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Adoption and Expectations

Adoption and Expectations

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{originally posted in 2011}

I recently read the book No Biking in the House Without a Helmet. It is about a family with four biological children, who then end up adopting five more children. All of the children were older (from age 4 to teens), four from Ethiopia.

When I closed the last page of the book, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between our families. Before our Liberian children ever came home we were given a great piece of advice: Don’t have any expectations for the first year. Every adoption (or birth of a baby) is filled with expectations, of course. But with adopting older children (and in our case  teens) we knew we needed to keep this in check. We didn’t know these children, of course we needed to not let our “expectations” and preconceived notions of what they would be like, get in the way. After a long discussion we agreed that our only expectation for our adopted children the first year is that they would learn to live in our family.

Our first year flew by.  We came to the end of that and discussed our agreement not to have any expectations of our children beyond allowing them to adjust and learn to live with us. That strategy was a resounding success. We (and they) had survived a year living together. That was something to celebrate!

So Chuck and I discussed year two. What would our expectations be for year two? Since our children arrived home in October, our anniversary of their arrival coincides closely with the beginning of our school year. Academics were still a struggle. In fact, no measurable progress could be seen after a year. But that was okay. We all survived the first year and academics seemed secondary. But for year two, we wanted to see some improvement. In the  beginning language had been such an issue (they spoke English in Liberia, but with a strong accent and it was heavy with Liberian colloquialisms). So we began year two, doing essentially the same schoolwork as year one, but this time I put on a little more pressure to get the answers right and correct mistakes. To our Liberian children schoolwork = getting the workbook finished. No matter if ALL the answers are wrong. As long as the workbook is finished, their schoolwork was done. This is honestly still an issue. The prevailing attitude was (and is)  well, if I miss 17 out of 20 answers that’s okay,  I can just go back and fix them tomorrow. 


Year two came and went and we were up against year three. Our goal for year three? To have our children listen and follow directions. To have them think ahead (ie, if I have an all day Scout event on Saturday, I need to ask permission to go, and let mom know I need to pack a lunch- this because we don’t normally keep portable lunch supplies in the house). Time after time, permission wasn’t asked (but since Judah’s going, I can go right?) and lunches weren’t packed (but that’s okay, someone always shared). It was mind-numbingly frustrating. Time after time we went over: ask permission, let mom know you need to pack a lunch. And time after time neither were done. In fact, resentment built up because we were “being mean”. Being mean by requesting that a child ask permission and let me know if they needed a ride, or lunch. After all, if they forgot a lunch, or coat, or book, someone always loaned (or even gave) them one, so what’s the problem?

Planning ahead included things like, if I need to be at the pool at 3:00 and it takes 20 minutes to drive there, I better be ready by 2:30 or 2:40 (not 3:00)….Weekend long trips would arrive, with our children having no idea what time they should be ready, or when they were meeting or where.

As we come up on year four, I feel like we’ve been a dismal failure helping/training our children on those two points.

What I hope Keziah and Boaz learn at Job Corps (and Ezra learns at school) is that they need to think and plan for themselves. They are 17, 19 and almost 19, I won’t always be there to pack a lunch, call to clarify what time we’re meeting, or to let them fix their mistakes on their schoolwork. The  time has come that they need to begin to “own” some of these things themselves.

I love my adopted children dearly. But the more we asked of them (you need to ask permission, you need to plan ahead) the more tension it caused. Tension that affected our relationships. I felt that I could either not expect anything from them (ie, make their plans, double check times, check on lunches) and have things go smoothly…or make them do those things and have tension and resentment.

Which brings me back to the book I read. This family, it seems, had very few, if any expectations of any of their children. Sneaking out? Well, kids do that. Drinking beer at a party? They’re teens after all. Stealing? Make them repay and ask them nicely not to do it. What I saw in that book were very similar issues to what we have dealt with, but with an “anything goes” type of attitude. While I’ll admit that philosophy has crossed my mind, I don’t believe it would serve my children well in the long run. In order to get and keep a job, you need to be honest and follow directions. You need to be dependable and know what time works starts. I consider those important life skills.

So what was the point of this long, rambling, post? Not a whole lot, beyond recognizing our struggles in another family. All in all, I consider our older child adoption a success.

Our children adjusted to our family and we love them.

And some days, that needs to be enough.

{Update: 2015: I am happy to say that seven years after adopting our teens from Liberia, all are living independently! This is a success no matter how you look at it. We are so proud our children and how well they are doing.}

Other great books to read on adoption are:

Patchwork Clan

19 Steps Up the Mountain

The Family Nobody  Wanted



  1. Mary

    We welcomed into our home an unofficial foster son who was 19 years old but socially more like a 15 year old. My husband worked in NYC then and this young man lived in “The Projects” across the street from the Honda Motorcycle dealership where my husband worked. He first met Phil when Phil was 12 years old and he earned extra spending money sweeping up etc. He sometimes came to visit us over a weekend. His mother had a daughter and two other boys. The father had left the family at some point while the four children were young and the Mom worked as a school teacher to support the family.
    Unfortunately her influence was over ridden by the life the boys lived on “the street”.
    Phil came to live with us after he had gotten out of a drug rehab and he was worried that by being thrown back into relationships with his previous friends, he would sink back into that life.
    We found many of the same attitudes in Phil as you have found with your Liberian children. He had little concept of time and would be fired from a job and would blame it on prejudice. All of our explanations just seemed to run off him. One day he said, “Gee, you white people are really hung up on time !” Finally some friends of a friend gave him a chance at a job with some future. He would start out as a general helper in their veterinary clinic with possibilities for advancement in the future. He lasted two months before being fired and they sat him down and thoroughly went over his work record with him. They had tracked him every day and proceded to show him exactly how many times he had been 20 min late, how many times he just didn’t bother to show up and didn’t call them etc. etc.
    That did make an impression on him and he began to do somewhat better. He lived with us 18 months and when he moved into a small apartment on his own, was doing fairly well at the job he had. He eventually married and had a son and his wife had two other children. He did a fair job at making a life but many things were so deeply ingrained by the time we had him that we were unable to make much progress in getting him to change. He died at the age of 39 when an ulcer in his stomach ate into an artery and he died 45 minutes after the ambulance got him to the hospital. We have felt saddened sometimes over the fact that we weren’t able to accomplish all we wanted to for Phil but we did our best at the time. He was about 3 years older than our oldest child of our six children.I will be praying for your Liberian children and for you and Chuck and your wonderful family.

  2. petersonclan

    Absolutely! When our older child turned 18 and our expectations were that they would let us know what they needed, she ran to another family who is letting her stay with them with no expectations. It’s not reality. But they are enabling, so I can do nothing…

  3. Elizabeth

    Balance has to be one the the most difficult things in life. At least for me. I’m glad you actually talk about such things with your husband beforehand. Things like that often aren’t even thought much about till you’re running into that brick wall.

  4. Ellen

    There definitely is a very different concept of time for the older of our two Liberian sons! In Liberia, it was daybreak, meal times, sunset; seasons were rainy and dry. No schedule based on ‘clock’ time at all! I don’t think that Hilton even kept track of what day it was, and he didn’t know the names of the months either. The struggles have been much the same here. One tool we did find that helped Hilton (since he really had no concept of time between “we leave in 1/2 an hour our we’re leaving in 5 minutes”) was a “Time Timer” – it is pricey, but worth every penny. It works sort of like an egg timer, but instead of counting down numbers, the color red disappears. He still doesn’t fully grasp the timing of things, but being able to watch time ‘disappear’ while he is getting ready was a huge help to him.

  5. Lou

    This is such a fascinating post. I coordinate a Masters in Cross-Cultural Communication. And one of the sub-fields of research is attitudes to time. In many cultures being on time is FAR less important than making someone happy or dealing with something else. When in that culture where everyone expects the same, it works. Because they wouldn’t get fired for being half an hour late. When a polychronic person ( and a monochromic person come into contact, the problems start. I hate being made to wait for someone etc, but my Venezuelan and Colombian friends just think I’m a stress head.
    I agree though, that the best and most loving thing you can do is have expectations from your kids to help them adjust to the society they are going to work in.

  6. Renee

    I agree with you, Lou, its very frustrating because this is a very cultural thing. Having said that though, I dont know many employers who are going to tolerate chronically late workers because they have cultural differences about the concept of time.

  7. kim

    I’m not so sure this is completely cultural. I have two much younger sons adopted from US foster care. At very young ages, they seem to have the same approach to life: if they’re allowed to float along on a happy cloud of zero expectation (and our expectations of them are minimal–eat your food, speak respectfully, don’t hurt anybody) they are ecstatic! They are superficially charming, syrupy sweet. But let us have to transition to an activity that they’d rather not do, serve a meal that they’d rather not eat, ask them to do their (one hour) of homeschool a day, and everything changes! They curse at us, soil themselves on purpose, are physically aggressive toward our pets and their younger siblings, are oppositional in the extreme. In other words, if we ‘dare’ to parent them, they make us pay! Imagine our fear for their future in a world filled with expectations of how one has to behave–rules, authority figures, etc. We are not laissez-faire parents. So imagine what our days look like–near constant conflict for years now. Thank you so much for this post. I got the same somewhat frustrating feeling from the book, but couldn’t really put it into words until now. My boys love me only as a superficial friend that will let them do what they want and pick up any mess they get into as a consequence. As their parent, authority figure, teacher? Well, it feels like they hate me.

  8. Non-Mommy

    Renee, I don’t know you, and I have zero experience in this department, but I just think the world of you. You and Chuck seriously inspire me, and encourage me. You have such a healthy, refreshing outlook on life and I love that even when things are really tough, you just plug away and remain positive.
    Knowing this would be difficult (adopting older children), you did it regardless and still love them no matter what. You’re awesome.

  9. Renee

    Non-Mommy, thank you so much for your encouraging words. This often times feels like unchartered waters, so we try to make the best decisions each day and pray often.

  10. Renee

    Kim, interesting, our Liberian childrens struggles and responses are very similar to those of my drug/alcohol affected children…I think the same parts of the brain must be affected even if for different reasons.

  11. Martita McGowan

    We have lived pieces of your story, although our son was just under five when we adopted him from Ukraine. He is also deaf and alcohol affected – a trifecta for a little kid. At times, the allure of anything-goes parenting gains siren-like strength and I have to fight it daily, hourly, when I know any request that is not couched in the proper way will meet the inevitable, ugly push-back. I know I need to find that sweet spot that is unique to just Max that balances slowly increasing requirements with clear guidelines and not asking too much or being too harsh.
    I’ve been discouraged lately (we are starting year seven, he is nearly 11 now) to think that I have so few years left and he has so much to learn. It is possible he will be with us until he is 30 and beyond if I extrapolate his learning curve. I’m exhausted just considering that. However, the alternative (him leaving home way before he is ready) is terrifying and potentially catastrophic. So we keep moving forward.

    • bakersdozenandapolloxiv

      Thanks for sharing. Those three are now living independently and have jobs, something we weren’t sure would ever happen. Keep up the hard work; you are not alone!

  12. mary

    I’ve been thinking over adoption for a little while now and I was wondering, how did you afford five adoptions? Have you already covered this in a blog post? If not, would you consider addressing this in a future post? My husband really likes the idea of an international adoption, but whoa! It’s really expensive. I would love to do a local adoption with a mother who chose life over abortion. Are these two options very different?

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