Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Every child is entitled to love and full membership in her family

Every child is entitled to love and full membership in her family.

For the last week I've been serving as a trainer in a congregation development intensive that is sponsored by my diocese of the Episcopal Church. Congregation Development is a rather amorphous field that incorporates many of the principles of the academic discipline of Organization Development, as well as research that has been done about churches specifically and the ways in which their dynamics as systems are unique from other types of organizations. One of my favorite parts of this sort of study, theory, and work is that it is all so incredibly applicable to other parts of life. Integration is easy, in fact I can't help doing it. (Something that is probably indicative of my Myer's Briggs Personality Type, which we also studied intensively this past week.) One of the theories that we taught to participants and spent a lot of time using and discussing is a model on trust and trust development in organizations. It is a theory that was put together by Jack Gibb, who has written extensively about trust.

According to Gibb's model, which is designed for organizations, trust is key to being able to get things done in an organization. And the first step for trust building is to address Acceptance and Membership. Without this basic first step, people cannot move into the rest of the work of the organization and become productive members able to fully participate in the rest of the work of the organization, work that requires basic trust in place to happen smoothly, such as Data Flow/Decision Making, Goal Formation/Productivity, and being able to have Organization/Control. One level builds on the other, and something that is fairly common in organizations are attempts to have one - for example to have a transparent data flow and common decision making - without really attending to the more basic level first - such as facilitating individuals in truly becoming a part of the organization. Depending on the organization, the way that acceptance and membership is established and maintained can be different. In a business, for example, norms of greeting each other when people arrive to work, or having an annual retreat for people to get to know each other might be examples. In a church it can be as basic as wearing name tags at coffee hour in order to connect with new folks, or conscious efforts by leadership to connect with individuals in tough times. A lot of acceptance and membership in church communities is about the affirmation of shared belief, task, mission. This is true in organizations other than church as well. But that's not what this blog is about.

The question I came away with was this: what does it look like for families?

The first bullet point on the Transracially Adopted Child's Bill of Rights, which is at the top of this entry, addresses membership. "Full membership" is the language used. Well, I thought at the first read-through, of course they are entitled to that. And of course I will fully love and accept my child. Sort of a no-brainer. But as we picked through various church conflict cases this past week I was amazed how many of the issues in those communities came down to a basic lack of trust related to acceptance and membership. Families are where we first learn about trust and about acceptance. No wonder this was first on the list.

There are lots of ways for a family to show a child that s/he is loved and a full member. There are also several ways in which our broader communities and cultures tell children this same thing, that they are loved and full members in their families of origin. Some of these are explicitly spoken, and many of them are not. Montessori education calls these unspoken things "the unspoken lesson." For Montessori educators this addresses the way the room is arranged, how the environment that the child may take for granted plays a powerful role in education. Our culture has some fairly powerful unspoken lessons about what makes someone belong to a family. These include shared skin color, shared genetic connection, and shared racial identity. Present but less powerful, perhaps, are shared personality traits, the little things a child does that a parent might describe as "I was exactly like that as a child, so highstrung/mellow/introverted/etc." For our culture, I think, the least powerful unspoken lesson is that of shared experience, of choice to be together, and of love. Yet these are the only real tools an adoptive parent can count on in order to provide the full membership that this TAC bill of rights begins with. Not being aware of the uphill battle that is ahead in terms of building a family that can be counter-cultural and press against those unspoken lessons about membership, many of which come from external culture and community, isn't fair to the child.

So how do I start to lay groundwork now to provide this for my future son or daughter? I have no concrete answers, of course, but I might start with working to make the values I want to be first and foremost in my family's life for my child's sake the values that I live by right now. This means seeking out connections with people who are different from me and pursuing shared experience with them. It means making sure that the values I espouse about love, choice, and shared experience being the most important ways to be bound to other people are lived values that are played out in visible ways in my life. It means honesty about the fact that none of us are automatically equipped to be awesome at acceptance of others (even those we are bound to genetically) and as a white person the unspoken lesson the world has given me about the value of my existence is not the same one my child will walk into as s/he grows up. I can't control that lesson, but I can know what it is. I can work to change it. I can do my darndest to help my child connect through love, choice, and shared experience to people and communities that are not me or mine, but who will be able to provide the membership that I cannot, with my full love and acceptance of that.

I feel like this is important because I want my child to have the capacity to trust his or her family life and the values and formation that s/he experiences there. Like an organization, there is a lot more to be accomplished in family life than just the establishment of membership. But without that basic acceptance of each other through love, nothing else can really be done well. Love and acceptance are what every child is entitled to first - because the hard work of a healthy childhood can't be accomplished without it.

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