Jennifer Hartley recently shared some thoughts on social media about the risks and rewards of foster care to her biological children, and I’m so grateful she is willing to share them here.
“But how do you know your children will be safe?”
This is a question I hear from caring people who are concerned that fostering will have a negative, harmful or even damaging impact on my biological children. My reply is usually that we would not be able to foster if I felt that it wasn’t a safe and overall beneficial experience for my children. I don’t deny that opening our doors to children who have been abused, neglected and abandoned entails some risks that must be mitigated. As a mom and foster mom, I am vigilant to ensure the physical and emotional safety of all the children in my home. However, I am not one to believe that I can adequately control what my children are exposed to by not fostering. Rather, I believe that the benefits to my children far outweigh the risks.
First of all, I believe that fostering brings out the best of my parenting ability, which benefits my children. Fostering provides many natural opportunities to parent purposefully, thoughtfully and proactively – in other words, to be a better parent. Because life necessitates talking with my foster kids about things like intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, choices, consequences, responsibility, and needs vs. wants, I find that as a foster mom I am more proactive about (and less likely to procrastinate) talking to my own children in age-appropriate ways about these subjects. Far from being taboos in our home, I have chosen a lifestyle of proactively educating my kids about subjects that I would be naïve to imagine could never touch them. One personal indicator of my parental success level is the presence of an ongoing discussion with my children about topics including safety, ethics, responsibility, advocacy (for self and others) and problem-solving.
Fostering gives us as parents the opportunity to consciously model healthy behaviors and values important to us, not the least of which is the courageous love, faith and risk management required to walk closely and long-term with at-risk children and their families.
Fostering nearly half her life, as she has, has given my eldest the chance to grow in important ways. I have seen her develop in beautiful, sometimes surprising ways specifically spurred on by her experience as a foster sister. I’d like to call attention to just a few of the immense blessings and benefits that come to our children when we give them the gift of being a foster sibling, as I’ve seen in my own daughter.
- Fostering enhances my daughter’s strengths.I have seen her grow in character, inner strength, and self-worth as she helps to love, shelter, shepherd and nurture other children.
- Fostering increases her capacity for empathy and for magnanimity.She sees, knows, and is friends with those whom society would deem “the least of these.”
- Fostering necessitates her awareness of the importance of self-care and self-advocacy.She has learned that when her own needs are not met, she will survive, but she will not thrive. She has learned to communicate clearly and appropriately and to speak up regarding her own well-being.
- Fostering shows her that she plays a significant, but humble, part in the healing of brokenness within our community.She has seen the difference that modeling healthy behaviors can make. She has also seen that we are powerless to rescue others on our own.
- Fostering builds her self-confidence and teaches her valuable skills.She takes seriously being a role model to vulnerable kids, and sees herself as both a leader and a learner.
- Fostering illustrates to her truths about child development and psychology that many of us only learn in a classroom.The role of play in healing. The significance of safety and security in building self-esteem. The importance of consistency and predictability for everyone, but especially for those with a history of trauma and chaos.
- Fostering brings her into life-to-life contact with kids very different from her. She finds that they truly enjoy building a friendship, despite the fact that they may never have met otherwise.
- Fostering helps her to appreciate the simple things.She may have a boring mom, but she has a mom to tuck her in at night. She may not feel excited about what is served for dinner, but she has food on the table. She may grow weary of completing her homework, but she has a family that is able to prioritize her education and her future.
- Fostering demonstrates to her the critical difference between respecting someone and feeling sorry for them. Kids who have been given tough work to do by those who should have cared for them do not gain from or appreciate our pity. Rather, they benefit from respect, understanding and having someone who will stay with them as they journey the unpredictable, unrelenting, never-quite-familiar road of healing and recovery.
- Fostering reveals to her the breadth of her own privileged experience.She has learned the importance of reaching past her own comfort zone to truly see and value others.
- Fostering inspires her to extend mercy.Understanding what some kids have been through has taught her to be gracious when others lose their composure easily, lack social proficiencies, or display a surprising absence of life skills.
- Perhaps most importantly, fostering teaches her to live authentically.She realizes that our foster children internalize how we communicate our spouse, children or parents behind closed doors, when no one is around. They watch how we model (or don’t model) what we say we believe in. They have front row seats as we build rapport and establish healthy boundaries with people very different from us, who don’t trust us and maybe don’t even like us. They witness and experience how we love and how we live. She (and we) can’t be one person at home and another at school, church or soccer.
None of us can absolutely guarantee the safety of our children against all possible harm. It is a hard truth for us as caring, concerned parents. What we can do, though, is give them tools to protect themselves, help them to stand up against wrongs, educate them about topics that may make us uncomfortable, and model for them giving the gift of a wide love to others. And this, we may find, is what family is really all about.
Jennifer Hartley is a mom and foster mom to 5 children, wife of 18 years to a supportive and hardworking husband, and works full time as a foster parent recruiter and trainer for the Department of Children and Families in New Haven, CT.