What is success?

An adoptive mother reflects on what worldly 'success' and academic achievement really means for looked after and adopted children.

As the summer comes to an end, so we find our young people and children approaching the daunting prospect of new years and new teachers. For some there will be new schools, and for those now past the age of compulsory schooling there is a whole new (and potentially overwhelming) world of possibility.

Perhaps it will include embarking on an apprenticeship or heading into the world of work, or it might mean moving away from home to go to university. Right now, it may not even be known what your teenager will be doing in a fortnight, let alone for the rest of their lives.

While this can be a time of excitement as we see our children move one more step along their journey, this can also be a time of a lot of uncertainty, apprehension, and even disappointment.

When I was growing up, education was a really high priority in my family. The qualifications we obtained and the careers that they led to was what defined us as successful.

Now, as an adoptive mum, I find myself pondering what defines success.

And especially, how do we measure success for our adopted and fostered children and young people?

According to an article in the Times, only 6% of children who have spent time of care will ‘win’ a place at university. Even just this language of winning (and the associated implication of others ‘losing’) sets this all up as some kind of contest that equates success with crossing an imaginary finishing line, but such a low figure emphasises to us again just how hard it is for children who are or have been looked after to ‘succeed’ in this particular way.

Yet, this week, our daughter became one of the 6%.

This brings with it so many mixed emotions. It is both a daunting and exciting next step for her. It is such a phenomenal achievement.

When we consider all that our fostered and adopted young people have been through, with the added layers of navigating their stories, making sense of their beginnings, holding their nerve, carving out their identity, somehow clinging on to their confidence in the midst of such a competitive environment.

I remember when we went to parent’s evenings year after year, and we were told repeatedly that she never put her hand up and she needed to engage more in class discussions. What the teachers do not realise is the enormity of risk involved in putting your hand up and potentially getting it wrong. The challenge of this is massive for an adopted or fostered child who is already battling with constant feelings of inadequacy and rejection.

How much more is at stake with a university application, a job interview, or an apprenticeship selection process?

All too often, we measure success by these achievements, when really for an adopted child like my daughter and so many others, the real success is that they have even made it thus far.

Yes, we want them to achieve their potential, but surely, we want them to be growing in confidence knowing that, no matter what their story is, they have the opportunity to re-write the narrative that so often holds them back.

As a parent, I have learnt to pray for each of my children differently. Each year I ask God for a specific and intentional prayer that I can repeat and speak over them day after day after day. Some years that has meant praying for friendships, other years it has been about their protection or security or confidence, other years it has been that they would capture the heart and mystery of their Father God, who is for them and is spurring them on.

It has never been about academic achievement or worldly ‘success’.

My prayer for us as adoptive parents and foster carers supporting our children – the little ones starting nursery and crying as they leave us for the first time, the primary age child who begins to become aware of the achievements of others around them and feels inadequate, the young person embarking on work or college or university – is that we will encourage them to have courage to turn the page and begin to write the next precious chapter of their unique story.

And I pray that what society sees as success would not define them, but the words God speaks over them, the words we pray in the stillness of the night, the moments where we build them up even when others pull them down, the moments where they dream and desire and hope, would be their success.

“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen,you descendants of Abraham my friend,I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you.I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

- Isaiah 41:8-10




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