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We are homeschooling and these days our curriculum is Batman.

This week Two-Face investigated the dissolving abilities of different substances in water. If he could find the perfect ingredient to dissolve, he could push Batman into the vat of chemicals and fry his face. Does mustard dissolve? No. Does creamer dissolve? In hot water, yes.Does sugar dissolve? Yes. Perfect.

Batman loves to fight for justice using his abacus. If Batman can add two vats of acid and five dynamite sticks, he can solve a crime.

But tonight Batman failed us.

Sometimes George and I like to create our own bedtime stories. We fight the bad guys and we solve the crimes and then we say goodnight. And tonight I thought we could do a little more with that. I thought we could do a little bit of Theraplay with our favorite superhero. But tonight Batman would not, could not participate in Theraplay.

My terrific plan involved teaching one of the characters a little bit about making mistakes. In everyday activities, George reveals his trauma-based shame whenever he makes a mistake or fails in some way. I decided that we could use the superheroes to explore this.  I asked George, “Do you think it would be possible for the Joker and Two-Face to learn something tonight?”

“No, mom. No.”

“I mean, do you think that we could teach them something tonight? Maybe we could choose something like patience or “try, try again” and then teach it to them?”

“No, mom.”

“Why not?”

“They are cri-mi-nals.”

Later after we had  agreed that Robin could, indeed, learn something new, I played Robin:

“Batman, I’m really discouraged. I never get to be in charge. And I make so many mistakes. Will I ever get to be like you?”

“Robin, Alfred is making you the perfect weapon that will help you.”

“But Batman, I still may make mistakes with this new weapon.”

“No, Robin, the weapon will be so good that it will make all the good choices for you.”

“But, Batman! I want to be a superhero like you. What can I do to be as good as you are?”

“Your suit is old. You can get the perfect suit. You can get the perfect car. You can get the perfect weapons, and then you will be as good as me.”

“What about practice, Batman? Should I practice so that I can be a great superhero?”

“No. You don’t need to practice.”

This isn’t working. Batman is too perfect. The Joker is too bad. In this world, nobody changes. Nobody grows. Nobody learns. A good guy makes good choices. A bad guy makes bad choices.

Huh.

Bad guys make bad choices.

Interesting.

Bad guys make bad choices.

Oh no.

Bad guys make bad choices.

Aha. You think you’re a bad guy.

Last week Andy and I returned from an incredible parenting conference that focused on parenting for kids who have experienced trauma. This conference is especially meaningful to me because the 2011 conference exposed me to the reality of the trauma that is involved in infant adoption. The fears, shame, and resulting rage that I was observing every day in my preschooler were not only explainable, they were common. They were “normal” (ha!). And if I changed my parenting style, we could begin to heal these broken places, and find connection.

When you sit in a room full of parents who love children of trauma, you catch a whiff of heaven. You breathe out the painful truths of foster care and adoption that you can’t tell anyone else, and you breathe in empathy and hope. You look around at a circle of people who are loving children back from the brink of death, and you think to yourself, “Do I even belong here? My issues aren’t as bad as hers.” But then Christine looks you in the eye and says, “Just because you have stage 1 cancer doesn’t mean you don’t belong in the cancer support group.” And you bask in the acceptance and love that you don’t find anywhere else. This is heaven.

At the conference we learn about the loss these kids feel at the core of who they are. They are skeptical, fearful, angry, self-loathing, desperate little guys who will climb in your lap and then kick you in the teeth. But all behavior has meaning, so we learn to speak their language and truly listen. Listen. Listen.

Tonight I was listening. I had hoped it would be a learning experience for George. Batman was supposed to teach George that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Instead, I listened.

I heard you, George. You think you’re a bad guy. You think you can’t change. You think everybody else is perfect. You believe that if you had the perfect ‘x’, you’d be able to make good choices.

I hear you, buddy. I’m listening.

 

 

This spring I took my son to his first IMAX movie, Born to be Wild 3D. This film tells two stories of adoption and rescue. One in Indonesia with orangutans, and one in Africa with elephants. I was not expecting to see a RAD-ical depiction of how nurture and stimulation is integral to the survival of these orphaned animals. Just like a human baby, elephants must receive 24-hour care for the first 2 years of their lives. Essential to each orphaned elephant’s survival is the one-on-one caregiving and co-sleeping of a human parent. This clip shows the film crew capturing this astonishing commitment to elephant development.

Embedded in the DNA of creation is the cruel and beautiful reality that without love, nothing will grow. In the place of growth we find failure to thrive, underdevelopment, malnourishment, and death. Much of the offspring of the animal kingdom relies on the instinctive love of mothers and fathers to survive. And the mothers and fathers do it. Unless they can’t.

This morning I took Mabel into the doctor for her 2-year-old check up. We have only been parenting her for about five months, so I wasn’t surprised that her height and weight hadn’t changed significantly. But then the nurse measured her head circumference. (This measurement determines brain growth. There is a wide range for “normal” head measurements and parents should not read too much into the numbers if their babies are reaching developmental milestones.) Mabel’s head has grown from the below average range into the normal range.

When I heard this I thought of the elephants.

I will never know if our love and daily stimulus is growing Mabel’s brain faster than it would have developed in her former institutional setting. But the idea that five months at home has nourished her inner being testifies to the healing powers of love. Little neurons and pathways are connecting in ways that are only possible in the caring arms of a family. I mourn for the children who still languish in cribs and corners of stark rooms across the world, but I celebrate that one little baby, my little elephant calf, is finding her way.