up, I finally gave him the 3 swats. With much ranting and raving that I must feel so good and powerful and a lot of psychobabble he heard learned from years in therapy, he followed me around the house trying to get me to argue with him. When he decided that I would not play the game with him he announced that he would go down the sreet to his job at the nursery and pull weeds. I thought that was a great idea so let him go. Many hours later I rode one of the kids' bikes down to his job and let him know that dinner was ready and we'd love for him to join us. His reply to me just floored me. He said, "Thanks for the spanking, Mom! Now I don't feel like a foster kid anymore." He told me that he had been reading in his Bible that God disciplines those He loves and had decided that if we didn't discipline in a way that he could recognize, then we must not really love him. I never had to spank him again, but for him it was a vital part of belonging!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I have to admit, I still would not feel comfortable spanking a child who had been abused in the past -- but you probably already got that from my post. : ) But I'm glad you felt the freedom to share your experience, and I hope you'll keep reading and keep commenting.

  11. Dana-
    I am in complete agreement with you. And may I add, spanking is also not acceptable to have in the toolbox for children going through puberty.

    I have three children adopted from China, two as toddlers and one at the age of five.

    About four months ago, I went out to lunch with two friends and our daughters who are all third graders. My friend Cathy's daughter (who was adopted from China at the age of four and a half) started to misbehave at the table. Cathy sweetly took her by the hand and led her out to the car to talk with her.

    The comment the other friend, who has no experience with adoption, said felt like daggers to the chest. She said, "I am shocked that she would have the audacity to take her child aside like that. She should have picked her up and taken her into the restroom and spanked her."

    I explained that she had undergone abuse in China. Yes, she is very "Americanized", but as adoptive parents, it's not our job to spark "flashbacks" of that.

    Actually, I stopped spanking my bio kids (I have 7 bio, 3 adopted) after two kids. We had an accidental bloody nose from a spanking on the behind, and it's scary when your children can't breathe because of one spanking. Not because of the actual pain, but because of fear. Plus, I feel like spanking (and yelling) is out of anger, and makes tension worsen. My second daughter Arden had some anger problems and yelled frequently and was on medication for it. Yelling back at her never once helped. Spanking her would just make her hit us back. She's 27 now and a mother of twins. She's loving, patient, a wonderful wife, and better than I was when I had my first child!

    With my adopted kids, I do dicipline similar to Michelle Duggar, though I don't agree with her about all parenting things.

    The Bible says, "A gentle word turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger."


  12. After reading this post, I have to recommend a new book by Dr. Tony Evans. I think it's outstanding for all parents and all children - biological or adopted. It's wonderful for wisdom in building and creating an atmosphere for developing and maintaining an identity in Christ, to help parents grow in their own confidence discoing their worth as parents based on God's Word, experiencing the freedom of influencing your children rather than the futility of trying to control them, gaining new strength as a parent from a Kingdom perspective and trading reactive parenting for intentional parenting. Wise words for developing trust and shaping your child. The book is called, "Raising Kingdom Kids: Giving Your Child a Living Faith." I can't recommend it enough for all parents!


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