One thing that’s easy to forget as adults is how little control children have over their lives. That fact is particularly true for foster and stepchildren. We are in their lives because of decisions that adults, sometimes family and sometimes strangers, have made and over which our children had no control. One of the things that we can do to bring some balance to their lives is to help them find areas where they can exert some control.
The idea of helping children find control is a common one in parenting manuals. In my experience, it’s particularly important for stepchildren and foster children. I don’t have any research to back up my experience, but I’ve found that the more areas where I could help children control their environment, the more they settled into our relationship.
Of course, we have to make essential safety and health decisions for our children. We can’t, for example, let them always choose candy over vegetables. But we can let them choose which vegetables are on the menu more often than others. Similarly, we can give them control over many areas that don’t affect safety issues.
I learned early in my foster parent journey to let my kids decide for themselves what their room looked like and how messy it was. Not only did that decision give them some control over their environment, but it gave me one less thing to argue about with them. Yes, it is important that kids learn discipline, to clean up after themselves, and to have a neat appearance. But I could teach all of those things in the common areas of the house. Their room was their sanctuary, the one place in the house that they could call their own. Short of things that affected other people (say, food in the room that attracted bugs), I let them make their own decisions about their own space.
I’ve also had kids who turned their control impulses into experimenting with diet restrictions. Again, short of safety issues such as eating disorders, I let them choose their menus. I always explained that I didn’t have time to research the best vegan recipes (or raw food or whatever their current experiment was), so they had to take that responsibility. I asked them to show me how they planned to get enough calories and essential vitamins, and then left them to put what they wanted on the grocery list. With a couple of children who had eating disorders, I discovered that the process of doing the research, controlling the grocery purchases, and cooking for themselves helped reduce some of the issues underlying the eating disorders.
Similarly, I always let kids decide what clothes they wanted to wear. Eventually I quit cringing at their color choices and pattern combinations. With older kids, I gave them complete control over their clothing budget, and let them learn from experience how to allocate their money between cool hoodies and essential underwear.
An important part of teaching children how to control their environment is letting them deal with the consequences of their decisions. For example, I always warned my kids that, if they bought a huge amount of groceries for their current diet restrictions, they couldn’t switch to a new experiment until all of that food was gone. Some of them listened to my warnings and bought smaller amounts of food, but others were stuck eating food they didn’t like for a couple of weeks.
Another child spent all of her clothing allowance on shoes, ignoring my warnings that she would need a winter coat when the weather turned cold. Sure enough, when winter hit, she had a lot of cool shoes and no winter coat. Of course, I didn’t let her go without, but I simply offered one of my hand-me-down coats. It wasn’t stylish enough to suit her, but I refused to give her more money to buy the coat that she wanted. She complained vociferously, and convinced her biological family that I was being cruel, but I held firm. Her family did buy her a coat, but it was even less acceptable than the one I offered. I had to endure a few months of her whining about my second-hand coat, but I also saw her learn how to start budgeting for long-term goals. Letting kids live with the consequences of their decisions (again, within the bounds of safety) is an important part of their learning life skills.
Once you start thinking in terms of allowing children some control over their environment, you will find many decisions that you can hand over to them. Learning how to assess decisions, and safely learn from the consequences of bad choices, not only helps them develop important life skills, but it helps them regain some balance in the short term. Almost as important, helping our children navigate these decisions, without controlling them, is an important way that we can build and enrich our relationships.