Adoptive dad Keith Guess shares about his family’s experience with older child adoption, how it differs from adopting babies, and how Spencer and Leo — two teen brothers from Vietnam — have adjusted to their new home, and their new life, in the U.S.
Susan and I were not thinking about adoption when she saw Leo and Spencer’s photograph on the Holt Facebook page. Something about the picture caught her interest and she forwarded it on to me. Over the coming days, we started discussing if adopting again would be something that would be reasonable for our family. We asked our boys how they would feel about us adopting again. They were all supportive. Our 13-year-old indicated that he would be interested primarily if we would be adopting someone his age.
A bit later, Susan showed me a video of Spencer and Leo racing each other. They are about 11 and 12 years old in the video. As Spencer passes Leo, he turns and grins. Leo responds with a smile. There was something winsome about that moment that made me begin thinking about them as “my sons.”
We knew from the information Holt provided that the boys — biological brothers — had been in an orphanage for about three years. Prior to coming to the orphanage, they had lived with their mother and grandmother. Their mother was no longer able to care for them due to her health issues.
The decision to adopt older boys was not an easy one for us to make. We spent a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of such an adoption. Finally, we determined that taking the step would be an act of faith. The feeling that these were our sons continued to grow. We knew that we would be able to provide a loving home for Spencer and Leo, and that we would be resilient to whatever circumstances our family would face.
Bringing home older boys meant that we had some concerns that we did not have with our other adoptions (at 8 months and 18 months of age.) Education was a primary area of concern. We were pleased to learn that our local school district had a robust English Language Learners (ELL) program. Each school year brought new students into the program. We were able to speak with an ELL director in another school district and he was helpful in making choices about grade level placement. The boys are near completing their first trimester, and we are pleased with how well school has been going.
Both have developed friendships at school. They are growing in their ability to communicate in English on a weekly basis. Peer interactions have been a strong, positive motivation.
In many ways, adopting older boys has been easier than adopting younger children. Adopting older boys meant that some communication challenges were more manageable. We were able to use Google translation resources in country during the adoption process and continued to use them with some regularity after returning home. The boys were proficient in keyboarding at the time of coming into our care, so using the translation applications was straightforward for both of them. They have been in the States for about 4.5 months now, and we find that we only infrequently require the translator.
Adopting older boys has been straightforward in regards to self-care and autonomy. They have been able to make their needs known. They feel comfortable raiding the refrigerator. They can both cook and have taken initiative for preparing snacks and meals for themselves. They have, without being asked, taken responsibility for their laundry.
There have been challenges. Like many teenagers, there have been moments of moodiness. One of the challenges has been trying to interpret their responses. We are still learning their “baseline” and learning how to help them manage their stress and disappointments.
Integration with the other boys in the family has been relatively smooth. There have been some moments of conflict, but in general, there has been cooperation and enjoyment of each other. Spencer and Leo are athletic and both played soccer regularly in Vietnam. Because of their influence, our youngest restarted soccer this year. There has been a lot more active play in the backyard this summer and fall. Leo has also participated in cross-country and basketball, both new sports for him.
At this time, Spencer and Leo have bonded more with me than with Susan. They are more inclined to invite me to participate in activities with them. But they seem to enjoy getting out with Susan for shopping and other out-of-the house activities.
We have learned some things about their life in Vietnam. They have shared about their experiences at school and at the orphanage. They have not yet chosen to discuss their family. However, both Susan and I know that this is their story to be shared on their terms and timeline, and we are not concerned about how it will unfold. We are still in the early days of being family.
As the day-to-day part of life proceeds, we look ahead. Both boys are looking forward to their first snow experience. They have encountered a few snowflakes but have not yet “really” seen snow. We will be taking our first trip as a family of eight over the Thanksgiving holiday to visit my parents in Albuquerque. We hope this will provide the sunshine and warmer temperatures for Susan and me, and snow in the mountains for the boys.
It will be the first of many holidays that we enjoy as a family.
Keith Guess | Iowa City, Iowa
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