Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


My boys' latest cinematic obsession has been the Shrek series. They know much of the dialog by heart, and act it out in their play. R is fond of wearing a hat and boots (even in 80 degree weather) and sticking a pencil in his pants and announcing that he is Puss in Boots. M wrote SHREK in bubble letters on a piece of paper, folded it up small, and carries it around in his shirt - it's his contract with Rumplestiltskin.  Every so often R will snatch it from him an throw it down the stairs, precipitating some intense preschool fisticuffs.

Then last week my 14-year-old introduced us to the series "Once Upon a Time", and we Netflix'ed the first several episodes.   A new family TV addiction!  (Just like the old days when we watched a whole season of Glee over winter vacation.)  Contracts with Rumplestiltskin play a major role in the plot!

What is it about Rumplestiltskin?

On one level, he is an incarnation of the wish-granting genie.  Ask what you will, you will get it.... but not the way you wanted.

On the other hand, with Rumplestiltskin you get exactly what you wanted, how you wanted it, and you will be fully satisfied with the results.  Until the price is to be paid.  The price that always seems so insignificant in the heat of the moment when you sign the dotted line. Then, when it comes due, it is all consuming.

In religious mythology, we see this kind of deal-making with the Devil.  Rumplestiltskin doesn't ask for your soul, but ultimately that is what his victims must face.

It's all about control.  We want to control our lives, to have more "good stuff" and less "bad stuff".  When we are little, we follow the genie model:  We want to have lots of candy, but if we get our wish, it will come with a tummy-ache.  As we get older and more sophisticated, we recognize that every benefit we seek will come at a price, and we start making deals with Rumplestiltskin.  We read the fine print.  We think we know what we are getting into.  As in the Rumplestiltskin stories, there is usually an "escape clause" that we try to use to avoid the downsides of our choices.  Sometimes we succeed!


Let's talk about family planning.  People want to delay childbearing until they are financially secure, as well as limit their family size to something "manageable" -- usually 2 or 3 kids at most.  Of course, by the time you are financially secure, even 2 or 3 kids seems like alot -- an only child you can tote everywhere with you, but any more than that really takes over your life, at least for a few years.

However, then comes Rumplestiltskin's price.  Your only child has waited until his/her 30's to have children, following your example.  Now you are in your 70's, struggling with creaky bones and failing health, just when you want more than anything to help out with your grandchildren.  Will you live to see them graduate?  Your child now has to rely more heavily on babysitting.  Forget weekend (or longer) getaways!  No aunts or uncles either, in an only-child culture.....  Was it worth it?

What price do we pay for Rumplestiltskin's bargain?


Or prenatal testing.  Seems like a good idea -- if you consider the fetus "not a child yet" then what's the harm in terminating a "defective one" and starting over, so "your child" has the best chance in life?

What actually gives children "the best chance in life"?  There are advocates for many theories: nutritional, social, familial, educational....  But most of these are only loosely correlated with success.

A famous study from 50 years ago, however, showed that the ability to delay gratification was strongly correlated with future success, both professional/educational and social/relational. So teaching our children patience is a good step to take.

As I was googling for that link, I saw this followup study.  Apparently, there is more that goes into children's behavior on the Marshmallow Test than the simple ability to delay gratification.  Expectations about the trustworthiness of adults in general and the experimenter in particular can provide the incentive -- or lack thereof -- to exercise such an ability.  Children who experience predictable, trustworthy adults in their lives are motivated to persist in the face of adversity, and resist temptations to go astray.

So, does a "genetically perfect" child have a better chance in life than one who is born with challenges? Only if the parents allow their feelings about it keep them from teaching him/her patience and trust.  We read many stories about people with all sorts of disabilities accomplishing great things.  We also know far too many healthy, able-bodied individuals who waste their lives away.

To what extent is the preoccupation with fetal perfection actually keeping both parents and children from learning the lessons that are truly valuable?  What price do we pay for Rumplestiltskin's bargain?


There is also a long-term societal price for the ever-expanding informal eugenics practiced by millions of parents.  As we eliminate diversity from the gene pool, we limit the data for medical science.  Working with people with T21 has provided biomedical researchers with a wealth of knowledge on the workings of leukemia, Alzheimer's, and many other conditions.  Educational techniques developed for children with T21 turn out to support the diverse learning styles of all children.  Progress that fails to happen is a subtle, invisible loss to humanity, but it is a loss just the same.

What price do we pay for Rumplestiltskin's bargain?

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