Sunday, 29 June 2014

Common Sense in Child Welfare (Personal Observations)

Remember this?
Obviously common sense is culturally encoded, not actually common. One of the most interesting things for me about living in different cultures is observing the differences in "common" sense, the things that are so taken for granted that no one thinks to explain them. When it comes to parenting, "common" sense varies so wildly even within the same culture that it's hard to draw comparisons, but in the case of the officially patrolled boundaries of parenting (for example, at what age children can legally be left home alone, whether or not "spanking" is considered abuse) we can more easily draw some very general comparisons. Slightly less reliably, the advice and concerns social workers express can be another indication. I want to talk about some things that have surprised me about the way our social workers and other support people have approached our adoption experience. I'm not criticizing any of these differences, even if I sound a little cynical; in some cases I prefer the Japanese approach and in some cases I have been left scratching my head, but I am very grateful for all of the support we have received.

Co-Sleeping and Family Baths

When we were matched with an eight year old, one of my first thoughts was sadness that co-sleeping would probably not be an option. In Australia (AKA AusOMGPEDOPHILEStralia) having an eight year old sleeping in the same bed as foster parents would be unthinkable. Yet, contrary to my assumptions, we were expected to co-sleep. As it turned out, co-sleeping really really wasn't for us. After a sleepless few months we gradually transitioned first from sleeping in the same room but different beds to then sleeping in separate rooms. This really bothers the social workers and gets brought up every single time we have a visit, and was even included in the report submitted to the courts for the adoption application. They have ascribed it to "cultural difference" despite me saying that I have no cultural objection, I just really don't enjoy getting kicked in the face and feel that I am a better parent after sleeping than I am when sleep-deprived. Almost a year in, when speaking to a psychologist about self-harming issues yesterday I was told "it's probably because you make him sleep alone". Although not sleeping together seemed to be the most upsetting, they were also quite displeased that we don't take baths together. We somewhat redeemed ourselves by making periodic trips to onsen together, but it still gets brought up from time to time. It's funny that our failure to do two things Australian social workers would absolutely black list us for doing (and possibly have us arrested for) earns such displeasure.


There is a huge emphasis on eating. For the first three months pretty much all anyone asked Tiger was "do you like your mama's cooking?" When I expressed concerns about some violent incidents and talk of suicide I was asked "is he eating? If so, there's nothing to worry about." The courts asked me to provide example menus. The bento I made for his school picnics were described in detail by the teachers to the social workers and feature in our documentation. The psychiatrist asks every month about his appetite but never about his drawings, what he has been saying, how his relationships with friends are or any of the other questions I was expecting.
I got good marks though ;)

Self-Harm and Suicide

I have tried not to violate Tiger's privacy on this blog, so I wont go into any details, but to me for a child to self harm or talk about suicide should always raise red flags, and especially if the child is already "high risk" in other ways. Yet, these issues have never been addressed in depth or treated with the seriousness I expected they would deserve.

Violence and Discipline

 No one, from social workers to psychologists to the court, has ever asked us if we use physical discipline (we don't). It's very common and not illegal here, so it may not really be surprising that no one has asked, but given that everyone is aware that he is a challenging child I was expecting some kind of advice on or scrutiny of how we handle discipline. On one occasion Tiger told his teacher that I had given him a blood nose. She mentioned it in passing and excepted my explanation* without making a big deal of it... which was a relief for me but also quite troubling objectively. If he were being abused and had opened up to a teacher he probably wouldn't have bothered mentioning it again after that response. Likewise, despite having been on the receiving end of violence from Tiger, in one case I was actually meeting with a social worker with this bite mark on my arm:

 I wasn't offered any advice or support for keeping myself safe.

*It's actually quite funny, Tiger probably has a brilliant career as a lawyer ahead of him... We were arguing about something or other (whether gumboots were necessary on a rainy day, I think) and he got a blood nose. He is prone to them and gets them quite often. At the time he told me it was my fault and I asked how on earth that was the case when I was standing at the other end of the hall. "You're so annoying my blood-pressure increased and that caused the nose-bleed" he replied.

Professional Advice 

The professional advice we have been given from social workers, psychologist and psychiatrist has all been stuff that we took for granted all parents would do. Things like "tell him he is precious" and "tell him how you expect him to behave instead of assuming he knows" or "he may be afraid of abandonment". It is sometimes hard to look sufficiently impressed by these gems of wisdom.


Bullying, on the other hand, has been taking enormously seriously. I made the mistake of using the word casually when asking Ms Smiles to intercede in a very minor incident last year and within a couple of hours two teachers and the vice principal were investigating and interviewing. I actually felt bad for the "bully", it had really been a very minor thing. A few weeks ago a boy who occasionally bullies Tiger told the other kids they weren't allowed to play with him. I think it only lasted a day or two and although I kept asking about it Tiger said they had made up and everyone was friends again. I experienced that kind of clique exclusion even within the tiny circle of other home-schooled kids I knew as a child, and it hadn't lasted long so I didn't pursue it further but I did mention it to the psychologist. She physically flinched and immediately started talking notes, saying that something like that she had to inform the school about and discuss with the teacher. Her reaction reflected the emotional gravity of that kind of bullying for kids, rather than dismissing it as "sticks and stones" or "kids will be kids". 
Share this article :


  1. First of all let me praise you for adopting a child out of infancy. I know you did not do it for the praise, but you deserve it anyway. I have an infant and a four year old, both our 'birth children', and they are enough work and trial and I did not get them with any harm or influence caused from outside. I teach upper elementary and I know what challenges challenging kids can be his age. You're one of the angels no matter how modest you are.

    You are describing cultural differences, as you say. One of them, you must know, is that little in Japanese formal or informal education encourages problem-solving and heuristic thinking. An example among many from the post: the paragraph about eating shows how the 'experts' revert to rote questions and platitudes even when manifestly insufficient to address the situation. I cannot imagine reconciling the body-paranoia of Anglo culture (Canadian in my case) with the affection-paranoia of Japanese with social-workers and the like looking over my shoulder: I'm Anglo and she's Japanese, so we have a fair idea what to say or show to whom. You do too, but people are watching you more closely.

    Keep up the good fight.

    1. An anecdote you may choose to make use of. My coworker was adopted, albeit as an infant. As children one of her siblings was teasing her at the dinner table about it in a not particularly cruel way, and yet... Her father just about leaped across the table at the 'birth child' and said, "We may have had you, but we CHOSE her."

    2. Thank you. In terms of mental health issues, it really does feel very "paint by numbers". I met with a psychiatrist on Friday about a specific issue and as soon as I walked int eh door he said "behavior X is caused by poor relations with peers at school" >.< I think that it may be to do with our rural location though (I have heard of very good services in the big cities).

  2. Dear Sophelia - is there any way you can access some early (although it's not that early!) intervention strategies elsewhere than in the social services context?
    Can you go outside the Japanese framework to some of the expat organizations and see what's out there? Is there anything available online - through facetime or skype?

    I'm worried: the suicidal talk and self-harming, and the violence need to be addressed asap. I'm not just worried for Tiger, but for you.

    It's certainly not Tiger's fault, but it is his reality and you guys need tangible help, not well-meant platitudes - but I'm really just saying what you know already. Tiger also needs to find out that things happened to get him to feel that way, but that it's unacceptable not to learn different ways of reacting.

    I know there's an (English speaking) adoption group called Adoptive Families of Tokyo (AFT) that meets regularly somewhere in that city - maybe a contact could tell you what adoptive parents are doing in similar situations, and/or where they're getting help. The Canadian Embassy was closed in 2012, but the American or Australian Embassies might have some ideas.

    I have a friend who adopted two young sisters from the Congo, and are dealing with PTSD in the daughter who saw a lot of the brutality against her family (the reason she ended up in the orphanage, her whole family was annihilated, and all the females were raped) - this child will be on memory blocking meds forever. Tiger has other issues, but just as real, and you need to find help. I'm not saying meds, but I'm not saying no meds either. Is moving back to Australia an option? I don't know what's out there in Australia.

    Sorry, just trying to think out possibilities. You have your work cut out for you! And I know you love Tiger to bits.

    1. I'm sorry for worrying you (although, thank you for worrying!), I should have said at the end of the post really but we're doing OK. Although some of the social workers didn't take those issues seriously we did, and we pushed relentlessly until we were able to access further services. There is still a lot of support we would like to have for him that isn't available (OT/PT for example), but the progress he has made in just under a year is really incredible. One of the hardest things, actually, is seeing how much he has improved just from having a family, even without any of the "extras" we would have liked him to have, and then thinking about all of the other kids who aren't getting a chance to have that. Just the other day he mentioned one of his friends from the orphanage and asked why we couldn't adopt him too. Tiger is happy to be here, but he worries about the friends he left behind.

  3. The differences you mentioned are so interesting! Some of those would put me on the "black list" back in my country, too lol
    Even though my kid is "my own blood" I can't imagine taking baths together when he is be 8! Probably not even 5 ^^;
    I wonder why the co-sleeping/taking a bath together are so important to them...
    BTW, soon after I gave birth we had a social worker coming in (our ward's policy) to make sure that we are normal people and she also gave me those "tips" (I guess just in case).

    1. Yeah, if one of my parents had suggested hopping in the bath with me when I was 8 I would have been less than impressed! But, in my family we hugged and were kissed goodnight and I sat on my parents knees while they read stories and so on... we had a lot of physical contact all the time. In Japan the very little kids get lots of cuddles but once they start school it seems to stop (in public at least). I always kiss and hug Tiger goodbye before he goes to school and very often other kids stop to look and say いいな or 優しいお母さんだね。 I think maybe the co-sleeping and bathing are perhaps the most common forms of "skinmanship", so the social workers worry that without those, perhaps the child is not getting any physical affection at all?

    2. When they say things like 優しいお母さんだね, are they being sincere?

  4. Kids don’t get a lot of family time once they hit school age. Co-sleeping is one of the ways families spend time together here. Same with bath time. In my experience few families are able to actually eat together due to all the crazy schedules. However, the food that is served is still of importance. And I always felt like the media really pushes the importance of showing maternal affection through food (even if my PTA mom friends don’t seem to give a rip).

    At any rate, I wish you luck. I really hope that you are able to get the resources you need. My child is neither adopted nor a Japanese national, but she is the “difficult” child in the classroom. The Japanese approach to managing her behavior has only ramped up the problems. It finally took me hauling out teacher resources from my home country and walking the teachers through it. Japan may have different common sense about how to best deal with these sorts of issues. And while I try to be respectful of the system that’s already in place, in some cases I’d rather go with an approach that actually produces results.

  5. "The other day he mentioned one of his friends from the orphanage and asked why we couldn't adopt him too. Tiger is happy to be here, but he worries about the friends he left behind."

    Good god, tear my heart out of my body and stomp on it some more! I'm not even thought of as emotional, but for heaven's sake I have a limit.

    The poor boy already has 'survivor's guilt', which he hasn't deserved: but that's the nature of survivor's guilt. There's a lesson for all of us, but more harsh for him, that life really isn't fair. I don't mean that in the smug way of someone sitting on the top of a heap, or the resentful way of someone at the bottom: it's just an observable fact that a world with vast wealth and children dying of want is objectively unfair. It should be fair, but that discussion becomes political, which I can start, but this is supposed to be about Tiger.

    We all come to realize life isn't fair, and how we deal with it comes to define a lot of who we are. Most of us do not have to deal with it as soon as your son. He certainly knows it isn't fair, so I don't think there is anything wrong with you giving voice to it, and emphasizing that none of it is the fault of children, but of adults. He knows it's a flawed world. Nobody can hide that from him, but we can insist none of it is a child's fault. He's your to cherish, raise and protect, just as mine are, and who comes to which family is random: "'Deserve's got nothing to do with it."


Because of all the spam lately, comments on old posts will now be moderated. This means it may be some time before your comment appears. You can always email me directly, check the contact page for details.