"Girl on Fire"

When Laila came to our family through foster adoption, she had already decided her voice didn't mean anything. It was our job to make her see that wasn't true.

Laila, who joined her family through foster adoption.

One of my heroes, Karyn Purvis (no relation), coauthor of The Connected Child, talks about giving voice to your children. Purvis says, “The legacy of a lost voice is great.” Studies have shown that an infant whose needs are not met in the first 30 to 60 days of life will stop crying. (Has anyone else been in a silent orphanage? I have.)

Enter our three-year-old Laila. Life in a family with three brothers is always going to have its rough-and-tumble moments, but a certain dynamic took hold in the year since she joined our family through foster adoption. Demetrius, four, and Tre, six, rarely hurt Laila, and, if they did, it was usually accidental. But Noah, 21 months, was a different story. He hurt Laila often, and on purpose, and she did nothing about it. He would chase her around and hit her with a toy, and she would let him. If he found her sitting on the potty, he would bite her, and she wouldn’t call out for help. All the while Noah was very gentle with his baby sister, Charli, now nine months old. It was Laila’s reactions, or lack of them, that created this dynamic.

My husband David and I worked on this with Noah and punished him when we discovered that he had hurt his older sister, again, but we wanted Laila’s behavior to change, too. It was time to stop being the compliant, victim-like, no fuss, no tears little girl.

New House Rules

Empowerment. Strength. Courage. Voice. These are the qualities we want to see blossom in Laila, so we have focused on them deliberately. Here are some of the rules we instituted in our campaign to give our little girl a voice. I am sure you will disagree with most of them. Don’t worry, I am not parenting your child.

  • Laila is allowed to hit, push, and shove.
  • If Laila needs something, she needs to yell her request.
  • Laila has a superhero cape that she can wear any time she wants to.
  • Laila gets to pick out her clothing every day.
  • When Laila asks for something, I must stop, look, listen, and respond appropriately.
  • I cannot mumble to myself about Laila’s entrenched “victim mentality.”
  • I need to facilitate mirror time every day.

Making the announcement that Laila was now allowed to push and hit was hilarious. “Boys, Laila is now allowed to hit.” (Cut to faces of utter disbelief, envy, and shock. I thought Demetrius was going to fall off his chair.) “She cannot hit to be mean. She can hit to defend herself. If Noah bites her, or if one of you hits her, she will hit back. Right, Laila?”

“Boys, Laila is precious. And she is powerful. And she is not going to let people hurt her anymore. Will you please help her learn to defend herself?”

Then we had about 10 minutes of questions and clarification from the boys: So, Laila can hit us if we hurt her on purpose, but not just to be mean? Can we hit each other now? Is punching hitting? What about karate? Does tripping count? How long will this last?

We were sitting at Del Taco during this conversation. I’m fairly certain the other patrons were flabbergasted. At one point David looked at me and said, “Maybe this was a mistake?”

Finding Her Voice

A few days after that conversation, all the kids were playing in the basement. I heard Demetrius and Tre say, “Laila, if Noah is hurting you, you need to grab his hand and stop him. He can’t hit you with a toy. You are precious and powerful!”

“Oooo-kay,” she said, meekly.

When I see Noah hitting Laila, I now say, “Laila, stop him,” instead of rescuing her. If a child’s needs and desires are not met for long enough, they begin to feel that they will never be met. They begin to think that, if they were simply to ask, to use their voice, no one would hear them. When children feel as though they do not have a voice, they feel that they are not worthy of love and care. At this point, they may begin to manipulate and control to get their needs met.

Laila had received messages like this since she was in-utero and throughout foster care, but those messages will stop in our house. That history will not repeat itself. She will learn her worth, her value, her preciousness, and her power here. Her voice is commanding, and it will be heard.

Less than a week after instituting our new rules, Laila came upstairs and saw Noah and me sitting on the couch, cuddling.

“Why is Noah up here with you?” she asked.

“He needed some loves,” I said.

She looked down at her toes and quietly whispered, “I need some loves, too.”

“What?” I said, gently prompting her to lift her chin and look at me. I smiled.

“I need some loves,” she repeated.

I picked her up and loved her for as long as she’d let me, which wasn’t very long. She just needed to see if I would hear her. I did, and will continue to.

Turning Up the Volume

For weeks now Laila and I have been jammin’ to Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire” every morning in front of the mirror, and I find her singing it throughout the day. “She got both feet on the ground / And she’s burning it down / She got her head in the clouds / And she’s not backing down / This girl is on fire…”

I talk to Laila about what she needs and how I am here to meet those needs for her. I tell her that she is in control of her body. She decides how much she eats, when she goes potty, what she wears, who can touch her, and how. I talk to her about her voice and the power she has when she uses it. I have been reading books with strong female characters to her, like Beautiful Warrior, The Princess Knight, and Nzingha.

This afternoon Laila told me, “I do not want to take a nap. I did not have enough time to play today!” It was a mini-fit. I was so proud.

And so my girl on fire she will become. My Laila is powerful and precious. This is the year she will find her voice and be heard.


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