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Baby Holding- whose needs are being met?


You don’t have to know much about me to know that African orphans are close to my heart. My oldest son spent most of his first year of life in an orphanage in Liberia. He was small and sick when we brought him home, but it was also clear to us that he had been loved. We are very thankful for the love and dedication of some sweet nannies who invested in the life of our son and we credit them greatly with his ability to connect with us after he grieved their loss.

When we visited the orphanage, we were not encouraged to interact much with the kids. We were there to see where our child had lived, to meet his caregivers, and to gain a better understanding of what his life had been like. When we entered the orphanage I recognized many of the children. I had seen their pictures because I was involved in an online community for parents who were waiting to bring home their Liberian children from that orphanage. When I saw these kids, I didn’t see orphans, but I saw them as part of a family just waiting to be united. With that perspective, I wanted to love these kids, but I had no desire to function in a parenting role or to try and provide them parental affection.

So it was interesting to me to read a couple articles recently about the effects of “baby holding” trips to orphanages overseas. A friend of mine who is currently in Africa finishing the adoption of her child sent me these articles and wondered what my perspective was. My first response was irritation. Of course we should be holding babies! Is there anything more fundamental to being the hands and feet of Jesus than HOLDING BABIES? What could the possible downsides be? But the more I thought about it, the more the idea of people on short term trips spending extensive time interacting with orphans by giving them parental-type affection didn’t sit well with me.

I imagined the bond my son would have felt with somebody who spent a week loving him and how hard it would be when that person left. I imagined how if that process were repeated enough times he might learn not to trust altogether. I imagined the kind of screening I would want to take place for anybody I allowed unsupervised access to my child. I imagined how a child could learn manipulative behaviors to get more attention or affection or to how he might try to get someone to undermine his regular caregivers. It did seem like a minefield of potential problems.

This also felt somewhat personal to me because of my experience as a housemom in a group home. Every Christmas there would be a deluge of church groups that wanted an emotional experience of interacting with these “poor children.” They got their own needs met by providing gifts for the kids and having a party with them, but it was MUCH harder to get people to have the same enthusiasm about helping pay the electric bill. These interactions could be particularly difficult with kids who already struggled with knowing appropriate boundaries with strangers. Children who already believed they were owed something because of the difficult circumstances of their lives were once again inundated with gifts and their entitlement mentality increased.

People who are sacrificing of their time and money to help others can be motivated by a desire for an emotional payout. I’m not saying this is a bad thing- I believe God wired us this way. We want to make relational connections. We want to know that our sacrifice mattered. We want to see with our own eyes that we are helping. But our desires and the needs of the people we intend to help may be in conflict. Helping people without ultimately hurting them is a complex issue. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I’m excited to share with you another perspective.

Melodie in Liberia

Melodie in Liberia

When I was initially broached about this topic, I thought immediately of Melodie. Melodie is a friend of mine since the September day I met her in Liberia. She forever earned my respect and love by being the first person in the adoption process who looked me in the eyes and acknowledged our road had been hard, things hadn’t gone well for us, but that she was so excited for us to finally be parents. She was responsible for overseeing the orphanage our son was in and is also the daughter of longterm missionaries in Liberia. Working with the poor, working with children, orphanage work- this is her life. She will share her thoughts on the pros and cons of “baby holding” with you tomorrow. And in preparation, feel free to check out her recipe blog with lots of healthy foods and specifically some fun stuff from West Africa.  You’ll also want to read her reflections on her life in Africa and her future there. She’s graciously offered to answer any questions in the comments of her post tomorrow, so be thinking and ready to interact after tomorrow’s post!

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  1. I definitely look forward to hearing her perspective on this. I’ve known of lots of people and church groups who’ve gone on similar “baby holding” trips, and had never thought of the potential negative ramifications until I stumbled across the blog of a family who was living in Haiti, specifically to learn more about issues like this (when is mission helping, and when is it hurting?). They really opened my eyes to how very multi-sided a lot of these issues are, even when people have the best of intentions.

  2. I’ve been living full time in Haiti for over 16 years. In the early years mission teams that came to visit us would help with the project in the countryside then on the last day or two they would visit a home for handicapped children in the city, or the Missionary of Charities Children’s hospital/orphanage (more patients then orphans by a long shot. I have not taken a group to do those two things in over eight years, and will never do so again. Both facilities have staff to take care of the children. Imagine foreigners coming to the states and going into a hospital to hold children and help feed them. Just doesn’t make any sense.

    Most “orphans” in Haiti have family. The family might be parents, or an aunt, or whoever, but those persons can no longer afford to feed their child. Actually, from what I’ve seen, most kids in orphanages have parents.

    Isn’t it far better to come and lend a hand to an organization that is trying to lift people out of poverty so they can keep the kids at home?

    I know of organizations that sponsor “hug a child” trips. This burns me up (as much as I like the other things those projects do).

    • Tom,
      I hugely appreciate you reading and responding from your wealth of knowledge. Sounds like you are working to help the people who come volunteer understand what kind of help is needed. Thank you for doing the good work and helping the rest of us understand how we can help without hurting.

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