Too often our kids, and foster kids in general, feel like they have no control. They (often rightly) feel like they have no voice, that they are just one part of a system that decides everything for them and doesn’t listen to what they want. Because of this, they look for any way to feel in control. We most commonly see this play out via defiance, running away, and occasionally violence, but there are a lot of things kids do to feel like they are in control of their lives. They are part of a broken system in which they have no choice. They want to be with their parents and family, but because of drugs, abuse, neglect, etc., that’s not possible. They want to at least be with their siblings, but instead they are put by themselves with foster parents who are commonly motivated by something other than the child’s best interest. It’s a no win situation, and it’s through no fault of the child that this is happening. I wish I knew a way to fix it, but unfortunately, it is what it is.
Children need structure and discipline, but they also need control. If kids don’t have anything to control, they look for something to control. When they look for something to control, it rarely has a healthy outcome. They try to control what happens in their relationships with manipulation, shutting down, and pushing back. They try to control what happens to their body with drugs, sex, and food choices. They need to feel like their opinions matter, they need opportunities to choose what happens. But along with choices, they need consequences. One of the toughest things for us to teach is the concept that choices have consequences. I like to reference the Choose Your Own Adventure books when talking to the kids. They are a good visual and practical example of how choices affect outcomes. We preach to them that when they make good choices, good things happen, and when they make bad choices, bad things happen. Of course this isn’t always the case, but if our kids can understand that, it’s a strong base for us to build on. The Teaching Family Model does a great job of helping us teach this to our kids. If they make good choices, they earn positive points and can earn extra privileges, and if they make bad choices, they lose points and lose privileges. This even works for our little ones who are too young for the system. If they make good choices at daycare, preschool, and around the cottage, they can watch movies and play on the computer. If they don’t, they do timeouts and miss out on dessert.
Currently our cottage is all elementary boys and younger. With the nicer weather meaning more outside playtime, I got out my copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys. It’s full of great projects and lessons for boys of all ages. This poem is in a part entitled “Seven poems every boy should know.” They’re all good, but this one struck me because of a conversation we often have with our boys. “Were you making a good choice or a bad choice?” Usually when we have to ask this, it’s because they made a bad choice. We are certainly quick to praise them when they make good choices, but we ultimately want them to get to point where they can recognize their own behavior and correct it as needed. We know that this probably won’t happen while they’re in our cottage, or even while they’re at Thornwell, but I keep going back to advice I was given during pre-service training. Think about a rocket aimed at the moon. If you alter the trajectory of the rocket by 1 or 2 degrees, it will miss it’s target by hundreds of miles. If you can make the smallest changes in the life of a child, that can result in big changes down the road. “Can” doesn’t always mean “will”, and there are times where a kid won’t change during his/her time at Thornwell. We’ve only been doing this for 7 months, and there have been a few kids like that. They are who they are, and nothing we do will change that. But for the majority of kids that have come through our cottage, even in the short time we have them, we see a change for the better. We hope and pray that those changes stick once they leave.
Out of the night that covers me,Black as the pit from pole to pole,I thank whatever gods may beFor my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstanceI have not winced nor cried aloud.Under the bludgeonings of chanceMy head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tearsLooms but the Horror of the shade,And yet the menace of the yearsFinds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,How charged with punishments the scroll,I am the master of my fate,I am the captain of my soul.[William Ernest Henley]