Most advice to foster parents and stepparents, including mine, focuses on the challenges of parenting those kids. There’s good reason for that emphasis, as the job can be daunting. I’ve often said that raising other people’s children (cough) is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life — and it’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It’s easy to forget that last part. We shouldn’t overlook it, and we should find ways to let our kids know.
In spite of all of the challenges and even the relationships that never quite worked, I am grateful for all of the children who have been part of my life. They have taught me things about life and about myself that I never would have learned otherwise. They have left me in awe of their resilience and ability to move past tremendous trauma. Even decisions that I didn’t quite understand, such as their willingness to forgive biological parents, showed a generosity of spirit that I certainly could not match.
Their annoying traits taught me a lot about patience, obviously. However, I also learned how to pick my battles and out figure which issues didn’t matter in the long run. Those lessons carried over into the rest of my life and enabled me to much better handle setbacks and irritations elsewhere. My kids at their worst also taught me that every fault is the flip side of a virtue. Stubbornness sometimes gave my kids the strength they needed to keep going in the midst of trauma. Thin-skinned children were sensitive to other people’s feelings, with a degree of empathy that I needed to learn. Each one of my kids brought unique talents and traits that, when I sat still long enough, taught me (or made me practice) important character virtues.
Each one of us needs to spend some time concentrating on the positive aspects of having these children in our lives. Yes, I know it’s sometimes hard to find anything positive. If we have a child who actively rejects us or is in the throes of a trauma response, it is really hard to look beyond what is right in front of us. But everyone has good points, even if we have to do a lot of work to uncover them. Where we have energy to do that work, we should.
Then, once we find the virtues in them and gratitude in ourselves, we need to let our children know. Our kids, particularly foster children, may not have heard positive things about themselves very often. Unfortunately, it’s easy for them to reject those comments when they do hear them, especially if it’s the silly stock phrases such as “you are special.”
When they hear us express how we feel, however, it’s much harder for them to reject the comments. After all, if I say that I’m grateful that I’ve had a chance to get to know you, I’m describing my reality. Oh sure, they can respond with snarky comments or accuse me of hypocrisy. But if I am sharing something real and authentic, the comments have a way of working their way past the strongest defenses that kids set up.
Of course, we have to be relentlessly positive in these conversations. Sliding in a life lesson (“you need to redirect your stubbornness”), will just give them an excuse to ignore you. Even if you are right (maybe especially if you are right), they don’t need to hear lectures at this point. Similarly, saying “you have taught me patience” won’t work very well. We can find an honest, positive thing that they have demonstrated, and let them know what we have learned from watching them.
So, this Thanksgiving, reflect on all of the good parts of having your children in your family. Find something positive, even if you have to dig for it, and let them know that you are grateful for that character trait. Find ways to let our children know that, when we are counting our blessings, we include them with all of their faults and virtues. Our lives are much richer for having known them, and we can be grateful for that experience.