Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dribs and Drabs of This and That

This summer is taking on a different flavor than in years past, it is mellower, less frantic, lazier. Purposely cutting out many activities and limiting ourselves has helped a lot, although at moments it feels a little odd. We are relaxing more, and I think homeschooling and not feeling the pressure to cram everything into the three months we have free has helped. We aren't "losing" the kids to school at the end of August, so we feel less of a need to take advantage of every spare moment. It is actually very nice, and we all are enjoying hanging out at home more, mixing a little learning with a lot of playing and a handful of cleaning.

Yesterday we spent the day in bedrooms, mucking them out, and it is amazing to me the sheer magnitude of JUNK a single child can accumulate, let alone FIVE who are all still at the stage that every McDonald's toy must be saved. Yea, you'd think we'd be past that at these ages but...uh...not so much. I also discovered something new about our daughters....Olesya and I ROCK at cleaning and Angela is the biggest pack rat ever known to mankind. Seriously, every envelope, empty box, completed word search....everything has to be saved. Olesya is unexpectedly totally like me in this department...if you haven't used it, chuck it. I am NOT a collector of fine junk, Dominick is, Grandma Alice is, and now Angela is. Olesya, my dear daughter, will help keep my life sane and provide me with strong support as I keep our life as clutter free as possible.

The boys? Well...let's just leave that one alone, shall we??? :-) I can count at least 9 socks we found in toy boxes, a box full of dirt because it was "pretty" which I made Josh get rid of, and HALLOWEEN candy still sitting in a box under Matt's bed. Taped airplane pictures to his wall along with millions of dollars of Kenny's fake money he made and we had a two day process of cleaning it all up, but it looks great now. And maybe I can walk in their room without stepping on Legos embedded in the carpet, at least for a day or two.

We went to Angela's softball game yesterday, an hour away, and have one more left tomorrow night before the season ends. I don't know who has had more fun, the other kids all running around like wild Indians while she is on the field, or Angela herself. It has been fun, but I am glad that even that one extra activity is over. Maybe come September I'll be ready to gear back up and face the world, but right now we seem to be sort of holing up and enjoying being with each other doing simple things.

I am realizing that we are morphing into a different sort of family, and I kind of like it. I was growing ever more resentful of the time spent "doing" and running from one place to another instead of being together, and homeschooling is presenting new opportunities to fit activities into our day without having to be apart from one another so often or on the run all night long every night of the week. While we will still be involved in some things, we will be far more particular in the future. There are a million wonderful things out there for kids to do, but multiply it by 5 kids and that means even one activity a piece and you are never, ever home. We don't want the remainder of their childhoods flying by with us all seeing one another only in the car!!

The girls are terribly excited about the 4th of July, for some reason, and we are going to make shirts for all the kids and be in a parade! Dominick was asked if he would enter the parade with his detailing truck and shoot water at everyone to cool them off, so we are going to have the kids give away candy as they walk down the street and everyone is waaaaayyyy excited about that. Then we have our annual church celebration with an evening picnic and watching the fireworks to attend. I hope the weather cooperates and we have a great day since the girls are so excited for their first 4th.

We are also doing some last minute planning to have a booth selling snacks and things at our local Sweet Corn Festival in August. Don't laugh, I know it sounds "corny" (pardon the pun), but the event draws 20,000 people and we are hoping to raise funds for church camp for next year. All the kids have been wanting to have a "business" and have been playing store for the past couple of weeks, so we thought this might be a good time to tap into that and help start socking money away towards next years camp fees. While we will help, they will be doing most of the planning and work with our guidance.

So we are still busy, it just feels less chaotic. Lots of good photo ops soon though :-)

We also are still continuing our reading efforts, and have made it to the end of the driveway!!! As the chain gets longer it gets harder to handle, and we drag it out to take a photo of our progress and end up doing repair work every time. I am really proud of them all, they are working hard and this has been the single best silly motivator ever. So glad it has worked!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Is Time Right?? When the Adopted Can't Adapt, a Parent's Perspective

I was handed a copy of the latest edition of Time magazine by a good friend of ours today. Contained within was a story about the risks involved in Russian adoptions, and it shares the stories of families whose lives have been challenged greatly by the addition of older Russian adoptees and the emotional baggage and adjustment issues they bring with them.

I found the article to be even handed and informative. It made some very good points, none of which would be a surprise to anyone who has been involved in Russian/Former USSR country adoptions as long as some of us have.

There were some interesting points made which I would like to comment on, and which many pre-adoptive parents may not consider or believe to be true. A quote from the article from Joyce Sterkel, who founded The Ranch for Kids for struggling older adoptees, which I found to be right on the money was this: "The agency's job is to process your legal paperwork, not help you take care of your child when you get home.". I think the vast majority of adoptive parents have a very different expectation level from their adoption agencies, and are quite sadly surprised to discover they literally have nowhere to turn when they arrive home and find they have a disturbed child on their hands. Agencies are just that...agencies...they are your agent for the adoption process. Some agencies are better than others at post-placement follow up. Some simply want to make sure they are paid and that you get your required post-placement reports turned in on time.

However, the fact is that they are not going to hold your hand when you return home (Heck, many of them won't hold your hand before you leave nor will you hear much from them when you travel!). If you adopt internationally, you might be wise to view your agency as simply a "paper pusher" for you, and be well prepared to be extremely proactive and be your own (and your child's) best advocate should you find you need help. While you might be pleasantly surprised to discover strong support when you return home, I think if you surveyed adoptive parents you would find that the vast majority did not find that to be true.

And is that fair? What SHOULD we expect an agency to do? Should your fees cover post-placement services beyond report writing? Frankly, no. Long term therapy of the type that is necessary for healing for these kids is drawn out, costly, and requires vast experience. Agencies are experienced paper pushers, not always experts in post-institutionalized children and their issues.

What can a pre-adoptive parent do to help prepare themselves? Here are a few things:

1) DO NOT BURY YOUR HEAD IN THE SAND. This is NOT a fairy tale. If you are adopting older children, you must not avoid thinking about the fact that your child may be one who is terribly scarred and will need help. Odds are, your older child will have a slew of issues, some worse than others, some more manageable than others. If you deny the possibility you will not be able to get help.

2) Research ahead of time. Find out who in your area is skilled in counseling families with attachment issues, fetal alcohol issues, etc. Search out the specialists for academics who might be of help to you, if there are any adequate ones around. Talk to other local families who have adopted older kids internationally and build a support system so you have someone to run things by if you encounter something odd.

3) Get as much training as you can, read as many books as you can, get in as many online groups as you can. Self-educate, do not count on your agency to do it. Even the good ones can only provide you with the tip of the iceberg. I am not talking about taking mandatory classes and calling it good. I am talking about literally doing thousands of hours of research and reading. This is your life, this is a child's life, you had better be willing to put the time in to educate yourself and not count on anyone else to do it for you, or hand you that knowledge on a silver platter.

It is not your agency's job to take this part seriously, it is YOUR job. There is not a single excuse worth listening to for not doing your homework ahead of time. The amount of information available these days is staggering....blogs galore, books, research, you name it you can find it. You ought to be well versed by the time you travel in all areas of adoption adjustment, not much should come as a surprise for you. If you are well read and prepared, you can identify issues very early on and get help. You can recognize what is "normal" behavior for a post-institutionalized child and what might be off the scale.

4) This one is the hardest. Be prepared to walk away if your gut tells you to do it. Be prepared to ignore feelings of sympathy or pity. Give yourself permission before you ever find yourself in the situation to say "no" to adopting a particular child, even if it means walking away empty handed. Do NOT play head games with yourself, be as thoroughly honest with yourself as you can be.

I remember after visiting Josh on Day 2 and being 100% certain he was going to struggle with Reactive Attachment Disorder. It was so obvious, even if others say that was too soon...I was obviously right. I knew it, I had done the research, and every possible sign was present even as I watched him with caretakers. Dominick and I talked about it honestly that night, not pretending it would all be OK but asking ourselves if we should proceed and if felt this child was ours knowing what would likely be down the road. Our decision to move forward with the adoption was not based on pity, it was not in an attempt to fool ourselves. It was a conscious decision to take on a child whom we knew would be a real handful for a long time to come. It was not a gamble, it was a realization that we felt that this was a path we were being called upon to travel and we offered ourselves up to travel it with eyes wide open.

5) Pray, pray, pray. Walk in the Spirit every single moment of your adoption. Without the guidance and wisdom that comes from listening to that still, small voice, I honestly don't know how anyone can do this and end up with the child that is meant to be theirs. No flames please, just my own opinion.

It was only the Spirit that kept us sane this past winter, and it was only the Spirit that has brought us to where we are today under extremely trying circumstances where doubts assailed. Without the Spirit, we would never have had the courage to keep going, to move forward, to trust that love would win.

6) Love is NOT enough. Sounds silly after the last statement, I know, but love is an action...and loving these kids can not be passive and often involves action well beyond what many are motivated to provide. Hugs are not enough, no matter what anyone tells you. There are times when you have to gut it out, when love has nothing to do with it. There are times when love means distancing yourself so you can manage to stay in the game for the long haul, but also being willing to step back in the ring after that respite and not allow yourself to permanently distance yourself. It means loving enough to be hurt over and over again, to lay your own heart open and to ache for the pain your child has gone through...and to hold their hand and go through it with them.

7) You will not get information about your child. Don't expect it so you won't be surprised. 5 children adopted from Kaz and Kyrg and the actual amount of medical or other information we have pertaining to them is less than 5 full pages. Surgeries for which we were never provided information, school records which were never revealed, parental histories which when available were never offered...it is a total leap of faith. If you are uncomfortable, go stand in line for China or Korea where records are meticulous.

The article details specific cases of "re-homing" adopted children, which means placing them with other adoptive families here in the US if the initial placement falls through and the parents decide to go through the dissolution process. Often a child simply can not mesh with a family, for a variety of reasons. It may not be any one's fault, it could be the child carries too much anger or due to personality conflicts can not allow themselves to heal in one family where the dynamics in another provide emotional space and support that feels non-threatening and creates the opportunity for healing to occur.

If your child is close to one year old or older, your child WILL be delayed. Period. Expect it and get over it. The older they are, the more delayed they will be and in more areas. If you are looking for the kind of child you can show off to others and who will immediately get straight A's in school and be bound for Harvard, I suggest you look into surrogacy. That is NOT to say that many older adoptees don't do amazingly well. The truth is, despite the issues we have before us with our children, I wouldn't trade a single one of them for any Harvard bound child. We were not in this to have kids who "make us proud", and interestingly we ended up with children, all of whom make us extremely proud despite the fact that the world would look at them and likely see all that they lack in so many areas. The beautiful hearts in our kids, the ease with which we all live with one another, the love and laughter we share...all of that is worth ten times more than any wonderful academic achievements they might attain that would give us bragging rights. And who knows, we might one day even get those academic achievements too! But if not, who cares?????

The one thing that I personally see as the key to the breakdown of many placements is what I call the "Shame Factor". Parents are reluctant to admit things are as bad as they are, they are slow to get help, they drown in a sea of emotions with their child that neither the child nor the parent are equipped to save them from and they will not reach out for help for fear of looking like a failure. After all, isn't adoption SUPPOSED to be a fairy tale? Isn't it the fulfillment of dreams on both sides? How can anyone openly admit that all is not going well and professional help is needed? For some reason, adoptive parents often forget that they did not create the situation and are only trying to help a child heal. They feel shame that perhaps they don't yet love this longed for child, who is acting in a very unlovable way.

It is for this very reason that I pledged to be honest in our blog, so that other families could see the reality and maybe be helped by it. Our roller coaster ride in Kazakhstan would have given us reason to hide and not blog about it all, but sharing it helped make a point I have always tried to make when discussing adoption...it is not the fairy tale many make it out to be. It is real, it hurts, it is hard...it is also miraculous and wonderful to see the hard work pay off. As you all know, our first several weeks home as well as in Kaz once we got the girls were not exactly easy. Had things not improved at home, we would have gotten help immediately for we know our limitations and we know what we can and can not handle on our own....and we refuse to feel shame for a situation which we did not create. We did not abandon our children, we did not cause them to feel fear of intimacy, we did not create that hollow space in their hearts. We are, however, responsible to do our best to help them become whole again, and that means being honest and fearless in pursuing help and not worrying about how it looks to others.

Dr. Ronald Federici put it best in his quote in the article when he said "You can take the kid out of the orphanage, but taking the orphanage out of the kid takes a systematic process.". A truer statement was never uttered!!! Adoptive parents bring home children expecting them to be like their age mates here. They are not and can not be. Their life experience is radically different, and treating them like "normal" kids from homes here can lead to great disappointment for all involved. Learn what your child's life was like, attempt to understand it and it's limitations to the best of your ability, be realistic about expectations. You are not going to make up for years of institutionalization in 6 weeks or 6 months...or sadly sometimes not even in 6 years. Some deficits may sadly be carried forward into adulthood, some will be overcome with patience and diligence.

For some children adopted from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus or Ukraine nothing will work. For many older adoptees it is too late, the damage is too severe, the clock has run out on the time to heal. It is unfortunate that many prospective families will focus only on those kids, for their stories are truly horrific and the damage they inflict on their unsuspecting families can not be understood unless you have lived within one that has been faced with this unusual circumstance of trying to love those for whom love is foreign.

So should the risks convince parents to look elsewhere? Should all Russian and former Soviet countries be crossed off the list of potential countries to adopt from because of these risks? For some parents, perhaps this is a good idea. Not everyone is prepared to accept such risks or deal with the consequences should the worst case scenario occur.

But it is hard for me to advocate for that when I live amongst a houseful of perfectly normal kids who all come from that background. It is hard when reading about the hundreds of successful placements of older kids who are all thriving with their new families and who now have hope and a real future, all because someone was willing to take a risk on them. It IS terrifying, and many a sleepless night is had by those of us who move ahead and push past the fear to adopt.

Our lives may be a bit more complicated, we may deal with issues others do not, but that doesn't make our family any less happy. The fact is, I think we walk around with a far greater appreciation for what "family" really means than many do, for not a single LaJoy takes it for granted that family is always there for you or that love will always be in your life. We all know that is not always true, and the depth of what we feel for one another is largely due to experiencing life without family first, and realizing first hand what a tremendous difference having one another makes.

Did we dodge a bullet? In the words of our friend who gave me the article, are we lucky not to be in the shoes of other families like the ones in the article? I don't know, and probably never will. I'd like to think our success has been a combination of 100% Spirit guided choices, thousands upon thousands of hours of research, and realistic expectations. Maybe it was dumb luck, maybe it was the odds being with us rather than against us. Maybe one more adoption and we would have found ourselves in a very different situation. All I know is that for our family, adoption worked. It has not been without it's hardships and complications, and we have experienced the gamut of challenging issues but have thankfully somehow escaped unscathed for the most part...but we have dealt with Reactive Attachment Disorder, Sensory Integration Disorder, Auditory Processing Disorder, Racism, Rickets, Trauma, Abuse, Neglect, Night Terrors, English as a Second Language, Academic Delays, Global Delays and somehow have lived to tell the story and still come away loving our children to distraction.

Maybe it is because the labels mean very little to us in the long run.

My heart breaks for the families whose children can not ever heal, whose issues are too overwhelming. I do at moments think "There but for the grace of God go I.". How could we not? The risks are very real, and the end result can be devastating. I am glad though that we took the risk, and I am thankful that our children were able to adapt as some can not. I don't even want to contemplate how much would have been lost if the risk weren't taken or the adaptation did not take place. Lucky, blessed, grateful...you name it and it applies. But one thing I do know is this, you'll never get to be "lucky" if you do not take on the risk. I am sure glad we did, and it was not easy nor jumped into without copious amounts of prayer and consideration.

And I come away from reading this article with a renewed sense of abiding love for these children of ours, not born of our flesh but born in our hearts...imperfect and yet somehow perfectly suited.

They beat the odds and so did we.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hanging on for Dear Life

When you adopt a child who has essentially lost over half their life to institutionalization, you are faced with a dilemma that many parents of pre-teens would never understand.

In this world of over-sexualization of our children, where dating begins at 10 and parents brag about how "cute" it is that girls are phoning their sons every night, we have children clinging desperately to the childhood they never got. Sleeping with teddy bears, carrying around baby dolls at 10 years old, learning to play with Legos for the first time and proudly running out to show us the latest car or airplane they built...thankfully we are not yet struggling with the typical issues faced by parents of "tweens".

But I can not begin to tell you just how heartbreaking it is to have your 12 year old daughter literally beg you to think of her as 10. Angela has become almost vehement in her assertion that she is still "malinky", that she is not grown up. Yesterday I finally talked to her seriously about it all, and for the very first time with any of our kids I had deep regrets for her that we did not become her family sooner, and it is a regret I won't easily let go of.

She is really suffering in a way over this, and I think it is that she is finally happy and surrounded with the love and encouragement she always dreamed of, and sees how old she is and how little time she has left. The subject came up as we talked about the "big" birthdays to celebrate, and turning 13 meant you were a teenager. Oh, how she didn't like that one bit! She kept insisting she was only a little girl still, and 13 was too old. She doesn't want to be 13.

Knowing Kenny is fine with it, we talked about how both she and Kenny may be 12 or almost 12, but that they are behind in school and will be home at least a couple more years than other kids would be to finish high school. She said "Me like Kenny, Kenny malinky and me malinky too...me too tall, me...uh...me no 13, me maybe 10!".

We were in a beautiful location for quiet conversation, as I had taken the kids up to the Grand Mesa to explore and show the girls. We were walking through a forested area near a small lake, the other kids had all run ahead of us on the trail. We talked about the smell of pine trees and how it reminded her of the camp they used to go to over the summer back in Kazakhstan. We stopped and found a rock to perch on and I attempted the impossible, I tried to give her what has already been lost.

I told her the best I could with the language we have that her age was just a number, that Daddy and I don't care at all how old she is...that she will forever be our little girl because that is how it is with parents and their children. I offered to her that if she wanted us to view her as 10, we certainly would, but that her age is not important to us. I reassured her once again that she never had to ever leave our home, that she could remain with us for as long as we lived and that being in a family meant never being alone anymore. She asked about college and if she had to go away for school, and I explained to her that there were many ways for her to get a college degree, and that included staying home and doing it on the computer if she wanted or attending a nearby college an hour away. But I also reminded her that she had many years before worrying about that, and the important thing she needed to always know was that this home was permanent, that these people were forever and that love would always be there for her.

"Me stay home I 50 years old?" she asked.

"Forever" I replied "Even if you are 70 years old! But someday you might get married and have a family of your own."

"Me too little, Mama, me no married long long time. Me no boys!" she said.

"Someday, you are a beautiful girl and lots of boys will want to take you out." I said.

Blushing..."Thank you Mama, but me no boys right now, maybe me 18 or 25 years old boys, no boys now."

"Whew! I am so glad to hear that!" I threw out with a chuckle.

"Mama...me your baby like Matthew and Joshua? Same thing?" she asked, staring off at the lake, not daring to look at me.

I sit there for a moment wishing I knew exactly what I could offer to help her soul feel more at peace. I hear the voices of the other kids as they horse around in the distance, and I put my arm around her shoulder as I too look out at the lake, and I do the only thing I can think of....

I sing to her from our favorite book, softly the words come "I love you forever, I like you for always, as long as I'm living my baby you'll be..." and it trails off as she lays her head on my shoulder.

"Thank you, Mama."

I say nothing for a few moments, then draw her even closer as I whisper "You have always been my baby, Angela, no matter how big you are. In my heart you are my little girl."

We sat there like that for a bit, leaning into one another, both of us lost as we thought of all we had been cruelly denied by governments and red tape. We live in the here and now, and are so grateful for it, and yet there is all that we can never get back that occasionally creeps in and makes us yearn for the missing years.

Yet I know I would not be the mother I am if it happened any sooner, and the mother I am seems to be the mother she needs.

She is caught, our oldest daughter, in a very tricky place. Where her younger sister can easily slip back into childhood with nary a glance from others, Angela is on the brink of adolescence yet never got her fill of the innocence of childhood. She can not change that she is unable to be very interested in many of the things we long abandon in our "tween" years, and yet she desperately wishes she were young enough to take that step backwards and live in that moment. Hormones and maturity are fighting against her heart and desire, and it creates an unavoidable inner conflict which I wish I could snap my fingers and resolve for her.

So she will hang on for dear life to the thought that she is our baby, beloved and accepted for whoever she may need to be on any given day. And I'll be there to rock her to sleep, if necessary, and to remind her that she will always be Mommy's baby.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Free-Range Parenting

I was turned on to a web site recently about Free-Range Parenting: http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/ . Maybe some of you remember the big broohaha when Lenore Skenazy wrote a column for the New York Sun in which she admitted letting her 9 year old son ride the subway alone. Oh, the flack she got!

Little did she knew that this article would lead to a new trend in American parenting culture..."free-range parenting". Essentially, it is a recognition of societal fear mongering which has caused all of us to become somewhat insane in our parenting. We are, as she has coined, "Helicopter Parents" who hover and try to "fix" everything. We want to spare our children any exposure to any injury...real or imagined...and we want to control their every move. We fear their kidnapping by a stranger at every turn. We over-parent, we don't allow our children freedom to explore and learn on their own.

And in many ways, we have totally ruined childhood.

We blame much of the way childhood has changed on the advent of video games and other technology. But what about the fact that we won't allow our kids to play at a park, ride their bikes or hang out at the pool for fear of "Stranger Danger"? Kids don't know how to play a pick up game of baseball anymore because an adult is not there to run it and tell them what to do! We refuse to allow our kids to learn any lessons the hard way so they grow up into functioning adults...then complain when they are 17 that they can't seem to do this simplest tasks on their own.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately as I ponder how to teach some of our kids logic, which is a component missing in many ways from some of their thinking due to no fault of their own and the utter lack of parenting. This whole subject also seems to be one that has stuck in my craw for a long time and I see how I have gently tried to buck the tide and parent more in the ways I was parented as a kid rather than as kids are parented today. I admit I don't always succeed in ways I wish I had, and I wouldn't exactly label our kids "Free Rangers" but long before this movement began I was incredulous at some of what I saw...and I bear the criticism sometimes for it.

I have been chastised for letting our 3 sons "shop" in the toy aisle at Target all alone. I am in the store, they are together, and they are not 3 or 4 years old...they are 11, 10 and 7 for goodness sake! Statistics I found from 2009 show that .2% of child abuductions were stranger abductions. That is less than 1% of all abductions being strangers...not non-custodial parents or the like. And for THAT statistic I am going to keep my kids chained to my side at all times? The problem, as I see it, is that our 24/7 media takes every abduction story and the sad stories we all have heard about are replayed thousands of times, unrelenting in their pounding. We naturally internalize this fear and react to it.

Now...do I recklessly abandon my kids in public places to fend for themselves? No, of course not and I do ask that they go to the bathroom in pairs, but I feel that is reasonable precaution.

I wish we lived on a road that was safer for the kids to take off and ride bikes, but off our cul de sac is a busy country road where vehicles drive usually at around 60 MPH despite the posted speed limit of 45 MPH. With no sidewalk, that is not safe. But I do let them ride their bikes up our little road to the mailbox unattended about which I also have been questioned a time or two.

I find it ridiculous that for an hour soccer practice every parent freaks out if their kid doesn't have a water bottle attached to them. Yea, sue me. It is ONE HOUR, for goodness sake! We are not talking Southern Arizona and 110 degrees here during soccer season! And if my kid forgets their water bottle for practice sometime, I'll bet you next time they'll remember it. I also don't think it is necessary for my child to take a water bottle to school so they can have water sitting at their desk. Isn't that what drinking fountains are for? Is there REALLY a risk of my child becoming dehydrated inside...sitting at their desk...with a fountain 6 steps away?

We took a lot of flack the first year that Matthew went to church camp because he was only 8 years old. One of my closest friends at the time had a son his age and said "I just couldn't imagine taking him to camp and leaving him for a whole week all by himself.". What? A supervised, well run camp with screened and experienced staff with your son 24/7 is "all by himself"? Matt was ready to go and let loose of us a little, so why not allow it? But in her eyes, it made me a horrible parent. This year with Josh is a little different, and because of his background we were on the fence with it, but if he had insisted in going you bet we would have let him...even if he is only 7.

Our kids climb trees, even if other adults immediately tell them to get down as happened yesterday at softball practice while Josh was up in a tree maybe 6 feet off the ground. Our kids walk barefoot sometimes...yes, horror of horrors they do. Our kids ride bikes around the campground without an adult. Our kids stay up until sometimes midnight during the summer...oh my gosh! We are ruining them by breaking a schedule! Our kids use knives and we insist they cut their own meat, except Josh who is not yet coordinated enough to do it. They get their own breakfast often...because they can pour milk and cereal into a bowl as easily as I can. Our kids have the TV turned off and are told to go outside and play, and not come back in for at least 30 or 40 minutes. Our kids are allowed to light candles with adults present, our kids have learned how to start a fire. Our kids use a stove, they climb on rocks, they even...oh my goodness...throw them once in awile.

All of this might sound normal to many of you. Sadly, in today's world for many kids it is not, and we are seen as poor parents for allowing our kids opportunities to grow up and try things, gain skills, etc. For Pete's sake, a hundred years ago kids that were our kids ages were farming and ranching, and often were only a couple of years away from getting married and running their own households! We have stretched out childhood so long that even in their mid-twenties most kids today are not capable of functioning all alone in the world. Kids go to college and have never done a load of laundry in their life, have never cooked a meal, have never even been alone for a weekend!!!

Some of this is sort of Free-Range parenting and much of it is Love and Logic parenting. I guess we are a combo of both. I don't "save" our kids from learning lessons the hard way. I actually had to talk to myself just yesterday when Olesya wanted to take a pocket knife and try to whittle a piece of wood. My instinct was to say "no", my logic said "OK" so I instructed her to watch the direction she was cutting and keep her hands away from the blade and then let her go to town with it. She had fun, came away from it uninjured, and if she had hurt herself she would have learned a valuable lesson while getting stitches. Sound harsh? It is not intended to be, but kids are being denied the opportunity to encounter real learning experiences by parents trying to keep them safe from all possible harm.

Kenny has gone to school many times without a jacket when it has been pretty darned cold, and eventually figured out he needed a jacket. Angela wore a long sleeve shirt in Denver this weekend and we had told her "It's going to be hot, you might want to think about a short sleeve shirt!" but she wanted the long sleeved one, then grinned sweatily as she admitted the next day that she should have listened. They are all learning to get their library books in the stack to be returned or pay the fine themselves, because it is not mom's job to keep track of books for 5 kids. They have learned about what makes a good friend and what does not by learning some tough lessons with encounters with others who disappoint. They also have learned, even the girls already, that when Mom and Dad DO put our foot down, no means no.

I'd like to think that one of the reasons we have so few battles with the kids and enjoy a great deal of respect from them is that we are reasonable in our requests, and DO let them learn from their own mistakes. We respect THEM and their intellect, and their ability to experience things and grow from those experiences. We are not placing harnesses on them day and night, so they don't strain against the harness on the ocassions when it is deemed necessary to place it on. Don't want to wear a jacket and it is 50 degrees out? Sure...you'll figure that one out yourself. Didn't get your assignment done? Darn, sorry you'll miss out on the fun activity but your smart enough to make sure that doesn't happen the next time. Fell down after we mentioned that activity might not be wise? Well....you live and learn just like we all sometimes have to do. Forgot your water bottle and are dying of thirst? Glad you'll remember next time so this doesn't happen again!

I know our methods of parenting won't work for every parent or every kid, but it has worked for our family and I am so glad as they are growing old enough to see the results. And maybe...just maybe...when they go off to college they will know how to woprk the washing machine and will have been left alone a few times so they can handle it!!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Aha Moments

***WARNING: Long, boring post which most of you will find pointless, but someone out there somewhere may be as desperate as we have been and I want to share what we have just discovered. Sorry if this is not of interest to you!*******

After our 24 hour blitz run to Denver to check out the homeschool conference and curriculum fair, we are home, settled and enjoying a restful afternoon as Dominick snores on the couch next to me. He is taking full advantage of Father's Day to rest after what was a whirlwind end of the week for him, including a late night working at pressure washing a store front for it's grand re-opening, and working a street fair to try and drum up business. All of that followed with a 5 hour to Denver and our running while there was enough to knock him out cold this afternoon!

But what can I say about our trip?

Hmmm...how about it may have been the single wisest use of 24 hours ever!!

I was going looking for some specific things, including wanting to investigate various writing curriculums for Matthew, and hoping to explore the Critical Thinking Company's products which we are sorely in need of around here to help develop Kenny, Angela and Olesya's reasoning and logic which was never encouraged. We found some terrific items for all the kids, including some challenging things for Matthew as well so needless to say I spent a bit more there than I should have but didn't experience any buyers remorse after walking away.

But one key reason I wanted to go was to speak with one educational specialist in particular, Dianne Craft http://www.diannecraft.org/ who has extensive experience working with learning disabled kids and guiding parents to find successful remediation at home. Dominick and I were standing at her booth when we were asked if we were planning to go hear her lecture which was in 5 minutes. So off I ran while Dominick kept the kids occupied.

40 minutes into the hour long presentation, I got up and walked out...I didn't need to hear another word to know this woman was speaking about Kenny...and Olesya...and surprise, surprise, Matthew as well.

Can I tell you what a relief it was to FINALLY hear someone speaking about the challenges our kids face and not look at us blankly when we describe what we are encountering with them?? As she was speaking, she could have simply inserted the words "Kenny LaJoy" as she was describing him to a "T", even down to stating "These are kids who, no matter how much you work at it, can't recall the months of year in order or remember all of them." and talking about how they misunderstand verbal directions most of the time, sub-vocalize when they read and seemingly are unable NOT to read without doing so, forgets words over and over again that he has just sounded out...even in the next sentence, and can not "hold on" to information that appears to be fairly simple and straight forward.

It is a matter of getting the left brain and right brain working together so information can transfer easily from one side to the other. This begins to develop in infancy when children start to crawl, and are using alternating left/right patterns which develops the brain's ability to function properly. Sound silly to you? Crawling can effect reading??? Come on...!!

That is until you ask any other parent of an infant adopted from Central Asia and learn that their children were NOT allowed to be on the ground, and you were reprimanded sharply by caregivers if you allowed your child to crawl while there on visitation.

It also makes total sense when we see how uncoordinated Kenny is in so many ways, so "bull in a China closet" like and unaware of place and location. It is one of the reasons he does not care for sports with balls, he gets hit all the time because that part of his brain doesn't track well and then is not able to move his body appropriately. It is why it took Angela and Olesya 1 day to learn how to ride a bike, but it took Kenny a year and a half and he STILL doesn't have the solid feel on it that the girls do, even after a year and a half of riding.

Interestingly, as Dianne was talking about another area aside from the causes of auditory processing signs, I easily saw Matthew in her description of visual/motor processing issues. Matthew struggles to line things up on paper, even when taking great care with his work. His math problems are all over the page and I am constantly asking him to be neater and take his time. He keeps insisting he IS doing his best, and often if I ask him to rewrite it, it just gets worse. He has very poor spacing in his sentences, and we are always bugging him to lift his head up instead of having his nose almost touching his pencil and being face down in his work. This is so bad that we even were worried about serious vision problems a few years back but determined he is seeing fine, and thought it was just a quirk of his. We also have worked and worked with him on copying his math problems, and I feel badly now in telling him he just wasn't payihng attention...he gets problems wrong at least 2 or 3 times an assignment simply because he copied the problem wrong. Not always backwards, but always wrong. When this happens over and over again, you beging to wonder why it is so hard to simply transfer information from one page to another. He also struggles often with spelling words when writing them, but when doing them orally gets them correct which has puzzled me.

I wonder how many other parents of kids adopted internationally have witnessed such things in their kids and thought nothing about it...just as we did with Matthew...because they are performing well in so many ways we just think "Well, they can't be good at everything!". I also wonder how many other parents out there have kids like Kenny and Olesya who are frustated beyond belief knowing SOMETHING is wrong with their children but NO ONE seems to understand what it is.

When one looks at the early deprivation of post-institutionalized children, if one has visited an orphanage from the former Soviet Union (and things have improved in some of them), if one witnessed the early malnutrition first hand, you might be able to better understand the possibility that this impacted these kids enormously in ways we are only now beginning to better understand.

Kenny's academic issues are impossible to ignore, Matthew's are more subtle, and yet as I walk behind him and see his gently misshapen shins and hear him cry in pain after playing soccer I know the possibility exists that there was more damage done by his 11 months spent in the orphanage than just the effects of rickets. When I comb his hair and feel the flat spot on the back of his head, it is a reminder than he was most often left laying flat on his back in a crib staring up at a ceiling, and that he didn't get the constant nurturing, carrying around, and stimulation that a home-grown baby here normally gets.

When I was sitting through the session yesterday, I recalled reading an article years and years ago, long before I ever became a parent, about a mom who had to put her older child through "patterning excercises" to fully develop his brain because he had totally skipped the crawling phase and moved on to walking. Now, will this always result in learning issues or pathways to the brain not being opened up? I am sure not, as there are many ways to stimulate a child as we naturally and easily play with them, run cars across the floor, play with their legs back and forth as we change diapers and make choo choo train noises, etc. But for a child who has NOT had that sort of constant interaction and movement, and then has the opportunity to crawl removed as well, it can be hugely detrimental to brain development. Seeing it in 3 of our kids, all of whom have similarly stimulation deprived backgrounds, well you simply can not discount the obvious.

So what do we do from here? Now that we have likely found a firm diagnosis and cause that fits perfectly, how do we correct these issues? That is the exciting thing, Dianne Craft has a series of daily and weekly developmental excercises to help retrain the brain and rewire what should have been correctly wired in infancy. I have a lot of material to go through, several videos to watch, and an entire large handbook to read through, but there is a game plan which, if done daily for a period of about a year, has proven successful in the vast majority of children who truly have auditory processing disorders. There is also a different way of presenting phonics which is visually based, embedding letters within associative shapes or pictures. When correcting a mistake while reading, instead of saying "No, listen..." and then saying the sound correctly, you quickly find the picture and hold that up as a reminder instead, moving from verbal instructions and reminders to visual, as the auditory does not "stick". With the little bit of work we did last week at home, I can attest to how true that is and what a difference it made to present things more visually.

While standing at the booth making our purchase, a woman standing next to me said "That will be the best money you have ever spent...it works." Man, I sure hope so. With the show discount it was $300 for all the instructional materials and teaching manuals, so if you are interested in it you will not find that it is inexpensive. However, evaluations by educational specialists run well over $650 so it might be a bargain. I was hesitant but Dominick beat me to the booth to get in line, he said "We can't NOT try it! We may just have hit a home run here, and besides, do you have any other ideas where to start with him? We have to get it!". Wouldn't it be incredible if something could actually help Kenny realize his full potential and stop struggling with every day tasks? It would be SO nice to talk to Kenny and know that what I have said is "sticking". It would be enough to bring tears to my eyes to see him reading fluently and easily, to remember how to spell sight words he has worked on for 3 solid years, to simply not have everything be so stinking hard all the time for him. In fact, it would be worth a heck of a lot more than $300 if we could find success with this. Please pray that we have finally found an answer. This poor kid has been through so much and still has such an amazing, bright attitude.

Besides, as he has reminded me more than once..."Mommy, you promised me that by the end of high school I would be able to read and write well. I know you can do it.". I don't want that wide eyed trust to be misplaced, and will do EVERYTHING within my power to keep that promise. This may just be the first step...or mis-step. But we have to start somewhere.

While there, not only did we maybe find a solution for Kenny, but I also had the great pleasure of unexpectedly meeting one of our blog readers and regular commenters, Theresa. She was working at the conference and what a surprise and blessing it was to meet her in person. I realized later that in my excitement of being there and learning so much I totally blew the opportunity to thank her face to face for her prayers and care for our family all this time. There are so many of you out there that I don't have that chance with, and wish I could. I also think we could have yacked for 4 or 5 hours if we had the chance! Hopefully, in a future trip over, we will be able to do so without the distracting backdrop of the conference interfering.

Now we are home, workbooks, curriculum, and a brand new beatiful atlas in hand (Lordy, I am SUCH a book geek! But I found the PERFECT one!!! hahaha!). I suddenly have a lot more on my plate in learning not only about these techniques to work on with the kids, but Matt's writing curriculum is a complicated one requiring a lot of teacher understanding of presentation and the viewing of 6 DVD's along with a manual. Glad I actually like learning new things myself or I would be a coooked goose! But I am hopeful now, I feel like we have some answers and maybe I will actually be able to help my son learn at the level I know he is capable of. He is certainly worth the effort. We will be incorporating some special techniques for Matthew as well and will see how that works, and we might just have everyone work on the excercises together, as it won't hurt anyone and might help in ways I can't yet see.

The work continues, but there is hope that maybe there will be results eventually!

Friday, June 18, 2010

It Worked!~!~!~!~!~!~!~!

We are at the end of our first week of "real" homeschooling, which was still homeschool "lite" because of summer late nights and sleeping in. However, we managed to touch on everything in our curriculum and get copious amounts of reading done. We are alternating science with geography, hitting each one every other day, and yesterday we reviewed what we had done two days prior. We are beginning with the basics...what are continents, oceans, and other smaller bodies of water. I quickly realized we have a little problem when Angela and Olesya both questioned what earth was, and although they had obviously learned a little about our solar system, they had no clue that we live on planet earth...and no, it was not a translation problem. There is a real "connecting the dots" problem with both of them at times. They have been exposed to material and memorized terms, but are clueless what they mean in context. Sooooooo....we begin at the beginning.

I am using a curriculum called "Around the World in 180 Days" as well as a workbook about maps and globes, my own additions, and have created binders for each of the kids called "Cruisin' the Continents". We are going to study the world continent by continent, learning a little about many of the countries on each one, exploring the famous landmarks, and then creating a country sheet where they map it and look up population information, mortality statistics, draw a picture of the flag, etc.

We are starting with Africa and I went to the library and got a couple of beautiful coffee table books with photos which we spent about 20 minutes looking at (And yes, the boys giggled a bit at the bare breasted women! Hahah!). We talked about the animals found there, saw various forms of houses, etc. Angela revealed that she thinks black people are beautiful but she is scared of them...she has never really seen them before and the very first black person she and Olesya ever saw was in the airport in Frankfurt. She and Olesya both loved looking at the photographs of faces.

What fun it is to do this and see the sparks of recognition or to be able to instantly follow the trail of thought and provide information! For example, we looked at Google images of Victoria Falls which totally wowed them all. Joshie commented that it would be cool to jump off the falls and we all talked about how dangerous that would be as we looked at the foot of the falls. I then quickly Googled Mexican Cliff Divers and we looked at pictures of them and discussed it. None of the kids had ever heard of them and were amazed that anyone would have the courage to do that.

What totally, utterly blew me away though, was Kenny. At the beginning of our session yesterday we reviewed what we had talked about the first day...what are the names of the 7 continents and the 4 oceans. Oh. My. Gosh. Kenny was the only one who rattled them all off without hesitation. And after he did, he looked at me with what can only be labeled complete astonishment, and you could almost see him wanting to ask "How in the world did I do that?". The entire room got quiet as we all looked at him, then we erupted in cheers for Kenny and determined he deserved the Special Plate that night. Angela earned the right to the other special plate when she correctly spelled the word "beautiful" in her writing.

Joshua surprised me with their writing this week, producing what...for him at his level...was very good material. Joshua is definitely going to be a writer, he loves, loves, loves it and goes on and on. These days he is showing skill at being a good story teller and it seems he has taken a real leap in terms of skills. Or maybe it is that I have all these older learners who are working at a much lower level and so my ability to compare is a bit skewed.

But then, who needs to compare, right?

The girls are amazing in their abilities. We are now just creeping past 4 months home, and when I think back to the first couple of weeks as I began to work with them,I marvel at all they have soaked up. I also am so glad we are far enough down the road that I am not petrified every morning when I arise, wondering what in the world I can do with them to move them along. Other than math, they are both working at a 1st grade level in spelling and phonics, as well as reading. We finished Kindergarten in about 3 months, and are working steadily through 1st grade material.

Olesya is the one for whom vocabulary is coming easily. She works so hard at communicating, and she is the one who feels free to explore, play and create...and is doing so daily. Yesterday she made a dog out of aluminum foil and kabob skewers! She and Kenny have had long, detailed discussions about the businesses they will have together as she has become fascinated like he is with entrepreneurship. Yea...you know what is coming next...she is already bugging me to set up a lemonade stand and when at the summer "Main in Motion" event in town last night she excitedly chatted about them making a booth and selling something.

Angela is a very methodical and determined student, and is reading like a fiend these days. I got a movie detailing children in pioneer days from the library and she really enjoyed that. She is finding a freedom to begin to explore things she is interested in, and has recently talked about being a nurse. We got a book from the library about nurses and that further intrigued her, so I guess a visit with a friend or two who are nurses is in order. It is the first career she has mentioned outside of being a PE teacher, and suddenly that has been abandoned completely as she sees the possibilities are wide open for her. I expect she might return to that, as it actually would be a great job for her as she loves sports and is wonderful with children (another new discovery), but what I had hoped to accomplish has finally occurred...she is seeing her whole self rather than just a good ball player imposed upon her by orphanage life. She is a talented artist as well, and I am so glad we have access to great classes here in our small town where she can work with those gifts.

Matthew is quietly helping everyone as we cover some material he already knows, and fill in gaps of what he hasn't studied. He never had a full geography course as most kids don't at this grade level, but he has studied so much on his own as he reads about wars that he is familiar with some of the material. However, he is my "go to" guy, and will quickly Google things, and he taught about the equator yesterday as Dominick had long ago explained it to him. He is enjoying being able to learn more about the things he has a basic understanding of, and is discovering that he may know some things but the next layer is new to him. We did a word search of the African countries that I found on edhelper.com, and he learned how to pronounce them and we looked them up on a map. He also learned about African village fortification as we looked at photos and talked about why they structure their villages the way they do.

Joshie is doing a great job and he is easily keeping up with his older siblings. While of course he might not retain all of the material presented at this age, he will come away with a lot more than we might expect. Seeing his little maps labeled next to the neater ones of the older kids, I am reminded that we often don't see the value of younger kids learning from older ones...and the value in older ones teaching the younger ones. Olesya and he worked together yesterday on their continent maps, and she gained a lot of pleasure from knowing enough to be able to help him.

We are blessed to have a wonderful companion for a few hours a week for part of this summer. A young college student we know has offered to come work with our family and is listening to kids read one on one with her, playing games like US States bingo and Sight Word Go Fish with them, and just spending time with them being a good sport getting wet when they are playing on the slip and slide outside. She was valedictorian of her class and is a very bright young lady whom we are privileged to have working with the kids. It has allowed me time to correct workbooks, look things up online, spend one on one time with each of the kids, and get out yesterday for awhile. The planning that goes into all of this and trying to find more interactive or visual tools is very time consuming, but interesting.

With the cancellation of Kenny's surgery it has left our schedule open to attend the homeschool conference in Denver this weekend. While we will not attend any of the seminars, I wanted to check out the curriculum fair with over 200 vendors, so we are all heading over for a brief overnight trip. I am hoping I can get some ideas for how to better engage my visual learners, and looking for some better reference materials, and maybe find some educational games which our kids LOVE to do. Also I am very interested in learning about a company called "College Plus" which steers your students to an at-home college degree utilizing challenge tests and dual credit classes for high school/college. Knowing we have no funds to put towards college for any of the kids, we need to explore all the options for those who might wish to pursue a career that requires a degree. I like the idea of combining high school and college classes, especially since we have learners who are years behind their peers...this might allow them time now to solidify the basics, and still be able to accelerate later on.

Kenny's surgery has been rescheduled for September, which we had hoped could be sooner but half expected would be around then. He is feeling better, still coughing a bit but there wasn't much we could do to avoid the cancellation. So I guess it is Chicago in the early fall for us.

Sorry no photos today, we'll try and do something interesting to post pictures of soon. For now, it is daily life, which isn't exactly all that exciting to anyone (as this post shows! Hahaha!) but is for us.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Turning Points

Yesterday was our first "real" day of homeschooling with 5, trying out our new science curriculum and doing just about everything we would do in a normal day. We are still doing "school lite" for June, but having a few serious days of hard work thrown in with lots of fun in between.

It was also a turning point for me, one I think I desperately needed. I can not begin to tell you all how consumed I have been with fear and doubt as I contemplate teaching all 5 kids. Sure, I know people have done it for centuries and tons of families do it today with many more than we have. But sitting here with the reality of 5 eager learners, each of whom is "special needs" (for aren't we ALL special??? Don't we ALL learn differently???), and knowing I am 100% totally responsible for making sure they are well educated is daunting, to say the least. Throw in the language learning, the catching up we have to do, the desire to meet the growing needs of Matthew in particular, and I have been a mess in many ways.

Yesterday though, it all came together...and I "got it". I internalized something that is more important than test scores or grade levels.

We all did math with 5 different levels including Josh and Olesya's which are lessons that actually have to be taught, then me reading and explaining the text to Kenny and Angela, and quickly checking in with Matthew who is pretty self directed in his work. We worked on spelling in a group with all but Matt, me quickly learning that going back and reviewing first grade spelling words with Kenny is NOT a bad idea as out of about 20 basic 3 and 4 letter words he still missed 5...vowels are troublesome. We did some writing, and then moved on to science as a group.

That is where it happened...the joy of learning together, the ability to stop every single time and explain what needed to be explained, the conversation that took off from it all, watching Matthew think on a deeper level about basic questions and offer thoughtful answers as he also helped teach the others and read part of our text to them and pointed out things in photos we were looking at...it will work, and it will be better.

The clincher came when Kenny told me afterward how much he loved it and said "Mommy, for the first time I understood every single thing in class! And I wasn't embarassed to say I didn't know something. I've never understood everything like today!".

Angela and Olesya both talked about how much fun it was to have everyone home learning together and Angela declared "I LOVE homeschool! School so fun!!" with Joshie grinning by her side.

Isn't that what it is all about? Developing a love of learning, fostering an environment where no question is stupid, where there is no embarassment holding you back from learning?

I was also struck by what a gift it is for our children to be with the people they love most so much of their day. When did we as a society decide that "socialization" included distancing ourselves from our family? Dominick and I have noticed a drastic difference in how our children are interacting with one another...and that is within a family whose children were always close to begin with and felt deprived by being sent off to school! I can't count the number of times through the years when comments were made like "I wish we could all just be home together today." as we drove off to school.

It will not be easy, and the logistical challenges of working with this many on so many differing levels is not to be downplayed. But yesterday, I saw why it was worth the commitment, I saw first hand the spark that lit up in Kenny's eyes as he was able to participate fully, stop and ask "what does that word mean", and didn't hesitate to take a stab at it and be wrong knowing no one would laugh at him. I heard the giggles and delight in conversation as we learned about the life stages of human beings and discussed why babies drool, what the word "infant" really means, and Matthew shares his knowledge with the girls who had never been around babies before. We talked about developing muscle tone as babies learn to suck on a bottle or breast and how that effects speech issues such as Kenny's. We touched on how important it is to love and touch infants, and how it can change who they become if they don't receive that nurturing as with Joshua. Our education was tailored to our kids' specific life experiences, and I could quickly see how THIS kind of learning would help all of our kids, but especially the girls and Kenny, to build foundational knowledge.
I know what they do not know, a classroom teacher does not. A classroom teacher would make assumptions never realizing our daughters had never, ever been around infants before...never seen one teething, never heard their cries, never seen one reach for a rattle and be fascinated with it's sound. Talking about infants yesterday was almost like talking about our girls and in some ways Kenny. There are these wide eyed children set before me, eager to explore, touch and experience all that they have never had the chance to see before.

I am their best teacher, and Kenny's words last year come back to encourage me "Mommy, how come you know what I don't know? How come you explain things when I don't even ask the question?".

Because I am Mom. Why did I EVER think that precluded me from being Teacher?

I can do it.

We can do it.

We are Team LaJoy, and we ROCK!!!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

This Mundane Life of Ours

The above original painting was created for our family by an orphan in Kazakhstan. Staas is a very talented young man, as this obviously shows, and we are currently looking for a place to hang it in our home. He is being mentored by Victoria Charbonneau over at her blog featured on the left side of my blog. The incredible incorporation of symbolism for our family makes this artwork that much more meaningful. Now we just have to find a place to feature it in our home! The kids all loved it and kept finding new things every time they looked at it.

The talent that is hidden without broken spirits of those who are invisible in their own society is heartbreaking. The struggle Staas will have entering adulthood and trying to manage a "real" life without the necessary underpinning of training in a family is beyond our comprehension. I ask for prayers for Staas as he is faced with the challenge of leaving the orphanage and being alone in the world. Thank goodness for people like Victoria who reach out to these kids and do what they can.

I find myself hesitating to blog these days because I feel we have nothing of interest to share with anyone. Settling into daily life which will no longer include the ups and downs of preparing for another adoption is a relief for me, but doesn't make for very interesting reading for any of you. But I remind myself often that this blog is for us, and recording the more mundane is as important as all that came before.

I also have discovered that writing for the blog serves a huge purpose for me, and that is it forces me to try and find the Spirit in the little things, it helps focus my attention on the presence of the Holy in what appears to the outsider to be insignificant. For truly, there is significance in all we do, if we do it with the right heart. And God speaks to us as we go about our daily lives in ways that we often don't take the time to tune in to.

But I know reading a blog about how a kid is doing in school or what books we happen to be reading has to be as entertaining as being forced to sit through a 1 hour slide show of your friend's or in-law's vacation pictures showing pasty white swim suit clad bodies in 25 poses on a sandy beach on some island somewhere.

I guess I say that all to acknowledge that I know we are boring these days, and I am sorry yet thrilled to have much of the drama behind us, at least for now. There is more subtle stuff going on, mainly for me internally, and that too makes for boring reading and will be worked out in time. With that being said, here is a peak of the remainder of our week:

As you can see from the photo above, the kids have taken the Summer 2010 Team LaJoy Book Challenge seriously! We now have our chain stretching halfway down our driveway and it is growing daily. I know I am a total, utter geek to admit this, but this gives me such a thrill! Maybe it is because I know that reading is the root of all learning, maybe it is because I have always found comfort in a good book, maybe it is getting a kick out of seeing all the kids grow. Whatever it is, my heart is warmed by watching them all grab a book before leaving the house for any lengthy car rides. I love being begged to have "just 15 more minutes to read" while in bed.

I have to admit that one of the sweetest things this past couple of weeks is watching Angela come alive with reading. We found the hook without realizing it. On her own she discovered our entire collection of the Little House series and asked if she could watch one. From that first episode, she has been totally hooked and has begged to watch it constantly. She has watched almost the entire first season and has talked and talked about each episode afterward. Over and over she has said to me "I love this Laura...she so funny! Good family, good movies.". This week on our library visit I searched and found a stack of beginning readers based on the higher level Little House books. These beautiful picture books had her squealing with delight when I found them and grabbed every single one of them off the shelf.

That was all it took...she now has read them all, some more than once, and was so happy to learn there were many more at a higher reading level. Now she has a purpose to her reading, and she wanted more books about pioneer times. Prior she was just grabbing a fistful of books off the shelf in the beginning reading section and throwing them in the basket, and with one exception being the Bearenstain Bears she hasn't shown any real interest other than she knows she has to read. Olesya was easy as her love of animals had her searching out books from day one, and she seems to be generally more curious about the world around her as she scopes out the pictures in the Eyewitness book series, etc. We tried the Junie B. Jones series which Angela did enjoy, but we found the dialogue to be too challenging as it was written in the language of a 6 year old with many things that didn't make sense. I think we will hit that eventually again once we have more understanding of the more obscure meanings in daily English language but for now we needed more story and less 6 year old dialogue.

Last night I began reading aloud to Matthew from his new birthday book, the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries. As I read it I realized what a tremendous vocabulary was required to understand it, and I worried it might be too difficult for him. We are not a true "classics" family as many homeschoolers are, maybe because we need to get basic English down first! Hahaha! But I am SO GLAD our friend bought this for him, as it is awesome! I would read a paragraph or two, then stop and explain the new words or have him narrate back to me what he understood the story to be saying...and I'll be darned, he did great with it! There were many new words to him, or words that he vaguely understood what the meaning was but couldn't pinpoint it. But he LOVED the writing, and it is definitely the next level up for him... an appropriate stretch and since I have spent the past 4 months doing nothing but reading "baby" books it is super special to have something he and I can wade into together and share...and it is just ours alone. I love nothing more than reading to and with the kids, and I am glad they all love it as much. My hope has been that as we all grow in skill, read alouds will be a greater part of our life together. I know of the rare family here or there who reads aloud together every night until their kids are in their teens, and I hope we are one of those too as it will provide some special family moments together that we will all surely long remember.

The kids all decided to "Play Store" yesterday, which was spearheaded by Olesya! Maybe Kenny has a fellow entrepreneur in the family, in all honesty I am beginning to see it. Believe it or not, this girl LOVES cleaning cars and is begging to go work with Daddy sometime. She has gone out and cleaned my van out several times, vacuuming it and doing a fine job of it. She and Kenny were having long conversations about being in business together a couple of days ago doing something together. Who knows? We have noticed that both Olesya and Angela are drawing closer to Kenny these days. I think it took them a bit to adjust their expectations of their older or same age brother who really is their little brother in so many ways. As they have grown to know him better and understand where he is at developmentally, they have become even more protective and understanding with him, taking him for the 8-9 year old he really is in most ways.

So Josh and Olesya created a store then everyone else joined in. I was confused by the sign above the bed that read "Toys $200.00 & Pawn" as I knew neither of them knew what a Pawn Shop was. Alas, the English issues (and 2nd grader issues!) came into play and it turns out they were advertising that toys were for sale for $200 OR "8 Pounds"...not "& Pawn"...Hahahaha! That happens so often around our house I fail to document it, we are always laughing at English errors! Currently it is between Angela trying to pronounce one that most newbies to our area struggle with "Uncompaghre" which somehow turns into something like "uncomhungry". For Kenny it is impossible for him to say the word "experience" and he says "experiment" every single time.

Needless to say, my brain works overtime 24/7 trying to interpret. Today is one of those days when I looked at Dominick and said "Honestly, I am brain fried and need a break!".

Matthew selling the remainder of his Easter candy. This is why I never worry about the kids having candy stashed in their rooms after holidays. We have never once had a problem with them eating it all up too fast or sneaking it. They will all come out and ask me "Mom, can I have a little of my Halloween/Easter/Christmas treats?". Don't ask my why, we are polar opposites of health food nuts, they just don't crave it all that much. Josh in particular will turn down sweet treats all the time. I need some of his genes :-)

Love how they each put out a "tip" sign. It turned into more of a lemonade stand and we all drank far too much yesterday!

Unfortunately, we determined this morning that we have to reschedule Kenny's surgery for this week. He has a bit of a cold and is coughing some, sounding a little congested. Shriner's already called a couple weeks ago to make sure he was healthy and had not had anything in the past 30 days. We canceled reservations today and will speak with them Monday to reschedule. We are a bit bummed about it, as Kenny gets mentally ready for surgery and then to have to drop it is a little hard. But all in the right timing, so whatever works is fine with us.

I enjoyed a moment this week when I was officially crowned "Queen LaJoy" by our friend Lael, whose support has been so helpful these last few months. She totally cracks me up and her creativity knows no bounds. So with my Burger King crown on, and my flowered cape, I bid you all adieu for the afternoon...at least I can be a Queen in my own mind! Hahaha!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Years Rushing By

Dominick losing yet another hand of Blackjack to Angela!

It is 1:00 AM, and believe it or not Dominick is at work detailing a car for a wedding tomorrow for one of his long time customers. He will go back to work tomorrow afternoon to detail another car, after fitting in a family fishing derby day earlier that had long been scheduled.

What a blessing to have a husband who is so committed to his family, so willing to work harder than anyone I know to provide for us all. The kids and I went to see him on a job today, and I was deeply touched by how all wanted to jump out and help him, how all offered to go in tonight after celebrating Matthew's birthday so he wouldn't have to be there so late all alone working. I think it is important for our children to understand what puts the bread on the table, how much effort it takes to care for our family...and to learn what it means to be a real man who does whatever it takes to ensure his family has food, clothing and shelter. It will help our sons to understand what we hope they become, and our daughters to know what to look for in a future husband. It may look different for every man, but the commitment, heart and desire is what I hope is learned. whatever field they go into.

Speaking of Matt's birthday, today was a quiet celebration with family and family-like friends. His best buddy is out of town, and we have cautioned the kids that from now on birthdays will be toned down affairs anyway. Fortunately, they all understand and happily accept the more homegrown version without all the hoopla. We had the LaJoy cake, made by his brothers and sisters, and a trick gift of a bike horn wrapped in a box with a can of beans to throw him off track. We are getting him a new bike for his birthday but needed him to go pick it out so we get the right size. No more riding the broken bike of Daddy's or the old small bike he has long since outgrown! He also received his all time favorite Wii game from our friends, a flying game (as if there was any question about that!) and a book of Sherlock Holmes mysteries which will surely become a beloved classic.

11 years old, and yet in many ways always much older than his chronological age. Matthew is where it all began, and he even shares a birthday with his former adoption agency director! Happy Birthday, Nancy!

Matthew honey, you are such a gentle, kind hearted boy. I am so glad we had the special time together at the beginning of this school year when we began homeschooling. I will never forget it, and I think we needed that time alone. You have taught me so much and continue to do so every single day. You are passionate about many things, and your desire to learn more makes my job so very easy. I don't know of another mom of any 10 year old (ooopsss...it is past midnight, you are now officially 11!) who has their son help around the home as much as you do, and cheerfully to boot. You have always been who you are, if that makes sense. Although you are certainly growing and changing, the essence of Matthew has always been solid.

I remember holding your tiny hand in mine while crossing the street when you were a toddler. Even then there was something comforting and sure about your grip. You are self-aware, you are tuned in, you are articulate, you are filled with God's spirit in almost all you do. You have no need to boast, instead choosing quiet, responsible behavior to speak for you. You are not a "star" and do not have the need to be noticed, and yet it is that very quality which causes you to be noticed by those who are drawn to your steady grace.

You were my first child, the only one really whom I got to cradle and rock, gently singing to you as you fell asleep in my arms. As we joked today, I never really had much of a chance at that with Josh as we struggled to bond, and I totally missed it with Kenny and the girls. But you and I, we had that time together, and I am very grateful to have had it with you. It lessened the sting of not having it with all the others, as I could recall what it felt like, and know I had not missed out.

You were my trial run, and I was surprised at what I learned about myself. Never imagining myself to be very "motherly", my relationship with you showed me that I was indeed a nurturing spirit. You have been my co-pilot for many a trek, and a better one I could never have.

You are uncomplicated, accepting, and easy to be with. You are a leader without even realizing you are one.

We have been through so much together, you and I, and this year in particular has upended our lives yet again. Yet there you stand, all smiles in your sturdy body, ready to take on the world. Remember walking out the door of school this year for the last time, both of us trembling inside just a bit as we knew we were taking on a new frontier that was unknown to us? We held hands after we left your best friend who cried after being told of our decision, and you quietly stood there in the doorway holding him in your arms unashamedly, and I couldn't have been prouder of you.

We weathered the storms of emotions overseas together, and your calm and practical wisdom helped in ways you will never understand. So did your warm hugs as I was hurting. But it was your open armed acceptance of two frightened little girls who had badly hurt us all that told me much about your character, and seeing you with them today as you embrace them as part of our family shows me that I have nothing to fear for you in the future, for you have already learned so much about love, and already shown a maturity beyond what most adults would be capable of.

You stood in church and spoke, welcoming our new pastor with confidence, looking all the more grown up in your brown suit as your head barely was visible over the pulpit. Today several months later you would be 2" taller in that same spot, with broader shoulders and a less childlike face...for the man is beginning to appear within the child that still remains.

How I love you, my dear Matthew! Your delight in the simple things, your intensity when focused on a building project, your warmth as you walk with your arm draped over the shoulders of one of your brothers...and your softly whispered "I love you too, Mommy". You melted my heart from the first time I gently picked up your tiny, emaciated body from your crib in isolation, half a world away. And when moments later you nuzzled my neck as if you had always belonged there I knew you were the one I had waited for all those long years, and you were the reason I waited patiently without panic...for God had the most special son of all in mind for us.

Happy Birthday, Matthew. Your childhood is going by too fast! But as much as I hate saying goodbye to the boy you are, I love meeting the man you will be.

And as we always say to one another, in a way that makes sense only to you and I "You are the love of my life!" and you always respond "You are the life of my love!".

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Dino Days!!

Wow, did we have an amazing weekend, all within a 5 hour drive of our house! Although spoiled a bit by Dominick not being able to join us, we took full advantage of our adventure and had a blast. Here we are getting ready for our road trip:

Of COURSE Teddy Bear had to come with us as a competent co-pilot!

We stayed the night in Delta, Utah, which for the uninitiated is officially "The Middle of Nowhere", but was near the UDig Fossil Quarry where we were headed to "dig us up some trilobites".

Despite being in official M.O.N. Land, we felt right at home as we met up with our friends who have done so much to help our family over the past 3 years serving as interpreters for our children, welcomers via Skype, and often researchers as well. I love how God puts people together, and although we had all only been around each other one time previously for a brief visit, it was like Old Home Week, and there wasn't a single moment of discomfort. Instead, it felt more like a family reunion...and that actually best describes it for we are family in some sort of unusual spirit connection sort of way.

The boys, Matthew in particular, were so immediately comfortable and visibly felt drawn towards others who looked and "felt" like them. It was a strong reminder to me that you can take the boy out of Central Asia, but you can never ever take Central Asia out of the boy. Denying our children's heritage fools no one, not even ourselves if we take the time to be honest.
We spent our first afternoon relaxing, swimming, catching up...and trying to come up with solutions to card tricks we were shown. Here the boys are quite puzzled and never did quite figure it out.:

The next day was the Big Dig, and after an hour on a dirt road that was heavily washboarded, we made it in and before we even headed in to the quarry Angela had bent over and discovered our first fossil.

This was really an awesome experience. You are handed a bucket and a hammer, and let loose. The place is loaded with trilobites, which are fossils of small marine arthropods. It was warm, but we definitely went at the right time of year because it was not unbearably hot. We traipsed around with goggles and gloves and here or there plopped down at what we thought was a "hot spot" and dug in for awhile. We spent 23 hours and we found buckets full of complete and partial fossils!! You are allowed to bring home whatever you find, so we left with a car full and a nice variety of trilobites.

Here's the crew, hard at work!

Kenny found something worth examining!!

The boys had a total blast, as did the girls...what kid wouldn't want to explore a quarry where there is actually a treasure to be found?

Here's just one example of what we found...we found full, complete ones broken out, impressions only, something that looked like a small jelly fish (which I hope made it in the car to come back!), and little snail-like ones. You can tell from my language that I am definitely not a future paleontologist :-) But I still had a lot of fun!

Olesya discovered a full impression!

We piled them all in the car and everyone agreed they had fun but were exhausted and ready to leave. We headed on to Lehi, Utah where we rested and visited a dinosaur museum the next day. First though, it was jacuzzi time!

The museum was great and helped "connect the dots" for all the kids, but especially the girls who seemed to have little knowledge of dinosaurs. Angela was most impressed with the full scale skeletons, while Olesya and the boys all preferred the area where they had a huge water and sand area where they could study the effects of erosion and crate landforms. We saw a very cool 3D movie and on our drive home Kenny talked about it a lot, reminding me that visual imagery is the way to keep information in his head. He and Josh both really got a lot out of it, and Kenny said he hadn't been all that interested in dinosaurs until seeing the movie, and know he wants to learn more.

The kids all got to play in another area where they were at a pretend "dig" and could work on unearthing dinosaur bones. All of them enjoyed that a lot!

I literally laughed out loud when I saw this photo, as we have always joked about the Central Asian squat and here are all three of them doing it, and it hurts my old knees to even see it!

We had lunch at a nearby place where outside there was what turned out to be the most entertaining attraction of all, and it was free! There was a water contraption of some sort that had pipes and pumps and handles, and kids could make water come out different spouts. They all had the best time trying to get each other wet, running and giggling all around. I tried and tried to get a good picture of Matthew as he was more delighted than any of them, and his expressions reminded me of when he was a toddler. But he was moving so fast it was hard to get one in focus!
The girls are trying to avoid getting wet, and yet can't really resist the fun!

Josh, Kenny and Matthew were totally soaked and lovin' it!

The girls laughed like crazy over this thing!

We returned home today, tired and happy, having had a real adventure that all of us will remember for a long time to come. We almost had a meltdown with Joshie when we left our friends, but he hung in there and did fine after we left. We will spend time over this next week looking at all we found, learning more about it all, and writing about our trip.

But the best part probably came from the moments in between...the times not necessarily recordable as "educational hours" for the state, but were for us more important. The girls getting to speak Russian again one last time while totally fluent before it starts really being lost...as is already happening. The pondering as a finger was rubbed over an ancient fossil. The quiet conversation as educational perspectives in the Soviet Union were discussed. The impressions taken away from being around another immigrant who struggled to assimilate into American culture and did so successfully. And the quiet whispers in bed as, in order, Joshua, Angela and Olesya each shared a bed with me and we talked softly about our day and nothing in particular but realized the personal "bubble" is long gone, and being near one another feels ever so sweet.

As always though, in trying to provide the kids with a"learning experience" it is I who comes away having been taught a lesson. In the car on the drive over, Angela was watching a movie featuring Queen Latifah. She laughed and then ripped her headphones out of her ears and turned to me excitedly. She said "Mama! She so beautiful...so funny...so strong! She like YOU Mama!! Like You!!". Now, I know some of you might not consider it a compliment to be compared to Queen Latifah, in fact many might take it as an insult.

I couldn't have grinned wider.

Me...strong, beautiful, funny. And that is how my daughter sees me. As she went back to watching the DVD, chuckling at all the funny parts, I recalled the fears I had in parenting girls and all the things I assumed I wasn't, instead of seeing what I might be for them. I am not pretty enough, I am not "girlie" enough, I am not good enough. A tape playing in my head which is not unfamiliar to most of us, I am guessing.

God knew though. In the eyes of my children, I am beautiful because I love them unconditionally. I am strong because I am not a pushover and I never give up, and they know that strength means I also will never give up on them. I am funny because...well...I am a goofball, but sometimes that works too :-) I am what they need, and I wish I could always remember that time worn phrase that God doesn't call the equipped, but instead equips the called. The Spirit gives what we need, we don't have to force it if we are indeed following the right path. We also do not need to see how it will all work out, we just need to trust that we will be given what is necessary, as will our children or others we love. We do not need to micromanage or fret, but we DO need to say "yes" when asked for the Spirit to walk in and inhabit the situation.

Sometimes getting to the "yes" can be excruciatingly difficult and painful, can't it?

In the meantime, you can just call me "Queen" for short...Angela said so :-) Hahahaha!