Realistic Expectations: Cleanliness

Recently I read a blog where the parents of a child adopted from one of our programs made some derogatory comments about the child’s appearance and behavior in their first days together. As I read through the blog, it made me quite sad. I don’t think they wrote such critical things purposely, but it was clear that they weren’t taking the time to see life through the child’s eyes instead of their own.

It made me think that perhaps I should write up a few articles over the next month about setting realistic expectations during adoption. I hope these can be practical blogs that address some very common daily issues such as standards of cleanliness. I have read more than my fair share of adoption blogs where parents complain about how dirty their children are on adoption day. So let’s do a reality check and better understand how difficult it can be in some areas of China to even take a bath, something we as Westerners absolutely take for granted each and every day.

I consider myself very blessed to have done extensive travel in rural China, and so I want to be fair to those who have only experienced the bathrooms at the White Swan Hotel. Please remember that many rural orphanages and foster homes often have no indoor bathroom facilities. If you are fortunate enough to have an indoor bath, there is a chance it consists of a tiny tiled or concrete area with a single drainage hole for both the shower and toilet.

A water heater would be RARE, so cold water is the norm. Your source of heat for the entire small apartment or orphanage could be a single coal stove in the center of the main room, and there is no heat in the bathroom area at all. So let’s start with a fact that pretty much everyone knows: children in China are bundled up in multiple layers in the winter to protect them from getting sick.

So if you truly care about your child – do you risk stripping them down in an unheated room and exposing them to ice cold water during the winter months? Is that bath really a NECESSITY or a luxury? Well, I’ve met enough foster moms over the last decade to know that the child’s physical health comes first and foremost in their minds, and so scrubbing down their face and hands with a washrag and pail of water more than meets their cleanliness standards.

Now let’s say that you don’t have the luxury of having a shower in your actual home. Instead, your only option is the public bath house, where you have to pay money to take a group shower with others from your village. Do you look forward to going there in the winter months? When your whole body feels cold most of the time? Well, I can tell you that on my most recent trip to China, one of the hotels we stayed in didn’t have heat and only tepid shower water, and I lasted a whole 15 seconds before jumping out and deciding I did NOT need to freshen up.

No adoptive parent should be surprised or disgusted if their newly adopted child “doesn’t know how to take a proper bath.” There is a good chance they have never had the extravagant opportunity of even knowing what that is! Adoptive parents should not be dismayed if a child’s fingernails are dirty, or if their body hasn’t been scrubbed clean in the last several months. It is very likely that your child’s first encounter with a five star hotel in the provincial capital is their first experience with centralized heat, running hot water, or a Western-sized bathtub. Be compassionate, and try to understand that even the most simple things in our minds, such as taking a bath, are often very difficult indeed in rural China. Try not to feel a need to immediately “wash off” the scents and smells and yes, even the “dirt” that could be a very real comfort at the moment to your child.

Always remember that everything the child has known as his or her safety and security has suddenly disappeared upon meeting you– and that things you might think are “wrong” (like a child being dirty) are completely and understandably acceptable in living situations where bathrooms and heat and warm water are complete opulence. Dirt is not an automatic indication that your child experienced neglect. In many cases, it can actually equal “loving care,” where a nanny or foster parent did not want to expose a child to the cold. Always try to think about the cultural differences between your life and theirs, and be slow to judge when you don’t have the full story of what their daily life has been.

~Amy Eldridge, Executive Director

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33 Comments to “Realistic Expectations: Cleanliness”

  1. Andrea! 13 June 2014 at 3:30 am #

    Thanks for sharing this article my friend. It is deep and heart felt emotions. But I am amazed and rather irritated with the way people behave with kids. There is this word called sensitive: do they understand? I mean seriously, is bathing such a big issue? How shallow people are these days!

  2. tobygirl4ever 16 February 2014 at 8:22 am #

    this is an absolutely fabulous article.alot of people do not realize the living conditions in orphanages or medical homes are any better than living in any rural community in China so they dont realize that no they don’t have any of the amenities that anyone else would either. they assume since it is an orphanage or medical community that they have all the best living conditions.. well they don’t, its still China. they just dont have the things we do here in the U.S. this article and comments have provided some wonderful insight as to what it is really like for these children and it makes me even sadder than it does for the “normal” children over there.. these children have to fight illness plus fight living in poverty. I can’t imagine how hard that must be and yet these people who are wanting to adopt them to get them out of this poverty is complaining about a little dirt?? Come on, what is wrong with you people? are you that OCD that you think a little dirt on a child is going to kill them? heck when we were growing up we were lucky if we got a bath once a week not because we didnt have heat or hot water but because we got dirty every day and my parents didnt see the point in wasting hot water which is expensive to wash off dirt that you were just going to get on the next day.. granted if your hands and face were dirty they got washed every day but unless you had school or had a special occasion you didnt get a bath every day cause kids get dirty when they play.. its a fact of least for a healthy well rounded kid i think it is.. I would rather see a child with a little dirt on them then one that is all neat and clean and prissy.. cause a little dirt shows a mind with a little imagination..
    anyway..from what i read im glad they are training the adoptive parents more on what the little ones are going through and how to handle the transition, it must be hard on them, especially if they are older than just toddlers, the older ones have more of the old culture in them. I had seen one a few days ago that was on the adoptive list that was 11 yrs old, he was the most adorable young man i had ever seen and if me and my boyfriend had been in better health we would have jumped on the thought of trying to adopt him in a heart beat.. it makes me sad looking at all these children and knowing that as much as we would love to due to our own health situation we could never adopt, it wouldn’t be fair to the child to come over here to sick parents.. but they are the most wonderfully, cheerfull,happy,children i have seen in a long time. they dont let their medical conditions or living conditions get them down and i think that has to do with the love and support of the nurses and the nannies at the facilities..
    Thank you all for such a wonderful job..
    I hope all these children find their “forever families” one day. they all deserve the best…
    {{{BIG HUGS}}}

  3. snakatac 4 February 2013 at 11:26 am #

    It’s sad to hear that ANY Westerners, adoptive or not, who after all have education & access to internet for research, can be so unaware of just how lucky we/they are, with our comfortable, middle class lives with our central heating, low energy costs & well insulated homes. I’ve been in Europe & had to use some pretty basic sanitary (a misnomer) facilities – in Greek villages, old churches, & older parts of the city. I staggered out of the 1st ever squat toilet I’d ever used, within the old train station, joking (discreetly) that I was traumatised. We need not to assume our experiences are the standard for the world. In Germany you have to pay to use the facilities & get some toilet paper from the attendant. Cringe, what if you had an upset tummy? In many countries there is no free toilet paper even in non-pay restrooms, BTW. We needn’t feel so superior. It wasn’t that long ago in the UK & North America when no one used deodorant & the norm was the Saturday night bath. Wasn’t it in the settler days that you got sewn into your back-trapdoor style union suit/all in one longsleeve underwear FOR THE WINTER?

    Adoptive families must open their minds not just their hearts.

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