Friday, July 22, 2011

Off to a Shaky Start at Kids Camp

"I hate everybody in this room!"

Earlier that morning, Wenxin and I packed his lunchbox for his first day at Colorado Kids Camp.  We filled his water bottle and put on sunscreen.  We talked about how Daddy and I would go to the meetings for our conference and he'd go to camp.  (Our other kids were at home with grandparents, but since Wenxin's only been home 10 months, we chose to bring him with us on this work trip to Colorado.)  We planned to pick him up at 3 pm and then come home and swim together.  So far so good.

But when we pulled up to the elementary school where the kids camp was held, the whole atmosphere changed. Things went downhill quickly.

Wenxin began to cling to my leg and whine.  He didn't want to stay.  He wanted to go with Mom and Dad. 

First stop:  the Health Check station where they weed out any kids who might be sick.  Wenxin tried his darndest to fail the health check.  Cough, sore throat, stomach ache?  He had them all.

On to his class:  Wenxin  refused to take a seat.  In fact he stood, stiff as a board, in the middle of the room and mumbled loudly, "I hate everybody in here!"

The teacher greeted him.  At my request, she brought the day's schedule over and explained about all the fun things they'd be doing.  But Wenxin wanted no part of it. 

I asked if I could move with him to the side of the room where we could just sit together and observe the class for a while.  He gathered his sunscreen and water bottle from the desk. He took the name tag they'd prepared for him, emphatically throwing it to the floor.

By this time Mike had parked the car and come in to see what was taking so long.  I walked  over and talked with Mike for a moment and when we looked back, huge tears were rolling down Wenxin's face.

Our hearts hurt for him, but we were not surprised.  Over the last 10 months, we've learned that certain situations trigger anxiety in Wenxin.  A big one is places that look "institutional."  This includes doctor's offices, schools, churches, etc.

I talked with Wenxin and told him that all the kids at the camp had parents who would be picking them up at the end of the day, just like we'd be picking him up.  No children would spend the night at the camp.  I tried to ease his fears.

Context is everything.  With no context, if you saw an eight year old boy refuse to take a seat, say that he hated everyone in the room and purposefully throw his name tag to the floor, you would probably think that his parents should impose swift consequences for his disobedient and disrespectful behavior.  What eight year old acts like that?

But what if you knew that only three years ago, this child had been removed from the only home he'd ever known and placed in an orphanage that housed 1000 kids?  Would that make a difference?  Could you see how getting in a line with a bunch of other kids and being dropped off at a place that looks an awful lot like an orphanage might push all his buttons, putting him into "fight or flight" mode?  Could it be possible that even though this kid now has loving parents and life is good,  this makes him even more afraid that he might somehow lose everything again, for a second time?

We did not punish Wenxin for his behavior because it was rooted in fear, not rebellion.  Mike sat down with him at the edge of the room and I went out to talk with the Kids Camp director.  At that point a couple of really good things happened.

First, Mike began to play with Wenxin.  When I came back in the room they were quietly having a war, taking turns shooting each other with a bottle of sunscreen.  The tears were gone and Wenxin was smiling.  The next think I knew, Wenxin was sporting Mike's sunglasses and conference name tag.  As he laughed and played with his dad, he relaxed.  Play is a key to Wenxin's heart.

Next, the Kids Camp director was quick on her feet and assigned a teacher to stick close to Wenxin for the whole day.  She had that teacher come and get to know Wenxin while Mike and I were still there. 

Finally, I felt we might be able to leave.  So I asked Wenxin, "Would you like to wear Dad's sunglasses when we leave, or can he have them back now?"  Wenxin chose to take his seat in class, hiding out behind Mike's sunglasses, and we were able to slip out the door.  Wenxin had a great "first day" at Kids Camp, and since then, he's marched right in like a big boy each morning.


  1. Dana, this post brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart. When I read your writing, I can hear your voice and see you & Mike interacting with Wenxin. I am so thankful for your listening heart. The Lord is obviously speaking to both of you in these testing situations. I'm thankful for the way things were handled on all parts and feel that Wenxin has made some important progress out here in CO. It was fun to finally meet him at the fair! I pray that the rest of your trip goes well.

  2. This is awesome, Dana. It's a whole new style of parenting, I understand. We keep hearing, over and over, in our class that the behavior isn't the child, it's their experiences & triggers. Thank you for the blog update!

  3. Wonderful insight, Dana. Sometimes in our hurry-up world, it's hard to step back and look at it from their eyes. I fail at that a lot. Well done, easing Wenxin into a new situation.

  4. Thank you for sharing and helping us prepare to bring home our 7yo next year! We had a similar experience with our 4yo with children's church. For now, he just stays with us. It was too early to leave him even with big brother! We are fully of empathy in those areas where behavior is rooted in "fear not rebellion" and strict in the areas which are not. You're doing great! ~Kristin (Aly's friend)


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