Notes From Hairenik
March 23, 2015

The last three days with my son Areg have been very special. I feel we have really bonded, and the relationship we have built, based on love, mutual respect and enjoyment of life, has become tighter.

A few months ago I went back to Boston for four weeks. It was Christmastime. Not only was I visiting my family, I was also starting my studies for my MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University, taking part in their Low Residency program. That means I have to be on campus for a week each semester and attend workshops and seminars.  For reasons out of my control, I could not take Areg with me, although he wanted to go and was clearly conscious of my intent to travel. Areg is a lot smarter and cognizant of his environment as well as life situations than many in my opinion, including family members and friends, imagine. Although we communicate on Skype as often as possible when I’m away, it’s still not the same as having physical, interpersonal contact. Two weeks into my stay I noticed that he was uncommunicative, meaning he would not converse, although he wanted to show me things and sat attentively in a chair or in the camera’s view for several minutes at a time while I constantly engaged him through discussion, interaction with family members, showing him the Christmas tree up close and so forth. But he wouldn’t answer my questions or comment about anything. We speak almost exclusively in English, but sometimes in Western Armenian so he gets used to it.

When I returned to Yerevan in mid January he kept refusing to talk. And I learned that he wasn’t talking to other members of the family or his peers and instructors at his kindergarten, either. He apparently only spoke with his mother, in Armenian. In fact he was hesitant to return to kindergarten after the holidays, acting as he did when he first started going last August—complaining and hesitant to stay, although everyone there as well as the environment were now familiar to him. 

The lack of verbal communication persisted for another two months. Areg would communicate by pointing and grunting, or with body language—if he needed to sit on the toilet he would hold his rear end, or his crotch when he had to pee. When I asked if he was hungry or thirsty he would either say nothing in response or say “uh huh” when he was. That was it. Areg will turn four on April 1 so his silence was disconcerting. Sometimes he would start to cry for a few moments when I didn’t understand what he wanted. He did sing, but only songs that he had recently invented (a songwriter in the making) and none of the ones we used to sing together. Although I was naturally patient with him and just as loving, it was frustrating not to hear him give his perspective on things in the world, what he experienced or heard. He always had something to say about any given thing, and being his dad, I always probed him to tell me more. Now it was if I were talking to the walls. Oddly, I began to forget what it was like for him to argue with me about the names of colors, letters or shapes—I intentionally give him the wrong name of something so he will correct me, thus getting him to think and focus. Discourse had ended. A psychologist we visited recommended art therapy, which I intend for him to undergo.

Then just over a week ago there was a breakthrough. It was Saturday night. I began suggesting the wrong names for objects or letters and he suddenly began correcting me. Then he wouldn’t shut up. His perspective on things—letters, colors, objects, toys, concepts, whatever—became revealed once again. We linked up with my mother via Skype so she could share in the surprise. It was an ecstatic moment for all of us I think.

The following morning he was silent again, grunting and pointing. I couldn’t figure out why there was a relapse but we continued our routine of dressing, washing up, eating breakfast, watching Mister Rogers (he started getting into it that weekend, which may have had an influence I suspect) and walking Chi Chi. It was a warm day, in the 60s, so I decided to take him to Lovers’ Park, which was a five-minute metro ride away. We strolled down the paths and eventually ended up in the sand pit, where he sifted, piled, poked and stirred. After about 40 minutes he wanted to move on, so we walked around some more in the park. I was desperate to get him speaking again. On a cement wall in the far right along a path where the landscaping ends there was some graffiti art, with “Im Yerevan” spelled out, (“Im” meaning “my”). So the quiz commenced—“what letter is this, is it an X? What about this one, is that a Q?” After a couple of minutes the arguing began. “That’s not an X, it’s a Y. Why did you say it’s an X? It’s not X, it’s Y.” Then he was expounding on the shape and style of the letter. He insisted that the lowercase V in “Yerevan” was actually a lowercase Y because the diagonal stroke continued past the baseline and curled up to the left at the end. I could not refute him, the damn thing was indeed a Y. The artist’s intent was to make it appear as a footpath leading to the front door of a home, but the footpath metamorphosed into a piano keyboard for whatever reason, further complicating matters.  Then we began to study the design of every letter, wondering why windows were drawn within them, and why were they made to resemble apartment buildings, and he gave his feedback willingly. On the way home down the escalator to the train he suddenly announced, “I have chishig” so we went back up to use the restroom in the park (which is remarkably clean). I treated him to hot chocolate at a nearby café in our neighborhood and I ordered a club sandwich for myself, which I ended up splitting with him. Although I intended to keep him overnight and encourage him further, his mom came by and carried him off. We made quite a bit of headway, though. And this past weekend was even better.  

Anyway, here’s some advice to new dads (not like I have everything figured out yet obviously):

1. Engage your children constantly. Throw as much stimulus at him or her as possible through conversation, play, music, reading, visual stimulus like Sesame Street or Baby Einstein—whatever it is. All of it is beneficial, especially talking, playing, and reading.

2. Speak with your child like you would with an adult. Oftentimes you hear people talk to their toddlers with cartoonish tones of voice and condescending, simplistic language, as if to assume the kid can’t comprehend the idea conveyed or the correction. I find this to be the case especially in Armenia. It’s nonsense to talk to kids as if they’re kids. And talk about anything—nature related, the stars and planets, how the coffee machine functions, whatever. They understand things quite well and they’ll pick up whatever you’re trying to illustrate, fast. Not only that, the tone of their voice will sound more mature. That’s what I’m finding in Areg’s case at least.

3. Never tell your kid he or she can’t do something. “Can’t” implies discouragement, and it leads to diminished self-esteem, something no child should ever endure. If you don’t want your son climbing on the future, tell him “no,” or “don’t do it.” I always add “buddy” or “please” when I want to correct him, then I either praise or thank him. Speaking of which…

4. Praise as much as possible, too much isn’t enough. My son thrives on praise; he aims to please. He’ll do whatever it takes for me to tell him how proud I am of him or how smart he is. He expresses his excitement by shaking both hands in the air rapidly like he wants to whip them off his arms and running across the room, squeaking (admittedly I do the same thing to this day on occasion, it must be genetic). He’s hilarious.

5. Laugh and have fun. One of our favorite activities is baking cookies. He mixes the salt and flour in a separate bowl while I measure out the sugar and butter. He also gets the mixer going—it’s stationary—and we have a blast. His favorite part of the process is licking the mixer beaters. We also work with play dough, play a marble run that we construct together, and we draw as well as paint. Areg loves to play with his dad, not to mention my friends that come over, and I bet the same can be said of any kid. He loves to show and describe something that he created, and he loves the attention. Who wouldn’t? 

I think I’m on to something here and I’m eagerly anticipating what’s next. There’s still Shant to contend with. Now if the three of us were only allowed to spend some quality time alone, who knows what would happen? 

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4 Comments:
Blogger Hamlet G said...
Thanks for sharing. I agree with you without reservations

Anonymous Mike W. said...
Good stuff Chris!

Blogger Marius Savant said...
My heart goes out to you. It will always be struggle to raise a child of divorce and you are facing an uphill battle. From a statistics standpoint coming up in a single mother household is a predictor of very bad things in adult life (including depression, substance abuse, promiscuity, serving jail time and etc.).
That is why I commend you for your efforts. You do not give up and you push back against all odds. You are an awesome dad and your kids are lucky to have you (too bad your ex-wife has no idea about it).
Thanks for doing the right thing.

Blogger Marius Savant said...
My heart goes out to you. It will always be struggle to raise a child of divorce and you are facing an uphill battle. From a statistics standpoint coming up in a single mother household is a predictor of very bad things in adult life (including depression, substance abuse, promiscuity, serving jail time and etc.).
That is why I commend you for your efforts. You do not give up and you push back against all odds. You are an awesome dad and your kids are lucky to have you (too bad your ex-wife has no idea about it).
Thanks for doing the right thing.

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