Wednesday, March 18, 2015

10 Things You Probably Shouldn't Say to a Foster Parent (And what you should say instead)

Soon after Little Man entered my life, one of my friends sent me a video that so perfectly captures something I would say most- if not all- foster parents experience.
The video is called “Stuff People Say to Foster Parents.” I’m assuming it was created when making videos about things specific groups of people say was really trendy. Remember that phase? Those videos were all over the place for a while.
But in any case, this particular one showcases some of the most frequent (and- from our perspective- some of the strangest) things people say to or ask foster parents.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- I completely understand why people ask me questions about fostering. I didn’t know any foster parents until I became one, so it wasn’t a world I knew much about until I entered into it. I would imagine there are a lot of folks out there who are curious for that exact reason- they don’t have any real experience with the foster care system- so I’m not surprised when people want to know more. Or when they just want to comment on it.

Curiosity, I understand.

And I actually have a lot of experience with it.

As an identical twin, I became pretty familiar (and patient) with people’s strange questions at a young age. “Do you have the same birthday?” “Can you read each other’s minds?” “If I kick her, would you feel it?”
LL gets it.
(These questions also taught my sister and I to become a pretty adept and creative liars- once going so far as to convince a classmate we were twins separated at birth, a lie she believed for months- but that is neither here nor there.)

This patience for questions has served me well as a foster mom, because- just as I have as a twin- I’ve heard a handful of questions and statements repeatedly for the past 6 months.

Some are pretty basic, like, “When did you become a foster parent?”
Some have a little more depth, for instance, “Why did you decide to foster?”

But I have to confess- some questions and comments put my patience to the test.
Although I know they come from a positive place, many of the things people say come across as insensitive, nosy, or just obvious.

I’ve never lost my patience or been angry at a person for their comments- but, honestly, there some things you just shouldn’t ask a foster parent. (Unless you know her/him very well- or find a more sensitive way to phrase them.) Additionally, there are some statements you should probably avoid making- despite your good intentions.

In an effort to help you navigate your future conversations with foster parents, I’ve created a list.

    (**Important Note: The goal of this list is not to make anyone feel self-conscious about interactions with foster parents or guilty about things they have asked in the past- it is just to help inform future conversations and questions.
o, if you have said any of these things to me in the past 6 months, please know I am not annoyed or angry with you. I can understand where these statements come from- plus I’ve heard them all so many times that I honestly have no clue who’s said them at this point.)

10. I could never do that!
This is one of the things I hear most often, and- fortunately- it is one of the things I understand most.
When people say this to me, I know they are trying to convey a sense of respect or admiration, which I can appreciate. I would imagine people say it as a compliment.
But nonetheless, sometimes hearing this makes me a little uncomfortable. It feels like I’m being forced on a pedestal I don’t really deserve to be on.
I am not a super human. I am not Jesus. Or Mother Teresa. Or Fred Rogers. What I am doing is not unimaginably difficult. It doesn’t require any special skills. Foster parenting basically just requires a desire to help kids and their families, some patience, some adaptability, and a solid support system. I would imagine these are pretty in-line with the qualifications that are beneficial to have as a biological parent.
Don’t get me wrong- I’m not trying to say what I’m doing isn’t important or (at times) challenging. It is definitely both of those things. But I don’t think it’s an extraordinary and noble act... It’s just something I felt passionate about doing.
And I guess that’s what bothers me. If we treat foster parenting as some remarkable, inconceivably difficult, astounding thing that only exceptional people can do, people will continue thinking it’s something they could “
never” do. And I can assure you- chances are good that you could do this. It might be challenging, but you could do it.
So thank you for the compliment. I appreciate what you are trying to convey. But please remember-
I am just an average person who recognized a need and felt she could do something about it.
What you should say instead: Rather than paying a compliment through self-doubt, try something direct, like- There is such a need for foster parents- I really respect/thank you for your commitment to that role.”

9/8: How much money do you make?
How much does he cost, and do you have to pay for everything?

(I’m grouping these together because they are different but very similar- in what theyre asking and how inappropriate I think they are.)

Again- I can understand people’s curiosity here. I know they want to understand how fostering works. But, in my mind, this seems on par with asking someone how much money they make in their job. It’s not very polite.

When people ask this question (particularly the first one), it’s hard not to get a little defensive. The phrasing seems based in an assumption that fostering is just a way to earn some extra cash. And believe me- that is not the case. Much like teaching or social work, if someone became a foster parent for the money, he or she would be incredibly disappointed.

What you should say instead: Honestly, probably nothing. It’s best to just avoid this question. If you’re that curious, ask Google, instead.

In fact, here’s some general information about foster care reimbursements (which I’ve copy/pasted from a Google search) to assuage curiosity. Because- seriously- I get this questions a

      “In the United States, states are charged with ensuring that children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect are well cared for in their out‐of‐home placements. Foster care providers are responsible for directly providing the shelter, food, clothing, supervision, educational necessities, and other personal incidentals required to promote the safety, permanency, and well‐ being of children in their care. To assist them in meeting the children’s needs, child welfare agencies offer a payment (or reimbursement) to the providers. Although the Federal government has certain requirements regarding the provision of foster care payments (if the state chooses to seek Federal reimbursement for some of the costs for children in care through the title IV‐E program), there are no national requirements regarding the specific payment structures or amounts provided.1 Rather, states have considerable discretion in designing and administering their own foster care payment systems. In some cases, the authority to establish the rates lies with the individual counties or localities across the state.”
“The basic family foster care rates in most states vary by a child’s age, and in most cases the rates increase incrementally by age.”
“The basic foster care rates in the majority of states fall below our estimate of the costs of caring for a child. A comparison of the basic rates for various age groups to a computed estimate (based on USDA data) of the cost of caring for a child of that age range in that region of the country show that only a small number of states have rates that meet or exceed this estimate. A number of states have rates that represent less than half of the estimated cost of care.”

( Report.pdf)

7. So... what is he?

Alternate wording: “Whats he mixed with?” or “Is he (insert race/ethnicity here)?”
No joke- strangers ask me this question. To me, this seems obviously inappropriate. Maybe you wonder in your own mind, but you’d never actually ask aloud. Especially if you have no relationship with the person you’re asking. Is that just me??
I can tolerate close friends inquiring as to his ethnic background, but “What is he?” is too blunt for anyone to ask. The answer is, “a baby”.

What you should say instead: Again- nothing. Sorry. If you’re really good friends with a foster parent, you can maybe try to politely inquire. But if you don’t have a relationship, it’s probably best to just come up with your own answer.

6. Is this a new one?
Alternate wording: “Is this the same one you had before?”
Rule of thumb, never refer to a child with generic terms such as “this,” or “it.” At the very least- use a human-specific pronoun.
This question bothers me because it feels kind of dehumanizing- and not just because of the pronoun choice. Maybe some people assume foster parents have a constant rotation of children. For some foster parents, that may be true, I guess. 
As I continue fostering, I’d imagine I’ll have a number of children in and out of my home.
But I expect that- no matter how many children enter and leave my care- they will each be uniquely important to me. Each will have an impact on my life. Their stories will all matter to me- just as Little Man’s story matters to me.
“Is this a new one?” seems to brush over and minimize the relationships and stories connected with each child- however briefly they are in my home.
What you should say instead: If you are really curious and need to know this piece of information, try to get it in a different- more sensitive- way. Example: Comment on how much he’s grown (if you’ve never met him before, I’d just let you know and introduce you), or comment on how good it is to see him and ask how long he’s been with me now (again- I’d correct you if this is the first time you’ve met). You could also ask how many placements I’ve had as a foster parent.

5. Are you going to keep him?
The child I am holding is not, in fact, a stray animal I took in off the street. As such, his situation (as with every child in foster care) is much more complex than me simply deciding to “keep” him.
Every child placed in foster care is given a service plan- which includes details about long term plans for permanency. This could be returning to biological parents, being placed in the care of other relatives, or being placed with adoptive parents. It’s never up to the foster parent what that plan is, and in many cases, the plan could change over time. This is one of the challenges of foster parenting. (Remember how I said you have to be adaptable?)

Even if we did have a say, foster parents generally have very complicated- and sometimes conflicting- feelings about their children’s final placements. It’s not unheard of for foster parents to want their children to return to their biological family while dreading it at the same time. (More on this in an upcoming post.) This question- beyond assuming I have authority I don’t have- doesn’t acknowledge the complexities of my son’s situation or the hopes I have for him. (Also, if foster parents want to adopt but aren’t able to, hearing this question can be kind of painful.) 
What you should say instead: What does his service plan look like? (Just know- the response you get might be, “None of your business” if you don’t know the foster parent. Hopefully it would be phrased more politely, though.) You could also ask foster parents if they are fostering to adopt or simply fostering.

4. Is he a drug baby?

To me, this question is on par with “What is he?” I’m not sure what makes people think this is appropriate to ask- especially when the person you are asking is a stranger or even an acquaintance. And yet, I’ve heard this from random people on multiple occasions.
The problem I have with this question is that it never feels as if it’s coming from a place of true concern for my son’s health. Instead, it seems to come from a place of nosiness. Again, I know this probably isn’t the case, but it generally feels as if the person is kind of hoping my answer will be “yes, he is.”
What you should say instead: This is, once again, a question that is best to just let it stay in your mind. (Unless you are the child's doctor.)

(The final three all kind of tie for first place. They are the things people say to me that I find most tiresome, and I could rank them differently depending on the day.)

3. This will be such good practice when you have real kids!
Alternate wording: “This will be such good practice for when you have your own kids!”
I really hate it when people say this to me. I know that might seem extreme, but it’s true.
I feel that strongly for a few reasons. 1) Last time I checked, my foster son was a real child. I know we have some pretty convincing dolls out there these days, but I am fairly confident he’s the real deal. 2) Although my son may not be “mine” biologically, he is “mine” for the time being. 3) Because he is both a real child and my son, I would never consider caring for him “practice”- at least not any more than another parent would consider her/his first child practice.
He’s my son, not a high school homes economics flour bag project, and I will treat him just like I will treat any other children I have in the future. Sure, I will probably (hopefully) learn things along the way that will improve my parenting. (Such is the burden of a first child.) But Little Man is not a test run or an experiment. He is a real, flesh and blood child, and how I parent him right now matters for
years to come.
Like most parents, I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
What you should say instead: Some variation of, “Oh, I learned so much as I raised my first child!” Then tell me something you learned, or ask me what lessons I’ve learned along the way. If you have never hand children, just stick with something like, “I bet you’re learning a lot as a new parent!” 

2. So... What’s his mom’s story?
Alternate wording: “What did his mom do??”

This is another question that- to me- never seems to be rooted in genuine concern. I always feel as if it’s coming from people’s fascination with tragedy. When people ask me that question, I first want to remind them that my son’s biological mom is (just like him) a real person. I have no desire to objectify her by sensationalizing her story. Also, because I care about my son, I care about her. She doesn’t deserve to be the object of anyone’s anger, pity, or hatred. Nor does she deserve to be judged and labeled as one of "those types of parents" by people who don't know her or her experiences.  I don’t want to reduce her or her story to a way of buying people’s sympathy for her son.
Additionally, foster parents have to abide by strict confidentiality laws, so- even if I wanted to tell you all the details of her life (and- really- I do not), I am not allowed to do so. (Also, in many cases, foster parents don’t know very many details themselves.)
What you should say instead: Instead of asking questions about biological families, try to empathize with them. Recognize how difficult it might be for them to be away from their child, and feel free to communicate that instead. I would much rather hear someone say, “I can’t imagine how difficult his absence is for his biological mom” over questions about what she “did.”

1. Don’t you get attached??

Nope. He keeps me up at night. This kid is the worst.
Of course I’m attached! I’ve spent the past 6 months with this guy- and look at how cute he is! (Man, I wish you could for real- he seriously is the cutest.) 

I recognize that this (like #10) is asked to convey some sort of respect and awe, but it frustrates me because it seems like a pretty obvious answer. And, while I doubt the ask-ers realize it, it’s also a little insensitive.
I know people ask because they’re trying to process how difficult it would be to build a relationship with a child only to (eventually) deal with separation. But while I appreciate the recognition of the heartache involved in foster care, I don’t really want to be reminded of it. Focusing on the possibility of future grief just makes it harder to soak up the joy I’m experiencing in the present. And while I certainly don’t want to be na├»ve or unprepared for what lies ahead, I also don’t want my fear of it to keep me from fully engaging right now.

So please- don’t ask foster parents this question. In all likelihood, you already know the answer.
What you should say instead: Empathize in a different way. Tell them you can- or can’t- imagine- all the complex things they’re feeling. Tell them they’re doing a good job. Remind them that what they’re doing is making a difference. Help them to soak up the time they have with their kids, because it’s precious. 

So that's my personal list. Other foster parents might read this and think, "None of these questions bother me at all." But, in my perspective, those are the top ten things that- as a foster parent- I'd be okay never hearing again.

But I'm sure I will.

I'm sure I'll continue to hear each of these over the months and years ahead. And- ultimately- I'm okay with it.

I may get tired of these questions and statements, but I always love when people care- and want to know more- about my experience as a foster parent. I love sharing this adventure with others. And- goodness knows- I love talking about Little Man. So I would rather people ask me a question I'm tired of hearing than ask me nothing at all. And I would imagine most foster parents feel the same way!

What kinds of questions would you want to ask a foster parent?
Or- if you are a foster parent- what questions do you enjoy/tire of hearing?

By the way, here is the video I mentioned- in case you want to watch it!

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