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The boy who wouldn’t stop talking

When Stephen came to us 15 months ago, he talked nonstop. I don’t mean that he was conversational. I mean that he yelled a broken orphanage-Chinese equivalent of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” over and over again to get our attention. He would talk at us (without actually paying attention to our responses), talk to himself, sing to himself, amd did not regulate his volume. He showed little evidence of hearing or active listening. He returned to the same topics and words repeatedly and seemingly without trigger:  “Bus! Airplane! Bus! Tiger! Airplane!” (These he said repeatedly both in Chinese and eventually in English.)

It was kind of unexpected. Of all the difficult behaviors that you might expect an institutionalized child to have — meltdowns, self-soothing behaviors like head banging and repetitive rocking, lying, hoarding, violence (none of which Stephen actually has) — it was his incessant unlistenable and non-contextual talking that I found most difficult to tolerate. Stephen’s talking was downright noxious. His bewildered grandparents, not knowing how else to describe him or express the emotional responses he elicited, noted that he was ‘not well behaved’ and ‘talks nonstop.’ None of us wanted to say it. We all thought he was awful.

I couldn’t put my finger on why Stephen’s talking struck such a nerve. I thought maybe he was just a talkative personality and I, a quiet and introspective person, had somehow gotten the most extroverted child anyone could imagine. I thought I would just have to get used to this strange and unlikeable personality quirk.

It’s only after a year in our family that I understand why I found Stephen’s talking so noxious. It’s because it was contextually irrelevant and socially inappropriate. Stephen’s talking was his biggest and most obvious manifestation of being an unparented and institutionalized child. He didn’t know to use speech to communicate or converse. He talked either to stimulate himself or to get an adult to look at him.

It took the first few months to extinguish the repetitive “Mama! Hey! Mama! Hey!” (We taught him that this wouldn’t get him what he wanted by ignoring it.) Stephen had to learn who to talk to, what to say, when to say it, how to say it and why we speak. He had to learn how to listen and reply in conversation. This took regular and repeated exposure to safe and trusted people including his parents, teachers, and classmates.

Before Stephen came home, I had assumed we would be dealing with unlearning stereotypical orphanage behaviors such as food hoarding, lying and attention seeking. It turns out Stephen didn’t hoard food, he didn’t lie and he didn’t do horrible things to seek attention. What I learned, is that there are pervasive and sometimes unconscious social norms we take for granted, that a fully institutionalized child may not know. How to carry on a conversation is one of those.

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homework the fuse to my temper

Kindergarteners in our school district don’t get homework. To clarify:  they don’t get homework that they have to turn in. They do get “suggested materials you can practice with your child,” which in our district of obsessive tiger parents means that the kids do their damned kindergarten homework every day.

The first “suggested materials” showed up in October and it was Sight Words. Sight Words in this curriculum are not, it turns out, simple concrete things such as colors, animals, common verbs and so on. They are the “fillers” in longer sentences, words such as so, than, if, or, from, an, for, in, of, as. Stephen had left his orphanage in China to join our family only 10 months prior, speaking no English and 2-year-old-level Chinese with gibberish and made-up kid words (I presume not enough real adults in the orphanage to learn much language). He had since learned the entire alphabet, the sound of each letter, and a couple thousand English words (airplane! bath!) but, not surprisingly, the Sight Words had no clear meaning to him.

I dutifully cut the Sight Words out on the dotted lines and laminated them. I dutifully sat Stephen down to read the flashcards for several days in a row. He could read them with a little prompting, but he couldn’t remember them beyond about a minute. Not to mention, probably because of institutional delays in sensory processing and attention, he was as distractible as a 3-year-old and often acted like a kid with ADHD. Homework that he couldn’t engage in and didn’t want to pay attention to was exasperating. I soon gave up on doing the Sight Words.

This month, Mrs. D. has sent the kids home with a  handwriting workbook. So, dutifully, at 7pm one night, I told Stephen it was time to do some homework. It turns out Stephen loves handwriting and has no problem with it. He did several pages of handwriting (investment: 10 minutes) followed by some counting. “I love homework! Homework is my favorite! Is it 7 yet? Is it homework time?” A pleasant week of homework went by. I decided to try introducing some simple addition. This was more challenging, but Stephen remained engaged and continued to enjoy the addition worksheets. Another week went by.

Then, tonight, I made a mistake. I decided to try a phonics worksheet. I started going over the pronunciation of “short A” and “long A.” Stephen did not pay attention. But Mom. What is inside the snail? Why the snail live inside a shell? Does the snail taste good? What about the slime? And after about five minutes of repeated interruption, I lost it. “Stephen!” I snapped. “Focus!” But Mom, why? “Do the homework, Stephen!” This was not my calm measured voice. This was vicious. But Mom — “Quiet! Do the homework!”

If I had been six, I’d have been scared of me.

I felt bad, calmed down, moved on from the long As and short As as though my mean vicious temper flare-up hadn’t happened, and prompted Stephen back into the familiar territory of simple addition. Hopefully he forgot about it? Hopefully he will still love homework tomorrow? Sigh, I often wonder if he will grow up to remember that I was mean, vicious, angry and terrifying. Is my only saving grace the possibility that maybe the aiyi and the “Big Bubba” orphanage foster father were meaner and more vicious? I think there are times I have been just as bad.

Stephen can bring out the worst in me. I am much more angry, short-tempered, vicious and mean than I knew before adopting Stephen. Hopefully being an adoptive parent to an institutionally delayed, abandoned child who doesn’t know social behaviors, emotional regulations, listening, obedience, etc etc may bring out the worst in me but hopefully… eventually… may teach me the best things too?

Maybe my expectations are a little high. He has been home 14 months, knows the alphabet, can read very simple sentences, write all the letters, count to 100 and do simple addition by counting pictures and objects. In addition to all that, I also expect him to complete every worksheet with equal focus no matter what the topic and to be obedient when I tell him to do it. It’s like I expect him to be a little adult, and if he behaves in certain ways I lose it completely.

The more practical lesson for me is that for now, if I’m going to assign homework now and throughout the upcoming summer holiday I should be very careful of what assignments I choose.