Monday, November 5, 2012

What I Learned in Intro to Psychology and How it Applies to my Real Life as an Adoption Social Worker (Considering Adoption Part 2)

She was about four years old. The little bundle of energy raced to me, basically a stranger at her front door. I was visiting her foster home as an adoption social worker. She had lived there for several months, and had been in foster care probably even longer. Sadly, life had not worked it out for her to return home.

But she was happy, energetic, talkative, and friendly. She grabbed my hand, and raced toward the kitchen. She threw open the doors to a cabinet, pointed, and said in her four-year-old still-a-bit-unclear speech: "Look!" I looked. The cabinet was filled with food. For her, this was still exciting. She remembered times, before living here, that there hadn't been enough food. She was still affirming that there would be food for her to eat tomorrow.

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist working in the first half of the 1900's. In 1943, he published a paper which suggested that humans have an unconscious "Hierarchy of Needs" and that they organize their efforts around that structure; in a nutshell, without even thinking about, people work on the most important stuff first.

When he published the paper, he saw five levels of need. From most foundational to least, they are: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Physiological needs are the ones that deal with survival: like having food to eat RIGHT NOW so that you don't actually starve. Safety needs are basically physiological needs in the future: like knowing that you have food to eat tomorrow. Love/belonging needs come next: once you're confident of your own survival, you realize that humans are really communal beings; we need to be in relationship to each other. After that comes esteem needs: now that you're in connection with other people, it's important that they like you; it's important that you like you. Finally, said Maslow, comes self-actualization. That's the need we have to figure out who "you" actually are. Maslow suggested that people don't work on higher-level (or less foundational) until their more basic needs are mostly met.

So back to my little four-year-old friend. She had never starved to death. Her physiological needs had always been met. But her safety needs hadn't been. She spent the first portion of her life learning that her safety needs weren't met; that she couldn't know whether there would be food tomorrow. She proudly showed me that, yes, her safety needs were being met. Maslow would suggest that my little friend's next goal will be to find love and belonging. Sure enough, before I finished the visit, I noticed that she had saved the last fruit snack from a package. It was glistening, so I imagine she started to eat it, and changed her mind. She wanted to bring it to school to share it with a friend. And applying Maslow's theory to kids, it makes sense.

When I interviewed prospective adoptive parents, I often asked them what their goals are for their kids. There were two answers that were, by far, the most common. I could almost recite them. Here's one: "I want my kids to be good, upstanding citizens." Here's the other: "I want my kids to love and serve the Lord."

If you think about it, both of those needs show up on the very top of the Hierarchy. They're self-actualization needs. They're a kid becoming who they really are. That's where my applicants want their kids to end up; that's where any parents want their kids to end up, and that's good! The Hierarchy is a great road map, though. Kids need to have their more foundational needs met before they're going to work on their higher-level ones. A kid probably won't be worried about sponsoring a child in poverty if they're not sure that their own needs for food are going to be met tomorrow. A kid probably won't worry to much about honesty if they're not sure that their need for safety is definitely met. It's good and appropriate and helpful to want - and eventually expect - great things from your kids. But it's probably wisest to understand that growth happens in a process. Kids who've spent the first few years of their life learning that their lower-level needs are not met will take some time to unlearn that; it won't be immediate, it will probably take some time. Be patient. Meet their needs.

Be patient. Meet their needs.


  1. So well put - I remember learning about Maslow's hierarchy of needs ages ago but so interesting to hear it related to children who are in foster care and/or adopted. Also so sweet to see, through your story, this particular four year old moving her way through the stages because she feels safe and is having her needs met.

  2. Thanks so much! I really love the Hierarchy of Needs as a way of conceptualizing a lot of things. And that first meeting with that girl was really special. The family did end up adopting her; and last I heard, everyone was happy and well!

  3. That's a great way to understand Maslow's hierarchy. Your story of the little girl is touching. I love how she naturally though of others who might be hungry.


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