Catching up

This post is probably not what you are anticipating. Usually when I write about catching up, it usually has to do with exciting topics such as laundry or cleaning or organizing. As scintillating as those things might be, I'm afraid that is not what I'm going to discuss this time around. Instead, I'm going to discuss the idea of catching up in regard to children, academics, and adoption.

I've now seen quite a few times genuinely concerned comments from parents about whether or not their child will ever be caught up. Another variation is to ask exactly how long one can expect a child to take to get caught up. While I don't want to discount the parental concern behind these questions, they [the questions, not the people asking] always make me squirm a bit. Consequently, I am always employing my rarely used filter to not write some helpful comment, such as, "Who cares?" (The 'who cares?' question, just to be sure I'm not misunderstood is directed at the concept of catching up; it is certainly not directed at the child or the parent.)

But what's the point of having a blog if I can't remove the filter and genuinely ask what it matters... and what it means... for a child, often older and internationally adopted, to be caught up?

Let's look at the idea behind being caught up before we turn our attention to the adoption angle. You all do realize, don't you, that the idea of what any child should be able to do at any given time is pretty darn arbitrary, right? It used to be that what was considered normal for a kindergartener would now be considered behind. It's not because children are somehow smarter,either. The other thing to remember is that the supposed norms by which nearly all school children are measured, are based upon a "normal" child who doesn't exist. Children are jagged. People are jagged. Each of us is a unique person, with unique skills, gifts, and challenges. None of us is normal in that none of us meets exactly the criteria of that imaginary normal person.

And here is a complete aside. When you do come close to normal, it is so unusual as to be commented on. In seminary, in order to graduate, I had to take the Minnesota Multiphase Personality Inventory or MMPI. It was a very odd test to take, and pretty much its purpose is to discover if the person taking it has any psychopathologies. I was happy to hear... and I'm sure you will be too... that I do not have any psychopathologies. In fact, I was pretty darn close to normal. I was so close to normal on so many of the indexes, that the person reviewing my test made astounded comments about it. So, there you have it. If you want to know what normal looks like, it looks like me. And pretty much all the good it has done me is to have an interesting anecdote to share at cocktail parties. Because I go to so many of those.

Where were we?

Oh, yes, arbitrary standards for assessing children.

We all know that most children don't fit the arbitrary standard for what they should be doing when. That's how we end up with struggling learners. They were not ready to learn what was presented at the pace it was presented, and so they struggle. Soon that struggle becomes ingrained. Or we end up with gifted students, the type every parent wants. But I'm not so sure things are any better for them, because I can't believe its healthy to never have to learn to struggle with something in order to learn it. There is hard work in learning, but it helps no one to have to struggle too hard or to not struggle at all. The point is, and there is a point in here somewhere, children really are all over the board in their readiness to learn and their ability to learn. The idea that we can say what any age group should be doing is a myth.

I think this is why it irks me so much when parents of newly adopted older children fixate so much on whether or not their new child meets this external, arbitrary standard. Many of these children have missed out on a lot. There is a lot of information and experiences and skills and health which need to be put in place first. I do not believe that these are really optional if you want to provide a child with the best framework for moving forward in their new life.

What does it really matter if a child is not ready to go to college at 18? What does it really matter if it takes a child several years to learn to read? What does it really matter if they live at home with you until their mid-20's so they can develop the skills they need at a pace that makes sense for them? Our society has gotten so hung up on the idea that childhood ends at 18 and a parent's time is up. It's not as though brains freeze up and cannot learn past 18. It's not as though some magic window has closed and no more information can be poured in. It's truly not the end of the world.

Parents who chose to adopt an older child, bring them home, help them as that child switches cultures, languages, and living situations, have already chosen a different path from most of the society around them. Embrace your different choices, and allow your child to learn at their pace, in their own time. You do not need to fall for the imaginary standardized track of normalized education.

Eventually everyone grows up. They find their way. How many of you, those of you who are past the age of 30, really think much about whether the person you are talking to learned to read late or not. Do you even know? Probably not. Or do you know if they took an extra year for high school? or college? or went to college? You might if they are a close friend, or if they told you, but I have found that most adults don't spend a lot of time rehashing their educational experiences out of the blue. Instead, they are living their lives, just like anybody else. (Do I really need to add that I am speaking of children who do not have serious cognitive issues? I am more than enough aware that adulthood for these individuals will look very, very different.)

Worrying about whether or not your child is catching up or will catch up or how fast they will catch up is crazy-making. Kind of like that last sentence. It becomes an end in itself instead of really looking at what gains the child is making and what missing pieces need to be filled in. Personally, I would rather delay reading and focus on vocabulary and pronunciation for a good long while, even if it means on the face of it, my child is behind. But what that also means is that I have not sacrificed a solid foundation for a quick jump in skills that may fall apart when words get more difficult. This is one small example, but it gives you a sense of what I'm talking about.

There is not finish line. Life is not a race. There are no awards for getting there... where ever there is... first. You are not a bad or negligent parent if your child is a late reader. You are not a bad or negligent parent if it takes your child a bit longer to learn things. Conversely, and this may be harder to swallow, you are not a gifted parent if your child learns things quickly and easily. Children cannot be behind or ahead, they can only be where they currently are. Start there. Move at their speed.


Donna said…
Amen, amen and amen!The focus on catching up is a subtle way of saying my child is not "right" or "good enough." There are plenty of outside voices that will say those things, so as parents we really need to guard that we are not adding to it. We all want our children to suceed, but we all also need to reframe sucess in life terms, not the academic and social norms of what is an increasingly broken society.
Anonymous said…
I think you wrote that so beautifully!....As an older lady, (71) I always struggled in school academically and socially. As I got older and married and then our first child had "something wrong", we watched him struggle to accomplish school work, fit in socially, as parents we didn't know what was "wrong" with him...His senior yr of high school, I transferred him to a better
high school with an amazing special ed dept....Then we learned he was considered "high functioning developmentally delayed"...
Like you , looking back, so what if these children take a bit longer to mature!...One time I read some ed psych book that said, some children aren't ready to start school til they are 8 yrs old.
As parents who have adopted from other countries, I urge you to have patience and tolerance for all the child has lost and all the new they have to relearn....this doesn't just happen overnight according to America's idea of how children should be pushed into schooling at earlier and earlier ages.
I just love your writing and your wisdom...
Best to you all,
mary m age 71
vancouver, wa.
Aaron said…
I so agree with this. My 20 year old, adopted at age 14, will not be done officially homeschooling for another two years. Since he basically had no education prior to being adopted, we are giving him back those years to learn and grow at his own pace. He loves learning about history and excels at learning languages. He is getting an A in Spanish at our homeschool co-op. At the same time it has taken a lot of work to get him up to about a third grade math level because of his intellectual disability. Reading is one of his favorite past times which has opened up the whole world to him. He has the rest of his life to continue learning.
Sam said…
No one can disagree ;)
Cindy said…
I love this post. It is comforting in so many ways. How do you get an 11 year old (home 8 months) to believe this? She constantly compares herself to others. I tell her several times a day that she faces so many challenges as a result of the language change. She is also legally blind, but with a few tools is able to do most things anyone else can. She's bright, and is learning fast, but she constantly talks about wanting to catch up the the grade she was in China. I am always assuring her I'm very happy with her progress. I remind her of all the things she's learned since coming here. I make her laugh when I try to speak Mandarin to her, just to show her how far she has come. I just want her to be satisfied with herself!
I think part of the concern for parents asking about catching up is the underlying fear that maybe there are serious cognitive issues at play.

I remember being frustrated that my newly adopted child had no concept of colors. I started wondering if she ever learned her colors in Mandarin as I drilled over and over, "This one is blue, this one is red..." The fear that maybe there was something seriously wrong crept in.

Yesterday, that child brought home her report card (she's in a small Christian school this year), and she's got a 4.0. All As. I wish I'd had the confidence back in the early months to rest in the knowledge that she'd eventually get to where she is. But I think until we've seen it, it's hard to believe it will happen.

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