Thursday, August 09, 2012

When they have a new sibling

Someone recently asked how and when we tell our children we're having another baby.  We've actually done different things during different pregnancies, and I certainly don't think there's ever a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to this issue.  We've had pregnancies where we've told our children right away, and a pregnancy where we've waited until the end of the first trimester.  We've had a pregnancy where we had to tell them that their baby brother or sister died.  So I suppose you could say that we've done it all.

And while there is definitely no "right" way to share such momentous news with a child, we have worked hard to cultivate a culture of life in our home, where new babies are cherished and wanted, and where more life equals more love.  I have never once, for example, had a child disappointed about a new sibling joining the family, by either birth or adoption.  Not once.  Each and every homecoming has included lots of little people with big smiles and open arms (and occasional arguing over who gets to hold the new sibling first.)  I love that I can tell each subsequent child that they were so loved by so many people, from the very beginning.  And the same goes for children of friends--if we know you and you're having a baby, you can count on the Heldt kids being over-the-top excited.

Just yesterday in fact we had the privilege of hosting a dear friend's foster daughter for a couple of hours.  Within minutes of this sweet girl being dropped off, my kids had a blanket spread on the floor with lots of age-appropriate toys all around.  They adore this baby.  They love getting to spend time with her.  They take great pride in making her happy and in singing her songs and would keep her, if they could.

This is something that I hope my children never, ever lose, this being in awe of the gift of life, and the joy of loving the littlest and neediest of beings.  They have not yet internalized the culture's disdain of the weak.  Which is pretty great if I do say so myself.

So, how does one go about cultivating these virtuous attitudes in his or her children?  Here are six things we've found to be helpful in this endeavor.

1.)  Couch the announcement in positive language (and avoid the negative.)  When we announced my current pregnancy, we did not for example tell Mary that she wouldn't be the baby anymore.  We did not discuss the immense sacrifices we'll all have to make or the fact that a new baby will mean less of Mommy's attention to go around.  No, instead, we expressed our own excitement--and thus allowed for our children to be excited too.  We always play up the idea that they get to be big brothers and sisters all over again.  We encouraged little Mary Lu to kiss my belly, and told her were so thrilled for her to step into the role of big sister for the first time.  I truly believe children will follow our lead, so we must take care to lead well.

2.)  Instruct your children in the faith.  This may seem unrelated, but it's not.  We personally subscribe to the historic and traditional Christian belief that sexuality is designed by God for marriage, and that sexuality is meant to be open to life.  Our children understand this as well, because we've told them so.  Not in graphic or overly-detailed terms, but they believe that when one chooses the vocation of marriage, they are also choosing to be open to children.  They know that children are the natural fruit of marriage, and a profound gift from God.  So they believe that family life, as designed by God, includes the occasional arrival of a new child.  And that God calls it good.

3.)  Instill a respect for the least of these, the weak, and the vulnerable.  Children have a natural concern for the well-being of others.  True, they are rather self-centered little creatures, but they also have a strong sense of justice.  Anna was too little when we brought our sons home to voice much of an opinion, but when we adopted Mekdes and Tigist last year, oh my goodness, our children were thrilled.  They found something very unsettling about two little girls growing up in an orphanage, and wanted them home.  With us.  We did discuss the idea that it might take the two newest Heldts a little longer to learn to do things (on account of years of institutionalization and Down syndrome), but nobody cared or gave that much thought.  They know Mekdes isn't able yet to get her own cup of water, so they're happy to do it for her.  They know Tigist needs help with getting out to the car, so they carry her.  We try to teach our children not to look down on the helpless, or to ascribe value to people primarily on the basis of what they can do.  Because dignity runs far deeper than that.

4.)  Avoid voicing discontent over a particular life or developmental phase.  My kids have rarely, if ever, heard me say that I can't wait for everyone to be out of diapers.  Ever.  Not because I'm so selfless that I love changing diapers (I'm not, and I don't!), but because that reality is decades into the future for me.  When you know that you have several years of fertility remaining, you also know that diapers are merely a part of life.  Because children are, simply, helpless.  God knows what He's doing, and what better way to cultivate a tender, servant-like heart than to gift His adult children with needy little ones to care for?  Don't believe the ridiculous lie that some people are just made to do things like wipe bottoms and clean spit-up off the carpet.  Aside from that view being incredibly insulting to those of us in the trenches, it is also preposterous.  Because no one likes those jobs.  And maybe those of us who detest them the most, need them the most.  They are merely part of life, and ultimately?  What an honor to be given the responsibility of caring for a child.  So if we don't want our child seeing their younger sibling as a major inconvenience, we must be careful not to act as if that younger sibling is a major inconvenience to us.

5.)  Be realistic--while encouraging virtue.  No matter how much I want my kids to be excited at the news of a new baby, I don't have super specific expectations.  Kids are, after all, kids.  On the one hand I refuse to tell my children how to feel, and on the other I will not tolerate excessive complaining or disrespect.  And I don't have a problem telling my kids how God wants them to see something.  So far they really have been unanimously happy and welcoming towards new siblings, but that may not always be the case for everyone.  And, that's okay.  Our family however is not run like a democracy, and at some point my kids may simply need to learn that obeying and following after God is not necessarily the easy or convenient road, even as it is the right road.  And no matter how many children are in a family, everyone feels a little left out or misunderstood sometimes.  Big families do not have the market on teenage angst or disappointment.  So it's important to remember that people are people, and it's unrealistic to expect perfection all of the time.  But we can certainly strive for virtue and for having a right heart.

6.)  Get the kids involved.  What school-aged child doesn't love holding a squishy baby?  Or who doesn't feel important and valuable when they're responsible for getting a younger sibling ready for bed?  My older children do a lot of work with the younger ones, and it is something that they have actually come to more or less enjoy.  Not all the time, but enough, and most of all they know that it's just part of life.  They help to look after one another, and while they are by no means parenting (and very much do live a carefree childhood), they are participating in family life in a robust and meaningful way.  I have found that this builds incredible self-esteem and family pride, as well as lifeskills that will be useful in the years to come.

Hopefully this gives at least some small insight into how our family brings new members into its midst.  We are certainly far from perfect, but I am forever in awe of the way that God weaves our lives together, and grows love in the hearts of my children.

And I really kind of love how He uses teeny tiny babies to do it. 


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