Entry # 11 Our Son is a Person
I know we tend to pickle memories in a brine that renders them more rosy than blood-red. Nonetheless my journal is a record of how I viewed my world at the time, a primary source with hopefully less cherry-picking than my mind might remember now. Still, reading those journal pages 25 years later, it seems they might have been wrapped in pink cellophane, oh yes, the ‘honeymoon period’. And we were not alone, at least as far as we could tell from the one or two books we came across in those early years. Well actually I only remember one book, written by a woman a year or two after adopting her ‘forever child’. The book was rosy from cover to cover. We would have written the same and if Kisses from Katie[i] is anything to go by, people still are. No grey clouds looming. We got a phone call one night from a fellow in the eastern US who was wondering if we too were experiencing serious acting out with our child, our response was “No, our child is a sweetheart.” Offering words of sympathy, we shrugged and hung up, privately questioning his parenting skills.
This post and the next several to come will offer vignettes of that good time from the perspective of getting to know our child to try to understand his perception of himself and our place in his life via the journal and other information I have garnered. I hope to come to some understanding of how his perception was developed. But let me first establish something that may seem obvious but at perhaps a less than conscious level is not always established. Yasik is person.
To establish this is not as straight forward as it would usually be in a bio-family. The Origins of You: how childhood shapes later life looks at the maxim, ‘The child is the father of the man’, with caveats noting that research cannot support that this thought is an absolute for all children given that the blessings and vagaries of life must also be factored in.[ii] In the particular environment of the orphanage it has become expected that
…the majority of institutionalized children miss a number of critical milestones in development…. In addition, adopted from abroad/post-institutionalized children have to go through a tremendous set of changes, beginning with leaving their home country, leaving the familiar surrounding of the orphanage…. and facing completely unfamiliar surroundings, learning a different language, and getting accustomed to a new culture, a new family, and a new school…. Children’s lack of emotional self-regulation at the level expected at a certain stage of a person’s development is a distinct marker of a post institutionalized child …. School presents difficult challenges for these children, especially many older adoptees. Typically developing children are able to digest new material because they use their previous knowledge, vocabulary, and culture. This is not the case for post institutionalized children who have already been delayed in the learning process and now have difficulty assimilating the fast pace of learning expected of them….
However, a study
… found that approximately one third of the families reported no significant problems; one third mentioned one to three kinds of problems, such as eating problems, medical problems, and stereotypical behavior problems; and years after the adoption roughly one third reported serious and sometimes worsening cognitive and behavioral/emotional problems such as physical, emotional, developmental and cognitive delays, self-stimulation and self-soothing behaviors, and extreme fears of separation and abandonment. A general theme is that the longer the child spends in an orphanage, the more severe the subsequent problem.[iii]
But hey, you can hear that mumbled meme, ‘Data is Not Destiny’, right?
Good old Google. I was wondering how to approach understanding what the journal entries were telling me about who Yasik was showing himself to be in his first year as our son and how that might help to reveal his perception of himself and his new world. I searched with the words that came to mind: personality traits, that sort of thing. Google led me to philosophical sites of all things: the idea of personhood.[iv]
It appears we as persons are physical and mental beings who develop networks of beliefs that impact how we calculate and think about our environment and social relationships, using reflection and language to make autonomous choices and engage in actions, with the right to be accountable for our choices. My journal entries allow me to work backwards from Yasik’s actions to uncover the person he was/is.
But why examine such abstract philosophical and psychological concepts? I had been considering sharing some bits from the journal that I later recognized were best kept private to the family. Yet I am also currently reading a book, the CHILD CATCHERS: rescue, trafficking, and the new gospel of adoption[v] by Kathryn Joyce. The book deals with a variety of movements that have led to bartering in orphans for their souls, for money, for prestige, or to fill some personal hole in their lives. Christians rescuing heathen, governments looking for financial gain or political pawns, couples looking to place a family portrait on the mantle. John Brooks in The Girl Behind the Door[vi] says, “We treated Casey as if she were our new pet”. Dave, when reading this post, observed much the same, saying we put as much effort into life with our pets as we do our children. Are we seeing our child as a distinct and individual person or as another piece to finish a look we imagine completes our image of ourselves and our lifestyle?
Does the personhood of the orphan factor in? Perhaps we can hone an awareness of the orphan as a person in his or her or their own right by thinking very specifically about what makes each of them a person. Perhaps then we will recognize each child caught in the liminal (a word new to me but I like its eeriness) state of orphan as an individual whose personhood must be valued.
Numbers-wise there was not much of the ‘physical being’ about Yasik: essentially 40 inches by 40 lbs. But whatever little there was, it was packed into a well-proportioned body, capped with soft blond hair. We had a cherry tree in the front yard with branches like big arms about four feet off the ground. Dave tucked into the arms one evening to hide in a game of Hide and Seek but those 40 inches of bursting energy were just not up to the hunt. Dave sat right in front of Yasik in the cherry tree, but 20 inches short of the tree’s arms, he could not see Dave.
Seriously, where it mattered, and especially with the adjustment a pair of glasses made, Yasik could see just fine. We watched a video about where kids come from. It made the observation that a woman has breasts, showing a cartoon woman with straight out breasts and nipples. Later I said to Yasik, “See, I have breast too”. He said, “No, your’s don’t stand up.” Yasik could hear (he loved listening to music with earphones) which was later confirmed as hearing issues are usually checked as part of an assessment of learning difficulties; Yasik could smell (well we assume so for I have no concrete examples recorded); Yasik could taste (at first only familiar foods – which shows discrimination, right?); Yasik knew the message of touch (holding our hands and cuddling); and that sixth one, proprioception, appeared to be working just fine as his very effective motor skills demonstrated despite Orphanage Risk Factors’ mention that often institutionalized kids are clumsy. From leaping around on the park dragon to hitting the T-ball to biking, he showed skill and prowess. Even the over-sized baseball helmet merely got a nonchalant flick when it slipped into his face. Of course, there was that one time just after Yasik got comfortable on his bike, we biked around the block. On Braid St. he biked into a telephone/ lamp post. He got a bit disgusted and said, “Tomorrow they have to move it over there” – meaning across the street. But clumsiness or awkwardness of movement have never been evident. He knows where his arms and legs are and where they are headed – exactly where he wants them to go.
And as for that one bug-a-boo, size, the material on Orphanage Risk Factors notes that institutionalized kids make size gains within months of adoption. I noted sometime after Christmas of that first year that “he keeps growing. He wants to be measured a lot to check if he’s grown and usually he has – he is growing steadily but he is still the littlest kid in the school”. Attaching in Adoption: practical tools for today’s parents takes concern for size seriously, saying children can feel embarrassed about being short. They may see it as mocking their drive for independence from being needy[vii]. Getting glasses centered his right eye but being little was an on-going concern.
Notes from our short ‘getting to know Yasik’ meeting with orphanage staff say Yasik had dealt with rickets, poor nutrition and a lack of Vitamin D due to little exposure to a world beyond his crib. He also had an infant allergy or intolerance to sweets. The staff assured us the rickets and allergy and their after effects were now gone, as is most often the case once diet and exercise needs are met.
He did have a secret power though – when chicken pox banged at the door, the doctor thinks the resistance to infection spawned in the orphanage made him quite invincible to many childhood illnesses. Other than a mild diarrhea, he was free to play in the park for the week he was quarantined from school. His body was also well adjusted to the rhythms of life for he slept well, ate well, especially sausages, piroshkies and fruit in the early months. The fruit kept things humming so well that we would occasionally ban apples. Loving fruit, Yasik would have us check to see if his poop was firm enough to lift the apple ban.
And the ‘mental being’? A Google definition says it is about perception, pain experience, belief, desire, intention, emotion, and memory. I would like to add as a separate concept, the gift of curiosity we are given.
For whatever emotional, psychological or neurological reason, Yasik says he has no memory of his life before the flight to Canada. Yet…..while we waited for our pre-dawn flight home in the Moscow airport, facing out into flat river valley, a harvest moon arose. It was huge. One evening, a few months into his first year with us, he and Dave were on the computer. Dave was making supper and Yasik was playing on the computer. A large moon came up on the screen. Yasik called Dave over and pointed to it, “Papa that is where Yasik is from”. He explained that “they pulled the string” (like maybe a bus stop string?) and he came down on an airplane. His memory system was doing what memories are to do – providing him with a narrative. He came from the moon.
It is the only memory he shared other than recognizing the little kids pictured waving good bye to him from the orphanage front porch. Sadly, or simply the by-product of embracing a new life, there came a day when he no longer wanted to look at their pictures before bed. John Brooks talks of the same with his daughter, Casey. John and his wife Erika had created a “scripted fantasy story” about Casey’s bio mom loving her but wanting her to have a better life and so the Brooks “went all the way the way to Poland to find” Casey. (I bet they dragged that word ‘all’ out). But Casey showed little curiosity about her bio family or the orphanage, or Poland [viii]. And yes, more could be said re: the fantasy story and magical thinking as per the Child Catchers: rescue, trafficking, and the new gospel of adoption [ix].
We could not deny he had emotions either, from robust anger to sweeping happiness. Angry that he must obey, laughing so freely when happy, yelling, “Yee Haw” while biking, excited and giggling playing Hide and Seek. He had us outside, having one of us hiding while he had the other counting and helping him hunt, but it was all his when the hunted one was spotted as he broke into a determined run to kick the can; he burst with pride at handling bumper cars with Kyle; he entered into T-ball games wholeheartedly – no standing on the sides, no matter who played. Yet come the evening, he slipped into cuddly mode.
Yasik fell from a stand at his last T-ball game and he was leaning against the fence trying not to cry. Dave went over and picked him up from behind. He turned into Dave’s neck and cried his heart out. But again, all in the same day, he might punch your bum and leap on you. He would leap on my back while I was crouched at the fridge and get me in a strangle hold.
Erik H. Erikson, student of life, according to Daniel Levinson[x], and person who never knew his bio father and never felt fully accepted by his step-father, designed a theory of human life rather like a train on a railway line with 8 stations along the way. Yasik should have, at this point, passed the stop of Trust vs. Mistrust (infant) and Autonomy/Independence vs Shame and Doubt (toddler) and if all was going well, was in the stage of Initiative vs Guilt (pre-school). Orphanage Risk Factors suggest that often children who begin life in an orphanage are emotionally delayed. So, was the train of life carrying Yasik getting to each stop on time and leaving on time? Can adoptive parents even tell this early in an adoption? Were we going to see Yasik trusting us as his parents? Is he confident enough to take up challenges? Was he becoming more and more skillful and able to make decisions that show a growing control of his impulses?[xi]
Maybe the mental being marker of intention will provide some answers. Dave’s birthday came along in March. Yasik and I went shopping for a gift for him. He got Dave a plastic foldable set of swords – for lots of sword fights with himself. On another day, Dave suggested Yasik pick flowers for me. The next day Yasik was mad at Dave for a reprimand. On the way to school I told Yasik that Dad did so because he loves him. Yasik goes “Oh”, stopped and picked a buttercup, saying, “This is for my daddy”. As an afterthought, he picked one for me so I picked one for him and again he said. “Ooh” – both ‘Ohs’ in awe. (I kept that little flower in the journal for many, many years).
Any organism, if it is alive, demonstrates desire, so it can be no surprise that desire burbled in Yasik’s breast. Right from the start we could tell he was into long-haired girls.
We were visiting friends in Chilliwack whose only child was a beautiful, long-haired girl. Yasik fell in love with her, not reciprocated of course, for she was several years old than him, but she played with him and that was good enough.
I have read here and there that curiosity is a special gift tucked into the bundle of personality traits of the lucky. I am not so sure; it seems to me that whether it is slipping into a shop to see an item you are dreaming of or questions you have about the connection between nature and nurture which leads you to Nobel prize honours, we likely each have some measure of curiosity. Even our dog shows curiosity most days, sticking his nose in here and there on our walks. Yasik too, has always poked his nose into things around him: how to drive the car, checking out what might be hidden in dense bush, even if it meant getting dirty to find out, figuring out how to help some fish get upstream.
It is harder to pin point his experience of pain for he rarely seemed bothered by confrontations with pain. Much of what would have others cry out seemed to bounce off him. Or maybe his physical dexterity came to his aid, allowing to him slip past most potential accidents.
Not to gloss over the Orphanage Risk Factors I have noted here and there, I might add that we did watch Yasik self-soothe by rocking on the couch while watching TV or listening to music and when in the car. I’d also say there was some self-parenting when he could get a bit bossy, telling us to stop doing something that irritated him or becoming indignant when disciplined. But he did not come to us cowed by orphanage punishment though he would show initial hesitancy when encouraged to try new things like rides at the playground or learning to ride his bike. Nonetheless, there was no evidence of a ‘learned helplessness’ for with encouragement, he tried whatever challenge was offered. Was he indiscriminately friendly? I don’t think so though it took little for him to be willing to make friends. He definitely was not delayed in fine or gross motor skills nor was he having obvious problems with impulse control. And if you watched him watching ‘Forrest, Forrest Gunk’ you could rest assured he was able to hold a concentration or focus. He was acting like a happy little boy. He seemed to have enough trust and independence to beetle on into anything.
Perception it seems is the expression of the physical and genetic attributes as they entwine with the mental attributes which together lead to a way of regarding, understanding or interpreting something. Or better yet, we as persons are physical and mental beings who develop networks of beliefs that impact how we calculate and think about our environment and social relationships, using reflection and language to make autonomous choices and engage in actions, with the right to be accountable for our choices.
I think Belief, in a narrow definition (except in such specifics as religion perhaps,) is imperceptibly different from perception so will check it off the list as essentially being dealt with as perception.
I hope to discover Yasik’s attribute of perception as I work through the next few posts. Other than that the bases are covered.
So yeah, he is a person.
And because I cannot keep my greedy fingers off the keys that lead me to more and more, I am going to tuck in one other way to look at Yasik. This is a personality type theory called ‘The Big-Five Personality Traits’ broken up into the following traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion/extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Researchers have found this set of traits to be “remarkably universal”, that “both nature and nurture play a role” and that the traits of the individual “tend to be relatively stable over the course of adulthood”, even factoring in “adverse life events” though “maturation may have an impact”.[xii] I add this way to look at a person because of some questions I came across in Heartbreak: a personal and scientific journey by Florence Williams, 2022. She asks “So why are some of us more resilient in the face of something like a breakup? Do personality traits matter? Early life trauma? The short answer is yes and yes”[xiii]
Openness (also referred to as openness to experience) emphasizes imagination and insight the most out of all five personality traits. People who are high in openness tend to have a broad range of interests. They are curious about the world and other people and are eager to learn new things and enjoy new experiences.
People who are high in this personality trait also tend to be more adventurous and creative. Conversely, people low in this personality trait are often much more traditional and may struggle with abstract thinking.
- Very creative
- Open to trying new things
- Focused on tackling new challenges
- Happy to think about abstract concepts
- Dislikes change
- Does not enjoy new things
- Resists new ideas
- Not very imaginative
- Dislikes abstract or theoretical concepts
Among each of the personality traits, conscientiousness is one defined by high levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, and goal-directed behaviors. Highly conscientious people tend to be organized and mindful of details. They plan ahead, think about how their behavior affects others, and are mindful of deadlines.
Someone scoring lower in this primary personality trait is less structured and less organized. They may procrastinate to get things done, sometimes missing deadlines completely.
- Spends time preparing
- Finishes important tasks right away
- Pays attention to detail
- Enjoys having a set schedule
- Dislikes structure and schedules
- Makes messes and doesn’t take care of things
- Fails to return things or put them back where they belong
- Procrastinates important tasks
- Fails to complete necessary or assigned tasks
Extraversion (or extroversion) is a personality trait characterized by excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness, and high amounts of emotional expressiveness. People high in extraversion are outgoing and tend to gain energy in social situations. Being around others helps them feel energized and excited.
People who are low in this personality trait or introverted tend to be more reserved. They have less energy to expend in social settings and social events can feel draining. Introverts often require a period of solitude and quiet in order to “recharge.”
- Enjoys being the center of attention
- Likes to start conversations
- Enjoys meeting new people
- Has a wide social circle of friends and acquaintances
- Finds it easy to make new friends
- Feels energized when around other people
- Say things before thinking about them
- Prefers solitude
- Feels exhausted when having to socialize a lot
- Finds it difficult to start conversations
- Dislikes making small talk
- Carefully thinks things through before speaking
- Dislikes being the center of attention
This personality trait includes attributes such as trust, altruism, kindness, affection, and other prosocial behaviors. People who are high in agreeableness tend to be more cooperative while those low in this personality trait tend to be more competitive and sometimes even manipulative.
- Has a great deal of interest in other people
- Cares about others
- Feels empathy and concern for other people
- Enjoys helping and contributing to the happiness of other people
- Assists others who are in need of help
- Takes little interest in others
- Doesn’t care about how other people feel
- Has little interest in other people’s problems
- Insults and belittles others
- Manipulates others to get what they want
Neuroticism is a personality trait characterized by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability. Individuals who are high in neuroticism tend to experience mood swings, anxiety, irritability, and sadness. Those low in this personality trait tend to be more stable and emotionally resilient.
- Experiences a lot of stress
- Worries about many different things
- Gets upset easily
- Experiences dramatic shifts in mood
- Feels anxious
- Struggles to bounce back after stressful events
- Emotionally stable
- Deals well with stress
- Rarely feels sad or depressed
- Doesn’t worry much
- Is very relaxed
[i] Davis, Katie with Beth Clark Kisses For Katie: a story of relentless love and redemption
Gale Cengage Learning, 2011
[ii] Belsky, Jay et al The Origins of You: how childhood shapes later life Harvard UP, June 2020. p.40-54
[iii] Jankowska, Anna The Transition of Adopted From Abroad/ Postinstitutionalized Children to Life in the United States McGill University, 28 October, 2015.
[iv]Camilleri, Adrian. “What are the Characteristics of Personhood?” Philosphymt. https://philosophymt.com/what-are-the-characteristics-of-personhood/. January 7, 2022.
[v]Joyce, Kathryn the Child Catchers: rescue, trafficking, and the new gospel of adoption Public Affairs,2013 p.67
[vi] Brooks, John The Girl Behind The Door: a father’s quest to understand his daughter’s suicide Scribner, 2016.
[vii]Gray, Deborah D. Attaching in Adoption: practical tools for today’s parents Perspectives Press, Inc.,2002 p. 37-39
[viii] T Brooks, John The Girl Behind The Door: a father’s quest to understand his daughter’s suicide Scribner, 2016. p. 55-56
[ix] Joyce, Kathryn the Child Catchers: rescue, trafficking, and the new gospel of adoption Public Affairs, 2013 p. 75 – 127
[x] Levinson, Daniel J. (1979). The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Harper & Row
[xi] Wade, Carol et al. Psychology: custom edition for Thompson Rivers University. Pearson, 2007.
[xii] Cherry, Kendra “What Are the Big 5 Personality Traits?” Very well Mind March 11,2023 https://www.verywellmind.com/the-big-five-personality-dimensions-2795422
[xiii] Williams, Florence Heartbreak: a personal and scientific journey W.W. Norton & Co.2022 p.51
[xiv] Cherry, Kendra “What Are the Big 5 Personality Traits?” Very well Mind March 11,2023 https://www.verywellmind.com/the-big-five-personality-dimensions-2795422