We had just welcomed two precious kiddos into our home again; a brother and sister one year apart in age.
When kids come into care they can be scared, tired, angry, relieved; you name it, we’ve seen it. These little siblings were all over the map. The brother in particular had trouble getting all his feelings under control. When it came time for his first night in our home, we did our family’s bedtime routine and they just came along for the ride.
Use the toilet. Wash up. Brush your teeth. Lose your mind, hide under you bed and spit on the floor.
Yes, you read that right.
But here is the thing, no matter what situation a child is coming from, it is deeply painful and traumatizing to be taken from what is her normal and made to sleep in a stranger’s home. She doesn’t know when she is returning to her home. She doesn’t know if it’s safe to close her eyes.
There are many things that happen after children are taken into care that you just can’t really explain until you’ve lived it. All anyone knows is what can be seen when we’re out in public.
Our young new guests came with basically nothing but the clothes on their backs and the nice, but generic, bag of stuffies and blankets that CFS provides kids. There was a shopping spree in our collective futures.
Here’s how new-kid-in-care shopping sprees work. The agency provides a $200 Walmart voucher (that’s important), to the family for each child. We had two kids join our family, so that was a $400 trip! I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a young kid clothes shopping. AND to make it worse, a voucher has to be spent all in one shot, unlike a gift card that carries a balance. So these trips take forever. And our little dude was borrrrreed!
Eventually after about 90 minutes of modelling he walked off down the shoe aisle mindlessly knocking shoes off behind him as he went. I didn’t really blame him, honestly, I was bored out of my mind as well. I actually wished the clothes cost more than they did so that we could buy fewer items with the budget.
I trucked after him, picking up the shoes as I went. But as we came back out from the shoe aisle I froze.
The child’s mom and her boyfriend had come around the corner. I made eye contact with my wife Tara, who had also frozen.
“What do we do?” I mouthed at her.
“I have no idea!” she mouthed back.
Then mom and boyfriend saw, and froze.
So I was frozen. Tara was frozen. Mom and boyfriend were frozen all trying to figure out how to unfreeze ourselves.
The kiddos on the other hand, didn’t freeze.
The little tykes squealed and then burst into tears and latched onto mom’s legs tighter than a toddler on a lollipop. I went into immediate damage control mode.
We were at the back of Walmart and so I figured the best next step would be to get them to the front. At the front of our Walmart is a Tim Horton’s and so I offered to buy everyone some donuts and then we could have a little impromptu visit. It was a good plan and mom and boyfriend looked relieved.
So we started heading to the front of the store. Along the way, though, the little boy started pointing at stuff and asking mom if she would buy it for him. Each time she agreed and said she would bring it to their next visit.
I began to feel very heavy. The way I saw it there were only two possible outcomes and neither was awesome. Either mom would spend her social assistance on stuff that the kids didn’t really need and be left without enough to buy groceries, or she would have to break her word to eat and the kids would face yet another disappointment. I finally had to intervene.
“You know what, bud?” I asked carefully, “Mom actually isn’t going to buy this stuff for you, ok?”
I was gentle, but it was the last straw for this very overwhelmed little guy. He took off running.
Now, we discovered that a curious thing happens when this dude got overwhelmed… he would take off running and he would laugh hysterically.
Odd, I know, but the brain in overwhelm just does odd things!
I took off after him. Caught him just before he made it out the front doors, then lost him again as he wriggled from my grasp. He ended up hugging his knees by the display cooler in Tim Horton’s. At least I had him in roughly the right location.
I bent down, reached out gently, and offered to buy him a donut.
Let me give you a little recap: 6 year old boy takes off running and laughing, from the grown-up everyone assumes is his dad. Then when “dad” finally catches up with him, what does “dad” do? He rewards his bad behavior with a treat! A TREAT!
Here’s what foster parents wished you understood… I wasn’t rewarding his bad behavior I was accomplishing a TON of other things:
- I was comforting him. I don’t care what noise was coming out of his mouth (laughing), he was overwhelmed and scared. Haven’t you ever heard someone give a nervous laugh? This was that… times 1000.
- I was fueling his brain. I knew this little guy was extremely tired, frustrated, and pretty angry which meant, physiologically, that his blood sugar was low and his brain was low on fuel. I know that when a kid, or adult for that matter, is that stressed out – they need some cheap, fast fuel. Donuts fulfill that requirement.
- I was building trust. I let him be exactly who he was at that moment; a precious child made in God’s image. I met him in his overwhelm.
- I was loving him. I saw the need, not the behavior. Anytime you see the need and not the behavior, you are loving that individual.
I felt the looks of the people who didn’t understand. I felt them questioning my parenting. I’m pretty sure they were prescribing a different approach to discipline. And you know what? It doesn’t bother me all that much.
But it does bother a lot of foster parents I know.
In general, it would be good to stop judging people. Often, it’s the parent who is just as overwhelmed as the kid. In fact, in this case, the reason we were in this whole mess in the first place is because mom and boyfriend were overwhelmed with life and making poor decisions.
Specifically, when it comes to at-risk individuals, kids from hard places, teens caught in petty crime, adults trapped by addiction, judgment is the least effective way of helping someone.
You know what foster parents wished you knew? They wished you knew what they can’t tell you, that this little guy is from a very hard place, having a very hard day, and feeling very hard emotions.
But because they can’t tell you… because it’s private (and none of your business), we would do well to just forego the judgment and instead pray for the parent who is running after their child, while he laughs hysterically in Walmart.
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Associate Pastor – Southland Church
Thom has worked with children and youth for 18 years. He and his wife, Tara, have 7 kids; 4 boys, and two daughters and a SON-IN-LAW(!). The kids are spread across 23 years too so that gives him plenty of experimental material to write about! They have welcomed 31 foster children into their home over the past number of years.