Lessons from my foster children

My husband and I were short-term foster parents. Some 366 youth lived with us for  a few days,  or some weeks or  even for months. We learned from each.

Before we became foster parents, I was teaching at Columbia University School of Social Work. I was also a licensed mental health professional and had directed the social service department at a Woman’s Hospital in New York City.   In other words, I was thought by most to be an “expert.”  In many ways I was. But in one important way, I was not.  I had not yet raised children from birth to adulthood.

I was  raised in the fifties where you didn’t question parents and never said anything if you could not say something nice.  I was almost a mealy mouth.  But five things made me the person I am today. Meaning someone who tries to tell it like it is, but so it will be heard which means saying the not so nice stuff nicely. Those three things:

1. A rebellious mother. She eloped to marry  a man her family thought beneath her.  Actually, he was above them by miles in kindness.

Anyway, my earliest memory,  is as a four-year old.  Not religious, my mother  had  sent me to the nearest church to attend Sunday School; it was a Methodist Church across the street from our house of the moment.

That particular Sunday was Children’s Day and parents were lured to the service to watch the children perform. I was one of a group singing “Jesus loves me.”

The minister took advantage of the large audience to preach hell and damnation for anyone who smoked.  At the end of the service, my mother shook the preacher’s hand and then walked about ten feet away and lit up an Old Gold cigarette. The smoke drifted toward the preacher and as she smoked she smiled.

2. A learning disability.  Not known then, but understood more frequently in today’s world, I and many members of my mother’s family suffer from a lesser known learning difference called Dysgraphia.  We can read, think very well, but fumble a great deal putting words on paper.  Poor handwriting, terrible spelling, inability to punctuate properly, at a loss with many grammar rules. How did I become a published author? Thanks to my parents and those teachers who saw more than my errors I loved school and learning; then,  word processing and spell check entered my world; finally life as a foster parent and a therapist meant an unusual story.

The main lesson from my learning disability was and remains an ability to tolerate uncertainty.  I was often wrong, and that does create uncertainty. But I was right enough of the time to keep trudging forward when others stopped.

One of my guru’s Harvard researcher Jerome Kagan believes the ability to tolerate uncertain is a main key in understanding human behavior,  particularly, when it comes to conflicting beliefs. Explains fanaticism to me and why wars are raged with religious beliefs as a reason or a tool.

3. Training as a mental health professional. There I was taught the Freudian art of listening with to underlying stuff, and the Rogerian Art of communication more wisely mainly by the use of reflection back the client’s words.

4. Marriage to a Talmudic learning invested Jew who believes arguing and discussion are major keys to learning truths and have nothing to do with whether you love or hate the person you are arguing with.  I learned to debate without fear of rejection from him.

A side note: I believe much of the ability of the Jews to move ahead in this world and to garner hatred lies in the fact that studying the Torah teaches critical thinking.  The great teacher Hillel taught all the Torah encompassed in one sentence “…that which you hate, don’t do to others.”  He adds that the rest of the Torah is commentary leading back to the one core value. The commentary’s teach critical thinking. 

How does this lead to hatred? As Kagan notes critical thinking creates uncertainty and he also notes that uncertainty  blamed on someone else creates anger. When the Jews refuse other versions of God, they create uncertainty.

Finally, critical thinking  is recognized as a get ahead skill and getting ahead creates uncertainty about the self that can and often does lead to jealousy and resentment of those left behind.

5. Life as a parent and foster parent.  My husband and I were selected to be special need foster parents because of my training as a mental health professional.  It was thought being a therapist meant troubled youth would be treated therapeutically in our home and the courts – each child in our care had run aground of the law in one way or another – would better understand the child’s needs before he or she moved on to a more permanent living arrangement.

Did not work that way.  After four weeks as a foster parent, I lost all faith in my professional training.  Four of the first six kids placed with us rioted, threatened to kill our children and us.  You can read more about that in my book “When Good Kids Do Bad Things” and my second book “Parents are People Too, An Emotional Fitness Program for Parents.”

What allowed us to survive?  My husband’s knowledge as a dog trainer. He specialized in training guard dogs and knew dominance came first but had to be followed quickly by caring behavior.  I discuss this in a blog post about parenting lessons learned from mother dogs. Treat Children Like Dogs.


After I became disillusioned with my professional training, I kept reading and looking for help.  The more direct experience the help givers had with children, the better the advice. Often that meant experienced parents.  But it might also mean camp counselors, teachers, therapists who specialised in helping children and various researchers.

At the same time, most parents advice suggests  following your instincts or intuition. Sadly instinct is a very primitive source of advice designed to keep you alive. Intuition is what we no longer remember how or where we learned the knowledge it suggests is true and right. Intuition works well in many situations, but must also be countered with careful thought in other situations.

In time I came to value intuitive knowledge, parenting based knowledge and professional knowledge.

One professional knowledge tip I came across was in Gregory Bateson’s book Steps to Ecology of the Mind. Bateson wanted to sort out the many  paths to reality.

He noted that: “The more views of the territory, the more accurate the map.”

Actually, he got this idea from Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski.  The painter Magritte often illustrated this idea. His most famous illustration of this idea is the Painting The Treachery of Images also known in English as “This is not a pipe.” 

The cartoon I used at the beginning of this post illustrates the danger of limiting ideas of helpfulness to one or two possibilities.  Commonly thought of as “Either/or” Thinking.  Not helpful. Better to think “Yes/and.”

Uncertainty does create painful feelings.  As Kagan points out it can create anger  when blamed on someone else.  Parents and teachers are often targets because if they correct a child, they create uncertainty. So are religions who oppose another religion’s view of God.

Uncertainty can also be blamed on the self and that creates depression, shame, and poor self-acceptance. When nothing can be found to blame, despair is created.

We want certainty in our world. We want to feel in control which is why there is so much talk about becoming anything we want if we only believe and work hard. Sadly not true and as much a myth as the idea of Santa Claus and Tooth Fairies. Kagan notes as one of the things that makes us who we are is “Chance.”

To summarize: the  lessons I learned from life with my foster children:

  1. To seek advice from many sources.
  2. Intuition, personal knowledge  must be partnered with critical thinking otherwise we will be lead astray.
  3. Chance plays a part in every life.
  4. Free will is limited. We have many choices, but in all situations choice is limited.
  5. To have faith in the capacity of most humans to grow toward goodness. Few of my foster children ended up in jail or mental institutions. Most joined the legions of people living okay if not perfect lives.
  6. That people may not be inherently evil, but can be lead downs of paths of evil.  Self-defense is every person’s right. Speaking out against evil every person’s responsiblity.

Staying strong

Life is a blend of struggle and pain, easy times and joyous times, and in between the those two tolerable times.  Self-soothing exercises and being with the good times keep you strong.  The One Minute Meditation is one of Efit’s easiest self soothing exercises.

this rather lengthy post was prompted by a WordPress Weekly Prompt: This week, ….teach us something—or share something you’ve been taught …

As always thank you for all you do to Practice Kindness, a major emotional intelligence boosting practice. Liking, commenting, or sharing any social media you find helpful is one way to be kind to me. It may seem like a little, however, doing a little matters a lot.




EFTI’s Free Poster coaches are digital downloads designed to  improve Emotional Intelligence. Best printed up in color on card stock. they can be posted almost anywhere.  Their intended audience? Anyone who wants to improve their emotional fitness or anyone else’s emotional intelligence.  Parents, teachers, therapists, coaches, fitness trainers, school guidance counselors, preachers, and non-preachers.



6 responses to “Lessons from my foster children

  1. Pingback: It’s just scrambled egg | Mermaid's tresses

  2. Pingback: Lessons Given & Received | Mayur Wadhwani's Blog

  3. Pingback: Philosophy [A POEM] | Ramisa the Authoress

  4. Pingback: Unblogged | litadoolan

  5. Such an insightful post. Thank you for sharing your experience. The concept of learning through debating (as opposed to arguing) sounds powerful

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.