Graduation Day

This morning I had to dress Theo up in his kindergarten finest, including dress shirt, plaid shorts, and little green neck tie, because today is the day of his graduation from nensho, or the first of three years of kindergarten. I have no idea what sort of festivities they have planned for this graduation, since parents are not invited, but I am sure that Theo will fail to behave himself and drag some of the more distractible children down with him.

Graduation garb
In January, the kindergarten held a group birthday "party" for the 20 or so children who had birthdays in that month. The birthday boys and girls got the special privilege of sitting, unmoving, in little wooden chairs on a stage, with all of the other kindergarten children watching while their parents one by one passed a microphone around and spoke a birthday message to them.  This took at least 30 minutes and by ten minutes in, Theo was slouching, adjusting his clothing, fiddling with his chair, mumbling to himself, and in one embarrassing and horrifying moment his shoe somehow came flying off of his foot and landed a good ten feet away amongst the children in the audience. The principal and I were doing our best to glower him into stillness, but to no avail. The funny thing was, Theo seemed to be the only child who was unable to sit still. I would chalk it up to his age and gender, but there were other little boys who turned four that month sitting on the stage as well. Since then I have been searching for the near magical parenting secret that Japanese mothers possess which allows them to raise children who can sit still, staring off into space patiently for 30 minutes straight even though they are bored out of their skulls.

Theo and his bus stop friends
I think that the past 4 1/2 months have been extremely difficult for him. It is always hard to understand what is going on in the mind of a three and four year old, but until very recently it took every ounce of pleading, wheedling, bribing, and force that I had to get him out of bed in the morning, fed, dressed, and on to that school bus. When I asked him why he didn't want to go to kindergarten his usual response was that he couldn't understand anyone and they always told him "dame!" (stop or bad). Starting halfway through the year, he was the only child who had no idea what was expected of him during each activity and lesson which, knowing my child, makes him bored and disruptive. He also could barely speak a word of Japanese when he first started, which would make anyone confused and disinterested. This was all made a shade worse by the ever returning cold/cough that he seemed to catch every two weeks. He normally has a good immune system, but I think a combination of stress and never before encountered Japanese virus strains made it impossible to go for more than one healthy week at a time.

He seems to have caught on to the peace sign thing pretty
His kindergarten teacher and principal expected a steep learning curve and were amazingly understanding and kind to him as he struggled through those first miserable months. However, I have received a few phone calls from the school though their English teacher regarding his behaviour, some of which I agree with, and some which I am surprised by and ultimately ignore.

Early on, I recieved a phone call saying that he was not allowed to personalize his school things (which are identical to everyone else's in every other way) by putting stickers on them. That evening as I peeled the stickers off of Theo's water bottle which he lovingly stuck on only a few days before I tried think of reasons to tell him why I was doing it. Conformity, homogeneity, and suppression of individualism all came to mind, what I actually told him was that the other children might feel bad when they saw how pretty his stickers were and they didn't have any. He later rationalized it in his own way by saying that his teacher hates stickers.

Photo of Theo and his class as before they harvested the
sweet potatoes they grew
Another interesting phone call was about how Theo likes to sit on a toilet when he pees and absolutely refuses to use the little urinals that are in their bathrooms. They told me he is the only boy who sits and wanted me to speak with him about it and persuade him to stand like the rest of the boys. I asked him if he wanted to pee standing up sometimes and he said that he didn't like doing it that way. Unbeknownst to the yochien, I have never brought the subject up with him again. Who cares if he sits or stands when he pees? He obviously doesn't and if he begins to care a few years from now he will change.

Theo and his class dressed up in their animal costumes for
the Christmas play
 Another point of contention came up about mid-January. He has an insanely vivid and active imagination and when left to his own devices he is able to entertain himself quite easily by pretending he is an astronaut, robot wizard, swordfish, or whatever catches his interest that day. Since he did not understand much of what was going on most of the time, he was left to his own devices a lot. The teachers were concerned about this pretend play and thought that he was using it as an escape mechanism to avoid the real world. Apparently, his classmates were even getting confused because when they addressed him as "Shio-kun" he would say, "No, I'm not Shio, I'm a caterpillar", or whatever he was that day. The phone call finally came after an explosive situation where the teacher told him that he was Shio-kun and nothing else. He yelled at her and ran out of the class crying saying that he hated kindergarten and wanted to go home. He demanded to talk to the principal about his feelings. Thankfully, she speaks a bit of English and was able to calm him down and let him know that what he did was not ok. I had a long and uncomfortable phone call with the English teacher that evening trying to explain that I would speak with Theo about how he reacted to his teacher and let him know that his behaviour was wrong, but that I didn't actually see anything abnormal with his imaginary play.

Theo and friends taking a breather
I actually encourage that kind of creative play at home and don't think it is wrong for a four year old to not be grounded utterly and completely in the real world. Don't get me wrong, I also find it annoying when he gets so caught up in pretending to dig up a pirate treasure that he gets distracted from dressing or feeding himself, but I also think it is good for his brain development and that he will ultimately grow out of it. Unfortunately, I don't really know enough Japanese children to determine whether Theo's hyper-imaginative behaviour is uncommon here. Even by western standards he is, as my brother-in-law put it nicely,  "out to lunch most of the time", but I see it as part of his personality and a trait that should be fostered and encouraged, not repressed.

Theo and his wolf pack
Since this frustrating call from the school, I have been working on channeling some of his imagination away from pretending and acting into drawing and painting. Whenever he gets particularly involved in pretend play of some sort, I whip out the sketch pads, markers, and paint and get him to draw me all of the things he is imagining in his head. It has been really effective in quieting the noise and seems to help him distinguish between himself and what he is pretending. I am not sure how it is going for him at school but I haven't gotten any more phone calls so I will assume it is improving.

Ready to hop on the bus
Now as the final semester of the school year is drawing to a close, I realize that Theo finally made the adjustment that we knew would be so difficult. After 4 1/2 months I have gotten the report from his principal that he understands just about everything that is said to him in Japanese and can speak in simple sentences. In the past month everything has clicked for him and he his happily climbing aboard the bus every day without a fight. He has finally topped that steep learning curve and comes home with more Japanese and reports of all the fun things he did with his friends that day. It is hard to watch your child go though something really stressful, scary, and exhausting, so I am very happy to say that the end of this school year brings a really hopeful and positive feel for the next year.

P.S. Sorry if these photos are super creepy! I don't know many of his classmates parents and couldn't ask permission to use their children's images so they became googly-eyed, kawaii head kids!


audible said...

I’m glad to hear that it finally clicked. Six months is a good rule of thumb for little kids in an immersion situation. I’m glad things went a little faster for Theo.

I too find myself wondering about magical Japanese parenting skills. There is certainly a different approach to instilling desired behaviors in children. However, from the hours my neighbors keep, I highly suspect it is sleep deprivation that keeps all the little kids so mellow.

Carol said...

I had to laugh at myself! At first I thought all the kids were wearing masks and little independent Theo was the only one who wouldn't! Your "black-out strip" is cute. Poor Theo. It reminded me of days when James would come home from his school in Mexico and cry over some incident, but he was 6 and Mexican school is hardly so regimented. It must be agonizing for a little boy like Theo. I'm glad he is finally beginning to click with the language and can now feel less left out. (((Hugs))) Mom

James said...

It's interesting to me that even reading your post made me feel frustrated and a little annoyed at the kindergarden. I can imagine dealing with it firsthand was much more irritating.

Definitely preserve Theo's individualism (as if you could be persuaded otherwise!). Time will iron all things relatively flat, and he will seem to have conformed to the people who expect that from him. But just beneath the surface will be THEO (ta-da!).

The Freys said...

Ari had a fairly hard time with the Chinese Kindergarten at first too. But it worked in his favor that he is such a social kid. He would rather be in a boring place with other kids he doesn't know and doesn't understand, than be bored at home.

I also noticed that magical parenting thing, but it seemed to me like a bit of a double edged sword (sometimes slicing the wrong way!) In Ari's kindergarten, it was a behavior that was heavily aided by candy and bribery, which lead to temper tantrums that were reserved for the parents alone.

Like you said, it sort of seemed like those kids had no personality whatsoever. I thought Ari seemed to have the most personality, and interestingly, his classmates seemed to think so too.