Adoption 101: Free time

Based on some recent conversations, I think it's time for another post on another common experience in adoption that many people might not be aware of. How children manage (or don't manage) self-direction and free time is one that I haven't seen addressed many places in the adoption literature. I wonder how many adoptive parents have been told by their social workers that this new child will not be able to fill their own time or have prepared the parents for the constant-ness of raising a newly adopted older child.

I've heard too many people express the sentiment that by adopting an older child they are going to skip having to take care of the hard stuff... diapers, night time wakings, having to be available to care for the child fairly constantly. Everyone knows that babies require a lot of work, but what most people don't realize is that so do older children. Aside from the diapers (and you may still very well have toileting issues), there is very little difference, actually. But rarely do I hear that being said enough.

I know the idea of a child having no idea how to occupy him or herself is one that caught me off guard, especially having parented a few children before we adopted. There is this assumption that some things of childhood are a given. I assumed that while I would fill part of my child's day that that child would be able to play for at least some of it and probably welcome the experience. But once again I was completely wrong.

Not only didn't my new child not want to entertain himself, he couldn't. To begin with, there is just too much that was new; too many unwritten family rules to be figured out. The child isn't even sure what is allowed and acceptable at first. The other children in the home know the routine. They know what is acceptable. They know what is allowed to be played with and how to play with it. They know what behaviors mom will tolerate and which will send her through the proverbial roof. They are at ease in their own home.

A child newly home is not at ease... about anything. Play is the product of a happy and relaxed child. It is also the product of a child who has learned how to play by first being shown by parents when the child is an infant and gradually being given the freedom to play on their own. Think about it. When a baby is an infant, the parent plays in front of the child, entertaining him, making her smile. The parents make goofy faces, blow raspberries, show and play with rattles and other baby toys and the baby watches. As the baby gets older, the parent still plays for the child, but slowly gives the child a chance to play along. I can remember giving my babies baskets of toys for them to take out and look at, occasionally I would step in a play along for a few minutes and then let the baby play alone. This whole process continues for the first years of life. Even four and five year olds play for a bit and then want the parent to play, too, and then go off and play on their own a bit. And all of this happens in small intervals. The child isn't entertaining himself for uninterrupted hours, but for small bits of time interwoven with other activities. By middle grade school children have had enough of this 'play training' to entertain themselves for quite a while if engaged in their activity. But think what the build-up to that has been.  Years and years of gradual support and training.

Now think about the newly adopted child. Not only is that child in a totally foreign environment with people who are now claiming to be parents but who have only been known for days or weeks or months, but often that child came from an environment where there was very little concept of play as we think of it and the idea of self-direction is absent. This is especially true if the child came from an orphanage. To manage the children, their lives are regimented. The skills a child learns from babyhood in a family are not learned in an institution.

It's no wonder that a family finds a child just wandering about the house with no idea of what to do, or discovers that their child incessantly demands that someone else fill the day. Unfortunately it's not something we often think about when we think about adoption. I know I didn't. My new child needs me to learn how to play, to learn the unspoken rules that we are hardly aware of, to learn to fill her time. It is as time-intensive a phase of parenting as parenting a baby... and as exhausting. We have now reached the point with H. where if I give her a certain activity, she is happy to do it for a while. She also watches the other children very carefully and joins in with what they are doing. But as far as being able to think, "Oh, I have an hour, I've been looking forward to doing this," that is probably years down the road. It's a process that takes time.

And I haven't even addressed how past trauma muddies the self-directed waters. Perhaps muddies isn't the right analogy, tsunami might be a better description. When your emotional health is as stable as an ocean in a tsunami, it is very difficult to be self-directed. In fact, it's impossible. I have learned that free time for a child from a hard place is a recipe for disaster, or at least unpleasantness. I'll go back to my earlier statement that play is the product of a child who is happy and relaxed. I think anyone who is parenting a child with a difficult past will agree that happy and relaxed are not the two words that they would immediately jump to to describe their child. I wouldn't. It's why we are working so hard to help him heal. The calmer he is emotionally, the more he is able to be self-directed and to play; the more anxious, the less he is able. To remain calm, right now he needs to know what the schedule is, what is going to be happening, what he is supposed to be doing. The closer I stick to our stated schedule, the better our days go; there is less for him to be anxious about.

So, if you are thinking about adoption, be aware of the realities of life with a newly (and sometimes not-so-newly) adopted child. You can't look at someone else's child, a child who was born into that family or who joined it as an infant, and expect your new child to function similarly. Even if you are adopting a 14 year old, go and spend some time with little toddlers to remind yourself what life looks like with that age, because that is the stage that you should really be preparing for. It's full-time work. It's hard. It's exhausting. But it is so rewarding when you see that person blossom (though sometimes gradually) before your eyes. And that's why we do it. Not because we're 'so good', or because we were blessed with an extra measure of patience (ha!), or because there is something special about us, but because we believe that every life God created is special and valuable and deserves to be loved. And because God gives us the grace and strength to do it.
I wanted to mention that I'm going to be on This is the Day on Moody Radio tomorrow morning at 10am, central, talking about meal planning. If you don't get Moody on your radio, you can listen online, just click the link to the station.


Pam said…
AMEN to this post!!!!!!! The HARDEST part of bringing home our 10 1/2 year old daughter 2 years ago, was that she could not entertain herself. I hadn't even dreamed that this could be an issue with a 10 1/2 year old girl. The thought never even crossed my mind. And "finding something to do" is a HUGE thing for me. A bigger issue than for most moms, I would guess. I was an only and had hours to fill on my own, and although my kids are certainly not onlies, I do expect for them to be able to entertain themselves, or play quietly with a sibling.

This touches on your "rest time" post, too. We have 3 young adult children, 1 out of college and working in a far away from us state, and 2 other children in colleges also out of state and then we have our 5 from China. When we brought #1 home from China as as a baby/ toddler I KNEW that even when she had "outgrown" her naps that we would have a rest time policy for MY sanity. She will be 7 at the end of this month and actually SLEEPS 2 hours every day. Still. They all don't sleep, of course, but everyone is in rest/nap time in their room for 2 hours each afternoon, and I think this has been HUGE in helping our now 12 1/2 year old learn how to occupy herself. The ONLY time she will play on her own (without a sibling) or even go into her room during the day is during rest time.

Anyway, I think it's GREAT that you posted on this topic as it is a BIG issue for sure, and one that others probably are not aware of. So, thank you for your post! And I am glad to know I'm not the only one for whom this has been an issue.
Gerri said…
Good post and truly something i haven't seen talked about either. When we brought our 2 1/2 y.o. home, she knew how to play pretty well...but she wouldn't because of what you mentioned about her having to figure out the family and house rules, etc. The first 3 weeks before she had enough language to UNDERSTAND, she would stay in the exact spot we put her for hours...afraid to move too far or too much. Then she eventually got to where she would move around in that room but never go into different rooms on her own. After a couple of months, she would wander a bit more freely about the house, but during "down-time" when the rest of the family was just hanging out or watching a movie together or something, she didn't know what to do with herself. It wasn't until she had been home almost a year that she could just "BE". She could play like crazy with her siblings, but couldn't figure out how to hang out. It was a grand day the first time we saw her lounge on the couch beside her brothers while watching a video!
So its definitely an issue even for toddlers in adoption... to one degree or another.
These kids lives are turned upside down and inside out and it just takes some time for them to get their bearings...more time than we imagined!

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