As mentioned in our last blog, this week’s premier of the new ABC Family television show “The Fosters” covered a diverse range of topics, including same-sex parenting, multi-ethnic family dynamics, unreported foster home abuse, placement/school instability, the strength of sibling relationships, and an unhealthy meeting with a biological parent. Basically everything but the kitchen sink.
As I sat curled up on my couch watching the drama unfold, one seemingly small interaction jumped out at me. Callie, who had been placed with the Fosters the night before, entered the kitchen amidst the normal day bustle of breakfast and morning chit-chatter and made a beeline to the coffee pot. As she poured herself a mug, all activity ceased, and the entire family stared at her in silenced shock.
This brief, seemingly insignificant moment artfully captured a larger experience many children encounter when they are plugged into an unknown foster family. Every family has their own set of unwritten rules. These rules dictate how family members interact with each other, who assumes which household chores, who sits in the front seat of the car, etc. For example, growing up in my family, we always had to ask permission before turning on the TV (we were only allowed to watch a certain number of hours per week). We knew this expectation from the start, so my mother never really had to spell it out; it just became an ingrained part of our family’s functioning. When we had visitors who did not abide by this unwritten rule, we all noticed.
In the Foster family, the kids aren’t allowed to drink coffee. Although I’m sure this topic was discussed at some point during the children’s upbringing, it wasn’t something Stef or Lena (the parents) had thought to lay out amidst the other family rules in Callie’s brief orientation her first night (curfew is at 7:30, ask permission before you leave the house, etc). And often it’s those seemingly minor unwritten rules that are the hardest to pick up on. Kids may quickly learn where they are to sleep at night, how family dinners are structured, and what time they leave for school in the morning, but it takes years to integrate into a family to the point where they understand and are familiar with the underlying, unwritten family rules. While this is an inevitable part of adjusting to unknown territory, it still has the potential to reinforce a negative message to kids in foster care – they don’t quite belong.
This is why it is so incredibly important for foster families to go above and beyond in treating children who are with them temporarily as no different than their own kids. The Fosters set this stage by laying out the same house rules for Callie as they had for their biological and adoptive children. And while having Callie sleep on a couch isn’t ideal, it was clear that Stef and Lena were being intentional about engaging with Callie and trying to develop a comfortable relationship.
When rules – either written or unwritten – are broken, it’s important for families to be patient, not to overreact, and to calmly explain what the rule is and why it exists. This will be vital as the Fosters continue working to help Callie, and now Jude, become more comfortable in their family and feel a little less like outsiders.
Kids in foster care will never forget they aren’t with their family of origin. With some intentional effort, however, they can develop a different sense of “comfort” and “home” in their new environment.