What makes a good foster mom? … … a reader asks.
One of my readers, Janera, asked this excellent question in a recent comment on my blog. Although this person is a mom already, it showed a willingness to hear the suggestions “from the other side” — the foster child. And I am glad it was asked.
So, in this post, I provide my ideas of what makes a good foster mother, with examples from my own experiences.
So, in no particular order, because I think they are all important –
1. Caring and Interest
Show interest in the child. Ask what is going on in their world. Ask what they feel. They may not answer, but show that you are interested. Showing interest shows you care. In so many of the foster homes/group homes I stayed in, no-one even asked about school, let alone how I felt or what was going on in my world. I knew they never cared about me. Foster kids may act like we don’t want you to care about us, but deep down we do. We are just trying to protect ourselves from getting hurt again.
Show you care. Sometimes children in foster care “can’t hear” your caring. You tell them you care and they say “Fuck you.” Sometimes words mean nothing to a foster kid, because words have been nothing but lies from their bioparents and therefore hold no weight. Therefore, show you care. This takes more effort, but do it.
- Go out of the way to cook their favorite dinner
- Ask to see their homework
- If they did well on a test or an assignment — display it on the refrigerator or go celebrate
- Spend time with the child doing an activity – walking the dog, playing football, etc.
Sometimes actions speak much louder than words – in a foster kids world. As trust develops, words become important, but at first it might be actions
2. Patience, Gentleness, Steadiness; but Firm Boundaries
I don’t believe in yelling at foster children and I actually do not believe in “tough parenting or tough punishment.” These kids have had enough “toughness” and hostility in their lives. I think of a good foster parent as acting similar to how the Taoist describe water. Water flows gently and peacefully, …but over time is so powerful that it is able to carve through rock.
Display gentleness, steadiness, and firm boundaries regarding what is appropriate and what is not. Set the boundaries early in the relationship. When the boundaries are tested, stand firm; not with hostility but explanation.
- “LT, we eat at the table; not walking around the house because we don’t won’t crumbs everywhere. Come and sit down.”
- “LT, we don’t condone you smoking. You can NOT smoke in the house. If you are going to smoke which is not healthy for you, you must smoke outside. If you smoke inside, we will take the cigarettes.”
- “LT, sneaking out at night is NOT permitted. We care where you are and are concerned if you are missing. One more time and you will spend the next month of weekends with us cleaning the garage and helping out at the community food shelter.”
Notice, boundary is said, explanation of caring and why it is not appropriate to break the boundary, and some discipline if necessary.
Expect the boundaries to be tested. This is a way of establishing whether you are trustworthy.
Showing anger, toughness, or threats will most likely make the child react “worse” – because they are testing you to take the next step. Stop this cycle. Gentleness, firmness and steadiness wins.
Find ways to deal with the child’s issues creatively. Find ways to deal with the child’s feelings creatively. Find ways to deal with the child creatively. Think outside the box. Traditional methods do not work and put the child further into isolation.
Remember my story about the Hippie foster parents…they encouraged dancing as an expression of feeling. It was a release of both energy and feeling for a kid (me) in so much turmoil.
Other positive examples of creativity:
- **Talk to the Stars Game. My 2nd foster home did this. Because I could not talk to “people” and was very afraid of “people,” they started the “Talk to the stars” game. When the stars came out, we would go sit outside on a blanket and my foster mother would say something like: “Hello stars – we are glad to see you tonight and we came to talk to you.” Then she would say a phrase like “I am so tired.” Then each of us would point to a star twinkling and that would be a sign that the star heard. When we found 5 stars twinkling at us, it would be my turn to “Talk” to the stars. I would say a phrase and then we would look for the twinkling stars. Over time the phrases became more detailed and descriptive of my feelings and fears.
- A food storage container in my room where I could put the food I was stealing and hoarding. Instead of hiding food all over the room, I put the food in that bin, that was mine. Every couple of days, me and my foster mother would go through it to see if anything needed to be thrown away and we would talk about it. It was my safe space. I knew food was always there. No-one else could go into the storage bin without me knowing.
- “Punishment” that was activities with the family, such as raking leaves. This actually turned into a fun activity because we wound up“playing” in the leaves which released energy and tension.
4. Ability to Put Yourself in the “Child’s Shoes”
I guess this is called empathy. Never forget no matter how “bad” we have acted, that we are children. What may seem really stupid to you, most likely makes perfect sense to the child. For example, I am always amazed that beginning foster parents are shocked that foster children eat a ton of food or steal and hoard food. Many are overwhelmed by this. But, if you are a child where there was not constant food and you are starving, it makes perfect sense to steal and hide food.
Have you ever been starving? I don’t mean “oh, I didn’t eat dinner TODAY” starving — I mean you are so fucking hungry that you eat paper to try to stop the pain in your stomach? or carpet? Starving where you can feel your stomach eating itself. That type of starving? For weeks? For longer? Have you?
Have you ever wondered when your next any food item will come– when your parents will put something in the refrigerator? And you give up waiting and search the trash cans, willing to eat bread that is soggy and covered with mold? Or half-eaten pizza that you find under table trash and cigarette ashes from a restaurant? Or a banana that well, you can’t really tell what it is….but it smells like something to eat.
This is what I mean. Put yourself in the shoes of the child…..and it all makes sense.
5. Sense of Humor
For example: When I was young, one of my “bad habits” when I was upset was writing on walls—all walls. In one foster home I lived in, the foster mother purchased all kinds of paper, in all sizes, shapes, colors, in hopes of getting me to write on the paper instead of the walls. She laid them on the floor, in almost every room. Normally I wrote on every wall in my bedroom, all four of them. One day I wrote on only one wall and then started writing on the papers on the floor. When my foster mother came in, instead of yelling at me for writing on the wall again, she looked at the floor, laughed and said “Progress LT. Good job.” She did not get mad, she laughed. Then she got on the floor and colored with me.
6. Willingness to Want to Teach and to Learn
Foster children come from a different life than you are probably accustomed to. Some of it bad, some of it good, and some of it different. Use this opportunity to both teach and learn from the children.
- I never ate at a table and never knew formal “manners” until I went to foster care. I had to be taught those.
- I never brushed my teeth before. I had to be taught to do that and why.
- I had to be taught to change clothes every day. When I lived with my bioparents, no-one cared and I did not have alot of clothes. I kept wearing the same things. Then when I went to foster care, there was “lots” of shirts and pants and socks. I had to be taught to wear different clothes and that clothes needed to be washed.
These may be extreme examples, but the point is that my world with my bioparents was very different than “normal” and I had alot to learn.
But at the same time, the foster parents had to want to learn what my world was like. That included listening to my experiences, hearing my feelings, and trying to understand what it was like for me. It may be hard to learn about all these things, but it helps aid in empathy and understanding the child. And it helps the child heal and make sense of things.
In a more concrete example, many foster children are educationally behind or have difficulties. Share your knowledge about the world, your ability to read, and be willing to teach the child — from things like school work, to things about the world, to things about survival. In my blog I mention many “things” I should have been taught along the way – school, cooking, how to drive, how to get a bank account and manage money, etc.etc. I also talk about somethings I learned — building fires, appreciation of music, how to make water safe, that it was ok to drop stuff, etc. etc.
7. Creative Punishment that Forces Engagement, Not Isolation
Punishing foster children so that they are isolated, alone, sent back, etc. is not helping them at all. They act-out in fear, in anger, to test what will happen. If you respond as they expect, you prove that they are not worthwhile or are bad…exactly what they want.
Use creative punishment that ENGAGES the child to be with you. For example from my own experiences: raking leaves with the family, cooking dinner with the foster mother, building a birdhouse with the foster father, cleaning and picking up a room with the foster mother, etc.
Foster children are used to being alone. Punishing them so that they are “alone” again, does nothing but enforce their negative feelings about themselves and the world.
Please smile. Many of us come from worlds where there were no smiles, no soft gentle eyes, no looks of happiness. Example: When I went into foster care, my first foster mother, Ms. Liz was a wonderful lady. She smiled. I was so captivated by her smile that I remember taking my fingers and running them along her lips to the corner… for which she would smile more. I don’t think I ever saw “smile” that much.
So, freaking SMILE.
9. FIGHT For Foster Kid’s Rights.
A good foster parent will fight to get the child what she/he needs. If you have read some of the comments on my blog, foster parents talk about having to “fight” for the child. If you don’t fight, the child will slip through the cracks. You may have to fight for mental health treatment, ILP, less visitation, more visitation, … the list goes on.
Example: I left foster care at 18 with a bad eating disorder, severe self-harming behavior, and mental illness that should have been treated by therapy. I left without life skill classes and without finishing high school. I should have been in a permanent placement early on in care. Fight for these things — the kids deserve them.
Part of being a good foster parent is being an advocate for the child. Because most likely, the child can’t or won’t advocate for themselves. SPEAK UP!
10. Be Willing to “Step Back in Time”
Foster kids may be emotionally younger than their chronological age. It may not be a developmental delay, but an emotional delay. Don’t be afraid to step back in time with a foster child, because, well, they may have missed alot of “stuff.”
- Reading to them and having them read to you
- Playing with toys and games with them
- Teaching about different foods like what fruits are or how to cook
- Taking the child to a place like a zoo — where they may never have been
Example: When I went into foster care, one of my favorite games was Candy Land. I had NEVER played that and I loved the colors and the counting and the candy. I thought it was funny. That game is for young children, but I played it constantly. I also was fascinated with Hungry Hungry Hippos, which is this game where you push the back of the hippo and it opens up to eat the marbles that are rolling around the board. The person whose Hippo eats the most marbles wins. I thought it was hysterical and it was about food. That game was also “below” where I should have been.
11. Let the Children Have a “Life”
Just because the children in your home are “foster children,” does not mean they don’t need a life. Encourage sports, music, extracurricular activities that can help build their self-esteem and that they enjoy. I know things cost money, but if money is an issue, encourage school-based activities or free activities. I grew up never having any extracurricular activities but wishing I had; because now as a young adult, I have very little clue what I like or what I would like to do for “fun.” I never experienced playing a sport or the yearbook club or drama club or playing an instrument, etc. All these things help define a child…make sure the opportunity is there.
**Think about cross-over if the child is moved. Are there activities that the child can continue if moved to another home? Sometimes foster parents and workers use the excuse that the kids “move so much” and that is why they are not active…work hard to think about ways to get them involved in activities that can stay CONSTANT.
Just because you are a “foster parent” does not mean you should not be THE parent. What I mean is attend parent-teacher conferences, attend the science fair, attend the game or the play or whatever else the child is involved in. Include them in your family events; don’t isolate them away. Act like their parent; not a friend, etc. because a parent is what the child needs.
13. Don’t Give Up!
This is probably the hardest suggestion to give, because I recognize that being a foster parent is not easy. I also recognize that you may get some kids who “give you a run for your money” and that you want to send back. My advice is to please think carefully about your decision. Although we as foster kids may egg-you-on to “send us back” or “to get rid of us” — deep down inside we are really terrified of being abandoned again. And in most cases, we are just testing you to do so. When you make that decision to get rid of us, in most children, it is very painful because we again feel “bad,” “unwanted,” “unworthy,” etc.
The example I share here, I am NOT proud about and feel tremendous guilt about to this day; but it eloquently shows what I mean.
Example: Recall the Hippies…one of the best foster homes I lived in. For personal reasons, they could no longer keep me and made the decision to “send me back.” I was devastated inside; beyond belief….. but I cursed them out, acted-out, and set fire to many of their record albums. My behaviors were so “bad” that they “sent me back” several weeks before the planned time. Their reaction to me acting-out reinforced how horrible I felt about myself and how “bad” I truly was.
It is like a vicious cycle. We egg-you-on, you respond how we expect, and it proves exactly how horrible we are. … Break that cycle and don’t respond or react how the foster kid wants. This builds trust.
Please. Hear us. Sometimes lending your ear to a child in pain and turmoil is the best thing in the world. When a child is ready, she/he will talk. And when she/he talks….PLEASE LISTEN.
Don’t lie — about anything. We are lied to enough by bioparents and many other people in our lives. Model honesty. Lying will break trust.
Don’t lie about our bioparents, don’t lie about why we are in foster care, don’t lie about yourselves. If you don’t know the answer, say so; but do not lie. Foster children tend to be excellent at reading body language and small signals — it is part of being hypervigilant. If you lie, we will know it….eventually.
The foster parents I respected the most were the ones who told me the truth no matter how hard it was to hear. For example:
- “LT, I know you want to see your mom, but everyone has tried very hard to find her. She is gone. They will keep trying but if she does not come back, there is no way to see her.”
- “LT, your dad is going to jail. The judge made the decision. You are safe now. But many many years from now, he may get out. But then you will be big. Do you have any questions?”
- “LT, you have to leave our home because we are moving to another state. We can’t take you with us. We only wanted to do foster care and never planned on adopting. “
These examples were somewhat confusing and painful at the time, but I appreciate the honesty. Lies DO NOT protect….always remember that.
These 15 items are all I can think of at the moment with the blog post getting too long! Hopefully other foster kids or experienced foster parents will comment.