So you want to be a foster parent.
We were at dinner at the Getty. The museum had booked a special tour and private dinner for the California Newspaper Editors Association, of which I was a member. The first course was an olive with a few drops of sauce and some greenery served on a full plate.
A woman across from me kept talking to my foster daughter, asking what I thought were inappropriate questions, such as why did she live with her aunt (yours truly) instead of her parents. My sixteen-year-old niece seemed to be handling herself nicely, talking about how much she enjoyed living in California rather than Ohio.
“Yes, yes,” said the woman. “But don’t your parents care?”
Shiela frowned and almost whispered, “They are drug addicts.”
“Well,” commented the woman, unkindly, “you are very lucky to have your aunt and be able to ‘make something’ of yourself.”
Suddenly there was a pause, the kind that happens naturally when 30 people are at dinner and they take a collective breath or whatever.
“Yes,” said my niece, straightening her shoulders and deciding to really give it back, saying loudly, “That’s why I am still a VIRGIN!”
It was very quiet now. No one could have missed that declaration. I paused, my fork still in the air. Finally a man a few chairs over said, very kindly, “That is wonderful! You should be very proud.”
I cut into my meat and smiled to show Shiela everything was okay. Let anyone think whatever they wanted.
Your foster children will embarrass you. They haven’t spent their lives developing social skills. They may get up and leave in the middle of dinner. They may eat with their hands. They may use their sleeve to wipe their nose.
This is where you come in. Perhaps that is what I liked best about being a foster parent was watching Shiela blossom, although it didn’t happen in the first few months.
When they first come to you, remember they had no choice about where they are. They may not like you. They may be extremely uncomfortable. You will be weird to them: the way you refuse to eat fast food, wash your hair all the time, have a phony smile on your face even when they can feel you are irritated. It may take a long time for them to relax and connect with you.
I think at first it is best to just observe. They have probably come from a very different culture than you. They may delight in telling strangers that their cousin plays in the NFL or that Jesus told them not to go to school. One of my foster children complained that his math book had all the wrong answers so it was better not to do homework. He hadn’t figured on a foster mom who was a whiz at math.
My best advice, however, is that no matter how outlandish some of their ideas are, they are probably not inventing any of them. They have heard them from their parents, siblings, neighbors, other children.
Take them very seriously. Listen to them. Yes, reading may give anyone a headache if you are reading at a second-grade level and your assigned book is grade six. One of my foster children, at 15, didn’t know her multiplication tables. Living with you is a very foreign environment and you are the one with weird expectations.
I don’t want to brag about what a great foster parent I was because I often gritted my teeth and tried not to hyperventilate. I had a fourteen-year-old foster girl who would appear from the bedroom wearing a bikini whenever there were male guests. I had to remind myself that it was learned behavior and it may not have been inappropriate at her real home. Her mother was a prostitute.
But this is the key: Most of them are stalled in their development. Underneath this already sexually weary young lady was a little girl who didn’t know how to dress herself. When we shopped for school clothes, she wanted to buy evening gowns and dress like a movie star on the red carpet. In her fantasies, this was how women dressed.
Don’t judge them. That is all they know. For them, living with you is like landing on Mars. It is as strange to them as they are to you, and they are afraid.
So if you tend to think you are better than they are, think again before you sign up for foster parenting. They certainly don’t need lectures, put-downs, and further embarrassment. Correct them with a soft stroke, and make the punishment fit the crime.
Listen to them. Try to figure out why they have come to these conclusions.
Here are some suggestions:
* When you must correct them, explain to them that you know it’s hard when they are asked to do something they aren’t used to doing. (This may be drinking from a glass instead of leaning over the sink or flushing the toilet.) Don’t judge the previous behavior! Just say, in a very even tone, you prefer them to do it this way, instead of explaining this is the RIGHT way.
* Never threaten that it is your way or the highway or make them feel you will disown them, unless you really mean it. For me, there were two intolerable behaviors: drug use and violence. Other than that I pledged that I would be loyal.
* Recognize that they cannot change everything at once. Pick two or three areas where they could use improvement and give them guidance. Praise lavishly every time they carry it out.
* Include them in your social life, knowing they will make mistakes and will need prompting at times.
* Be a good role model. They will be watching you. In most cases, they sincerely want to know what is expected. If you greet their friends pleasantly and politely and make small talk, they will notice. If you are eating when their friends arrive, offer the friends to join you or offer refreshment.
* Be very involved in their school. This generally is highly unusual to them. They may be proud someone cares or dismayed that you communicate with the science teacher who complains about their homework.
* Keep them busy. If you can, escort them to dance or karate lessons, take them to movies and plays, join a gym. This is not a good time for them to sit and reflect.
* Remember they are probably homesick for the father who used to let them ride along to buy drugs or the mother who slapped and kicked them. They may try to make their parents into heroes. You don’t have to agree with them, but recognize that all of us tend to prefer what we are familiar with.
* Be thoughtful. Tiny gifts, such as earrings, a popular or inexpensive toy, cookies, or bringing them something special from the store may go a long way.
* If you must deal with their parents, try to be on your best behavior. No complaints if the parents are late, and in case they don’t show up at all, have an alternate plan. If they rationalize their parent’s behavior (“they must have had a car accident”), don’t contradict. Their fantasies are important to them and they will give them up when they are ready.
The young lady I took to the Getty is a mother now. She is happily married and has a job. I was pretty privileged to watch her struggle through her hard times and to be there for the good ones, and in the end, she gave me more than I ever gave her.
I would love to hear from other foster parents!