Reflections - Children and the Future

My wife and I have traveled a special journey. Not always a completely successful one: that may be too much to expect. Just special.
For starters, I married a school teacher. Whatever else one expects in such a choice, there is a high likelihood that the person loves children and loves working with children. With Jean, I can say that was more than a high likelihood. It was apparent very early that it was a certainty. She lights up in the presence of children. It is a gift, a special type of charisma.

We acquired our children, as I sometimes say, bureaucratically. After we were married about five years and settled in Chicago, we underwent licensing training as foster parents with the intent to adopt. In 1991, Jessica, then eight, was placed in our home. Later, her older sister Patricia, then 19, was also placed with us following a difficult mental health history. By late 1996, Kerie, then eight, was also placed with us. She had visited us once in respite care, when her previous foster parents were on vacation. When the decision was made to locate her and her siblings in new homes, she was asked about her own preferences. She reminded her case worker of her stay with us, and we were asked if we would take her. It took us very little time to agree. She took up residence with us just after Christmas that year.

We adopted both Jessica and Kerie, in both cases after a few years in foster care. In Kerie’s case, she chose to change her name to her present Anna, signaling her desire for a new beginning, at age 11. It struck me as a clear indication that she had a mind of her own. That has been both a blessing and an obstacle, depending on the circumstances in which the tendency has expressed itself. With increasing maturity, however, it will probably become increasingly an asset.

By 2003, in part at the urging of my former literary agent, Malaga Baldi, I began a memoir about our experiences in adoptive parenting. Much of the manuscript, such as it is at this point, was written in four weeks during a residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois, north of Chicago. At this point, I can best describe the book as being in arrestive development. I have not made it back to Ragdale, and events have conspired to keep me from giving the book the time and attention it needs to become a quality piece of writing. I do not wish to release it upon the world until it can be the best I have to offer. In the meantime, a great deal has happened. We are currently caring for two grandchildren.

It is not my point here, at the moment, to go into the personal histories of our children. I would rather note that, in the U.S. today, there are too many children with troubled family histories that lead to foster care, often with uncertain results. The uncertain results often go with the territory. The older a child is by the time he or she enters the system after some history of abuse or neglect, the more that child’s perspectives, reactions, and emotional character have been shaped by trauma and neglect. Some impacts of these problems do not manifest themselves until adolescence or even later, while others are readily apparent very early. Depending on the circumstances, they take many forms. Some children become withdrawn and sullen as a result of emotional neglect, and only years of patient outreach by foster or adoptive parents can weaken the protective shell the child has developed. In other cases, chaotic homes produce children with a strong desire to assert control, rejecting the authority of adults because adults failed that child at an early age. One could fill a library with the books that have been written about the child psychology that results in such households.

For foster and adoptive parents, who typically must work harder than most parents because of the need to overcome these deficits, there is a leap of faith that one can make a difference. It is a justifiable leap, often but not always based in religious faith, but it is a leap. There is a black box of emotional information stored in every child, and for parents who have not enjoyed the earliest years of a child’s life, imagining the details in order to understand why and how a child reacts in particular ways to particular events and developments in life is especially challenging. It is like a batter trying to guess whether a pitcher is about to deliver a fast ball, a curve ball, or a slider. One can develop instincts and insights that improve one’s average, but even the best hitters do not launch one over the fences every time. Mistakes are inevitable. The only long-term remedy is a great deal of love and patience and an open mind, a willingness to listen, not only to what is said openly and directly, but to the subtexts and body language and even what is not said or cannot be articulated.

A great deal of healing is in order for the vast majority of foster children. We must restore each child’s faith that life holds great promise. That often entails rebuilding shattered self-confidence. In other cases, the child may seem to have adequate self-confidence but needs to regain confidence in adults. That lack of a sense of being protected can lead to the most awful consequences. Many young adults are in jail today because they either lost or never acquired such a confidence in the adults in their lives. Our society has managed in recent generations to create whole urban (and some rural) neighborhoods that seem to their children nearly bereft of positive adult role models. The result is Lord of the Flies, but on the mean streets, with gang shootings in the heat of summer. Parts of Chicago fit that description. One need merely read the newspapers to confirm this fact.

I will continue to add commentary over time
, some of it in my blog. But I want to close with the thought that foster parents must never try to succeed alone. It Takes a Village to Raise a Child is not merely the title of a book by Hillary Clinton. She borrowed the title from an African proverb. The African wisdom is that the child’s growth is ultimately the sum product of inputs from the entire community. We find that our children and grandchildren benefit from the network of friends and willing supporters at our church and in the community, at school, and wherever we can muster positive input to steer them into productive, positive, life-building experiences. Not everything works. But it is important that a large number of people care about whether a child succeeds. Teachers, coaches, counselors, friends, neighbors, relatives, everyone matters as long as their contributions are mature and emotionally and intellectually wise and encouraging.

At the same time, as a result of nearly 20 years of experience in this realm, I have one request of parents of all types: biological, foster, adoptive, whatever. It is my observation that many people who seem most certain of what others should do and how to handle specific situations could benefit from a greater level of reasonable doubt about whether anyone has all the answers. There are obvious boundaries that some parents cross in perpetrating or tolerating verbal, physical, or emotional abuse, or in failing to meet basic needs of their children. But in many other cases, there may be much that we do not know but should before we judge. On the other hand, some quiet, humble parents do a better job than anyone knows but simply fail to present the appearance of having all the answers. Their wisdom may be greater: None of us has all the answers. There is always room to learn more. There is room every day to learn more from and through our children. I would say that, as a parent, if you are not prepared to learn, you may be missing the whole point of the adventure, for there is a new surprise virtually around every corner.

I would love to hear from other foster and adoptive parents about your experiences and reactions to my comments here now and in the future