Statistically, by now Josh should have been either in jail, living on the street, or dead. The long years in which he was abused and expelled from the families who took him in made him no longer trust anyone. But the love of adults who showed him that they cared was stronger than anything that pushed him toward self-destruction.
Josh was born in 1982 in Oklahoma City. His mother was 17 years old and abandoned him in the hospital soon after birth. He didn’t get to know her and he still doesn’t know who his biological father is. For the first few months, Josh stayed with his mother’s adoptive family. She, too, had gone through the trauma of being abandoned as a baby, but that didn’t stop her from disappearing right after she gave birth to Josh. Because both adoptive parents were elderly and unable to cope with raising a new-born, at six months Josh was taken into the childcare system.
He waited many years to be adopted, but that never happened. He was moved from one foster home to another. He learned quickly not to trust anyone. In the fourth family in which he was placed, he was sexually abused by one of the older “siblings”, because the foster carers were completely oblivious to what was happening to the children. Even though better families followed, Josh was determined not to trust any adult anymore.
He was so determined that he turned everything into a carefully calculated process. He had a notebook in which he wrote down the methods that worked to get him thrown out, along with the length of time it took him to succeed in getting himself out of a home. He set out to increasingly shrink that time; it was his method of feeling in control, by not letting the adults decide by themselves that they wanted to leave him.
He specialized in things that drove adults crazy and repeated them successfully. The rebellion and the troubles caused families to give him up one after another. His only relief wherever he went was food, so he became overweight as a child. This led to the ridicule of his schoolmates which added to his suffering. As a teenager, his life became a nightmare, so he tried to commit suicide with a bottle of pills. The attempt failed and he ended up in another family.
He was 14 years old and had already gone through 12 families when he joined the family of Rodney and Christine Weidenmaier. He was already a veteran of the childcare system. “You get to know people who were literally strangers 10 minutes ago and who now seem to become your mother and father. They say children should not take candy from strangers. Well, they’re not strangers anymore if you move in with them” was Josh’s way of ironically summing up the childcare system and the anger he felt as he waited in the driveway to meet his new family.
“Son, you can keep causing problems, you can keep trying to mess up, you can keep pushing us away, you can keep trying to get us to kick you out of here, but you gotta get it through your thick head, son: we don’t see you as a problem, we see you as an opportunity.”
He began putting his plan into action from the very first greeting. Rodney was obese and narcoleptic, so Josh was sure he could take advantage of this to make him angry. But nothing worked. All the craziness in his notebook had been tested for three years. Rodney and Christine didn’t give up on him, but he wasn’t willing to give up on his distrust either. Josh opened a bank account and began writing fake checks, for which he was eventually caught by police. He called Rodney from prison, asking him to get him out of there. Calmly, Rodney promised to take him out, but only the next morning.
The next day, after bailing him out, Rodney and Christine called him for a discussion. It was the moment Josh was waiting for: to be thrown out. To his amazement, Rodney said, “Son, you can keep causing problems, you can keep trying to mess up, you can keep pushing us away, you can keep trying to get us to kick you out of here, but you gotta get it through your thick head, son: we don’t see you as a problem, we see you as an opportunity.”
Although he initially thought it was just a cheap speech, Josh had the opportunity to recall all the moments when they had not given up on him. Thanks to Rodney, who had left him in prison for one night, he had had a chance to see where he was going. The wall of defence he had built for years began to break down.
The Weidenmaier family was far from perfect; they didn’t have all the answers, but they were amazing in two things that saved Josh: they were patient and consistent. The couple waited a long time until Josh showed signs of wanting to be helped and loved. They were willing to wait as long as it took, because they cared, and their actions matched what they said.
The Weidenmaier family was far from perfect; they didn’t have all the answers, but they were amazing in two things that saved Josh: they were patient and consistent
Josh’s change process was not quick, but it started from the moment he decided to let his guard down. There were many counsellors, teachers, and church members who contributed to his healing. And the confidence that this time he would not be abandoned if he made a mistake made his desire for transformation stronger than his desire for self-destruction. At the age of 19, with the support of a teacher, Josh became a motivational speaker for teenagers. He addressed them in an honest way, without the superficial positivity of other adults, which showed that he truly understood his audience. His influence for good was amazing, even to his parents.
Today, Josh Shipp is one of the most well-known motivational speakers for teenagers, whose message has reached over two million teenagers and parents.
His work was turned into a documentary and he wrote three books. He has an online teen monitoring program, counsels families and openly discusses how the breakup that occurs in many families when children reach adolescence can be repaired.
When asked what he thought was the secret to Rodney and Christine’s success and what he learned from raising his own two children, Josh used a comparison to make things clearer: the security bar on a rollercoaster. “What do you do the first time you’ve been secured with the bar?” You push it, shake it, test it. You don’t push it hoping it’ll break open and take you to your death. You push it hoping it’ll hold you. The same is true with your children. They don’t test you hoping you’ll give up on them. They test your limits hoping (sometimes unconsciously) that you will resist…. I have learned that the desire to be a perfect parent is in vain, but the effort to be a consistent parent is noble. If you give your child constant encouragement and consistent consequences, it will be fine. Not always easy, but good.” For children like him, who did not have the help of biological parents, Josh believes that the difference can be made even by a single adult who cares unreservedly.
Andreea Irimia teaches computer science and technological education.