Thursday, May 11, 2017

"So That's a 'Yes?'" or, "How to Push a Foster Dad's Button Without Really Trying"

The “car rider line” at school is not my favorite place to be. Just in general. So I was already kind of grumpy as I picked up the fifth grader at the end of the day.

Then, after the fifth grader was loaded, a teacher leaned into the front passenger window. She stood there, elbows planted on the door, preventing me from moving on, dozens of cars behind me, dozens of kids waiting to be picked up witnessing the exchange, several other teachers watching closely.

She proceeded to describe the fifth grader’s behavior in her class. She’s the art teacher, which is only relevant because she lacks any day-to-day interaction with our fifth grader. That is to say, she doesn’t know him. Now, what he did was not okay, but pretty typical behavior for him. I listened to her, and then at the end of the story she said, “…and I’d like you to talk to him about it.”

“Thank you,” I replied. I thought that would end it, so that we could go home and I could parent the fifth grader appropriately, in the way that would work best for him.

But no, that didn’t end it.

She said, “So, that’s a ‘yes?’”

Now, I have never met this person, she’s obviously never met me, so I was able to utilize a fairly successful filter on what I actually wanted to say to her. Something along the lines of “I’ve parented eighteen children, ma’am. I know what I’m doing. Get your elbows off of my car so we can be on our way. And by the way, mind your own business.” [*Filtered.]

“So, that’s a ‘yes?’”

And what I actually said was, “You need to know that this isn’t helping.”


“This isn’t helping,” I repeated.

“What isn’t helping?” she asked.

“This conversation. Shaming him in front of me, in front of the other teachers, in front of his peers. This is going to make it worse.”

“I’m not shaming him. I’m saying you have to talk about it with him. His behavior was unacceptable.”

I may have sighed. “Please, just try to learn the full story here. Talk to the principal please. Get the full story.”

“So are you going to talk about it with him?” Persistence is not always a virtue.

I said, “Please just trust me. You are making things worse. You need to get the full story.”

Whether it was my words or the impatient glares of the dozens of parents in the cars behind us, I don’t know. But she took her elbows off the car and said, “Oh, I will get the full story.”

“Thank you. I think that will help,” I said and drove away.

The fifth grader in the back seat is our foster son. Let’s call him “David.” 12 years old. Been with us all school year and in less than two weeks is transitioning back home again.

And so because of this impending transition David is currently in the process of sabotaging every positive relationship he has formed over the past year. He is doing this so that when he gets back home again he will be able to talk about how much he hated it, how bad things were, how everyone treated him so poorly. This will in turn allow his home life to appear happy and healthy. (And of course we hope it truly will be.)

So he is sabotaging his relationships … with me, my wife Erin, our son Gabe, every teacher (including Art Teacher), the principal (who has been his biggest fan all year long – she is awesome), people at church, the kid next door that he loves to play with, and on and on. The only relationship he hasn't attempted to dismantle, as far as I can tell, is with our neighbor Rob, who lets him play basketball in his driveway.

He is infecting these relationships with bad feelings. Probably not on purpose, but at a subconscious level, in a way that would provide all kinds of fascinating material for a psychology student’s term paper. Of course we are on to him; we can see exactly what is going on and so we are trying to respond accordingly, with patience and affirmation.

But Art Teacher is clueless. Because she doesn’t know him, doesn’t know his story, doesn’t know what’s going on in his life. I am not upset with Art Teacher for telling us about David’s behavior, you understand. (She should have emailed us.) I am upset because I tried to deal with it in the way that would be most helpful, and she, out of her ignorance, would not allow that to happen.

See, when David is caught doing something inappropriate and you confront him about it, he doubles down on it. He does it more. That is especially true when you confront him about it in front of other people. And it is even worse when the other people are his peers.

He postures and puffs up and acts very “macho,” says ridiculous things like, “Well I’m gonna tell everyone that Santa isn’t real” and “Nobody really likes Michael Jackson.” And yes, that is actually hilarious, but as for addressing the actual behavior in question, it isn’t effective.

And see, I know that about him. And I know what he is going through, how the anxiety and fear about moving back home is subconsciously motivating his destructive attitudes and behaviors. Even knowing that, even knowing him … it’s hard. It hurts. It’s frustrating. It feels like failure.

And so I guess one of the reasons Art Teacher pushed a button in me yesterday is that she just knew that simply “talking with him” about it was going to fix it, and therefore I heard her “So that’s a ‘yes?’” as an indictment of our failure to help David negotiate this difficult season.

When we got home, I asked David about what Art Teacher had said. He postured, puffed up, got defensive, and explained himself to me. And so it goes.

But it was just him and me, so it was manageable. It ended with me telling him, “You are not in charge of how other people act. You are only in charge of yourself, your own choices.”

And he mumbled “I don’t care” and went to play basketball at Rob’s.

And so it goes.

At least he was getting some exercise.