Learning on the Job

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A big part of parenting is following your instincts, and if you were raised in a loving, healthy home, your instincts should be pretty good. But, even with the best of instincts, much of foster parenting is learned on the job.

Individuals who decide to become foster parents have no way of knowing what adventures lie ahead. They don't begin to suspect the challenges they will face. These beautiful, loving, innocent folks are clueless when they try to imagine the different situations they will become involved in daily.

It is not their fault that they are naive, or uninformed, or do not anticipate the many events that will soon be part of their lives. It is natural to only know well those things you have first hand knowledge of and what you have studied. Before becoming foster parents, most people are simply parents and want to help other children as well as their own kids. We really do not offer them enough training in advance as to how to parent this high - risk kids, so the majority of us learn on the job.

Learning on the job should not strike fear in your hearts or even worry you too greatly; it is a natural function. Do you remember when you first brought your own newborn baby home from the hospital? Do you recall the feelings that ran through you as you looked at that helplessly tiny infant and realized it's total dependence was upon you? It was frightening at first to take on such a great responsibility, but you did it. You learned how to recognize all the different sounds that baby made along with their meanings. You eventually mastered diapering the still untrained toddler as they tried to escape. Recognizing the signs of childhood diseases became second nature to you, you even knew the immunization schedule by heart. Later, you became an expert in everything from school science projects to football plays. You did it all because you had to; it was necessary to better parent your kids. It is the same with foster parenting.

Understand I still believe foster parents need so many skills that much more training should be offered and required. I think there are so many subjects we must excel at and thousands of topics we must be familiar with that good training makes sense. I am also a proponent of not reinventing the wheel if someone has already worked out the best methods why not share those. But my independent and creative nature also forces me to advise parents to follow their instincts and get creative in their approaches when it is not a life or death matter.

Learning on the job is the only sensible way to learn some things. Book learning and being shown are not the same as doing it yourself. If your natural kids were all 'A' students and never suffered from learning disabilities, you are probably not an expert in that field. Don't worry, you soon will be if you parent kids like this. You will soon learn to adjust your methods and expectations for kids who cannot do well in school without lots of assistance. You will bring teaching and requests down to their level without being patronizing. You may learn to use simpler words, one task commands, and talk more slowly and deliberately. With some kids you may see a need for much more patience than you ever thought you had. Others may require a lot of hand holding throughout every step of a process to complete some task. You will learn what is needed.

Before I fostered, I had no experience with chemical abuse. It took some time to realize what all the signs of abuse were and what those signs indicated. I had to learn about many different drugs, how they were used, what they cost, where they could be obtained, and what the long-term effects were from abusing them. I'd like to say I learned all this from training and when I first started foster care, but that is untrue. By the time I received the training I had been living with chemical abusers for more than a year. I had learned by being nosy and asking questions. I picked up street names of drugs, and places where they sold these things from the kids themselves. Often just overheard remarks were an education.

This learning on the job also took place when it came to sexual abuse. I never was so close to that problem before. Of course, I knew it existed, but it never makes an impact on you until you experience it firsthand or witness the aftermath of its victims. After hearing the revelations from kids, that sometimes occur when they start to feel comfortable with you, you soon become an expert. It is tough to imagine what these children had to live through. There experiences were horrible and sometimes so disgusting it is hard to fathom that one person can treat another in such a way. You may have no experience, but your instincts tell you to be cautious and to be empathic. You learn to recognize the different ways this abusive past manifests itself in youth. You start to know the reasons behind the behaviors. Like the eating disorders, the choice of clothing, the awful sleeping habits, or the mistrust of everyone. You learned this by working with these kids and being observant. Yes, training may have better prepared you for the symptoms and signs of past abuse, but you learned how to react by living with these kids. You learn to take relationships slow and lower your expectations about any affectionate return from these kids. You realize you must first build up self-esteem and trust in the world before they will believe and accept you. It is a long procedure with few quick results.

Illnesses, disorders, and all those acronyms for disabilities and syndromes are learned when necessary, you don't usually have too much previous knowledge of those things. Learning on the job is how I learned about diabetes and many more unpleasant things like venereal diseases and what drugs those required.

So don't worry about what you don't know. Just open your mind to learning, be observant, and let your instincts take over. You know when someone hurts they need comfort. You know when someone is confused; they need patience and understanding. And you know that every child that comes through your door needs love, so give it. The rest you can learn. Don't ever stop learning. Thanks to all foster parents who took this amazing job and now are learning more than they ever dreamed possible.

Credits: Jo Ann Wentzel

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