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You’re Number….. Two?

2012 October 21

A repost from last year.  I was thinking of this one yesterday after spending a great day with my daughter. One of our kids is always trying to figure out who is best; whose eggs are better; which one of these two is stronger. But I can tell you it’s not bad being second best. Not at all.

“You will always be second best,” Roy told me. “A kid would rather be sitting in an empty apartment next to their drugged out parent than next to you on a couch in your house.”

Roy knows what he’s talking about; a foster parent for 38 years, he and his wife have seen and accepted it all. He’s one of the people I talked to early on in the process.

What Roy told me was sobering, but it made sense. Familial relationships are complex, but in a way very simple. We can pick our friends, but we can’t pick our families, and as bad as things can be that’s still their mom or dad out there.

Many of the stories we’d heard in class illustrated this point perfectly.

“Foam Finger” by Jeff Williamson

One of these case studies was about a little girl who I’ll call Amy. She had been to several homes until she found the right one: A loving home with other children and two foster parents who knew what they were doing.

Amy had been “a problem everywhere she went” but in this home she turned into an honor student. She kept this up into high school; blossoming into a very nice young lady.

Because of past problems, visitations with her mother had to be done at the agency office. Amy dresses up and travels more than an hour for these visits. Sometimes her mother shows up and upsets her. Other times, her mother doesn’t show up and when she’s called tells the social worker she’s busy and she will see Amy next time.

Still, when the next visit comes around, this young lady will get dressed up and travel the hour and a half to see her mother. That’s her family. For Amy, her mother is number one.

Being number two may not sound all that thrilling. After all, no one remembers who came in second.

Well, almost never. Neil Armstrong was the first man to step onto the moon. Buzz Aldrin was then second. I saw the moon landing on television while it was happening.

Aldrin might have been second. But hey, he made it to the moon!

Maybe being number two isn’t so bad after all.

One Time Too Many

2012 October 16

“Kids will do what they think they need to do to survive,” he told me. “Whatever it is they need to do so you won’t hurt them.”

One of the saddest stories I’d ever heard was told to me by a man who had nearly forty years experience as a foster parent.

It was about the boy he’d given up on.

When “Mark” came to live with them he was ten years old and had already been in as many homes. The first six months were very positive, which should have told them something right there.

When the compliance comes easy and the kid acts like he loves you more than any adult he’s ever met it’s probably not because you’re such a fantastic incredibly awesome foster parent.

Mark was very affectionate, always wanted to give and receive hugs. He even listened and tried to help out around the house.

But it wasn’t real for this boy.

Once the “honeymoon” was over, he became aggressively defiant and even violent. And when they hugged him and poured their love on him, there was … nothing.

It was as if they had a dead boy.

With other children in the house they couldn’t handle Mark. They had to make a choice and they did.

“I will go to my grave regretting giving up on that little boy,” he told me through tears. And I believe him; this had all happened some thirty years ago and it still gripped him emotionally as he told the story to me.

There’s no telling what happened to this little boy, now a man somewhere, but probabilities indicate it’s nothing good. Somewhere along the line Mark was discarded one time too many. Eventually he shut down and not even good foster parents could reach him; it’s like he was no longer home.

Maybe if he’d met the right parents the second or third time things would have been different. But each successive move shaves off about one year of development in some area, unique to each child; for Mark it completely eroded his ability to bond and trust.

We have to do better.

No Surrender

2012 September 21

“So,” I asked my friend Roy, who has nearly forty years of foster care experience, “when does the fun and rewarding part start?”

Feel like giving up? Throwing in the towel? Or is it kicking the can down the road?

Does it seem like you are making two steps forward only to take three steps back?

Well, then things are probably progressing normally.

“White Flag” by Ambrozjo

Peeling back the onion of a foster child’s emotional history can be traumatic and discouraging not just for them. Even things that would be normal for kids around that age can take on a whole new color in light of events from their past.

The emotional baggage they carry, sometimes not even knowing it or what it really is that hurts them, rears up at unexpected times and under circumstances that are at first unpredictable.

All of this can be very discouraging and may explain one of the reasons why foster children move from home to home. It’s sad, but there is a burn out effect, exacerbated by the all the self doubt that keeps whispering, “Maybe I’m not the best parent for this child,” because the stakes are that high: Mess this up and a life gets messed up.

Foster parenting is hard. You have to help these kids make progress and at the same time keep yourself sane. It’s easy to get your feelings hurt because they want someone else, whether it’s their real mom and dad or their idea of what they really want their mom and dad to be.

But then you get to sit on the porch and listen to them playing with their friends, and you know they’re feeling at home.

You get to reflect on all the progress they’ve made and what different people that have become from what they were before; they are becoming who they really are all because you provided a different environment.

So, keep giving hugs when you don’t get hugged back. Keep telling them you love them even when you don’t hear it back.

The fun part is where and when you find it; grab those moments and keep them – it’s okay to be greedy.

Never give up.

Road Tested

2012 August 29

A few weeks ago during his “Ultimate Issues Hour”, radio host Dennis Prager recommended that couples travel together before getting married (separate hotel rooms, of course). The idea being that travel can be both fun as well as stressful and you are stuck most of the time with the people you are travelling with.

If you can travel together you can live together.

“On the Way Home” by Juan Vasquez

So, what could be a better road test than packing two adults, one teenager, and two children with everyone’s stuff into a small SUV or other vehicle for a 900 mile drive? It helps too if your destination is your far flung family.

Hours on end on the road, sudden restroom breaks, and meal stops will let you know how much or how little you’ve jelled as a family. A successful trip will tell you whether or not you and your kids have developed a level of comfort with one another.

And trust. That elusive bonding solution reveals itself in at least their being themselves, their laughter, even their sleep.

I’m happy to report that the trip was a success and the family has now been officially road tested.

Two Enemies, Part 2: Expectations

2012 August 17

“What are your expectations of foster children?” the case worker doing our final interview before certification asked us.

“That they will be kids,” Jennifer said.

“I don’t have any,” was my answer.

Either one will get you there. Jennifer’s answer is the recognition that they are children and everything is filtered through the child mind; rather than an adult in a smaller body. They deal with things as children and, most importantly, they want to be children just like everybody else.

My answer is what I strive to maintain. Pride may be Enemy Number One, but expectations come in very close as Enemy Number 2!

Expectations will knock you off your game and become a self fulfilling prophecy of failure. Kids who’ve experienced trauma, abandonment (often repeatedly), and abuse do not react “normally” to every situation and circumstance.

“Allein – Lonely” by Jan Hutsching

I’ve had it said to me once, “You’re just taking on someone else’s problems.”

My response, “Wow, that is so weird… so are they!”

These things have been imposed upon them; don’t expect them to just shrug them off because you came along.

And don’t expect them to shower gratitude on you for taking them into your home. They are too preoccupied with waiting for you to let them down to be bothered with that. What they might be grateful for is if their actual parents got their acts and themselves together and they could all be the family they really want. That’s not likely to happen. However much they may recognize this themselves it is still disappointing and heartbreaking. They have expectations too.

Keeping all that in mind is difficult. On a personal level, I let my expectations creep in now and then. Especially driving home I often look forward to being greeted at the door by happy children. It can happen. Sometimes. But expecting it can be disappointing; and when I let that happen I’ve taken my eye off the ball and made it about me.

Don’t let either of these enemies win. Be vigilant and above all honest with yourself about how much Pride and Expectations are interfering with your goal of healing these kids and breaking them out of the cycle they were living in.

It’s called winning.

Two Enemies, Part 1: PRIDE

2012 August 4

You’re two worst enemies are: Pride and Expectations. Either one of these will knock you so far off your game that failure will seem a mere formality. Over the next two posts I will tackle both of these enemies as they relate to foster parenting.

God’s word in Proverbs has several things to say about pride. As one can imagine, all negative.

“King Peacock 5” by Arthur

Proverbs groups pride with arrogance, evil behavior, and perverse speech (8:13). In a word, pride is evil. It is responsible for evil results and is evil in itself.

If your motivation is from pride you won’t accomplish any good. Certainly you will not help anyone. Worse, you take an already damaged, abandoned kid and make it all worse by proving to them once again that adults do not care about them and can’t be counted upon for anything. That would be actual, real, unmitigated evil.

Pride leads to failure (11:2), and ultimately destruction just as it did before the Fall (16:18). Unfortunately, it can be to someone else’s destruction that your pride leads. As a foster parent you will, plainly speaking, fail the child or children.

I know of a real case of a couple who took in three children and now, even though all three are still “in the system” they no longer live with these people. They did nothing to help the kids but they received plenty of pats on the back for “doing good” in the eyes of others and they have received their reward (see Matthew 6:1-6); which was their point.

Those pats on the back, by the way, come from well meaning friends, family, and co-workers. These are dangerous if you let them go to your head: you’ll want to guard against taking it all in without a healthy dose of salt and humility. Be gracious and polite, and tell them Who you are doing this for.

Pride prevents us from taking advise (13:10).

It will flat out prevent us from even seeking it. Looking back over this year I know we could not have done this without the wisdom of others. Nor could we have done this while sticking with what we know and telling ourselves the kids just “were not getting it“.

We had to be willing to adjust strategies and approaches when we found something wasn’t working. Pride, if we had let it get in the way, would have stopped us from even considering what we were doing wasn’t working.

Pride comes before the Fall. Or, in this context: Pride comes before the Failure (23:23).

Don’t let this happen. This is the most important thing God has called you to do. Seek His wisdom and remember what He thinks of children.

Hugs and I Love Yous

2012 June 30

“Keep loving on them,” Roy told me. “Keep hugging them and telling them you love them.”

This was one of many words of advice we received from people who have been where we are now. Notice there’s no mention of the kids hugging you back. That will happen sometimes, and you may even get an “I love you” here and there. But making that a condition for what you do kind of defeats the whole unconditional love thing.

"Mom and Kid" by Rafael Marchesini

Children in foster care, even if they are pre-adoption, have divided loyalties. Their bio-parents are still they’re mom and dad; they’re blood relatives are still part of their memory lives. Where you fit in the spectrum probably is going to change only in degree.

Kids deserve to be loved and they all need to be assured of your love for them; kids in foster care even more so. The only way to give them that assurance is to keep demonstrating your love for them, whether or not you get a response; or what I like to call the flat arms. Here is where your expectations can really get in the way. Don’t let them.

This doesn’t mean they can’t grow to love you as you love them. But it takes time. They’ve already learned that people who profess to love them let them down, and what they say today isn’t going to apply tomorrow. Adults in their lives have continually abandoned them.

The only way to prove that you genuinely love them, because they are so loveable and worthy of being loved, and you’re not going to abandon them, is to outlast their doubt and skepticism.

Keep up the hugs and I love yous.

My First Father’s Day

2012 June 18

“Come around the corner and see what I got for Father’s Day!”

Yesterday was my first Father’s Day. The boys picked out a toolkit for me and made cards, but that wasn’t what I wanted to show my friend Steve. Who brings a toolkit to church?

I wanted to show him my new daughter, “Samantha” (not her real name), who moved in with us last Wednesday. A really good advance present if you’re looking for any shopping ideas for next year.

"Necktie" by Jean Scheijen

Just turned sixteen, “Samantha” is the boys’ half sister and, except for the last three months or so, has lived with her brothers most of their lives. We got the phone call last Wednesday afternoon; there was really nothing to think about before saying “yes”.

Having the family back together this past week has given everyone a lift just when we need it. We began our week, as often will happen in any family, a little rocky but we finished well.

I received three handmade Father’s Day cards and, though I know I’m the not the “best” dad, or the “strongest”, or even the dad they are yearning for (see, I do know I have three really good reasons to be better every day.

Being asked to do that by children is a great gift for my first Father’s Day.

“I Have Hidden Your Word…” All Over the House!

2012 June 3

Well, I didn’t really hide it all that well. As our youngest foster child put it: “It’s everywhere!”

In our church memorizing verses is a big deal for the kids. Our oldest foster child found this out at camp when he discovered he was unable to compete in some contests during the evening where kids were given the grade level and clues to the verses Ranger Dave wanted to hear. The prizes varied, from a bottle of Sprite to a licorice whip. It really didn’t matter. What mattered is that “Josh” discovered he was about three years behind!

"Twist" by Jimi Backhouse

In Kid’s Club the boys and girls memorize a monthly verse. Some of them are extraordinarily good at it, recalling in fifth grade a verse they learned first or second grade. At the same time they learn God’s large wisdom in small pieces, as well as where in the Bible the verse appears and what it means for them.

So to help both “Josh” and his brother “Ethan” I looked to God’s wisdom, a verse I happened to remember!

“Write them [God’s commands] on the doorframe of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9).

Here, the Lord is instructing the Israelites in teaching their children God’s word. It was perfect! Not really a surprise there!

On our Word (Microsoft, that is) I typed out the first verse for first grade:

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11) and copied it until it filled the page.

Then I cut it into strips and taped it all over the house: on their bedroom mirror; the bathroom mirror; at all the place settings of our dining room table where we share our meals. And yes, even on the doors! Their door, our door, the bathroom door, and especially the front door they use to enter the mission field.

In no time both boys had memorized the verse and, more importantly, we had many conversations over the week about what the verse meant and Who said it.

To catch up we’re doing a monthly memory verse every week. This week’s verse:

“I have hidden Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11).

We look forward to the dinner conversations this verse will inspire as it gives us the opportunity to talk about Who we really sin against and the value of keeping God’s word not just in our heads but close to our hearts.

Did You Remember to…..?

2012 May 18

“How can you forget to feed the dogs?”

Back when our life was a well oiled, organized venture where things happened predictably on time, Sunday mornings were quiet, and the only  variable in the mix was that a reading night could be called at any time, we were free to be vocally critical of our friends with children.

"Don't Forget" by Julia Freeman-Woolpert

How times have changed!

The first time I left the dogs out back, forgetting all about them, I remembered those days and felt guilty for my past criticism. Yes, we’ve forgotten to feed them, left water dishes empty, and abandoned them standing in the kitchen wondering why we walked out without giving them a treat.

It’s not just the dogs. Leaving keys in the front door is always an easy one when coming back in with two screaming kids an armful of purchases that just have to be sorted out right now; leaving baseball gloves behind and having to turn back when the ballpark is right there; laying things down and not being able to find them until they turn up a week or two later in the most unusual places.

No one ever told us that we would immediately lose half our brains when we got kids!

But the important things we remember: baseball games, school events, when each child’s wrap around person is coming, visits by CYF and so on.

We remember these things because they are important to us and important to the children living in our home.

And they’re listed on our erasable white board calendar hanging in the kitchen.

A bargain at any price, the kids like to take turns being in charge of updating it, with the favorite being erasing the month just ended. Placed in a conspicuous spot we can be assured of looking at it every day to check where we’re supposed to be or who’s coming over.

Of course, the dogs would like us to add their meals to calendar.