What children go to school to learn v. What my adopted child needs to learn

Two weeks ago we made the (brave? crazy? insane?) decision to withdraw Spiderboy from Reception and begin homeschooling him. There were lots of things that led us to this decision, but the main reason was that he was not emotionally ready for school.

Spiderboy has missed out on a lot of the building blocks that a baby needs to develop into a physically, mentally, emotionally healthy child. He’s a bit like a brick wall, but the bricklayer skipped some bricks on the bottom layers.

While he’s been doing really well academically at school, he doesn’t have the solid emotional foundation to be building on, and we were starting to see the cracks. Now, we don’t hate school at all, and I loved the school we were at. But there are things that Spiderboy hasn’t yet learnt, which the rest of his peers already knew when they started school. Homeschooling is his chance to catch up.

How to spell v. How to play

Most children who start school have spent four years prior playing and being played with. They’ve cracked the shape sorter cube years ago. They’re pretty expert when it comes to making a game with bits of plastic. Play is so important in the brain development and the critical thinking skills of young children.

And yet, in Spiderboy’s first years he didn’t have ready access to age appropriate toys, and he didn’t have anybody teach him how to play. When he came home he really didn’t know how to play with toys and we’ve had to go right back to basics with simple, ‘baby’ toys. (Anybody who thinks play is instinctive in children has clearly never met a children who hasn’t been taught to play!)

Last week Spiderboy spent a whole day playing with Lego. It wasn’t a complicated building project, he simply took the Lego figures apart and put them back together again – over and over again. But I couldn’t have been prouder if he’d spelt pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis (I had to Google ‘longest word in English’!) We are literally taking a break from school to spend more time playing, and it is absolutely the right thing for my son.

How to have friends v. How to have family

Most children who start school have spent four years prior belonging to a family. They have a secure base where they are loved, accepted and protected. And from that base they can go out to explore the world with confidence.

Spiderboy has spent more of his life without a family than with one. He’s suffered mistreatment at the hands of his first family, and great loss when leaving his foster family. Family is a tricky and painful concept for Spiderboy.

All of the skills needed to be a good friend are first learned by being part of a family. And so giving Spiderboy a chance to catch up on learning what that means is only going to help him understand what it means to be a friend. It’s really intensive, concentrated time with his mum (like most newborns get to have) and more time with his brother while we try to grow that into a healthy, loving relationship. Since finishing school Spiderboy has been much more open to nurture and affection – in fact he’s begun asking for cuddles, which he never did before.

How to respect authority v. How to respect himself

School is a great chance for children to begin learning how to respect authority, and it gets them ready for life in the big wide world with bosses, politicians and the like.

But for a child who has experienced the neglect and insecurity that Spiderboy has, there is often a great sense of shame attached to those early experiences. Spiderboy has very little self confidence – not in the cute, shy way a lot of his peers do, but in an overwhelmed-with-toxic-shame-because-I-wasn’t-good-enough-for-my-first-family-or-my-foster-family-so-why-would-anybody-want-me sort of way.

Homeschooling is giving us the chance to work on this in a way that school can’t. Filling our days with unconditional love and gospel truths is going to do more good than a day of learning to put up his hand and address adults correctly.

How to express what’s in their heads in written words v. How to express what’s in his heart in any words

Being able to recognise and name feelings is a pretty crucial life skill. Even more so if your heart is full of feelings that are too big for you. Spiderboy has experienced things a child his age should never have to experience. He is full of very big feelings without any tools to know how to express them.

In the past this has led to very violent meltdowns and I have felt genuinely afraid for my own safety, as well as his.

Since leaving school, Spiderboy has started to tell me that he feels like he’s “going to wreck things”. This is a HUGE step for us! He can actually spot when he’s becoming overwhelmed, and he’s learnt a way to express it! Now we have a wrecking box full of newspaper that he can wreck.

Would he have learnt to do this while at school? Maybe. Maybe not. But I am certain that having one-to-one help as he learns to process his big feelings is much more helpful than a day at school learning to write sentences in a class of 29 other children.

How to be independent v. How to be dependent

By the age of four, most children have the basic building blocks, the secure base and the tools they need to venture out into the world and gain a bit of independence.

On the other hand, Spiderboy has been taught by his early experiences that he needs to look after himself, he needs to keep himself safe, he can’t be vulnerable in front of other people. This leads to the exhausting task of hypervigilance.

School (rightly) encourages children to develop their independence in healthy ways. But what Spiderboy needs first is to unpick his whole world view, learn to depend on other people and, only then, will he be ready to learn healthy independence.

Since leaving school we’ve had a lot more cuddles, a lot more carrying, a lot more ‘babying’. But until he has learnt to be a baby, can we expect him to learn to be a 5 year old, a 15 year old, a 25 year old?

Our days now are filled with picnics on the beach, picnics in the park, picnics in the woods, picnics at the allotment. They involve lots of cuddles, lots of talking, lots of mud.

Is it hard work? YES. Is it good fun? YES.

Will we go back to school? Never say never. But for today this is right, and tomorrow we shall see.

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Confession of a Mummy by adoption…

7233048434_f9c0099a23_o.jpgWhen somebody has a baby, my first reaction is an overwhelming flood of grief. My heart aches, my stomach feels heavy and empty at the same time. My ears burn and my head spins.

Not because I am not happy for them – I am absolutely delighted, and so excited to meet the new arrival, and so relieved that everything went smoothly.

And it’s not because I regret how my own journey to parenthood has gone. I am grateful to God for those years of infertility – for how I learnt more to lean on him, for how the journey brought me the long way round to just the right moment when my path would cross with these wonderful little boys and they would become mine. I would not swap my boys for 10 babies from my own body.

It’s just that every time I hear that news, the memory of the feelings I had when it was painful, when I was bitter, wash over me. I don’t know if that will ever not happen. So I brace myself, I grit my teeth and I pray.

And the feeling passes, it always does. Then I give myself a little shake, dust off the self-pity and go shopping for baby clothes.

But please bear with me, while I wait for it to pass; because I am truly happy, but it is not easy.

Photo: Flickr user Harald Groven 2012

Ssssshhh…

I’m just going to whisper this, to whoever is out there and might see it.

This week, I’ve actually felt, normal!

Normal

Yesterday, I stopped for a moment and looked around: I was cooking tea in the kitchen and my children were playing. Together. In a different room.

And then I realised that, for about a week, we haven’t had any “adoption” problems! Yes, our boys have fought with each other. Yes, they’ve called me names and answered me back. Yes, I’ve lost my temper and been too short with them. But that’s normal!

Now I know that they are not magically “cured” of attachment issues and anxiety. I know their early experiences haven’t vanished. It’s just that, little step by little step they are learning to trust us and relax. I think they feel safe. I think they feel loved. I didn’t see the little steps we took, but now I can look back and see how far we’ve come.

And yes, I also know that trauma is going to rear it’s ugly head sometime soon. We will take steps backwards. But, just for now, it feels like it’s not there. It feels like we’re “normal”.

Let’s not have the “what is normal anyway?” debate. I know all families are different and nobody feels like they’re normal…

The point is: we are making progress, and it’s wonderful.

Why being a Mum is like being on the West End…

From a very young age I’ve always had a strong sense that I was made for the stage. Ever since first watching Mary Poppins, Calamity Jane and The Sound of Music, I’ve dreamt of being in musicals. The trouble is I can’t sing, or dance. Or act. I hate public speaking…

It’s kind of like my genetics and my destiny forgot to communicate…

Anyhoo, being a mum is much more fun! And here are some of the ways that being a mum is very much like being in a musical:

  • We now constantly narrate what we are doing in song. Whether it’s eating bananas, walking round the shops, having a shower… somehow the moment we got children we had a song for every occasion!
  • It’s OK to spontaneously sing in public. And we do. A lot. In the supermarket, in the park, in a queue. Singing is a great distraction. Spider-Man, Christmas songs, old hymns, Madness. You name it, we sing it.
  • Dancing too. That is not only acceptable, it’s also sometimes necessary.
  • Whatever I do, I have an audience. Showering, weeing, making a cup of tea, sorting the recycling. There are always eyes on me. And they are always waiting to be entertained.
  • Life is a lot more dramatic. whether we’re buying milk, posting a letter, brushing teeth… there is drama to be found and exploited. Raining? Not raining? Too tired? Too hungry? Back to front undies? We never miss an opportunity to be dramatic.
  • Wherever I go, people scream my name. Granted, it’s always the same two people. And yes, it’s not quite screaming fans, but still…

Why I hate fun.

I used to love fun. It used to be fun.

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Image: flickr user Anders Sandberg (2008)

But then we adopted two children with early life trauma, and now fun is, well, not so fun!

Yesterday our church held a family fun day. We spent a lot of time preparing the boys for it, explaining what would happen and when. They were already familiar with the people running it, and the venue. We made sure that I didn’t have any responsibilities on the day, and my husband only had half an hour bouncy castle duty. We didn’t go early to set up as we would normally have done. We were all set.

The boys loved it! We had so much fun! We discovered Spiderboy has an aptitude for archery, and Batboy for Splat-the-Rat(!) We let them lead our activities so they felt comfortable and enjoyed themselves. We stayed close so they could see, and touch if needed, us at all times. We even split up for some of the time and both boys got some one-to-one time so that they knew their needs were being met, and that they were constantly being thought of.

When it was time to go, Batboy said “well that was fun.” and Spiderboy said “when can we go back?” It had all gone so well and the boys were so calm that my husband decided to stay and help clear away for a little bit. I drove the boys home and they chattered about everything they had done.

Sounds fun, right?

Woohoo for fun!

Except, the moment we stepped back into our house, BAM! Meltdown Central. I quickly rang husband to come home too. And then, with occasional, short breaks, Spiderboy screamed, shouted, spat, raged, punched, kicked (no biting – small victory!) for four hours. We took turns to hold him and reassure him, we took turns to lose our tempers, we took turns to try and keep Batboy calm (only one short meltdown there!)

The thing is, when children experience, trauma, neglect or abuse in their early years, their little brains flood with cortisol (stress hormone). This activates survival mode, sometimes called fight or flight. The amygdala is the part of the brain linked to our emotions. An infant has not yet learnt to regulate their emotions, and so in those early years the amygdala is more vulnerable. While most infants are taught to regulate their feelings from birth by parents cuddling, rocking, soothing; children who are abused or neglected in those early years don’t learn this skill. And so instead of their amygdala learning, it is constantly being flooded with cortisol. This overstimulation leads to the amygdala becoming overactive, which leads to hypervigilance whereby anything and everything should be considered a threat.

I’m not a scientist, so feel free to correct any of my attempt at a scientific explanation. but what I am an expert in is my children. So let me explain what this looks like:

We went to a familiar place with familiar people. But it isn’t our safe home, and it isn’t just our safe family. And so Spiderboy is already overstimulated and hypervigilant. His amygdala is activated and his brain is flooded with cortisol. In other words, his brain is in panic mode.

There are people and things that are not normally there. We do things we don’t normally do. Cortisol level increasing. Now Spiderboy is able to enjoy the day seemingly like any other child. But even when he feels happy or excited, his brain is still pumping out cortisol. Remember, he wasn’t taught as an infant that he can control his emotions, and so his brain responds to any and every feeling with – PANIC!

And so over the two hours we spend there, his amygdala is working away up there. New smells, new sounds, new sights. All of these things could be dangerous, and why wouldn’t they be? Everything needs to be checked, assessed and then held in mind in order for Spiderboy to keep himself safe. Amazingly, he manages to do this, participate in all the activities, and remember most of his social graces at the same time.

Now by the time we get home, Spiderboy’s brain has been switched to panic mode for two hours. He is exhausted from assessing all potential dangers. And so as he steps through the door into his safe place, he no longer holds all of that inside his little body. The anxiety and the excitement burst out in fists, and kicks and shouts – how else is it supposed to get out?

And so for two hours of fun, we had four hours of rage, and then fallout into the next day too. Now let me ask you this – is fun really so fun anymore?

So please excuse me if I no longer say “Woohoo for fun!” But instead grit my teeth, don my body armour and try to be as boring as possible.

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Image: flickr user jon hayes (2007)

 

Why I made my boys shift rubble…

Before the boys arrived, we ripped up the patio in our back garden to lay a lawn. At our local tip, you can only dispose of 10 bags of rubble a year. Once we’d used our quota we had piles of rubble left lying around. We’re planning to have a BBQ to celebrate our Adoption Day, it’s given us a focus to finish clearing the garden and so this morning we all got out there together. I dug up the weeds, my husband mowed the lawn and the boys moved the rubble into big sacks ready for the tip.

It may sound a little bit like child labour, but let me assure you that they enjoyed themselves! (Lifting and smashing rocks – what little boy wouldn’t enjoy that!)

Here’s 5 reasons why I made my boys shift rubble…

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Not the actual rubble…

1. It gets them outdoors

When the weather is nice, we love to be outside. We don’t have a massive garden, and so footballs often go over the fence. Strong as my boys are, I’m not sure they could get the rubble over!

2. It’s good exercise

Physical exercise is good for the health, good for the mind, and good for getting kids to sleep. They love to show off their strength, so when it comes to rubble, the bigger the better!

3. It’s a goal-oriented task

Having a goal gives them a chance to practice their concentration – they focus on the task for a lot longer when they’ve got something to aim for. It also gives them opportunities to succeed, even at something small, which boosts their low self esteem.

4. It teaches them social responsibility

When all of the family are working together, each with different jobs, it teaches them what it means to be part of a community. It also gives them a sense of responsibility for the family home.

5. The rubble is really in the way…

The rubble has been there for a while, and having two boys who will move it for us is really useful!

Image: Flickr user Derek Bridges (2012)

 

Heaven v. Disneyland

We have a new favourite song as a family at the moment. It’s called Home in Heaven by Slugs and Bugs and we sing it at the tops of our voices wherever we’re driving. I find it really encouraging personally, and it’s something I really want my boys to trust in.

I’ve got a home in heaven,

And my Lord will be there too.

I’ve got a home in heaven,

He is making all things new!

It’s based on Revelation 21, a passage that speaks about a time to come when God will remake this broken world.

There will be no more death, for He has made it so,

No more pain, tears or sorrow.

Write this down, He says these words are true,

He is making all things new!

It is a massive promise, from a God with a track record of promise keeping. As Christians it is a hope that we cling to. That one day there will be an end to suffering and to sin. That the world will be made perfect, and so will His people. The way it was meant to be.

But how easily I doubt God’s Word! disney

It feels like at the moment, everybody is going to Disneyland, Florida – my most favourite place in the world. And then the grumblings start deep in my soul. If only we had more money… if only we prioritised family holidays abroad… it’s not fair… grumble grumble grumble. And before long I find myself believing that a fortnight holiday to Consumer Central will satisfy me. The truth is, I’ve been there before. 5 times.

How many times do I need to go before I am satisfied? Or maybe, just maybe, I will never be satisfied. C.S. Lewis once wrote  “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” How true! And yet how easily I forget!

Do I really, deep down in my heart, trust that the world God has promised for His people will be a disappointment? Do I actually believe that Disneyland is better than the New Creation? I know in my head that this is not the case. But how easily my heart forgets and yearns after worldly pleasures that cannot offer lasting satisfaction. I was made for another world. A world where I live in perfect relationship with my Maker, and perfect relationship with His world and His people. I long for that Home in Heaven. And while I wait I will keep pointing myself and my sons to a place that is better than Disneyland.

At times like this, all I can do is cry out with John (the writer of Revelation) “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Mother knows best…

At the start of the adoption process we were very keen to take all the help and advice we could. We were aware that a lot of people are experts in this area, and we are not. We attended a lot of training courses and tried to absorb as much wisdom as possible.

Even after our boys arrived, we would ring or email our social worker often to ask advice and check in. It felt wrong to make decisions or do ‘parenting’ without permission.

When we were first matched with our boys, we were told that the Family Finder thought we were just the right fit, we were flattered. (We’ve since found out that she’d only met our boys twice at this point, so we’re not sure how she knew that.) Despite concerns that we are Christians, and that we didn’t want to send our children to nursery, their social worker agreed that we were the best parents for them.

When we first met our boys’ social worker, we were keen to glean as much information as possible. She was obviously going to be the expert on our boys(!!!) One questions we asked at that first meeting was who are their favourite superheroes. She confidently told us Hulk and Iron Man. Then we met the foster carers and we started to doubt if the social worker knew our boys that much! The foster carer told us that their favourites were Spiderman and Batman! At this point we had already ordered our introduction toys – Hulk Bear and Iron Bear. Grrrr.

And now, six months in, we are at a very different point in our journey. We have asked for some extra support to help us manage the boys’ anxieties, big feelings and the resulting CPV. For a long time our (agency) social worker has been trying to arrange a meeting with the LA to review the Adoption Support Plan and apply to the Adoption Support Fund.

Suddenly, the same people who picked us as the best parents for these children no longer think we are capable of knowing what they need. It’s our fault because we are too intense and should have sent them to nursery. There isn’t a problem because the foster carer (who didn’t ‘believe’ in attachment issues) never felt there was.

Fortunately, through we our agency we have access to CFAS and were able to have a consultation with a therapist. Just as I was beginning to doubt myself we met with a lovely lady who talked everything through with us and reassured us that we were doing the right things to help our boys, and that we were right to ask for support.2242240802_8aaa5f0845_o.jpg

It was a wonderful meeting for another reason too. It taught me to have confidence in myself as their Mum. I know my boys better than any social worker ever will, I am their Mum. Yes, we need expert advice and input at times, and we are so thankful for our wonderful social worker and all of her help. But there is a certain intuition that comes with the unconditional love of a mother for her child. And no social worker will ever have that.

Image: Flickr user Malay Maniar (2008)

 

One of those days…

Today has been one of those days.
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No, not one of those days… 

😊🤗😄

One of those days!

The thing is adoption (and parenting in general) is filled with lots of those days, and those days.

It all started when the boys managed to stay in their room (note still not quite beds!!) until the sun rose on their Gro Clock. It meant we didn’t start the day getting grumpy with them and them with us. It meant we could shower them with praise to set them up for the day. If we look hard enough, there is always something to praise, to show them they are valued and motivate them to co-operate!

We reviewed our visual timetable and discovered today was the day we get their new bikes! The bikes were never a bribe, but they did seem to inspire obedience! Gifts are given freely, bribes have strings attached. Giving our children gifts without strings sometimes is an illustration to them that our love comes without strings attached.

After breakfast, the boys helped tidy away the laundry. I love getting them to help out with housework. Taking responsibility for their home means it is just that: their home. Plus it’s good training for them, often useful for me, and nearly always becomes a fun game!

Once we were dressed (and had narrowly avoided a minor meltdown) we set off for the park. Our favourite park is next to Spiderboy’s new school and we go often as we’re preparing him for September. This morning it was empty and the sun was shining bright.

The boys feel safe there, it is familiar, it is never busy and it is surrounded by wide open space. Watching your children playing carefree should never be taken for granted. We played for an hour, and we were just feeling ready to leave as another family arrived. Thankfully it was polling day, and the community centre was open so we could use the toilets.

After a snack we went on to the farm. We have annual passes there and we make good use of them. Parenting in summer is a million times easier than in the winter! We arrived just in time to feed the lambs. 

We also groomed and rode donkeys, cuddled rabbits and guinea pigs and rescued some escapee lambs! We love our farm, all of the staff are happy to let the boys help with jobs, or teach us about the animals. (There was a small, chicken related incident, but the less said the better.)

After we got home and had some lunch, it was Quiet Time. At Quiet Time you either sleep, read a book or watch a film, the idea being I can get some jobs done. In reality I either spend the time soothing Batboy and trying to teach him to feel safe enough to go to sleep without​ me, or needing to sit with Spiderboy while he watches a DVD so he knows I haven’t forgotten him. 

Today however, Batboy went straight down for a nap and Spiderboy settled happily in front of The Lion King. And so I managed to pay some bills, roast a chicken, load the dishwasher, hang up laundry and set another load going, make two weeks worth of pasta lunches to freeze for husband to take to work, and drink a cup of tea! It was really satisfying to use my time well, and reassuring  to get some much needed jobs done! Not to mention getting to listen to the radio for 90 minutes! Sometimes housework is as soothing as any form of self care.

The Lion King finished before Batboy woke up, so I was able to do some reading practice with Spiderboy. Cue loads of over the top praise, eye contact and one to one attention, all of which he really needs and loves. 

Then it was time to go and pick Daddy and the new bikes up. The boys were so excited that they were getting big boy bikes, and I was so excited that we were the ones giving them to them!

The boys loved their bikes. They didn’t say thank you. We really want to teach good manners, but today I didn’t mind because I’m glad they take it for granted that we give them good things. We are their parents. That sense of entitlement that often drives me mad in other children, fills me with joy in my own! At one point as Spiderboy cycled round the playground he shouted at the top of his voice “thanks Dad!” and my heart exploded.

After much riding, falling off, ringing bells and taking bottles in and out of holders, we set off home. There was some pasta leftover from the lunches I made so tea was easy, and then after a quick shower we had family Bible time. We were reading Revelation (in this children’s Bible).

The boys are really starting to engage with Bible time, they ask questions and make links with other parts they know. We know a song about the passage we were reading too, so the day ended in spontaneous singing and snuggling.

The passage reminded me though that even our very best days here are nothing in comparison to the perfect eternity God promises for His people when we are finally with Him.

Today has been one of those days. We all have them. Those almost perfect days. Those days that make all the others a little bit easier.

Guitars and Waistcoats… two very different boys.

It started this morning, almost as soon as we woke. Spiderboy had specific breakfast instructions, what bowl, what spoon, whether the spoon should be in the bowl or not. Batboy devoured whatever I put in front of him. Spiderboy needed a wipe for each little splash. Batboy seemed to be cleaning the table, and himself, with milk.IMG_20170312_212054409.jpg

Then we went upstairs. Spiderboy chose a shirt, tie, waistcoat and jacket with skinny jeans that matched his tie. Batboy wore jeans and a t-shirt. Spiderboy wanted to check the sometimes, always, never rule as he did his buttons. Batboy’s t-shirt was back to front. I combed their hair, Spiderboy’s is fine and silky, it won’t go out of place. Batboy’s is thick and fuzzy, it won’t go in to place.

The boys packed a rucksack for church. Spiderboy packed lots of books, and a game to play with his friends. Batboy packed only his guitar. When we got there, Batboy charged in while Spiderboy held back. Spiderboy read his books and then found some other children to play pairs with. Batboy chatted with adults and watched the music practice, standing as close as humanly possible. When it was time to go to their groups, Spiderboy clung to me and protested. Batboy went happily with the teachers.

I won’t go on, you get the point!

We adopted a ‘sibling group’. But we also adopted two individuals. They came as a pair, but they are also separate. And they both have very distinctive natures! When we went to Matching Panel, one of their questions was about how we would meet their individual needs. I’m not sure what we answered, but it must have been good enough. I remember thinking at the time that it wouldn’t be so tricky. We’d only read their CPRs (Child Permanence Report – basically everything there is to know about a child before you commit to being their parent), and they didn’t sound that different.

It has since become apparent that while the CPRs were accurate and detailed when it comes to medical and family history, it did not give a very good picture of who our boys are. There was clearly a lot of copying and pasting, and also guessing on the part of whoever wrote it!

We were told that both boys loved superheroes. Not true. We were told that they both loved dressing up. Not true. We were told that both boys loved Stick Man. Not true. We were told that they both watched CBeebies. Not true.

Our boys share many things. Biological parents, early life experiences, foster carers, hair colour, eye colour. But they do not share temperaments, preferences, challenges.

When they first arrived, we did not know them so well. We tried to maintain a standard, therapeutic parenting approach. We quickly found that something that worked for one boy, would not work for the other. Although they have lived through the same things, the fears, anxieties, anger and happy memories that they took from them are very different.

We are still getting to know our boys individually, and our family as a whole. But I wonder if the phrase ‘sibling group’ is very helpful in the preparation and matching stage. It makes it sound like one thing. But adopting two children instead of one isn’t just an extra mouth to feed or needing another bedroom. It’s a whole person’s worth of extra feelings and challenges to overcome.

It’s also a whole person’s worth of extra fun, cuddles and laughter. Everyday I am confused by their differences, but in awe of their shared resilience and courage. Every day I am amazed that God has blessed me with not one, but two amazing, wonderful little men.