"Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them." -Dorothy Day
As long as people are afraid of foster care, nothing will improve for kids and families who need help. Without awareness of the nuances and people of foster care, the general public will continue to be afraid. Here are four tidbits about foster care that will help anyone feel a little more connected, a little less fearful and removed from the "foster care crisis."
Event sidenote: Join us in Colorado Springs this week to talk with real foster parents while creating something beautiful. Sign up here.
1. Kids are so much fun. And kids in foster care are kids. Fun kids. I remember the joy of watching my toddler son hold and feed a newborn for the first time. I remember watching that baby smile, laugh, and sing for the first time, as we fostered him for the first few months of his life, and continue to babysit for his mom years later. My life will forever be richer because I got to watch a preteen discover the joy of acting and performing after an impossible school year. Even among difficult behaviors with the little sisters we fostered, it was the fun of getting out the watercolors and blanket forts that forever reminds me of their inherent worthiness, and the innocence and potential within a child. It's easy to think that "these kids" come with too much baggage, and I'm the first to admit that fostering isn't easy. But they are still children, and it is always a privilege to nurture a child's joy, even for a few moments.
2. A kid might not feel lucky to be in my home. (And she shouldn't be expected to.)
Even if I have the most kid-friendly, toy-filled, award-winning foster home, kids won't necessarily want to be in my home. They won't automatically feel safe.
It's easy to assume that, in a good foster home, a child will automatically feel comforted, safe, and happy. That she'll feel grateful, even. That he will relax into the home. (Some do. I know a little boy who arrived in a loving foster home due to abuse by his adoptive parents, and he immediately settled in, claiming the new space and family as his own. He knew he would be treated kindly there, and he wanted that.)
But foster parents are trained to not expect the child to feel "right at home." The excellent foster parents I know in Colorado take great joy in preparing their homes to be uniquely welcoming for each new child (new clothes if needed, carefully selected decorations and toys). But we learn as we go not to assume the child will like the foster home "better" than the child's own home and/or family (and do we really want to take such a prideful position, anyway?). Kids don't care about approval and state licenses and safety-stamped homes. It's still unfamiliar. In a child's eye, their "normal" usually feels safe (even if I, an adult from a different social circle, see danger in that home environment).
Strangers, as kind as they may be, still aren't mom and dad. Plenty of kids in foster care have loving parents who have not committed terrible abuses against them. In most cases, it takes time for a child to feel like they fit.
This often means creative thinking on the part of the foster parent, to incorporate as many familiar, safe people and comforts as possible to reinforce the child's sense of home and inner peace. That can look like visits with aunties, uncles, siblings, and mom and dad as approved by the team. It can look like extra effort to get the child's favorite blankets, stuffed animals, and toys from mom and dad, and make sure they go with the child when he or she moves out of the foster home. It means not being offended by the child preferring their own ratty blankie to the new one we bought. It means humility, without which, we will never be a soft place to land. As foster parents, we have to calm down our inner excitement to have the child fit right in, and let them tell us what they need to feel at home. Listen, listen, listen.
(To educate yourself more about the fear that can keep kids from settling in, watch this short video, then join us for Empowered to Connect in April for two days of free teaching based on this whole-child approach to parenting.)
3. Kids need privacy. If you meet a child who is in foster care, don't be nosy. Cultivate the skill of being interested and kind, without presuming that you are entitled to their story. It's similar to finding the "right thing" to say to your friend who has cancer. You don't want to focus just on the cancer, but you don't want to pretend everything is perfect. Most important: Don't ignore the person because you feel awkward! Rule of thumb: treat the kid like a kid. Don't pry--to the child, or the caretaker. Ask questions like you would of any other kid: what do you like to do/watch/read? Do you have any superpowers? Tell me about your favorite people. (And, my favorite, to the caretaker, "Can I drop off dinner on Tuesday next week?" We need more neighbors who are aware and sensitive and helpful to foster care needs.)
4. Kids don't need an extra label. Want one easy takeaway from this article? Even if you don't run into a foster family anytime soon? Stop saying "foster kids." It's a simple, mindful discipline, taking a second to figure out how to reference a child without reinforcing the idea that they belong in a separate segment of society. "Kids in foster care" almost always works. Another example: "She's living in a foster home" vs. "She's a foster kid." This small language adjustment won't fix their lives, but will change how we think of them. Kid first. Human first. Dependence on this system: secondary. And hopefully, temporary. Words matter.