Here's a little summary of our new normal as a family.
What's working: Food. I'm committed to have healthy food constantly available. We have three meals and three snacks every day. Usually for snacks I put three to six healthy choices in these divided serving dishes and let each kid fill his or her own snack plate. I leave the leftovers on the counter so they can graze if needed.
I want Wenxin to know that there will always be food at our house. So far, I haven't seen any hoarding or other food related problems that are common with post-institutionalized kids. I try to respond quickly if he says he's hungry, even if it's close to meal time. He's been super-easy to feed as he likes most fruits, veggies and meats. He also seems pretty proud of himself that he can eat super spicy foods with his new mom. I made a really spicy Thai soup one night, and he pointed out that he was able to eat it while some of the other kids opted for Mac n Cheese. And no, we haven't ordered Chinese carry-out yet. : )
What's not a problem: Language. This is the thing that would probably surprise most people. We pantomime everything, but Wenxin already understands a lot of what we say. He says new words every day and is speaking to us in simple sentences. For language learning, total immersion is the way to go. It also doesn't hurt to be a kid who's brain is still wired for language learning.
An interesting thing happened. After Wenxin had been home two weeks, I invited a friend who speaks Mandarin to come over and speak with him. I thought she could translate and help us have a deeper level conversation. Wenxin would have none of it. He was totally rude to her. I've had several other adoptive parents say their newly adopted kids reacted to similar situations the same way. Which brings me to my next thought. . .
What's been challenging: Going anywhere with Wenxin. He does great in our home, provided there aren't any visitors. But going anywhere is a challenge. He is more likely to have a tantrum when we're out. And his default reaction to any adult who dares smile and speak to him is extreme rudeness.
So when we're out, I'm faced with two uncomfortable challenges. The first is simply dealing with the tantrum or rudeness or other bad behavior. The second is dealing with the behavior in front of an audience.
My first trip to the grocery store with Wenxin ended with me requesting help to get my groceries to the car. I couldn't push the cart because I had to bodily carry Wenxin (he's 7 1/2) from the store. When I bought a pack of gum for Wenxin and Katherine to share, instead of buying them each a pack of gum like he insisted, he began to whine and staged a "sit-down strike" in the front of the store.
Last Saturday at soccer, he got ready to go home, and we still had one game left. As Mike coached and Katherine played, Wenxin had a meltdown. He stood in the hot Florida noonday sun and refused to come under the tent where I was sitting with another family. He complained loudly about the heat. If I got within a foot of him, he screamed louder. This went on for at least thirty minutes, and for much of that time he was having an all -out screaming flailing tantrum. Finally, the tantrum subsided, and he let me comfort him.
What do I make of this behavior? The short answer: I believe that while Wenxin is physically and mentally a 7 1/2 year old, emotionally he's about a three year old. I think that a lot of adoption research would support that possibility.
I don't pretend to comprehend it all, but there's a lot that suggests early trauma and neglect profoundly affect kids. There's a reason God made babies to be held and snuggled, to have their needs quickly met by loving parents. There's a reason God made little kids to live in stable families where they are loved and taught and trained by the same adults year after year after year.
Wenxin didn't have all that. And keep in mind the huge trauma he's undergone in the last month as a result of being adopted by us. I believe it's for the best, and he seems very happy in our family, but think about it: new parents, new country, new language, new everything. And poof! All the old friends and places are suddenly gone for good. Even though he's enjoying his new home and family, there is trauma all the same.
We keep all this in mind as we decide how to respond to Wenxin's tantrums. He can't help any of what's happened to him. We go back over and over again to our books on parenting kids from the hard places, and we lean on the gentle advice of a network of other parents who've adopted older Chinese kids.
We don't use harsh punishment. We carry him because that's what you'd do with a three year old, and emotionally, that's where he's at. He responds to being carried. He asks to be carried.
We teach, and we train. We set limits. But at this point, we don't expect him to behave like other kids his chronological age.
It probably looks soft to the people who've parented their kids since birth. Everybody in the audience probably doesn't approve, and that's OK.
Most of the books advise staying close to home for the first few months after an international adoption. They advise simplifying your lifestyle and cutting things from your schedule even as you go into the second year. It totally makes sense to me now. It really, really makes sense.