Am I Ignoring the Obvious?

Illustration: Sari Cohen

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Am I Ignoring the Obvious?
Sometimes the way I get through my day is by reminding myself that it will end. That period when I couldn't sell my novel? It came to an end. Those months of bewilderment with a colicky baby? The baby, now 10, stopped crying a long time ago. Things change. Nothing lasts forever. The sun rises, the sun sets. It's an inevitable, often lovely cycle.

My husband and I have a 4-year-old whom we adopted from Ethiopia when he was 10 months. He's happy, full of energy, curious, loving. He's also aggressive, impulsive, hyperactive. He's been kicked out of three preschools in a year. The previous one endured him for seven days. His last one just gave him the heave-ho after two weeks. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, attachment disorder, sensory integration disorder, autism, Asperger's. It could be any of the above, or none of them—a mere delay, an "unreadiness" for school, teachers who turned their backs too soon. We don't know.

At first my husband and I corrected, rewarded, took away, enforced, raised our voices, asked him why? After the second school we went to play therapy, to parenting classes. We took advice from friends, family, strangers.

The treasure we found in this pile was so obvious, but it took us far too long to see it. It was the power of praise—for using a nice voice, for trying to solve a problem, for being calm and kind. We've changed the way we speak to our son. We say things like "I like how sweet your voice sounds," and "I love playing with you." Sometimes it sounds as though we've been replaced by Mister Rogers; sometimes we have to go outside for a sarcasm break. But in the midst of this heartache, of seeing our child rejected again and again, praise and kindness and love are the only things we've got.

Of course, it's hard to praise him when you get a phone call saying you have to pick up your child because he cried, fought, wouldn't stop saying "stupid." Months ago I went to get him from school, and after I put him in the car, I couldn't stop crying. I hid it as best I could, trying to think of what to do. Praise? I couldn't praise just then. I thought back to that moment when we saw just how simple the answer was, and I thought: What's logical? What's obvious? What's at my fingertips? I live in Hawaii. The ocean. I didn't care that the beach would feel like a reward. I decided not to take that away from either of us. I drove there, silent. We got out, silent. I took off his shirt and stripped down to my bathing suit. I walked him into the ocean, and then I went underwater and cried. I broke the surface and looked at my son, happily splashing in the surf, a confident, strong swimmer.

What was obvious is that we had the mountain range behind us and the ocean before us. What's obvious is that we will change. What's obvious is that the sun will set and rise, and that everything can be attempted again.

—Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of, most recently, the novel The Descendants