If there is one thing I have learned as a foster / adoptive parent it is that my perspective is often wrong, or at least different. By often I mean almost always, it seems. As we prepared to go on a short little vacation with our boys, we started noticing strange questions, packing sequences that didn't make sense, and other oddities. It didn't take long to realize that once again, our perspective was off. I'll explain what I mean by sharing some conversations we had before and during our vacation.
For background, we planned a little getaway to San Antonio to go to Sea World, visit the Alamo, and eat at a couple of popular restaurants. Our choice of hotels was nothing fancy, but we like the suite-style hotels that serve breakfast. It saves us a ton of money on eating breakfast out every day. We avoided downtown and saved fifty bucks a night. Again, nothing terribly fancy, but not your low-end Motel Something-or-other, either. This was our perspective. It would prove inadequate.
When dealing with children impacted by trauma you can never really know what will spark a memory, a comparison, a flashback, or even an emotional meltdown. At any rate, the experience is enlightening, to say the least. Here is the conversation that started us looking for clues.
Will our hotel have cockroaches and bed bugs?
Son 1: "Mom, do we need to pack our stuff in big plastic bags?"
Mom: "No, just put your stuff inside your duffel bag. Why would you need to put it in large plastic bags anyway?"
Son 1: "To protect it from the cockroaches and bed bugs."
After about a bazillion iterations of this conversation, he finally told us, "then it isn't like any of the motels I've ever stayed in before." That's when it hit us. What we had in mind in terms of a vacation, hotel, everything, was far outside of their scope of knowledge. In fact, it was revealed they had never been on a vacation before at all. They are eleven.
The idea of a vacation, getting away to have fun, relax, unwind, or see new things -- totally foreign concept. This is one of the reasons we prompt teachers to be careful what you ask a foster child when they are newly placed. Questions like, "where did you go on vacation?" or "how was your summer?" may have surprising answers. Answers you may not be prepared for like, "it wasn't good, we were put in CPS." or "Santa didn't come to see us this year." The fact they are in foster care means they came from a very hard place, and likely at a young age, which makes it worse. Their perspective is totally different.
In fact, in our case, he was really very worried that he would have a bed at all. Much less a clean one. It really set some things in proper order for us.
This doesn't just apply to foster children. As teachers, we encounter children every day who are dealing with trauma in some form or another. It could be dad losing a job, mom left last night and we don't know where she went, our house burned down, or they didn't get a chance at a good meal until they got to school; all traumatic events that shape a child's worldview.
How are you gonna work out without a TV?
We work out every weekday, vacations are no exception. One of the boys asked us how we would do that without a TV. We replied, "Oh, honey, there will be a TV, maybe two!" He soberly said, "There aren't any TVs in the motels I've stayed in." Nothing more was said about that.
We don't have to bring our own blankets and towels?
While packing, one of the twins came down the stairs with a couple of towels for his bag. Of course, we couldn't understand why he would do this and asked the obvious question: "What are you bringing towels for?" He was astonished to find out the hotel would provide those FREE OF CHARGE! He mumbled as he returned the towels to the closet, "Man this place must be fancy."
It wasn't. In fact, it was an older remodeled version of an Embassy Suites. We like hotels like this because it provides some privacy for us and, as noted, they feed us breakfast! When you are traveling with several kids, free breakfast is worth about 50 bucks a day!
Are we gonna eat out every time?
One afternoon we were contemplating where we would eat lunch or supper, or something and one little guy said inquisitively, "Are we going to eat out every time? Could we just eat back at the hotel? That would be OK!" He liked the yogurt and powdered eggs.
He didn't realize they didn't serve the breakfast 24/7. He honestly had trouble processing the fact that vacation meant eating out. It sort of disjointed his brain a little, I think.
Did you have to pay for this breakfast?
They asked this every single day. While we sat at the table, one of them would ask me about paying for it each day. They seemed very concerned that we might be stealing the food, I suppose.
Are you gonna buy some extra towels for us tonight?
They still weren't getting it. On the way back to the hotel one night we discussed the possibility of going swimming when we arrived. That's when we got this question. I was impressed that A) they thought about the fact we would need towels, and B) they were willing to forego swimming if it meant we had to buy them.
They reminded us once again that the motels they had stayed in didn't provide clean towels. If you used more than you had, you had to "buy" more, probably from a vending machine of sorts, like the ones at the car wash.
Do you have to pay for the car?
Though unrelated to the vacation, this one happened to be my favorite. Mainly because it took us a while to figure out what was going on. We replied in the obvious tone, "well, of course, they don't just give them to you, why do you ask?" One of the boys replied, "because we've never seen you go to pay for it, so I thought it was free!"
"Oh, we pay it online," we answered, but that wasn't getting to the bottom of it. I could see the confusion on his face so I asked a follow-up question, "why would you think you needed to see us make the car payment?" His answer finally clued us in on what was happening.
"Because we've never been back to the place where we bought it to drop off a payment, so we thought we didn't have to." His only experience was with car dealerships/lots that require cash payments on-site every week. We used to call them the Tote the Note dealerships. Having a bank finance the car was, again, a concept he couldn't conceive.
Is that all of our school supplies?
It's time to get ready to head back to school and the inevitable school supply shopping has begun. We always get a little bit here and a little bit there once the lists come out online. We did that the other day. We bought a couple of binders, some markers, composition books, and a few pencils. It wasn't everything, but it was a start.
When we unloaded it, we noticed their eyes got big as they stared down on all the loot. "Is that all of our school supplies?" one of the boys exclaimed. Mom replied, "No, but it's a start, why?" His answer was sobering. "We've never started school with all our stuff before."
This stood in stark contrast to our older son who was oblivious to the fact he even needed school supplies. His normal is his supplies magically appear on the kitchen table one day before the first day of school and after Meet the Teacher. Never once had it crossed his mind he might not have everything he needs to start the year. The perspectives were on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Safety can breed negativity
We picked up on one more expectation and perspective variant over the course of our little vacation: safety can breed negativity. I'll explain.
We've noticed as the boys are with us longer, they have developed a critical eye of sorts at times, often pointing out areas where they feel we or someone else needs improvement. I asked one of them off the cuff one day, "have you always been this critical?" He replied, "no, just here" then he went on his way.
It took us a bit to figure it out in this context, but it really is the same reason kids act out with mom and dad and are angels for other people. Safety.
It dawned on us that they had never felt safe to share their opinions before. Now they do. They know a disagreement or differing opinion isn't the end of the deal, so they feel safe, possibly for the first time, sharing their actual thoughts, not just placating the adult in the room.
Recognizing this behavior has helped me to understand their negativity on things isn't necessarily a critical spirit, but a spirit that has finally found his voice.
As we get back into school, be mindful of your surroundings and that some of our students may not come to us with the same perspective in the last few months. They may be tired and actually looking forward to the stability school brings, though they would never admit it.
And maybe, just maybe, they'll come back with new and exciting perspectives that can build new expectations, foundations for a new and happier trajectory. I pray it's the latter.