Lessons learned from son No. 1

I am the single father of two boys - both of whom I adopted from abroad. Alyosha arrived eight years ago, from Russia, at the age of 7. Anton, a tender 5-1/2-year-old, has been here only a few weeks. I brought him home from deep inside Ukraine.

It is impossible for me not to compare these two sons of Eastern Europe, which leads me to apply lessons I learned from my inaugural son, Alyosha.

I clearly recall Alyosha's first days in our home. From the beginning, he slept in his own bed in his own room. However, this did not inhibit me from creeping there in the dead of night to listen for breath sounds, to watch his shallow chest rise and fall under the blanket. I had clearly assumed that the life that had been given to me to nurture was as delicate as a cinder.

Anton also took to his room as if he had occupied it all his life. I put him to bed his first night with us, paged through a picture book with him, and he fell fast asleep. I retired to my room and slept so soundly that I almost forgot that there was an additional child in the house to care for. And I wasn't the least bit surprised when he arose in the morning, breathing on his own and looking for food.

With Alyosha, one of my concerns had been that he wouldn't make any friends. In retrospect, I am chagrined by my naiveté; but at the time I had visions of his being isolated in our house, peering through the window like a recluse. My solution was to approach parents and invite their boys over to get to know Alyosha. The result - disaster. In one instance, Alyosha simply ignored the would-be companion, retreated happily to his room, and I wound up playing checkers with the visiting tyke until his mother came to get him.

I realize now, of course, that children are experts in finding playmates and developing friendships. Within a very few weeks, Alyosha had his own small circle of friends - each an excellent character in his own way, and all most welcome in our home.

And so I have adopted a hands-off policy with respect to Anton. He will, in due course, construct his own alliances. In accepting this, I feel as if a weight has been lifted from me, replaced by a sort of warm anticipation that his personal happiness will increase in proportion to the pleasure he takes in choosing his own friends.

School, of course, was a big step. Alyosha began his American educational experience in the second grade. For the first few weeks, he cried almost every day, sometimes out of just one eye, a very neat trick.

Of course, I was completely unmanned by this, clutching my heart and pleading, "Don't cry, Alyosha! I'll stay, I'll stay." Sometimes I even took him with me to work, for fear that leaving him in school against his will would cause irreparable harm.

Now that I look back, of course, I don't see an empathetic, caring parent, but rather a 6-foot-3 lollipop with the word "sucker" written across the wrapper.

With Anton, the situation has been completely different. As preamble to his beginning kindergarten, I brought him in for a visit. He looked around at the children, the books, the computer lab, and remarked, "So, this is my beautiful little school." I figured this was going to be a snap.

The next morning, he awoke with a smile on his face, got dressed, ate a good breakfast, and we headed out for his first official school day.

When I led him to the door of his classroom, however, he began to howl and sob. I dried his eyes, gave him a hug, said, "I'll be back later," and watched as his teacher ushered him into the inner sanctum. Then I went to work and had a perfectly good day.

When I picked Anton up at the end of his, he looked no worse for wear. In fact, he had a broad smile on his face and had drawn me a picture of a, a, well, of a something. But whatever it is, it is now taped to my office door, and I am proud of it.

The adventure goes on. It is as if Alyosha were my practice son (perhaps that's why he's so rugged and resilient - to withstand my parental fumblings and well-intended ministrations) and Anton is the son upon whom I am supposed to apply what I have learned.

Of course, it is not always as simple as this. The other day I was comforting Anton after he was grief-stricken by the collapse of the traction mechanism in one of his toy cars. Alyosha was present, and looked on wistfully as I hugged his little brother and assured him that, despite this catastrophe, all the stars were still aligned in their constellations.

And then, on a whim, I did something that under ordinary circumstances would not be allowed of me: I went over to Alyosha and put my arm around him as well. In response, he rested his head on my shoulder.

It was only a moment's worth of affection from my teenager, but it told me that, despite all my failings, false starts, and well-intentioned parenting strategies, I must have done something right. And now, with Anton, I am being given the chance to do it right all over again.

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