Monday, October 22, 2012

Older Child Adoption: Orphanage Behaviors

"Who wants to hold a real Civil War musket?"

Saturday night, I took the kids to a one man play by a Civil War reenactor. After the performance, he invited all the children up front to take turns holding a real Confederate musket.

I sat in my chair and watched as one by one, Nathan and Julia took their turns, and then came back to join me. Finally, only Katherine and Wenxin were left waiting in the big group of home schooled kids. Then it happened. As I watched, Wenxin went from relaxed, engaged, hands outstretched to take his turn holding the musket -- like any normal boy about to get the chance to hold a real weapon -- to rigid, alone in the crowd, standing at attention with arms pressed firmly at his sides. He averted his eyes to the ground as big, silent tears dripped from his chin.

For a moment he remained frozen, glued to the floor while all the other kids clamored around him, completely unaware of his distress. Then suddenly, Wenxin broke away and marched over to me. Eyes still on the ground, he stood ramrod straight.

"I don't want to hold the musket. I want to go home. I want to go home now."

All my questions. . . and attempts at comforting. . .  and offers to go back and wait for another turn with him, were met with downcast eyes and stony silence.  I was getting nowhere.

Finally, I asked Katherine if she knew what happened.

"Mom, I don't know. . . surely he didn't mean it. . . but it really looked like the man skipped Wenxin on purpose. . . He let everyone else have a turn, and when he got to Wenxin, Wenxin held out his hands, and the man pulled the musket away and gave it to another kid."  

I hope she was wrong. I really do. There was a mob of kids, all wanting a chance to hold the musket. It would be so easy to skip over one in the confusion. And yet, I wondered. Did this man see an Asian kid and not want him to touch his prized antique gun? His piece of American history?

Let me say, that from the bottom of my heart, I do not think that's what happened. But it's the first time in two years it even crossed my mind that someone might discriminate against Wenxin because of his race, and for what it's worth, it was not a good feeling.

The bigger thing I wondered about was this standing at attention, eyes down thing. I've noticed that Wenxin does this from time to time. He does it when he thinks he's in trouble, especially if he knows he's guilty. He snaps to attention, averts his eyes, and tries not to cry. He looks like he's trying to be brave in the face of certain punishment. He also does it when he's embarrassed and feels foolish. And when he does this, he won't let me comfort him. It's like it's just him against the world. He puts on a brave face, stands at attention and just waits for what's coming.

At least that's what it looks like to me. I imagine him in the orphanage, lined up with other little boys after someone has been naughty. He looks down, trying not to call attention to himself, and come what may, he determines to look tough.

Outside Wenxin's Orphanage

Of course, I don't know if that scenario ever really occurred  It's just my imagination trying to explain a strange behavior that I've seen happen again and again over the past two years.

Maybe it's not even orphanage behavior. It could be cultural -- a Chinese thing.  But I do know that our kids who grew up in orphanages did whatever it took to survive. And sometimes the very same behaviors that made them survivors in that situation, make it difficult for them to adjust to life in their adoptive families. Manipulation, grabbing, lying, hoarding -- all may have been tactics that helped our kids survive. Instead of proving they are bad kids, these actions may actually prove they are resourceful and strong. And with patient guidance, they may be able to use their resourcefulness and strength to learn the new skills they need to live in a family. I've seen it happen with Wenxin.

In retrospect, we all made too big of a deal of the musket thing. As I tried to comfort Wenxin, Nathan ran back up front and informed the man that his little brother had been overlooked and was crying. Nathan ran back to tell Wenxin that if he'd just go back up front, he'd get another chance.

"I'm not going up there again."

Then on the way out, I stopped at the book table to buy a book for Nathan, and the man's wife mentioned the musket, and someone shared the situation with her.

"Just a minute," she said, as she ran back into the auditorium.

"Oh Wenxin. You know she's getting the musket. Please hold it for Mama when she comes back."

"I'm not touching it."

So when the lady came back, musket in hand, I was the one who held it. I oohed and aahed and asked a few questions. I'm pretty sure Wenxin never took his eyes off the ground. He didn't give the musket the honor of even one little glance. As soon as possible, I ushered all five of us out the door, feeling a little like I'd just been in a Civil War battle myself.

I wish I could have a do-over of that evening. (Wouldn't it be nice if grown-ups got do-overs?) This is what I'd say:

"Wenxin.  I can see you are disappointed. Would you like for me to go back with you and help you get a chance to hold the musket, or would you like to skip it and go home?"

Short and sweet. Minimal drama. Simple choices.

I'm certain he would have chosen to go home. And that would have been OK. We made this into a much bigger deal than it needed to be. Hopefully, I'll do better next time.

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  1. I enjoyed your post on orphanage behaviors. One habit we noticed in our son was, he would not get out of bed on his own. He was 4 when he joined our family. We would put him to sleep at night and no matter what, we had to give him permission to get out of bed. Over a year later, his other two siblings helped him realize there are no consequences for for waking up and getting out of bed yourself.

    Another habit he had was, he used to drool excessively. We think it was because he was in an orphanage with kids that had mental/physical difficulties. He is past that as well. We feel very blessed that his transition has not been too difficult, thus far.

  2. Dana,
    our son at 14 does not like to look foolish. He is sometimes a little clumsy and it is quite apparent this irritates him. When he does something like that, we ask "are you all right" and then leave it alone unless he's really hurt. Just yesterday, he tripped over our cat and took a good fall. I showed concern, asked if he was ok and what happened (to which he pointed to the cat) and we went on; he didn't want to dwell on it, so we didn't. One of the hardest things I've had to learn as a parent to both our adopted and biological kids is when to back off and not create a worse situation than it originally was. Like you said, the less drama, the better.

  3. While my childhood probably couldn't be more different from that of your son's, I think I had some moments somewhat like that too. I just have that kind of personality, I guess. But the one thing that overshadows all of these memories is the knowledge that I was loved. I firmly believe that, regardless of what happens in the short term, your love is the thing that matters the most. You probably already know that, but I just read this and wanted to encourage you that loving your kids as you do is the most and best thing.

  4. You know, bless you for analyzing this situation so carefully for the sake of your boy.


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