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The Hallmark of a Good Family

By Dr. Ray Guarendi

Dear Dr. Ray: Our son is six. We adopted him at birth. I’ve tried so hard to make raising him positive and pleasant, but it’s been frustrating. I think I was expecting a Hallmark card family.—June Cleaver

Yours is a common adoption dynamic. Here’s how it typically unfolds: A couple looking forward to having children finds they can’t conceive. Pursuing adoption, they are apprehensive about when or if parenthood will happen. Eventually their dreams of a family are realized, as they adopt their first son or daughter. They are now determined to make family a warm, unquestionably positive experience for everyone. Their gratitude and excitement will be manifest in one of the most harmonious homes in recorded history, or at least in the Western Hemisphere this century.

In time this idyllic image runs headfirst into a formidable presence: the child. Mom and Dad may have anticipated peak family bliss, but somebody forgot to enlighten the youngster. Lacking any preconceived notions, he was primed to do what comes naturally—be a kid, with all the immaturity, impulsiveness, contrariness, unpredictability and willfulness that’s part of the kid nature….

No doubt you eagerly anticipated being a mother—a really good one at that. You had loads of love and other gifts just looking for a recipient—in addition to your husband, of course. Perhaps you thought, as do many, that with enough love, affection and reason, your motherhood would be one rewarding experience after another. After all, if you treat your child warmly and well, he’ll reciprocate.

Should a child’s personality be so predisposed, some parents do live in such harmony all the way to the child’s adulthood. Their early hopes are crystallized by their daily routine. Most kids, however, don’t allow Mom and Dad to live out expectations that are too unrealistic.

It is not because the children are unruly; it’s because they’re normal, and they need hefty doses of both positive and “negative,” that is, discipline, to learn to be positive, pleasant kids.

To the extent any parents, natural or adopted, expect all positive with little negative, they will be disappointed, even self-doubting.

Let’s use the bad news–good news dichotomy. The bad news is that you’re not living exactly what you’d wished. You’re discovering that, try as you might to set up win-win child-parent scenarios, your son is regularly driven toward one outcome: He wins. Consequently there are more contests, perhaps conflicts, than you think should be found in a Courier and Ives image.

Don’t despair, you’re just experiencing the standard stuff of child raising. Besides, I’ve wondered if Courier and Ives had any kids. If they did, one would expect to see at least a few crayon marks on their prints.

More bad news. You may have to reassess your style. Are you prepared to discipline more, with more resolve and more perseverance? If your son is getting progressively more uncooperative, it may not be because you’re not positive enough. It could be because you’re not firm enough.

“But how do I get firmer?”

I’ve written a number of books almost exclusively about discipline. The techniques and principles in them are relevant to all children, preschooler to teen, adopted and biological. I refer you there rather than talking too far afield from the intent of this book….

Finally to the good news. And there’s more of it.

First, you aren’t being forced to abandon your desire for a highly rewarding family life. Not at all. You’re accepting a truth: Great families begin with loving as well as strong parents. Your hopes weren’t false; they were just being thwarted because you had some faulty notions about what raising your son would be like. Get rid of them—not your son—and you will better pursue your ideal of motherhood.

Second, kids are much more cooperative when they know your parameters. On one hand, maybe your son is the kind of child who smiles sweetly, acquiescing instantly to, “OK, Knap, we must ready ourselves for bedtime now. Did you add sticker number 40 to your chart? You know, this is your 40th night in a row to bed on time without a fuss.” Then you don’t need discipline resolve. Just bask in your success, relishing the teeth-clenched envy of all us other parents.

On the other hand, if your son is human and resists a rest (sorry), then you’re forced to act. “Knap, if you get out of bed, you’ll lose all your stuffed animals and won’t be allowed outside tomorrow.” Wherein a fit may commence, you’ll have to discipline again, and once more you’ll have to quell your agitation over “Why can’t this go more smoothly?” It could, if a child weren’t involved.

The best news is last. With a healthy combination of love and discipline, you will likely achieve the heartwarming image of family you once looked toward. You may take a less direct path there, with some bumps you didn’t foresee, but you’ll still arrive. And you’ll be less frustrated along the way, because your expectations will be much more in line with reality.

Now go get yourself another Hallmark card.

* * *

The following excerpt is from Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It, published in 2009, from Servant Books.

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