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Though our African-born son has been in America for only two months, we’re often surprised by the speed he acquires new words and information. He has a few favorite English phrases, such as: “Mom, I hungry,” that he uses regularly, correctly, and usually early in the morning.

He has even learned nuances to our language, like the difference in tone and inflection of the phrase “Come on.” He’ll say it when he wants us to follow him and he’ll also use the same phrase with a certain degree of disgust and frustration when I kick or throw a ball in a way he deems inadequate. (He also says, “My fault” if his throw is a bit off and “Your fault” is he doesn’t catch something I throw—even if it’s a perfectly good throw, by the way.)

We are trying to teach him to be polite when he asks for and receives things. He has “thank you” down and “you’re welcome.” He’s had a harder time remembering to say “please.” He started off saying, “Mama, lipa!” when he wanted a piece of bread. Now we remind him to phrase it as a request instead of a demand. “Say: ‘Mama, may I have some lipa, please?’” we tell him. Now the conversation goes something like this:

Ezra: Mama, lipa!

Me: Try again.

Ezra: Say, please…

Me: Close enough.

When we were recently at church camp, I took him to the bathroom while everyone was meeting in the large assembly room. There was no one in the boys’ restroom, so I told him he could go in alone and I would stand outside the door and wait for him. He gestured for me to go with him, but I explained that I am a girl and can’t go in the boys’ bathroom and if he wants me to go with him he’ll have to go to the girls’ bathroom with me which is okay because he is small and my son. After that lengthy explanation, complete with pointing to the boy and girl pictures outside the bathroom doors, he paused a beat and said, “Say please?”

Seeing that one of the five other members of his family are always with him, we’re constantly wondering where he picks up the things he says and does. For instance, he was wrestling with our older son recently and suddenly stepped back, punched his right fist into his open left hand, and bowed low like he was about to begin a Taekwondo match. Where did that come from?

Anyone in the throes of parenting young children can attest to the heavy responsibility of teaching our children right from wrong and everything in between. I’ve known this for years but I’ve felt it more acutely this go-around. When our other children first joined our family they were newborns, unable to see past their fingertips and enthusiastically sucking on their toes each time they re-discovered them. In other words, not fully rational beings.

This time our little sponge comes to us as a clever 5-year old. He’s soaking up everything so quickly and hungrily and spouting it back out just as quickly. I worry if he’s watching too much TV or not looking at books enough. Should I make him practice writing his name more? What about those preschool activity books we got him? I worry about making sure we give him every advantage so that he can be successful as a person.

But when I stop the frantic worrying in my mind and take a breath, I tell myself that we will not do this perfectly but we will do a few things right. We will begin and end each day with “I love you.” We will look directly into the faces of the people we speak to. We will smile more than we frown. We will hold hands when we cross streets. We will pray together every day and list the things we’re grateful for.

When Ezra prays at night, we prompt him by saying, “thank you for…” so that he can fill in the blank. He says the name of everyone in his family, his bed, the car, all his favorite foods. One night he also said the “avion (airplane) to America.” Yes, baby, we are thankful for that airplane, too.


Our little sponge


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