I was really irritated. It had been a long day, my foster daughter had pitched a fit because I wouldn’t take her shopping, and now my dog was missing. I knew the dog was inside the house, just as I knew that I had been right in the argument with my daughter, and that she was being entitled and ungrateful. Somehow that knowledge didn’t make me feel better or lower my stress level.
I finally found my dog when I stuck my head into my daughter’s room to say goodnight. My daughter lay with her back to the door, refusing to speak to me. My dog was on her other side. She lifted her head to look at me when I called to her. Then the dog sighed, turned her back, curled up next to my daughter, and stayed there for the rest of the night. My loyal dog clearly thought that no matter what was bothering me, my daughter was in more pain.
That incident stayed with me as I fostered more children, and I gradually learned that our commitments to our children have to be one-way. They need to know that, no matter how bad our day has gone, or how obnoxious they are, we are still committed to caring for them while they grow up.
Furthermore, we have to be committed to them regardless of how they treat us. It seems obvious to say that children are not adults, but it is easy to forget that children do not have the cognitive function or emotional maturity to sustain relationships. Even if they like you, the average child will be self-absorbed and oblivious most of the time. It is simply how their brains develop. Only adults can provide the bedrock commitment that is the foundation of a family.
Children also need that one-way commitment in order to grow into healthy adults. Children learn by trial and error, and they make a lot of mistakes. As the second President Bush said, “When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid.” If children always have to fear that their normal stupid mistakes will cost them a relationship or a family, they can never relax. Every stress will become a toxic one. They need the security of knowing that our commitment does not depend on them.
Furthermore, expecting them to be grateful for what we do for them is corrosive; no one wants to be an object of charity. As one of my children once put it, “I’m tired of saying thank you to all of these adults who claim they are trying to help me.” Gratitude is like a decadent dessert. It is wonderful in small quantities, but it is too rich for a full-time diet.
In fact, we know that younger children are supposed to be oblivious to the work that adults do. When children have to worry about whether there is food in the refrigerator or when the electricity will go out again, we call it an adverse childhood experience. It simply is not healthy for children to be grateful about every piece of adult work that keeps their world in place. Children who have suffered loss already know too much about what adults are supposed to do for them. We need to give them the freedom to relax and take us for granted.
Commitment is particularly important when we have a child in our life whom we do not like or perhaps even love. Children are individuals, and sometimes our personalities just do not click. When I first faced that problem with a foster child, I remembered one of my grandmother’s sayings about another person that I could not avoid but did not like. “Act like you do, and eventually you will.” I hated hearing that as a child, but my grandmother understood that attitudes usually follow actions. If I treat the person as I would treat them if I did like them, eventually I would find positive attributes. It works the same with children. Loving them is important, but commitment sometimes is what carries us to that place.
Every child needs the freedom to relax in a family, to know that they can be obnoxious without losing everything, and to know that it does not matter if they do not like us. One-way commitments are heavy lifting, but we cannot build a family without them.