The stories children hear are vitally important. I don’t mean fairy tales or stories told around campfires — though I’m an advocate for both. I mean the stories parents tell their children about people, about the different choices people make, the diverse beliefs, practices and experiences of others. Parents understand that the stories their child hears influence the type of adult their child will become.
This is why so many parents value the story of diversity within families. They want their child to understand that some families have two mommies or daddies. Some only have one parent. Some practice an unfamiliar religion or believe in ideas that are different than their own. Helping them to understand differences is an important part of teaching children the skills of communication and empathy.
But there is a story I believe many parents haven’t considered telling their child. Actually, there are a half-million.
Approximately 1 child out of every 150 is in kinship care or foster care, which means that by the time your child is 10, they likely will have encountered at least one child in foster care in their school or recreational activities.
As a children’s book author, I am frequently in front of young audiences. I typically speak to 200 or 300 children at a time. Statistically, it is likely that there is a child in foster care in each audience, yet most of the students present have never even heard of foster care, much less have an understanding of how it might impact one of their peers. I know this to be true because I’ve asked them.
My novel for middle-grade readers, “All the Impossible Things,” is about an 11-year-old girl in foster care who accidentally causes tornadoes when she’s upset. During my presentation, I always ask the children if they know what foster care is. Usually, less than half of the audience raises their hand to answer, and their response is almost always framed negatively. Once, a boy replied, “Foster care is when your parents don’t want you anymore, so you live with strangers.”
This boy’s statement struck me, not because he was speaking from experience— he was not — but because he was so confident he understood what foster care meant. What story had he heard about foster care that shaped his beliefs?
Growing up, I’d only known foster care from a distance. My dad was a police officer and my mom a teacher, so I heard plenty of stories about life’s difficulties. I knew some kids didn’t have the stability and safety I had. I knew some families were “broken,” though I didn’t have a clear idea of what that meant. But nobody ever spoke to me directly about foster care. What little knowledge I had about it was cobbled together from my limited understanding of hardship, plus news media, television and books.
Society tends to tell the story of foster care solely through the lens of its origin— that is, trauma. News coverage highlights the tragedies endemic to the foster care system. Child abuse, neglectful foster parents, the ways in which the system grossly fails children. Television and movies often use foster care as the explanation for criminal behavior. Conversation centers around the horrors in a child’s life that lead to foster care without discussing what comes after a child has been placed in a safe, stable foster home.
The story of foster care I heard as a child — and even into adulthood — was colored by these negative influences. That is, until foster care became part of my own family’s narrative.
When I was in college, my aunt and uncle became foster parents. Their children were grown, but instead of living life as empty-nesters, they provided a home to kids who needed stability and safety. Their decision radically changed my view of the foster care system. Instead of viewing it through the lens of trauma, I began to see the infrastructure of love and dedication that supports the entire system. Rather than believing these children to be only victims, I witnessed their resilience, courage and hopefulness.
Because of my aunt and uncle, I heard a new story about foster care. And it became deeply important to me to share that story with children — the story of a system built by love instead of one necessitated by trauma. Changing my perspective on foster care humanized it, and transformed me from a disconnected onlooker into an advocate for foster children. Imagine an entire generation growing up with this new perspective.
Parents, let’s take control of the narrative about foster care. Instead of passively allowing kids to learn about the system through news and media, which forces foster children to be defined by trauma, teach your child critical lessons of love, strength and compassion early. By equipping children to recognize the value of all families — perhaps especially the found family of foster care — we are empowering them to build stronger communities of friendship, support and advocacy.
It’s time to share a new story about foster care. And there are a half-million reasons to tell it.