“Hey, Debbie.” The voice on the telephone was a little strained, but very familiar. Alicia had been placed with me when she was sixteen and had lasted about six months before she ran away for the final time. It had been almost a year since I had heard from her.
“Do you have anyone staying with you right now,” she asked. When I said no, she asked hesitantly, “Can I stay there for tonight?”
When she arrived, we stayed up late talking. Alicia had managed to find a job and a place to live, but she was not happy with either. She had called her caseworker about coming back into the foster care system, only to learn that she was so close to being an adult that the bureaucracy was not willing to take her back.
She left the next morning but started calling regularly and staying overnight. By the time she was legally an adult, I realized that she had moved back in one night at a time.
Long before that, when she was still showing up sporadically, Alicia called to ask if she could invite a guy to dinner. I agreed, and the next night she cooked a grand meal for him. We all had a pleasant time, and he went on his way.
As we were cleaning up, I asked Alicia if this was a serious relationship. “No,” she said, “I don’t like him that much. I just wanted him to meet you.”
As I prepared for bed that night, I pondered why Alicia had gone to so much trouble for a guy that she only mildly liked. I eventually realized that she was not trying to impress him. She simply wanted him to know that somewhere there was someone who cared about her.
In the years since, I have learned that letting children know that we care about them is the most important thing we can do. Yes, children need structure and discipline and many other things. But none of that matters as much as letting them know that we care. It is not an easy task, particularly with children who reject us. One reason that it is hard is that we can’t convince children of our love just by telling them. We have to prove it over time, and sometimes it seems like it takes forever. Other times we may feel like we have simply failed at communicating it.
But we have to keep trying, because love and care are the foundation of our relationships. Without them, we will never be able to build a strong relationship. Whatever else we can or cannot accomplish with our children, we need to help them know that somewhere someone cares about them.
This post is an excerpt from my new book, “Raising Other People’s Children,” available at bookstores everywhere.