When they passed through the underwear section of Target, Jenn Menn’s two youngest children began laughing, pointing and crudely naming body parts. Their behavior made strangers stop and stare — even Jenn’s jaw dropped. But undeterred, she chuckled and kept shopping. It’s impossible to predict the behavior of children, especially when those children aren’t your own.
Over the last eight years, TJ and Jenn Menn, authors of the book “Faith to Foster,” have welcomed 22 children into their home. They’ve fostered individuals and sibling groups, teens, preemies and practically every age in between. And while their book chronicles the ups and downs of that journey, it also provides a breath of fresh air for all parents. Whether you’re dealing with problem behavior, trying to express love or learning to let go — foster parents have a lot of insight to offer.
Perfection isn’t the goal. As an Army family stationed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, TJ and Jenn, you might think, would be firm disciplinarians — not the kind of parents who would let their children twerk on coffee tables or curse in public. TJ says that early in his military career, he learned the value of starting out strict to earn the respect of his soldiers and set expectations. But foster parenting has turned that approach on its head.
“Jenn and I both disciplined the children for more significant offenses, like hitting or fighting, but for the most part, the first two weeks the children were in our home, we tried to shower them with love,” TJ says. “I made a conscious effort to avoid correcting minor behavioral flaws. They needed to know we were there to protect and care for them, not scold or correct their every shortcoming.”
If we’re looking for moral or behavioral perfection in our kids — even if they’ve been in our home since birth — we will always be disappointed. As TJ puts it, “be perfect and obey” is a tall order for any child and “the state of a child’s heart is more important than his behavior.”
Speaking of a child’s heart, foster parents are trained to look at problem behaviors not as annoyances but as clues. If you think of every child like a bucket that needs to be filled with love, it makes sense that over time, those buckets will have leaks. Often, because of the trauma or neglect in their past, foster children have more leaks than the average child. And their behavior can show the source of the leaks.
“We had a teenager, and one day he’d have a really mature conversation. The next day, he’d totally throw a fit, acting more like a 7-year-old and refusing to shower,” Jenn laughs. “Even now, we have a 9-year-old that wants to act like a 9-year-old and dress herself. Other days, she needs to be dressed like a 3-year-old would. We’ve learned to give into their needs rather than to demand they act their age. If they’re acting like a baby — then they have some need in them to be babies. They’re giving us some insight that there’s a little hole in their psyche. I believe that love heals that.”
Express love — even when disciplining. The state of New York, where the Menns live, prohibits foster parents from using corporal punishment, and helps train them to use more creative consequences that are less likely to trigger a child into remembering former abuse. Timeout is a staple for younger kids, Jenn explains. On a good day, the children could be assigned two or three timeouts. On a bad day, that number could look more like 12. But as the children get older, foster parents often rely on logical consequences.
“We were at camp this summer, and the kids needed to take a rest,” Jenn says. “I went into the room, and one of the older kids — our 7-year-old — wasn’t laying down. So I told him he had to lay down for five more minutes while the rest of his siblings went on ahead to horse camp.”
Logical consequences are good teachers and don’t get in the way of building a positive relationship. Forming bonds with children is vital for growth and development. For foster parents, attachment is a process that restarts every time there’s a new placement.
But it’s important for all parents to remember that making bonds of love and affection doesn’t stop when a child is out of diapers. According to a study by Marlene Moretti and Maya Peled, adolescence is a “second window” for bonding that can help ward off health problems such as depression, substance abuse and risky sexual behavior.
To form bonds with older children, foster parents are encouraged to introduce them to new activities they might not otherwise experience. For the Menns, that meant loading the kids in a van and taking them to a farm. TJ had grown up in a rural area, where he learned the benefits of hard work. And although his foster kids were initially a bit nervous about the animals, they eventually grew to love their time outside and the food they got to take home with them. It’s no secret that kids have a ton of energy to burn — and a farm might be a great change from the usual trip to the playground.
No matter where you take your children to experience life and make memories, it’s important to leave your ego at the door. Trips to Target that ended in meltdowns? Sunday school classes disrupted by outbursts? Children running into the street? Foster parents have seen it all. But a child’s behavior is not a reflection of your skill as a parent — even if you happen share DNA with the child who is having the tantrum.
“I’ve seen friends get embarrassed by their children’s behavior,” Jenn says. “We’ve already surrendered that their choices aren’t a reflection of us. That frees us to take every situation individually. We expect a mess, and then celebrate when there’s less of a mess.”
Learn to let go. Perhaps the biggest lesson any of us can learn from foster parents is a sense of gratitude for time. The average foster placement lasts 15 months, and although 30 percent of foster children end up being eligible for adoption, the other 70 percent eventually reunite with their biological family or a relative. Knowing they have a short amount of time helps the Menns focus on what’s most important.
Children move away. They graduate from high school and go to college. They (hopefully) become independent adults who need their parents less over time. Whether you have 18 months or 18 years with a child, time is limited. TJ and Jenn are quick to admit that they’ve lost sleep over children they’ve seen leave their home. But in eight years, they’ve learned to do a different kind of math when it’s time to let go. Instead of focusing on the loss that they feel when they see the car pull away, they try to remember the gains each child has made while in their care.
All parents face goodbyes. Whether you’re sending your child to kindergarten or to another state for the first time, trust that you’ve done your part well and faithfully. Even if you feel loss — an empty nest, an empty room — that just means you’ve given something valuable away.
Claire Gibson is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. You can find her on Twitter: @clairecgibson.
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