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Someone to Watch Over Me

A Russian toddler flourishes despite a babyhood in an orphanage abroad.by Janis Cooke Newman



My best friend, Meg, is afraid she’s letting her six-month-old son spend too much time in the Johnny Jump-up. “I feel so guilty,” she tells me. “We should be playing with the Gymini, developing his gross motor skills.”

I know what she means. The other day, I watched several Babar cartoons with my two-year-old son, Alex, trying to see if I could justify it as a tool for language acquisition.

Like most parents, I’ve become an expert on child development. I know that playing peekaboo establishes object permanence, that the Legos all over my kitchen floor will help Alex develop his fine motor skills, and that the squeaking rubber ducky that’s starting to grow mold shouldn’t be thrown out, because it teaches cause and effect. I have read that the first three years are the most important time in a child’s life for learning, so I try to give Alex as much educational stimulation as I can, before he turns three and it’s too late.

The downside to having all this expertise is that I’m terrified I’m not doing enough. I think that if I let Alex watch the cartoon elephant in the green suit instead of the real elephants in the National Geographic special, I’m sentencing him to a lifetime of summer school.

This is when I make myself go back and remember how Alex spent the first half of those all-important three years.

For the first 15 months of his life, Alex lived in an orphanage in Moscow, an old building with mint-green walls and a smell of boiled cabbage. He and 12 other children his age spent their days in a large playpen surrounded by a painted pink-and-white railing. Four women took turns caring for the children, never more than two at a time for all 12. Most often it was Nadia, a woman who dressed in a white lab coat, a babushka, and men’s tube socks with sandals.

There was no Sesame Street, no Mister Rogers, no Barney — only a small plastic radio that was left on all day, tuned to a station that alternated between disco music and loud Russian talking. The toys Alex played with had not been chosen for their educational value. Some had been bought by the orphanage, some had been left by other Americans who had come to pick up the children they were adopting. The nicer toys were kept out of reach on a shelf, and during the two weeks my husband, Ken, and I spent visiting the orphanage, waiting for Alex’s papers to be signed, I never saw them taken down.

Although all the children in Alex’s group were well over a year old, none of them had learned to walk. During that first week, I began to take Alex out of the big playpen and put on a pair of canvas shoes from a communal pile over the footed terrycloth jumpsuit all the children wore. Back and forth, along the long wall where 12 cribs were lined up in a row, I’d walk Alex while Ken videotaped. The day he walked the short distance between the cribs and the railing of the playpen by himself was the first time we saw him smile.

Once or twice a week, Nadia would climb into the big playpen with a large stuffed dog. She’d hold the dog up and point to its ears, its nose, its eyes, saying the word for each, while the children gathered around, mostly just to touch her arm, her leg. Then she’d sing a Russian song with a lot of clapping and the lesson would be over.

At 15 months, Alex didn’t talk. None of the children did. They didn’t try out sounds or babble, and when they played
together in the big playpen, they were silent. Watching them was like watching television with the sound off. The only time I heard any noise was when Nadia took one of them out to be fed. Then, the rest would crowd around the pink-and-white railing and cry to be next.

At the orphanage, Ken and I talked to Alex constantly. Sometimes we’d sing to him, old songs from musicals by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. One day, Nadia let us take him outside, to the weeds and patches of dirt and old swing set where the older children played. We sat by a small carved wooden playhouse that looked as if it belonged in a Russian fairy tale, and Ken sang “Someone to Watch Over Me,” our wedding song. When he stopped, he heard a soft, high voice in his ear. Alex was singing along.

After we brought Alex home, I opened my books on early childhood development and read about infants’ playing with rattles that developed coordination, newborns’ being given teddy bears that stimulated their sense of touch, and parents who spoke French to their babies while they were still in the womb. I was afraid that Alex’s time in the orphanage would mean he’d have to go through life with one hand tied behind his back.

Today, Alex is almost three. His fine motor skills are so well developed he can open a childproof lock faster than I can. Not only does he run and jump and climb with no problem, he can also do a pretty impressive flip over the headboard of our bed. And his language skills are so strong he can ask a theoretical question in the future tense, such as, “When you get bigger, Mommy, will you have a penis?”

I find this question very comforting. It makes me remember that children are incredibly resilient and that Alex will not have lifelong learning problems if I sometimes let him play with a Power Ranger instead of his Phonics Desk.

So I remind Meg that Alex did not hear one word of English until he was 15 months old, and that he can still carry on a five-minute conversation about dog poo.

And then I go into the living room and hold Alex, and while I’m at it, I pick up the wooden puzzle of farm animals so we can work on his spatial relationships.


Janis Cooke Newman is the author of The Russian Word for Snow: A True Story of Adoption, St. Martin’s Press, paperback edition 2001. She lives with her family in California.

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