For the first time since we began working in Bryan Mac, we currently do not have any toddlers or preschoolers. Our youngest boy right now is 8 years old, and the others are 10, 11, 11, 12, 12, 13, and 13. Our days are a lot less busy when we don’t have to chase around a 5 year old and cut up food at every meal. Our boys now can entertain themselves, shower without help, and sleep in. We feel like we have nothing to do.
So with a new group of boys, I have to again figure out what my role is as a father figure in their lives. They don’t need me the same way a toddler needs me. They have fathers and father figures that have raised them and influenced them. Many of them will be going back to those men at some point. So where do I fit in? Am I just a babysitter until they can go back home? Can I do something in the short time they are with me that will stay with them when they leave? It’s pretty easy to determine what a smaller child needs in order to feel loved and cared for. That’s a more difficult task with older kids, who are a little more set in who they are and have a better idea of what they need. Little ones are quick to tell you what they need and when they need it, older kids not so much. Our boys now talk a lot, but rarely do they tell us what they want from us.
I typed those first two paragraphs a few days ago, and I had a rough outline for where I wanted to go with this post, but I was struggling to come up with the words. I read some articles about being a dad, and was trying to put a bunch of random thoughts together to make some sense, mostly unsuccessfully
Then Monday happened.
A couple of things happened Monday that blew my mind in the best way possible. Monday was an affirmation that I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. One of our teenagers wrote us a letter thanking us for his Christmas presents, but mostly for being there for him and helping him make good choices and providing a substitute family while he is away from his biological one. Shortly after reading that I had a conversation with an 11 year old. It started by talking about why he hates going to counseling, and turned into an impromptu counseling session where he shared with me the story of his short but traumatically eventful life. He told me that he liked some of the other places he had lived, but Thornwell was his favorite. Even though he’s only been here for a couple weeks, he said he can tell that we love him and really care about him. Heidi is the emotional one in our relationship (She even wrote about it here), but that got me. I could lie and say that the room was dusty but I’m an honest person. I teared up. I’ve thought a lot about and written a lot about my role in the lives of our foster kids (here and here). My primary job as a foster dad, I think, is to be present for kids who have never experienced that. For a lot of our kids I am the first consistently positive experience they have had with an adult male. No pressure.
It’s a really good thing that Monday happened, because it’s been a long week. We’re at the end of a stretch of us being on duty 21 of the last 23 days, most of which was a rainy Christmas break. My original plan for this post was to talk about the challenges of living with teenagers. Like I talked about before, in a lot of ways it’s easier than having a house full of toddlers. For instance I’m wrote most of this at the dining room table while boys entertain themselves with video games. But, like I said when we interviewed at Thornwell, I prefer working with younger kids. Little ones are more straightforward with their needs and behaviors. It’s easier for me to relate to and connect with younger kids. My fake excited faces work a lot better. Adolescents are exhausting with their drama and attitude. Whenever I think about working with teenagers, I think about Ephesians 6:4 – Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Sometimes I feel like no matter what I do, the kids are provoked to anger. That seems especially true when I discipline them, even if it is the instruction of the Lord.
Presence is something that is demanded by younger kids. They require a lot of attention and energy because they can’t do things by themselves. With older kids, they need you to be just as present as you are for the littles, but they are more independent and don’t demand it the same way. So presence has to be intentional. Sometimes it’s easy, like when they want to play Xbox with you or throw the football. Other times, like when they’re being super annoying and talking back every time you tell them something, its a little harder to be present. It’s not right, because the times they are acting out are usually the times they need it the most, but I’m human.
But so are they.
They get frustrated just like I get frustrated. They think I’m annoying just like I think they’re annoying. They don’t understand me just like I don’t understand them. They hate being in foster care just like I hate that they have to be in foster care. They are broken just like I am broken. They are loved by God just like I am loved by God. They are given grace and mercy just like I am given grace and mercy. They deserve compassion just like I deserve compassion. They need help just like I need help.
Lord help me to see these boys how you see them, as children of the King. Give me patience, strength, and compassion to be present for these kids when I want nothing to do with them. Help me to love them like you love me. Thank you for putting me in a position to be a father to the fatherless, even if it is only for a short time. I am humbled and undeserving of the awesome responsibility it is to care for your children. Lead me so that I may lead them.