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>Grace Based NHA Part I: our story

April 5, 2011

>Post two in a four-part series on grace-based NHA.

This post is a follow up on this one.

In early 2008, my husband and I were at the end of our parenting rope, humanly speaking. Witness to that fact, we signed up  for an all-day parenting seminar. Together. It was our first date in about five years.

The seminar was offered by our adoption agency and the trainer worked for MOFAS (the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). But the seminar was not marketed to parents of kids with FASD. That was a blessing because we were still under the misimpression that the amount of alcohol Hope’s birth mother reported consuming during her pregnancy could not have caused brain damage. Rather, we were there because Hope fit the description of the child this parenting technique was said to be able to turn around: reactive, defiant, oppositional.

We were flummoxed that everything we had learned about parenting worked with our first two children. But our third one, Hope, had somehow managed to hijack our family system. Nothing we tried worked and family life had devolved into damage-control revolving around our three year old’s behaviors. We weren’t even doing very well at that and we were disturbed. We believe God ordained parents to be leaders in the home. But we could not even construe ourselves as “servant-leaders.” Rather, we were serving dysfunction and it was only growing worse.

We felt guilty about reaching outside our church family for help. But we looked around us at church and saw no one (besides my friend Dorothy and her husband) struggling to raise behaviorally challenging children. I am sure, now, that other families were there. But I didn’t yet appreciate that dynamic about families challenged by disabilities (visible and invisible): the challenges within our own family can be so time consuming that we’re rarely visible at church.

I am the former church clerk, a former church administrator, a former Sunday school teacher, former choir member, a former deacon. I am a former Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night plus Saturday seminars and small group type of church attender. I used to carry keys for the building and knew the combination for the safe. It is not as if I had not invested myself in my church family. But I am now invisible. It hard to be visible when I’m only there for one service, sometimes Saturdays, sometimes Sundays, about two-thirds of the time.

At that time, connectivity had not created a crazy electronic fellowship corner on the Internet. My fellow BBC adoptive/disability mom bloggers function something like a virtual small group for me. It is a gift to all of us since we know each other IRL, but I don’t think all of us have ever been physically in the same room at the same time :). But I digress: people struggling with similar challenges were invisible at church and we felt like we had tried (and failed at) every parenting paradigm offered by our leadership, whom we love and respect.  At our church, coming up short felt akin to saying,”The Bible doesn’t work.”

We knew that was not true. But we felt like heretics, sneaking outside the church to drink at a secular fountain. To be clear: our faith (capital “F”) was not shaken by our experience parenting Hope. But our faith in the full range of books in the parenting section of the church bookstore was shaken.

So my husband and I showed up, together, for an all day seminar in The Nurtured Heart Approach (NHA). I had ordered one of the founder’s books and read it before signing up for the training. The self-actualization (“inner wealth”) philosophy underlying the techniques deeply disturbed me. But techniques themselves were closely related to attachment parenting and I had already settled in my heart (via Mercy’s struggle with anxious attachment) that attachment parenting could be done in  Biblical, faith-building way. Further, even with no more training than reading the early chapters of the book, the techniques helped dial down several notches our level of Hope-related family stress.

So I signed up hoping the trainer might say, “If the philosophy is creepy, divorce it from the how-to’s. But consider how the raw techniques may help you win the heart of your child.” It didn’t happen. The trainer was a True Believer in the whole package.

I cannot recommend that anyone approach NHA the way we did. If by the grace of God you are not yet at a place where you are desperate (I will suggest a desperation plan in the next post), read Tim Kimmel’s book Grace Based Parenting first. Kimmel offers a broad, Biblical, theologically sound context in which to consider the (stripped down and re-tooled) Nurtured Heart techniques. The techniques might be understood as the delivery vehicles for lavish grace –grace on the level Jesus modeled in his interactions with sinners (which was everybody).

But if like us, you cut your parenting teeth on the Puritans, you may need to adjust your theological framework to understand a paradigm so heavily based on grace. Reformed theology teaches that very thing if you step back from the parenting forumlas and consider the wider principles: everything must be in accord with the Bible. NHA is no exception. If you wrestle with it and cannot bring it into accord with the God of the Bible, throw it out.

The only thing legalistic about NHA is the relentless application of grace in circumstances where typical parenting techniques recommend consistent (and where necessary, escalating) consequences. But if the part of your child’s brain that learns from traditional cause-effect patterns is impaired, you need to find a work-around: another way to reach their heart. Grace does that. Isn’t that the way God has always worked? “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And it is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not the result of works so no man can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

The ultimate aim of parenting is that our children know and enjoy God forever.That is a gift of God, not the result of parental doing in which any of us can boast. Neuro-typical children, in God’s grace, may be led there via the traditional understanding of, “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4b). But in the case of children with brain damage, the consistent application of that philosophy may break the injunction that it is predicated on: “Fathers, do not provoke [exasperate] your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

We found Hope had several layers of dysfunction. The most basic one is primary; it is still there: organic brain damage. But our first several years of parenting her the traditional way (which presumed self-control was within her grasp if we just trained her to exercise it) created a secondary disability: the defiant, oppositional behavior that made our family life so miserable. We had provoked and exasperated her to anger by attempting to hold her to the same standards we hold for our neuro-typical kids.

I repeat: NHA is not the miracle cure it claims to be. Miracles cures of primary dysfunction are the sole province of God. But we discovered with Hope, a large part of what made her so difficult to live with was secondary: incurred in the early years we provoked and exasperated her beyond her impaired capacity to comply. A grace and prayer infused version of NHA helped us repair the relationship and returned us to parenting square one: holding (being in intimate connection with) Hope’s heart.

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