By R. Dubucs

"THE ADOPTED CHILD AT PLAY"It has been said that play is the work of a child.  A child can learn about nurturing by playing with a doll, about gravity by playing with a ball, and about social skills by playing with a friend.  Play is so significant that pediatricians use it to measure a child’s development (e.g., a youngster who can build a tower with blocks and perform certain other play functions before a certain age is deemed developmentally advanced).  Thus, it can come as a shock to adoptive parents if, as often happens, their newly adopted child lags far behind his peers in sports and other play activities.  The parents may begin to fear that he is of poor intellect or even mentally handicapped.  However, there generally are more benign explanations for the apparent developmental delay, as illustrated by the story of Tam.  (All names were changed in this article to preserve privacy).

More than twenty years ago a French family, consisting of two parents, a teenager, and a three-year-old boy, adopted Tam, a twelve-year-old Vietnamese boy who had experienced considerable hardship.  The parents assumed he would be a companion to the teenager and would be enchanted with all his new, age-appropriate toys.  Instead, Tam preferred to play with the three-year-old and the latter’s toys.  For a while he exhibited no interest in his peers or in his own toys.  The family began to fear that he was mentally retarded.

However, over time Tam grew bored with his younger sibling’s toys and friends.  He wanted to play with the toys of a five-year-old, then of a somewhat older child, and then of a somewhat older child.  He eventually worked his way up to the toys of his age level, passing through each stage much faster than would the average child.  Tam also became interested in playing with children of his age.  Ultimately, it was determined that the boy, far from being retarded, had an above-average IQ.

The parents have their own explanations for what happened.  In their view, Tam, who had had few toys as a child, had to work his way through the different stages of playthings before he could be comfortable with age-appropriate toys.  As for Tam’s initial preference for the companionship of three-year-olds, they spoke French closer to his beginner’s level than did his older sibling and were at his level of unsophistication about French life.

It is quite common for newly adopted children who are older, come from a foreign country, or arrive from an institutional or foster-care setting to exhibit developmental delays in sports or other play activities.  Often the explanation is lack of opportunity, not lack of capability, as illustrated by the story of Jack.

The boy, who was born in Latin America, was the product of foster and institutional care.  By the time of his adoption as a one-year-old, he had spent considerable time penned up in a crib, from which he had made repeated, unsuccessful efforts to escape.

When Jack came to the United States, he appeared to be behind his peers in some respects.  For example, during his first few trips to a playground, he seemed to know nothing about the swings and slides and to be timid of them.  (Given the likelihood he had never seen a playground before, this is not surprising.)  The child also appeared to know little about some age-appropriate toys.  Handed a push toy, he did not know how to use it, even after some demonstrations.  Instead, he ran merrily around in circles with the toy sometimes upright, sometimes upside down, sometimes in front of him, and sometimes behind him.

However, by the age of three Jack had caught up with his peers and surpassed most of them.  To find him in a playground, you had to look for a boy at the top of the jungle gym or a boy on the swing yelling, “Higher!  Higher!”  He is a star athlete in his play school.  In addition, according to the school director, Jack is very intelligent and, in one area, a genius.

It turns out that Jack was a natural athlete and smart all along.  He simply had been cooped up too much in a crib and lacked exposure to the American playthings on which his developmental level was being tested.  Given the opportunity, he, like many other adopted children, seized it.

A foreign-born child may appear to be hopeless at a sport like baseball.  However, this should not be construed as meaning that he is unathletic and behind his peers.  It may turn out that he excels in a favored sport of his native land, as illustrated by the story of Angela.

The girl, who was adopted at age eleven from a Brazilian orphanage, seemed backward by American standards in various respects.  However, promptly after arriving in the United States, she became the star of her American soccer league.  In her native Brazil, where the playing level is higher, she had not been considered remarkable.  Angela’s unathletic father, who could not have expected to produce such a child biologically, is surprised and delighted by his daughter’s athletic stardom.

Often newly adopted older children, particularly those adopted internationally, are teased by their American peers because they cannot play a particular sport, such as tennis, or cannot ride a bicycle.  Once again, the explanation for the apparent backwardness tends to be lack of opportunity (and lack of a loving home), not lack of capability.  To learn how to play tennis requires a tennis court and racket, to which the foreign-born child is unlikely to have had access.  To learn how to ride a bike requires a bike, which he probably did not have.

It may be comforting to reflect on what would happen if the positions of the foreign-born child being teased and the American-born child doing the teasing were reversed, so that the latter was carried off by a new family to a foreign land.  It is likely that in many cultures the transplanted American would be viewed as backward, because of his lack of knowledge of community expectations and community games.  Indeed, I know of cases where a child of immigrants was brought up to meet American standards and was then considered backward by relatives in the immigrants’ native land.

In any event, from what I have observed and read, there is plenty of good news for adoptive parents of many seemingly backward children.  First and best, many, like Tam, do catch up with their peers, and many even surpass their peers.

Second, the adopted child who is introduced to a sport or plaything later than other children is likely to learn how to play the sport or use the plaything faster than normal for a beginner (because of being older and physically and mentally more advanced than the typical beginner).  Tam is one of many examples of this phenomenon.

Third, the adoptee is likely to arrive with some talents he might not have developed had he been born to his new family.  For example, Jack, who had to “make do” with regard to toys before he came to the United States, has been described by a play-school teacher as being able to play creatively with anything.  Not having been brought up with rigid notions of what is or is not a toy, he became an innovative child.  Similarly, Angela, the eleven-year-old from Brazil, would probably not have been a star soccer player had she been born in the United States.

Fourth, there is especially good news for the many adoptive parents who regret having missed the pre-adoption portion of their child’s youth.  Often the parents get to observe and participate in developmental stages they thought they had missed entirely.  For example, Tam’s parents saw him develop in effect from a three-year-old to a teenager in a compressed period.

Finally, there is a special joy reserved for the adoptive parents of many seemingly backward children.  This mixture of pride and satisfaction comes from taking someone who, by American standards, was developmentally backward, giving him love and opportunities, and then watching that once backward child shine!

So laugh and play, adopted youngsters everywhere.  For all of the many developmental gains you have already made, we are already proud of you.


R Dubucs is an attorney, an author on adoption and other subjects, and an adoptive mother.  Her work has appeared in books, magazines, newspapers, and newsletters (e.g., WE Magazine for Women, Washington Post, A Day in the Life of Public Service Lawyers, Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, Women Magazine, WNC Woman, Hudson Herald, Free Lance-Star, Ours, Adoption Today, Adoptive Families, International Concerns For Children Newsletter, and Living).