Munchkin Update

The year is winding down. It’s time to check in on the little creature that carries half my DNA.

She is still six years old — nearly “six and a half,” although curiously she doesn’t measure her age that way, as many children do. It is especially odd because she is a big fan of math (she didn’t get that from my genes), and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she proclaimed herself to be “six point five” or “six and fifty forty-eight per cent” or the like. She receives her homework and immediately does all of the math questions, before she even puts it in her backpack.

She is still in Grade One, which means homework, apparently. The school is French-language and very serious about it — they make parents sign a declaration that we’ll practice French at home, watch French films and TV, etc. — and P is serious about her bilingualism. Tonight before bed, she declared that she had invented a “new kind of job” that only bilingual people can do: “teaching one language to somebody who doesn’t know the language.” It should come as no surprise to anyone that she’s contemplating becoming a teacher.

But she has other loves too, besides math and language. She still loves her dad’s Dungeons & Dragons games, as well as just about any other type of game — video games, board games, card games, whatever she can rope you into playing with her. And she has begun to show an interest in coding, enough so that S has purchased her a year’s subscription to a “junior programming” tablet game. This obsession scares me almost more than math, because she is already approaching the point of outstripping my understanding. I guess my M.A. in Humanities Computing wasn’t as durable as I thought.

She is still precocious; gifted; smart or a smartass, take your pick. The ongoing challenge of such a child is to keep track of where they are, developmentally, in a range of different skill sets. Otherwise, it’s easy to forget that you’re talking to a six-year-old, not a young adult — which makes for a rude shock when she starts behaving like a six-year-old. Her social development, her emotional self-awareness, and her understanding of empathy are all progressing, albeit maybe a bit more slowly than other kids her age. That makes for a broad knowledge gap. It means I’m living with a human being who knows what “decapitation” means, but not why it’s a bad thing to do to other people.

Her greatest struggles involve the vague bundle of skills which psychologists lump together under “executive functioning”: attention span, planning and abstract reasoning, self-monitoring and behavioural inhibition (that is, knowing when you’re not supposed to do certain things), and cognitive flexibility (the ability to switch between thinking about different things, or different types of concepts). Current scientific dogma holds that the disorders we’ve been calling “ADD” or “ADHD” are mostly deficiencies in the neurological development of executive functioning. In other words, it’s not just a question of, say, paying attention in class; it’s a whole host of interconnected problems with perceiving and interacting with the world.

There have always been signs of these issues in P, but they are harder to spot in a four-year-old, and nigh impossible before then. They erupted when she was five, or rather that’s when we moved her into an environment that made absolutely NO allowances for them. It’s clear to me now, one year after the fact, that P’s struggles in French kindergarten had nothing to do with language barriers, and very little to do with cultural gaps — except insofar as French schools don’t make exceptions for kids with special needs. Or at least that one didn’t. If we’d known about P’s needs going into the French school system, maybe we could have sought out a better environment. As it was, we made the right (though difficult) choice by homeschooling her for the back-half of our sabbatical year.

When I think back to those four months at L’Ecole Gutenberg, I am wracked with guilt. P might as well have been locked in a zoo, except half the time the other monkeys would sit rigidly in place and follow bizarre, repetitive instructions. She was not equipped to understand the environment — why are my fellow monkeys switching back and forth like this? — and she responded by diving into self-crafted imaginative worlds, some of which still persist today. She bullied other kids, or let herself be bullied, without really grasping that other people’s feelings were involved.

I don’t really believe that she’s been permanently scarred by any of it (how much of kindergarten do you remember?), but the experience certainly made us, as parents, much more wary when approaching the local school. Fortunately, her current teacher is understanding, and the administration is accommodating. They don’t need a formal diagnosis of ADHD to perceive that P is an unusual kid, and that she’s liable to struggle, and create disruptions, in a standard classroom. Her first report card arrived this week; although she still struggles with transitions and with following instructions the first time, it’s heartening to see that she is, for the most part, finding her groove in the classroom at last.

She is, finally, still trans. In the year since she announced that she was a girl, there have been no signs of doubt or confusion. Plus, she seems happier in general, although it’s hard for me to tell how much of that is from transitioning and how much comes from being back in her home and native land. We have begun meeting with a local gender counselor, to figure out what her future can look like — options for hormone treatments, changing birth certificates, maybe reassignment surgery — as well as starting to steel her for the rude awakening that a lot of people on Earth would be happy to see people like her repressed, humiliated, or killed.

In that respect, a bit of ADHD might be the least of her worries. But I try to remain optimistic (in spite of the daily news), because so far, we have encountered very little negativity from anyone close to home. P may not have inherited all the choicest DNA available, but at least she seems to have been born at the right time.


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