Why Are So Many Superheroes Orphans?

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Spiderman, Batman (and Robin), Superman, Ironman, etc. Why are so many superheroes orphans? It’s more than just an odd coincidence. Comic book writers know basic human nature. They know that, when channeled correctly, trauma and pain can be used for good. Unless someone is cut deeply, it’s challenging to have the empathy and understanding needed to truly help and reach out to others. Unless someone has lost everything, they have no idea how to reach others who have.

In our area of Mexico, broken tile mosaics are very popular. You start out with clean, bright, shiny, usually flawless tile. You then drop it, or in some fashion shatter the tile to break it into sharp, jagged, usable pieces. After the first breaking, you take a specialized type of pliers to crush off rough edges or create new edges, to shape it into the perfect piece to create the design. Without that shattering and crushing, the tile might be flawless, but it would be useless for its intended purpose. The artist creating the mosaic sees the bigger picture and breaks each piece to create a stunning masterpiece that brings joy and beauty into the world. Sometimes, we are that tile.

When my wife and I first got to Mexico, the children in the orphanage had seen a lot of people come through and had heard a lot of false promises. When they met us, in their eyes, we were just another couple that was going to abandon them. The first few weeks they tested us, and we had a hard time connecting with our limited experience and horrible Spanish. One night, while talking with some of the teen boys, it came up that my mother had died when I was fairly young and my wife came from her own challenging upbringing. The moment they heard about our histories, I could see something change in their expressions that said: “Oh, they get it.” Suddenly, although our Spanish still sucked, and we still had a LOT to learn, a door was opened between us, and we had a connection. Without the pain we had gone through, that door would not have opened. Without our histories, I doubt we would be in orphan care today.

We interview a lot of people who feel called to orphan care and want to join our team, and we ask all the standard questions. The one question where I carefully watch their response is “tell me about your childhood.” If they get nervous, they move to the top of the list. Over the years, we’ve found that our BEST staff are the ones with the worst childhood. I don’t wish pain on anyone, but I know God can use it. Abandonment, child of divorce, alcoholic parents, time in foster care, should never have to happen. But man, it can create people of depth and understanding. They “get” the pain our children have gone through. They understand the healing that needs to take place, and how to guide our children through it. The Master has used their broken edges to shape them in such a way that He can use them for a masterpiece.

We had one long-term volunteer come in that seemed perfect, on paper. He was raised in a great family, very polite, came from a very active church, impressive education, etc. It quickly became apparent that he was a disaster in orphan care. He didn’t do anything wrong exactly; he just couldn’t connect with the kids. He didn’t get it; there was no empathy in him. He even had a hard time connecting with the other team members on a deeper level. It just didn’t work. In talking to him even, he used the term “charmed life” when referring to his history. Ideal family, small-town upbringing, popular in school, etc. He had never really suffered anything. He went home to the US after a few months and he’s doing fine, I’m sure he’ll have a good life, but his lack of suffering hindered his ability to minister to those in need. He had never been broken.

If you’ve gone through loss, abandonment, the death of loved ones, etc., take joy in knowing that we have a loving Father, a master artist, who can take our broken, rough edges and shape them into a masterpiece. If we’ve turned the pain over to God, and allowed Him to move us through healing, we can now be the tools He will use to change lives. There is nothing that has happened to us that God can not use if we allow Him.

If you’re in orphan care, the healing process is long, complicated, and can sometimes be an agonizing experience as we lead children through the pain. But it can work. God can bring children through horrific experiences and bring them to a healthy place. The sad truth is, not every child heals emotionally. Some will make poor life decisions and never reach that place where they have moved on from what’s been done to them. Our job as caregivers is to guide our children to healing, to show them that what’s been done to them is not who they are. We always need to remember that God is the master, the artist, who will shape the broken parts into His perfect masterpiece. We just carry the broken tile to the Artist.

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Random Affection in Orphanages

orphanchildOne of the realities of orphan care is that everybody considers themselves an authority. Just like parenting styles in a traditional family, opinions on orphanage styles tend to shift frequently on how to “do it better.” These opinions change depending on what’s trending in any given year. In the last few years, there’s been a lot written on the potentially harmful effects of too many visitors on the children in an orphanage. After working full-time in orphan care for over 25 years, I could not disagree more.

The current theory states that having visitors in orphanages on a regular basis leads to attachment disorder problems later in life because the children are bonding with random, different strangers every week. In my experience, children raised in dysfunctional orphanages will have a wide range of emotional problems later in life, just as anyone raised in a dysfunctional family. If the children are bonding with random strangers every week, this means there are many underlying problems in the orphanage already. The bonding issue is just a symptom.

Let’s look at two scenarios:

Scenario 1) In our orphanage we have more visitors than almost any orphanage in the world. In a typical year, we host around 280 groups and have other “drop by” visitors on a regular basis. We enjoy hosting the groups, we enjoy leading them into service and short-term missions, and we believe when well-managed, these visits are healthy for everyone. So how do we avoid the random attachment? First, we have solid, consistent staff and plenty of them. Our children do bond with adults, but it’s with consistent adults in their lives. We have excellent child to staff ratios (about 4 to 1) and minimal staff turnover. Second, although we have a tremendous amount of visitors we intentionally limit the time they have with our children. We limit the visiting hours with our infants and toddlers, but more importantly, we encourage all of our groups to stay with us but travel out daily to serve in the community or with other ministries in the area. Our children see the “visitors” as just that, visitors dropping by to see our family. The majority of children who grow up in our home go on to have healthy marriages and families. In spite of all the visitors, most of our children turn out okay.

Scenario 2) In an orphanage that is understaffed and overcrowded, the children will seek random affection from any visitor that comes through. You can see this when you first arrive in a home. If children above the age of five are running over to hang on you and ask to be held, they’re starved for affection. A normal, well-adjusted 10-year-old doesn’t just walk up to a random stranger seeking physical contact; this is a symptom of much deeper issues in an orphanage. The children are not bonding with the staff and are severely lacking affection. They WILL have problems bonding later in life without a tremendous amount of healing. Most children raised in poorly run orphanages eventually produce children that wind up back in the system and have a tough time with healthy relationships. (Just like too many children from foster care.)

So how does someone, or a mission team, respond to these two examples? If you’re dealing with a healthy orphanage, one that has well-adjusted kids and is well run, continue to back their work. Find out what their needs are and keep supporting a healthy situation. Help them to continue to provide what their children need.

If you’re working with a home that’s not so great, it gets complicated quickly. A few years ago we were helping an orphanage near us that was a pit. The orphanage was overcrowded, filthy, and the children were deeply starved for affection. We were praying for a change in that home but did not have a lot of hope with the current management. With eyes wide open to the situation, we continued to send teams to that orphanage on day trips. The teams would clean, prepare meals, and spend time with the children in need of attention. I would encourage the teams by telling them “This home will probably never change, but for one memorable day, those children can know someone cares about them.” With these “hit and run” trips it was far from perfect, but it was giving these children something.

Everyone knows that eating junk food all the time makes for a lousy diet. In a perfect world, we would all have access to regular, healthy, balanced meals. If someone is starving, the standards drop, and junk food is better than no food. If a child was starving, and all we had to give them was a candy bar, that candy bar would mean the world to them. Long term, you would hope that the situation would change, but I don’t think anyone would withhold the candy bar because it’s not the ideal, healthy option. “Junk food” affection, when it’s the only real option, is better than no affection at all. People not visiting an orphanage to avoid this attachment and bonding problem does not suddenly make healthy bonding occur if the orphanage is understaffed and poorly run.

Caring for orphaned and abandoned children is obviously a complicated issue. It’s an issue that has been around for thousands of years and will not be going away soon. To believe that not visiting orphanages will help the situation is like saying not providing services and meals to homeless will end the homeless situation across America. I wish orphanages didn’t exist, but if they have to exist, they should be great, and they need our help.

Please, continue to follow the fundamental teaching of our Christian faith in regards to orphan care:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27

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Orphans Should Get Off Their Butts and Help Someone

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Orphan care is more than a little complicated. Along with all of the basics of childcare and raising healthy individuals, you are also guiding a child from a wounded place to a place of restoration. One of the realities of running an orphanage is that everyone who visits considers themselves an authority on parenting. I don’t claim any great expertise. The longer I do this, the more I realize what I don’t know, but I believe over the years we’ve modified, and stumbled into, an approach to healing the children in our care.

No childcare system is perfect. The philosophies and approaches to raising children have swung dramatically over the years, especially in the field of orphan care. You can find a book, study, or website to back up almost anything you choose to believe about helping children through hurt and abandonment issues. Combined with a loving, family based environment, in our experience, the best way to help a child move to a healthy place emotionally is to let them help others.

Over the years we’ve had what we consider to be a very high success rate with children in our care. “Success rate” is honestly hard to define, and can be fairly objective. The last I read, 70% of all children in foster care wind up in prison. These statistics aren’t much better for many orphanages around the world. What I consider a failure in orphan care is a failure to break the cycle. Unfortunately, most children raised in the system wind up with their own children back in the system. Honestly, some of our children have made poor life choices, but the vast majority of the children we are in regular contact with have gone on to have healthy lives, marriages, and are doing a fantastic job of raising their own kids. Several of our adult children are now married and caring for orphans themselves, that’s an excellent way to be “back in the system.”

So how do you move a child from a broken hurting, angry place to an emotionally healthy, functioning, contributing member of society? The number one way we’ve found to move a child to a healthy place is showing them the joy of helping others. We don’t ignore the fact that they’ve been abandoned. Though in many cases our children have gone through horrific abuse, we show them that what has been done to them is not who they are. They are precious and valuable individuals that God wants to use to bless others. God does not make mistakes, He can and will use the broken, He can use the wounded, and there’s incredible healing in experiencing that joy of being used by God.

In our home, the goal is to have service flow through everything we do. Bagging groceries for needy families in our community, painting a house for an elderly lady, going and preparing a meal or bringing supplies to other orphanages, etc. are all part of what we do. We want service to be taught through both word and deed. When a new child is brought into our home, one of the first things we do is set them up with a “mentor child,” a child a year or two older than the new one coming in and one that’s been here a few years. The mentor child has the important responsibility of taking the newly arrived child and explaining how everything works. The mentor explains how the different homes on our property work, how the dining hall works, how the activities work, and everything he or she might need to know. Not only is it less intimidating for the new child to get all of this information from another child, think how meaningful it is for the mentor to be trusted at this level and given this great responsibility. They are the first friend the new child will have on a day they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Most of the children in our care have some pretty horrific stories from before they came to us. Some of our children have quite literally been thrown away; you can only imagine how this would affect someone emotionally. By showing them that they have something valuable to offer to those around them, that they have something to give, it gives them purpose. By showing them that they are the hands and feet of Jesus, it shows they are valued by Him.

The idea of service as a healing concept is not in any way new, but it seems to have fallen by the wayside in favor of only providing and “protecting” the child. Don’t get me wrong, we take good care of every child in our home, but if you only treat them as fragile victims with nothing to offer that becomes their identity. Our children are so much more than what has been done to them.

The idea of service to others as being fundamental to our emotional health should be obvious to anybody who professes to be a follower of Christ. If we say we are followers of Christ and are not actively serving others in our daily lives, we are hypocrites. Jesus gave a very clear example of service in his everyday life. Everything he did was focused on blessing those he encountered. He spent his time teaching, encouraging, healing, and serving those around Him. On the last night he had with the apostles he chose foot washing as his final example for them. Service is important to God. Not that He needs us to help others, He knows that helping others is good for us. He only wants good things for us.

We’ve all been hurt, we’ve all been abandoned by someone, but that is not who we are. Over and over again we’ve found that if moved to a healthy place, God can use those hurts to create powerful ministry. We have a great team of long term volunteers/missionaries. When I’m interviewing someone, and they get nervous when I ask them about their childhood, I always bump them up the list. It’s not always the case, but we’ve found that if people have been hurt in childhood, and have moved through it, they have a much deeper empathy for the hurting and wounded. They get it. God can use our hurts to soften us, to shape us, to prepare us to reach others. Through serving others, orphaned and abandoned children begin that slow process to healing.

Please know, I’m not saying this is easy or quick. Incorporating service into the healing process will take years and can’t be a just a program or an experiment, it needs to be part of the base culture of a home. Service is not a cure all, service is just one part of moving a child into a healthy place, but we’ve found it to be a profoundly important part.