Adopting Older Children

By Marjorie Hershey

First, let me suggest some reasons NOT to adopt an older child. My own belief is that it's not the best idea to consider an older child out of a desire to "save" a needy little person. I'm sure all of us are altruistic to at least some extent. But I think it's just human that if we intend to "save" someone, we will eventually expect him or her to be grateful for having been "saved." Kids, understandably enough, tend not to think of themselves as needing "saving," however. Our H., who came home to us at age 11, had a life in Da Nang that made her happy. She had friends, she was going to school, the orphanage was well-run, and although she had no possessions or expectations about future schooling or a career, that just wasn't a big deal for her. She's happy here, and we're happy to be with her, but it would really be unrealistic if I were to expect her to be anything other than a normal, self-concerned child, who can get just as grumpy toward her parents as her siblings can. The vision of Cosette in "Les Mis" is totally compelling, when she sings about her dream of a loving mom and a good home, but it is an adult's vision, not a child's.

Another caution is that it's best not to adopt an older child in order to avoid the hassles of infancy and toddlerhood, or to have a child who's already in school. As you know from raising other children, kids don't get easier to raise as they get older; they just get different. The challenges change. Older children, as you know, come with "issues." They have already-formed personalities. For better or worse, I'm a pretty calm, restrained, social person; I would not feel perfectly at home at a demolition derby. H., on the other hand, would probably be driving one of the wrecked cars, and yelling to her fans!

There are cultural differences as well. We used to kid her about drinking pho with such enthusiasm that it sounded as though she was trying to suck up something from the opposite side of the room. These are all trivia, of course, but they involve a level of adjustment to a new member of the household that's quite different from your adjustment to a baby. My sense is that being a parent, for a child of any age, is very much like being a sheepdog; kids come with very well-ingrained tendencies toward certain personality types and behavior, and the best we can do is to try to help them direct those basic tendencies in constructive rather than destructive ways. But you definitely have more of a head start with a baby than with an older child.

That said, we have been completely blessed by having adopted L. at 3 1/2 and H. at 11. Our situation with H. was a bit different from most people's in that we had first been asked to adopt her when she was 8, and it took three years to bring her home. During that time, we were able to get to know quite a lot about her because we were exchanging letters pretty regularly. Some friends from APV had met her and could tell us more. So we felt reasonably confident that she was our child. It would be wonderful if you were able to do the same.

We were told that H.was very bright and capable, and in fact, she was. But "bright" can mean something a bit different in the Vietnamese school system than it does here. She was taught by rote in Da Nang; she was told things and then asked to memorize them. When she came here and started school, she was completely bewildered by most of her early assignments. It made no sense to her to ask for her opinion; she preferred spelling tests, where there was a right and a wrong answer and she could use the academic skills she developed in Viet Nam.

H., interestingly enough, has learned English much faster than L. did at the age of 4. She's been in the school's English as a New Language program for seven months, and her teacher is already arguing that H.'s ready to "graduate" from it. And contrary to everyone's stereotype, H. finds math uninteresting; she much prefers spelling and literature. It was very frightening for her at first. She had been at the top of her class in Da Nang, and she was very upset at the thought of doing any less well here, no matter how often we pointed out how beautifully she was weathering the big changes she had faced. But she's doing "regular" fifth grade work now, in English, and getting mostly A's.

How else can you prepare? Don't develop too many expectations. Be guided by your child. Each of these little people has special talents and interests. Some, even many of these may be unknown to her or him and to you at first. When you meet your "older" child, expose her to lots of opportunities. Let her try swinging a bat and doing gymnastics and playing piano. See which ones she enjoys most, and which you think she might be good at. Then find the best coaches and teachers you can to help her develop those skills. Upper-elementary and middle-school kids, especially, face such social pressures that they need a "place to be" -- a group to hang with. If they can move into a gymnastics team or a school orchestra or choir as a reasonably competent member, that gives them some social "protection" that will help in their adjustment. H., like many older adopted kids, felt most comfortable at first, and maybe even now, at school; it was closest to the environment of the orphanage. As you help them adapt to their new school, you help them a lot in their overall adaptation.

I don't know if any of this is very helpful, because each of these folks is unique. But to me, it's like growing a plant from a seed. If it starts out as a pea, you aren't going to be able to make it into an azalea. But if you pay good attention to its care and feeding, and listen carefully to what it's telling you, you can provide the conditions for it to become a really wonderful pea. The key is to listen; children give us guidance that's at least as valuable as the guidance we give them!