Monday, September 24, 2012

Ages and Stages

When we opened our orphanage nearly five years ago, there was one parenting challenge we didn't anticipate--the ability to tell exactly how old some of our children are.

Our policy was (and is) to only take in babies and toddlers under 2 years old. This was partly so that we would be able to help the most vulnerable of children, but also so that we would have a good chance to get the orphans we help off to the best start possible.

We were a bit naive to not realize that people might not always be completely honest with us about the children they brought to us for help. We had one family bring us their two year old daughter and say she was an orphan, but that's a story for another day.

When grandparents, cousins or aunts and uncles brought children to us, most of the time we had to take their word about the children's histories. Let me explain:

Babies here in rural Zambia are often born at home with the care of a traditional birth assistant. I've seen the paperwork on such a birth. It was a tiny 'receipt' about 2" square with the date and names of mom and baby. Not a whole lot of details. Even if a child is born at a government clinic the paperwork is pretty skimpy, and almost no one has an official birth certificate.

What all children should have is an Under-5 card which is basically a glorified immunization history card. However, if a child loses his or her parents, maintaining this card may not be the first priority of their relatives. Many of our children came without their Under-5 card and we then have to create one for them using the relatives' information to fill in the gaps.

Filling in the blanks is not always easy since birthdays are not high priority here so we couldn't always count on families to know the exact date. We do our best to question the relatives, but they simply don't really know. Even narrowing down the year can be tricky. Because of this, many of our children have approximated birth dates on their paperwork. I try to use the 15th as a marker for myself to remember that that particular child has an 'assigned' birth date.

Elias is one such child. He was brought to us in June of 2008 by his grandmother. We had been open just over half a year and he was our seventh child.We were told that he was 21 months old. With no reason to doubt his grandmother's word, we accepted the date she gave us: September 22, 2006.

He settled in perfectly to life at the orphanage and has, for the most part, been a pretty good kid.

Then, early last year he began to lose his baby teeth. By the beginning of this year, he had lost both his upper, middle teeth. I started to question his grandmother's account of when he had been born since, according to his teeth, he seemed closer to eight rather than 5 and a half.

I wasn't sure if he was just an early bloomer or what.

This summer, volunteers began to point out that his emotional development seemed to be older than the other kids as well. I saw an example of this just the other day:
Elias and Chola were setting the table in the dining room as I finished up dinner prep. I heard Elias call across the room to Chola to say, "Hey, Chola! Would you like to ring the bell today? I've rung it lots of times already". He was clearly giving up a task he enjoyed, because he knew someone else might really enjoy it too. I felt this went beyond 5 year old emotional development.

And now, I've been looking at pictures of him, and I can see how his face has really matured in the last few months. We even visited a dentist and she agreed with us that he is at least seven, but probably eight.

Now comes the dilemma. Do we sit him down and let him know he's suddenly jumped two years ahead and rather than just having turned six, he is now eight and the oldest kid? It seems to me this could be really confusing for a child still trying to tackle basic numbers.

I'm leaning toward just continuing to take each child where they are, and not worry about the number on their records, but rather meeting their individual needs--whatever they may be--and encouraging them to make forward progress.

What would you do?

I'm blogging along with other parents today at Fried Okra.

Exactly Two Years Ago: Walk Like a Man 


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