November 21, 2016

What We Knew

The class was required for our foster care license, which, if I’m honest, is possibly the only reason my husband and I went.  There were plenty of other places we would have preferred to be on that Tuesday evening.  We sat near the back of the stuffy room, far enough away from the front that we could pass notes or whisper to each other without drawing too much attention to ourselves, but not all the way in the back back.  After all, we didn’t want to be rude.

If I remember correctly, the instructor that night used a frozen candy bar as an illustration of an abused child’s “hardened” heart.  Heating it up too fast, with a blow-dryer for example, or warm water or in your hands, would cause it to melt on the outside and remain ice-cold on the inside. The answer, apparently, was to be patient and let it thaw on it’s own until it reached room temperature.  That, he promised, is how you “thaw” the heart of a traumatized child. 

I do confess that it took a lot of willpower that evening not to roll our eyes.  Good thing we weren’t sitting too close to the front.

Except for the licensing requirement, we didn’t really need to take this parenting class.  We already knew pretty much everything there was to know about raising children.  We both come from solid, in-tact families, with parents who had set good examples for us while we were growing up.  We both were well-educated young professionals who had successfully graduated from college.   We had one whole shelf in our home library devoted to popular parenting books.   And even without all of that, we had an abundance of competence and common sense.  I mean, how hard could it be?

But then . . . we had kids.  Or more specifically, we had foster kids.  And we very quickly found out that what we thought we knew about parenting was woefully inadequate.  In fact, to quote a good ol’ Southern boy we know, we have often said to each other over the years, I ain’t got nothin’!!

So many of the underlying themes of the parenting books that we read, along with the advice from our friends, the instruction from parenting-class teachers, and our own common sense was this:  Parents reap what they sow.  In other words, assuming the Blank Slate philosophy, children begin at square one, with a “blank slate” if you will, and it is the parents’ responsibility to fill the slate.  To teach and train and invest and mold a child into a beautiful, unique, vibrant adult.

What those books and teachers and friends forgot to mention, however, is that children are not blank slates.  They have traits and personalities and characteristics that were determined genetically before they were even born.  Parents can (and should!) give their very best to raising their children and nurturing them in a way that allows them to reach their highest potential.  But ultimately, that potential is finite, limited by the anatomy and physiology and DNA that has already been imprinted on their lives before they were even born.

And furthermore, what we discovered the very first minute that the very first foster child entered our home, is that even if they were blank slates when they were born, they certainly aren’t by the time they get to us.  They are no longer at square one.  Their memories and behaviors and world views have already been impacted – sometimes in extremely negative ways.  Their first-hand experiences with neglect, violence, abandonment, fear, starvation, pain, and sexual abuse have already left ugly sharpie-like marks across their slates.

And while consistent love and nurture and structure and training and bucket-loads of positive encouragement can go a long way towards healing those wounds – to get back to square one - the scars of their early childhood never completely fade.  They have become a permanent part of the adult that the child will some day become.  Yes, we absolutely give the very best of ourselves to these children, but we always keep in mind that our influence in their lives is not the only one.

We knew before children came into our home, that giving the very best of ourselves to a wounded child would take time and intention.  That their healing would not just happen by accident.  That we would need to be fully devoted to them and their needs.

But somehow we also believed what the books said - that we, just the two of us, were a complete family.  That a child would be a “welcome addition” to our family, but should never be the center of it.  One of our favorite parenting books spent a whole chapter talking about that very thing!  About parents making “couch time” a priority and training their children never to interrupt that time.  About weekly date nights without the kids.  About teaching children to know their place.

And that philosophy may be true to an extent, and it may apply to healthy, well-adjusted children.  They join the family and they learn how they fit into that family.  They know their place.  However, for injured, wounded, broken children, children with extreme physical and emotional damage, that principle doesn’t necessary apply.  Their needs, at least when they first come into our home, do need to be a priority. 

Imagine a doctor in the Emergency Room explaining to a young patient lying bleeding on the gurney, her injuries at risk of becoming fatal if she doesn’t get immediate intervention.  What if the doctor said to her, you are welcome here, but you are not the center of our focus.  You are not our priority.  This is where my co-workers and I work, and we will still be here long after you are gone.  So don’t interrupt our scheduled time together.  Make sure you remember your place.

Of course not!  The medical team would do everything in it’s power, often working long hours even after their shift has ended, to ensure that this young patient survives! 

And it’s the same with foster children who come into our home.  They need an incredible amount of love and attention and intervention.  Some for longer than others, but every one of them at the beginning.  Their needs don’t end just because we need to have a weekly date night.  They need to know, not that they are “welcome members of our family,” but that they are treasured!  Wanted!  Chosen!  And that we will work 24/7, long after our “shift” has ended, to ensure that they survive.

Does that mean that my husband and I neglect our marriage and never work on strengthening our relationship?  Of course not.  It just means that we recognize that during certain seasons of our life, a wounded child is, as a matter of fact, the center of our universe.

So what happens when we have more than one child?  When more than one little human in our home needs our undivided attention?  Somehow we thought, before raising children, that we would be fair parents, making sure to spend equal time with each of our children, scheduling time each day for one-on-one conversations with each one.  Meeting their individual needs and nurturing their unique talents.

Which is pretty much a myth, especially when there is always at least one who has special needs.  When a child is in the hospital, how can Mom be in two places at one place at a time?  When a child’s trach gets pulled out or he needs oxygen or it’s time for a g-tube feeding or one of his machines alarms . . . do we make them wait because we had already scheduled to give individual attention to another child at that time?  Is it fair that one child with a learning disability needs much more help with homework than her sibling who can work independently?  What about when a child’s screaming, out-of-control tantrums sabotage a family outing?  Is parenting fair?  It can’t be.

However, we have found that something more important than fairness tends to happen in our family.  Our children learn by default to show compassion.  They learn how to serve one another.  They learn, when they are faced with disappointment that something (or someone) hijacked their plans, to demonstrate humility and patience and forgiveness.  We don’t have to look for service projects or outreach opportunities in our community.  They can be found every day with their siblings, right here in our own home.  In our family that isn’t always fair.

So what do we do when a child’s tantrums sabotage a family outing?  When their monstrous behavior makes it nearly impossible to take them out in public?  I distinctly remember witnessing a child’s tantrum in the store many years ago.  I thought to myself, I can’t believe that mother hasn’t trained her child better!  I would never let my child act that way!

And that’s when God laughed.  It wasn’t too much later that I found myself in that very same store, not with a screaming toddler but with a screaming 8-year old foster child.  An 80-pound 8-year old who was out-of-control with rage!  I looked around in a panic, for what I’m not sure.  To see who was nearby to witness this mortifying moment?  A guardian angel to suddenly appear to rescue me?  Writing on the wall telling me the heck I should do?  This was maybe the first time, but definitely not the last time, I thought to myself:  I ain’t got nothin!

Over time, what we knew, or rather, what we thought we knew, has been replaced.  Ideals have been replaced with reality.  Enforcing rules has been replaced with fostering relationships.  And the popular parenting books on our shelves have been replaced with books about childhood trauma, healing from grief, and forming attachments.

But more importantly, our pride has been replaced with humility. Even after caring for 60+ children, the arrival of each new one is an opportunity to learn.  With each one, we recognize anew how much we don’t know.  Does this child who is grieving need extra patience and gentleness, or does he need the security that comes from strict authority?  Does he need the predictability of firm boundaries and structure, or might he thrive with more freedom and flexibility?  How do we balance his many needs with the needs of our marriage and the other members of our family?  What is the best way to replace the negative influences in his early childhood with positive influences going forward? How do we teach him that his behavior is unacceptable, while still letting him know, every second of every day, that we unwaveringly love and accept him?

We still don’t really get the point of that candy bar illustration all those years ago, but we do recognize the importance of foster parent training.  We realize that maybe we should have paid more attention in those early classes.  Today, if you see us in one of the classes, we will be sitting near the front, soaking in every word, and most likely taking notes.

We knew everything about raising kids.  Until we had kids.  We realized very quickly, I ain’t got nothin!   Today we have experience, and experience has taught us many powerful lessons.  It has taught us humility.  It has taught us the importance of seeking wise counsel.  The patience and perseverance that is necessary to understand the unique needs and individuality of each child placed in our home.  The value of applicable books and classes, and the absolute necessity of connecting with others who are on the same journey, or even better, with others who have gone before us.  Our experience has taught us that an open, teachable heart is one of the most important qualities that foster parents can have.

What we knew back then . . . it’s nothing compared to the awe and wonder of what we have yet to learn.

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