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Understanding Behavior - Choices of Children in Foster Care

by Thomas C. Rector

Originally Published in the March/April 2013 edition of Fostering Families Today

I would like to tell you a story, it is a common one. It is about Nathan. He was a foster brother of the CASA child that I advocated for some years ago. It was a good foster home, the foster parents were dedicated to providing a good home; consistent, clean, committed to the kids succeeding in their education, hygiene was important, diligent to make appointments. They were good people and good foster parents.

This was Nathan's fourth placement as I recall. He was a gentle natured boy and did not cause a lot of drama or rebel against the foster parents. But one day, he ran away. He was 10 years old so he was found within a day or so. However, when it was time for him to be returned to his foster home, he was not allowed.

The foster home had rules. One of those rules was that if you ran away, you cannot come back. They believed that if Nathan could not follow the rules, then they could not trust Nathan, which meant they could not have him in their home. So Nathan moved on; losing another home and his relationships with the other foster children.

At the time, I felt for his loss of another home and the relationships he had in the home.

I asked myself, "Is this the correct way to handle this situation?"

I have since become clear in how to answer that question, "how to handle this situation;' because I have become clear on my role in the life of a child. I have created my Mission of Parenting which is, "To develop an adult who has positive self-esteem and the tools to achieve their potential."

This defines my role as being first and foremost a "teacher": Not only am I a teacher, but I am a teacher whose most important task is to build positive self-esteem.

Coming from that perspective, the question should be, "What are the lessons that Nathan can learn from this experience?" For me that puts the situation in a much different light. It requires me to understand what was going on Nathan's head. Was he trying to hurt someone? Did he feel that he had failed at something and this was the coping skill he had for that situation? Was he just a kid who was tempted by some fantasy? Could he be experiencing too close of a relationship with the foster parents and did not know how to handle it? Was he testing the commitment of the foster parents? There are many possibilities!

Instead of reacting to the behavioral choice, these questions ask us to understand "why" the behavioral choice was taken. Yes, the "run away" choice is not productive and cannot be overlooked, but it is not the problem - though it might have created a new problem which will have to be addressed.

Let's look at this through an analogy. In the evening after work, I like to take a shower; it removes the day's work and it is soothing. After my shower, I just want to relax and work shoes are just not about relaxing. So I go bare foot. But one evening, I am not paying attention as I go around the coffee table and stub my little toe. That hurts! And my wife gives me a "look" regarding the words that slipped out. I go to the cabinet for Band-Aids to stop the blood from getting on the carpet.

There were a couple problems that occurred. One is bleeding on the carpet and the other is my language, which is not acceptable.

However, while both problems need to be dealt with, the real problem is the lack of protection for my feet. If I had put on my house slippers, my little toe would have been protected and the offensive language would not have happened and the carpet would have stayed its natural color.

Yes, I need to have more self-discipline in my language when the world is not going my way, but more importantly, I should be more aware of preparing for the environment that I am going to be in. I am an adult, I am able to recognize this and make adjustments in my behavior so the future will be a safer place for my little toe. I have learned to take responsibility for creating solutions.

But Nathan is 10 years old; he is not an adult. He still is accumulating his skills. So it is up to the adults in his world to identify what was the cause of the behavior and not get caught up in reacting to his behavior.

I can look back on this situation and recognize that he did learn something. He knew that if he could run away, he could make things change. Unfortunately, he was creating change with negative social choices. He was using the rules that were supposed to motivate him to make positive choices; to cause adults to make negative choices for his future.

He did not learn a coping skill for handling whatever in his life was not feeling comfortable. He did not learn that it was possible to solve problems with communication. He did not learn he was important to people. He did not learn that you can grow from making mistakes. But he did learn that relationships could be trashed. He learned that a relationship was not an exchange of commitment; it was a passing thing that could be used to implement one's own wishes.

A couple years ago, when Nathan was in his early 20's, he responded to an ad in the paper for a used car my company was selling. I was not directly involved, but Nathan mentioned to my employee that he knew me when I was a CASA and to be sure to say hello from Nathan. I felt good about that. He had perceived some good in our casual relationship and he appeared to be a functioning citizen in our community. I approved a transaction where he would pay for part of the price up front with a note to pay the remainder a month later. He did not pay the remainder of the note on time. In fact, he only paid a portion of the remainder after considerable effort on our part.

All through Nathan's life, he was learning ... but I am not sure the adults in Nathan's life were aware of what they were teaching with their rules. That "run away" experience had so many missed opportunities to "develop an adult with positive self-esteem and the tools to achieve their potential"

About the Author: Thomas C. Rector is the founder of Accrescent Institute, a national speaker and trainer on BioSocial Cognition; a methodology that brings clarity and understanding to behavior. He is a staunch advocate for children and dedicated to teaching and providing parents the tools to raise successful adults.

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