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In Praise of Adopting Older Children

By Terry

My five year old daughter has been here almost seven months, the most consistently happy seven months of my life. Apart from having a paternal grandmother who is a retired schoolteacher, most of her circumstances are shared by a number of waiting children -- maybe including a child waiting for you!  She was basically healthy, if undernourished, and had spent the first four years of her life with her older sister and their parents, farmers too poor for chickens or an outhouse, in a cluster of families too small to be designated a hamlet.  She then moved to the provincial orphanage, sharing a room with two other children her age and two caregivers, one of whom slept with the children.  The orphanage was part of the social welfare center, on the same grounds as the old folks' home.  The social welfare workers and their families lived on the grounds.

Having lived with her parents, she was accustomed to family roles and expectations.  Having an older sibling and sharing her room at the orphanage with two other children, she knew how to relate to other children.  Having spent her first years in the country, she has self care and life skills years beyond her city-bound American contemporaries, has lots of experience exploring and learning directly from the natural world -- and can outrun all but one of the boys in her class.  With lots of adults around and in a culture in which all are free to nurture and enjoy little children, she had had lots of stimulation.  Being five, she can tell me a lot, I can explain a fair amount and we can discuss things.

The stimulation and nurturing was, of course, geared toward country life in Vietnam, not to life in a big North American city.  In the face of this difference, culture shock and the trauma of adoption, she regressed. In late July, her development was more like a three or four year old.  I kept her in nursery school instead of sending her to kindergarten in September and by mid October she had caught on".  Her true self began to emerge.  Her teachers told me that she is very bright" and "could benefit from a rigorous private school education."  Having expected special education, I was shocked!

Her continuing linguistic/cultural challenges are just what the studies of immigrant children/second language learners predict.  Her conversational skills are adequate and, given her age, should be fine within a year, except that her vocabulary will be less than that of similarly educated U.S.-born children.  The real challenge is in "academic" or "book" English, which, according to the studies and to my personal experience learning Chinese and Japanese, takes five to seven years to acquire.  (Those adopting 8 and 9 year olds may be happy to note that immigrant children who have already learned to read and write in their first language generally learn to read and write the new language faster.) 

Fortunately, my daughter came to me counting above 20 (math is a universal language) and knowing the Vietnamese alphabet and beginning to sound out words.  (A four year old boy who had spent his previous two years in the same orphanage also knew the alphabet.)  After she had been here six months, she began work with an ESL tutor. We now expect her to be reading English by her sixth birthday.

She has been helped immensely by attending a very good nursery school in which many of the children come from other countries and the teachers are accustomed to children arriving with no English.  At night, she puts on her pajamas and brushes her teeth and then we cuddle for an hour while I read to her.  I did this from the beginning, using picture books on shapes, toys opposites, colors, yes/no, emotions, and gradually introducing others.  Now, thanks to a lecture by the author of "The Read-Aloud Handbook", I hand her an "I Spy" or other book when she goes to the bathroom, read "Two Minute Stories" and the like to her while she finishes her breakfast. At night I try always to include a couple of more advanced stories, telling her to make some of the pictures in her mind.

I do not have relatives who could babysit nearby and could not have employed a nanny without working too many hours to have much time with my child.  Nor am I as interested in physical care as in the emotional, ethical, social and educational aspects of child rearing.  An "older" child is just right for me -- and may be for you!


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