Early Tuesday morning, I took a small plane for a small trip North West to Ann Arbor in Michigan State. Here, I was reunited with Kris and given the chance to meet the Strengthening Myself (SMS) support group and a small but active adoption community.
My trip to Ann Arbor was inspired by Kris Freeark's workshop in Auckland about her support groups new website. I thought it was a great example of child-driven technology being used in a positive way to promote the best interests of adopted children. A few months after we first met on the other side of the world, we drove to her office to attend one of her weekly SMS sessions.
The group is currently three girls strong; all are adopted and all around 14 years of age. One girl supports Kris as an assistant. Another typically Skypes in from a neighbouring country (another example of innovative technology use), though this time she'd made the journey to be there with us. The last girl forms the regular trio of attendees. The group welcome others who come and go. They are due to be joined next week by a new girl.
You'll notice a stark absence of boys. This has been a problem for Kris and a noticeable gap in research to date; engaging with boys in open communication, support groups or discussion about adoption. Speaking from experience, this was something that I actively 'avoided', though I did probe about my past on occasion (as informed by my adoptive Mum this week after I asked her about my own curiousness). Even though we shouldn't be forcing children to talk about their past, ownership and honesty is very important. Children of different ages respond differently to 'adoption talk' - the girls at SMS said they hated being asked questions by their parents about how they felt! Probably a normal teenage reaction. But earlier in childhood, Kris feels there is huge value in reassuring kids that asking questions is positive and good - if giving the answer is hard, probe for more information about why those questions are being asked and why they feel the need to ask at that time. This can promote a health sense of engagement. Avoiding answering difficult questions can reaffirm fears in children that their past is something to be avoided, scared off, or explored on their own.
Several other ideas came up during the session:
- Video games; would developing a game bring boys into the mix?
- Mentoring; one girl in the group has attended other mentoring schemes through her school. It's led by a prominent sportsman who has set up his own leadership foundation. Would an adopted sportsman be a good role model for boys and promote a similar community where social change, skills development and leadership are part of the programme?
- Storyworth; https://www.storyworth.com/ - an interesting looking platform which promotes storytelling between family members who are separated by distance. Could this be piloted as a tool for adoptees and adopted families to talk about issues, and for adopted children to reach out to birth family is a safe and creative way?
For the ICAR5 conference then recorded an interview between the girls which was shown to delegates. I think this is a valuable example of how online resources can be more interactive, personable and engaging for younger people. The YouTube generations respond to this level of visual interaction more than a website, forum or blog. We talked about Twinsters (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2980626/) a film which encapsulated our generation of digital natives (a reminder of a lovely term used by someone I met here in Ann Arbor). I suggested the group host a fundraising screening of the film. I wonder if they should think about fielding questions from adopted kids and posting video responses to YouTube...
Lots of great ideas and interesting avenues came out of a short 1.5 hour chat. After clearing up our plates, pizza crusts and soda cans, I felt that this small group have uncovered lots of useful thoughts. Namely;
- The benefits of child-led solutions, using technology, supervised by an adult with good training (Kris moderates the website)
- The limitations of stand-alone websites; I feel SMS would benefit from an add-on which creates interaction and engagement when they are not there and for kids who can't attend
- Talking; children come out of their shells creatively and socially when they meet or interact. I suggested that the group try an 'invite a friend' day - even if this friend is not adopted. It may even help other adopted children come if they know they can bring a friend. The group have shown (through the production of hand made coasters) that getting friends involved helps to normalise adoption and spread information about the experience from those who are experiencing it.