My husband and I jumped into parenting at the middle school level. We adopted a brother and sister, ages 12 & 10, from foster care. They’ve been with us for about eighteen months now, and they are incredible.
Of course we were in over our head right from the beginning. But adopting older kids has been such a good experience.
Here are some things we’ve loved, and some things we’ve learned, about adopting older children:
Older kids are SO much more than their adoption profiles.
Stop feeling sorry for them and consider them as people. Yes, they need families. But they’re not just waiting to be adopted. They have interests and strengths, likes and dislikes, all sorts of qualities that they express in cool, unique ways. Getting to know them, even in the beginning when it’s awkward (and it is AWKWARD) is fun, surprising, and multi-dimensional.
For example, we’d been told that our son Cy liked sports, and that our daughter Reena liked art and reading. But it wasn’t until we saw him work for hours to perfect the angle on his three point shot in our driveway, or how much attention she put into her fourth grade poster project on the state of Iowa (our whole family can tell you LOTS about that state now), that we learned how their minds work…and how interesting they are. They came ready to contribute, and full of untapped potential waiting for a safe place to express itself. When you witness an older child finding safety and security in your home? You get to see real-time transformation.
Being a multi-racial family is both easier and more difficult than we anticipated.
We’re white; our kids are biracial. Sometimes we get stared at when we’re out in public. I’ve watched as my kids were followed by security at Target and Marshalls (I didn’t expect that to be so blatant) and we once ended a vacation early when it was clear that the people of that town had never before seen a person of color.
Going into adoption, my husband and I were clear that matching on the inside was a higher priority for us than matching on the outside. And for daily happiness, that really is more important. Temperament matters more than physical resemblance. It helps us talk about things and develop strategies to navigate pressures together. (For example, we have a code word we use for when things get awkward with people staring.)
We’ve found that overall, the people who know us – our families, close friends – simply rise to the occasion of loving our kids. They’re kids, not colors. It’s really only people who don’t know us who make things weird. And in reality, most families have some characteristic that makes public life a little weird. That’s real life, and you deal with it.
My daughter told me recently that when little kids ask her why she doesn’t look like her mom & dad, she explains her adoption by saying, “It’s like puppy rescue.” I was shocked until she said, “Look, little kids always understand that. It answers their questions.” She was happy to have found an easy way to explain it. (See unique approach to life, above.)
Parenting kids who were essentially raising themselves before develops our leadership skills like nothing else.
My daughter was running a household from the time she was five or six. She took care of her brothers, figured out food, clothes, and basic safety, and still more or less held it down in school. So she goes into EVERY situation assuming that she is equal, if not superior, to every adult in the room. Early in our relationship, she suggested, in complete confidence, that she should have the master bedroom in our house. Just because she wanted it. This child will be running her own company someday because is not afraid to ask, or to take charge in the absence of competent leadership.
Our son was equally distrustful of adults, but his coping skill is to lay low, assess the situation, and not make waves. He evaluates everything we do for consistency, looking for evidence that we’re lying, cheating, or otherwise being what he calls “shady.” He can read a room and adapt to it like no one I’ve ever met. The boy is a genius.
We don’t talk our kids down from these positions. We’ve had to show them, in tangible ways, that we are trustworthy. We’ve had to prove that we are better at adult-ing than they are. Fortunately, we are. Over these months, we’ve learned to explain what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we came to these conclusions about how we manage life. We don’t allow them to define the conversation (or take the master bedroom). And as much as they chafe at this, they love it: it opens doors to new realities for them, for present security and future hope of what their lives can look like. We’ve learned: Our kids don’t really WANT to be the adults. They just need proof that the actual adults in their lives are up to the job.
Our goal is to make their lives as boring as possible.
Now by boring, I mean consistent. Predictable. Something they can count on that creates boundaries. There are aspects of family building that only come with months of daily consistency, and I won’t lie – that can be tedious. But it’s hugely effective. We had to get really clear vision of who we are and how we want our family to run, and then show them how to participate.
So we have a routine. We do the same things, in the same way, over and over again, until the kids learn that they don’t have to guess what will happen next. School, homework, free time, dinner. I cook, we say grace and then eat; we share our highs & lows for the day. (And no, your “low” cannot be what we’re having for dinner.) Screen time is limited, daily showers mandatory, and bedtime is early. Honestly, we’ve had to dig deep to find our inner drill sergeants, because my husband & I are usually way more easy-going than what our kids need.
Variety isn’t good news to newly placed kids. They will say they want to do new things, and chafe constantly at boundaries. But what they really crave is a world where things unfold in a predictable way they can count on. So Steve and I strive to be the most consistent, reliable people our kids have ever met. At first, we were surprised to discover that being stable and reliable was even more important than being loving. But then after awhile we realized: those things ARE love.
About the Family
Trish Ryan and her husband Steve adopted their children Cyrus (14) and Reena (12) from foster care in May 2016. Steve works in Biotech, Trish is an author and former attorney, and together they pastor Greenhouse Mission Vineyard Church in Cambridge, MA. They also have a rescue dog named Bergie. Trish blogs about their adoption experience at Trishryanauthor.com/blog