Parenting Individuality With a Touch of Trauma..

As we pulled up to the amusement park, we heard a sweet voice in the back seat say, “When do I put on my swimsuit?” My wife looked at me and then turned around and asked, “Do you not already have it on? Where is your swimsuit?” “No, it is at the hotel”, came the response, along with a very confused look.

The simple instruction to our five oldest children prior to getting dressed earlier that morning was, “kiddos, be sure to put your swimsuits on under your clothes.” This child heard the direction, but had failed to do so. So, what were we to do? Is this a life lesson moment? Perhaps a logical consequence of, “Well then, no swimming for you!”?

We headed down that path, but then, we stopped. My wife and I looked at each other and asked, “What was our role in reminding her?” It sounds simple, it really does. But, the deeper discussion we were having was not about swimsuits, but more so, about where our 6 year old was functioning due to the trauma she had experienced in her life.

We’ve been to the trainings and even read a few books, but for it to come to life, we had to own it, understand it, and respond properly to it.

What did we have to own? We had to own the fact that trauma almost always stunts development. So, while we were hearing our 6 year old say, “she forgot”, in reality, it was the 3-4 yr. old child in her speaking. This was in contrast to our own biological children. They’ve grown up with limited trauma, they have developed properly (whatever that really means) and have an understanding of our expectations and we have an understanding of their capabilities.

We both agreed that due to where she is at, we probably should have given her a reminder and followed up to make sure it was done. We even purchased her a swimsuit at the amusement park, so that she could enjoy the time with all the other children. If you know us, then you know this action is contrary to who we are as parents, but that is what foster care has done for us. It has taught us to be different, much better parents. It challenges us to get out of what we think is right and really invest in what is right for ‘this child’.

Here is what we know, trauma almost always stunts development. It messes up boundaries, it alters brain development, and it wrecks trust.

We also know, that when we parent with a clear understanding of ‘WHO’ each child is, we are able to be more effective, more caring, more attentive and the headaches that follow statements like, “no, it’s at the hotel…” begin to come less and less, because our expectations and understanding evolve to meet that specific child’s needs. The expectation of “you’re six, so you should act six” will lead to a lot of frustration for both the parent and the child. The action of, “I’m your parent and will meet you where you are.” will always be a game changer in dealing with children from backgrounds of abuse and trauma.

So, what are your thoughts? Have you seen how trauma has effected the development of a child and have you catered your parenting style around that?

So, We Will Love

Our imperfect human side always tries, and often succeeds, to get in the way of what God really wants from us as parents.  As worldly creatures we like being better, doing better, and getting more done than the next person. We want to prove our worth in others eyes.  As foster parents, we want to show our kids this is what “good” parenting looks like.  We want them to see our “normal” and we want that to be their new “normal”. 

But, in reality, we are not any better than their biological parents.  While we do not abuse our children physically, emotionally, or sexually.  Nor, do we  neglect our children, but, we still sin.  And, sin is sin in God’s eyes.  Therefore in His eyes, we are really not any better than the parents we are supposedly protecting these children from.  Our judgement of the biological family, for the choices they have made and make, is clearly just as wrong as the choices they have made and are making.

We are beginning to  understand more and more each day that we are not only here to love the children, but also their parents.

At the end of the day, God has called us to love and protect these beautiful children.  We get to play an important role in their lives for now.  Our goal should never be about how much better of a parent we are than their biological parents.  Instead, the goal should be love.  We are here to show these children they are special and they are loved.  To show them they make our world crazy better every day!  We get to kiss their hurts, celebrate their accomplishments, praise their great works, and tuck them into bed every night after we pray for their mom and dad.

Our imperfect human side wants to make this about us.  But, God’s plan has always been to make this about the children.  And, in that, the biological parents are a clear extension of their children and God’s plan for redemption.

So, we will love.

We will love not only the children, but we will love their mom and dad.  We will pray for them.  We will root for them.  We will encourage them.  And, we will remember, this journey is about love, grace, and mercy for all involved.

– Howard’s Party of 8

Messy Redemption

Redemption is messy.  Being a part of the redemptive story hurts.

We knew this going into foster care.  Even so, somehow, we convinced ourselves there would be times where we would be able to compartmentalize the brokenness, pain, and heartache.  Yet, being an effective foster parent, does not allow for one to compartmentalize, it means we willingly take on the pain, heartache and brokenness.  Trying our best to carry the burdens of the children in our home.  To be their protectors, caregivers, keepers, and defenders.  Much like Christ has done for each of us.

It doesn’t get easier.  No, in fact, it only get’s harder as we go deeper with the children and hear more about their story.  It only hurts worse as we see their biological parent fail them week in and week out.  Even if the children just blow it off as, “dad must of just been tricking us”, when they don’t get the much anticipated present they were promised last visit.  We get mad at dad, but then we remember,  he is broken and lost.  We are too.  He needs redemption.  We do too.  We remember, redemption is messy.

Yet, it is worth it.  Because we know redemption is in the works.  We know the story being written is greater and more unimaginable than we could ever imagine.

Redemption is messy.  But, the new story being written is beautiful.  We do not know what the next chapter holds, but we know we are ready: pain, heartache and all.

After all, this journey is not about us, but about them and Him, and redemption.

The Human Factor

In the beginning, we agreed that we were all in as a couple when it came to Foster Care.  We knew we would love a child or children for a season.  We knew we would empty our hearts, knowledge, and compassion into every child that came into our home.  We would get attached, we would love until it hurt, and then when it came time to say good-bye, we would say good-bye and share our grief with each other.  We still believe this, we still own this, we are still walking this.

But, nothing ever really follows our nice laid plans, right?  The Human Factor always throws us a curve ball and leaves us standing there wondering, what the what?!?

We tell ourselves on a daily basis, reunification with biological family members makes sense.  It is good for children.  We’ve read the stats, we’ve heard the research–reunification leads to less trauma long-term.  We know it, believe it, and own it……then, BAM, the Human Factor says, ‘but, what if?’

  • What if we are the better placement long-term?
  • What if biological parents continue to make selfish, detrimental choices?
  • What if biological parents never own their mistakes, only repeating the cycle?
  • What if they don’t protect these most incredible gifts?
  • What if they don’t love them?
  • What if they quit their job, because their simply too tired and the job is too hard?
  • What if they can’t maintain stable living?
  • What if they don’t help them with homework?
  • What if they don’t go to ‘Open House’ at the school and let their child show them every single thing in the room, including the stickers in their locker?
  • What if they don’t believe in them?
  • What if they don’t provide meals, clothing, and other items needed for them?
  • What if they choose their needs over their child’s needs?
  • What if they drop them off with complete strangers, over and over and over again?
  • What if they are just too tired to be a parent that day or night?
  • What if they don’t properly fasten them in their car seats, making sure their most precious possessions are always safe?
  • What if they don’t teach them to cook?
  • What if they don’t play catch in the yard, draw pictures, and laugh until their sides hurt as a family?
  • What if they just suck as a parent?
  • What if the children are just a status symbol and a way to get another check?
  • What if they don’t take the  children to church?
  • What if they don’t show the boy how to treat women and show the girls how to respect their bodies and hearts?
  • What if they don’t model an appropriate relationship, so their children know what love and happiness really looks like?
  • What if they use drugs?
  • What if they never ‘get it’?…That these children are truly God’s greatest gift to parents.

Our brains tell us, reunification is best, but our hearts are thrown off by the Human Factor that takes a journey of its own.

Regardless, four months in, we are still owning this, believing this, and walking this.  Now, if someone would just tell that stupid Human Factor to shut up and leave us alone!!

– The Howard’s – Party of 8

This Is Your Home

“Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.”  – Sarah Dessen

Since the first day our children were placed with us we’ve tried to make them feel at home, and not just at any home, but their home.  When they arrived we had their names and pictures up in their rooms.  We had new sheets and comforters on their beds.  We wanted to create an environment where they not only felt accepted, but an environment where they felt comfortable.

Over the first ninety days we feel like we have had some success.  And yet, even with some success we still see uncertainty in their lives.  We were reminded of that tonight as our 9-year-old foster son came around the corner from the kitchen and said, “Mr. Keith, I fixed your trash bag.”  He was referring to fixing the bag in the trash can.  He started to walk away and then I called his name and said, “hey buddy, you didn’t fix my trash bag, you fixed your trash bag, because this is your home too.”

It sounds so simple, but we think it is impactful.  It reminds him and his siblings that for this season they are a part of our family and this is their home. They may not readily accept it.  In fact, they may never accept it, but we are not responsible for their response.  We are responsible for being proactive to help them feel at ease and at home.

With so much uncertainty in a foster child’s life, it is up to the foster parent to create an environment that allows the child to feel safe, comfortable, and accepted.  Here are a few ideas we have come up with;

  • Create a space that is their own.  Easiest place is probably their bedroom.  Allow them to hang up pictures, pick out paint colors, etc.
  • Hang up pictures of your foster children around the home.  (Our extended family (grandparents) even chose to do this too!)
  • Hang up their art work, report cards, and other items that might be important to them.  Refrigerator recognition makes most children feel valued.
  • Help them unpack and hang up their clothes (if they will let you.)
  • Plan meals around food items they like.
  • Have them help you shop and cook.
  • Take them on ALL family trips that your own children would go on.
  • Ask them how they want you to refer to them in public.
  • Make sure they have their own things and that they understand those items will always be their items.
  • Give them chores around the home, so that they feel a part of the family.
  • Allow them to pick out family activities.  Empower them to have a voice, just like all family members should.
  • Allow them to decide what they will call you.  It empowers them and allows them a comfort level with you.  Three of the four foster children in our home now prefer mom and dad.  The fourth one is still comfortable with Mr. Keith and Mrs. Staci.  Both are okay with us!

As we do this, we hope the things we do will be, “but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that they can take with them for their entire lives, wherever they may go.”

We would love to hear from other foster parents about different ideas they have tried to create a ‘home’ environment for children who may only be around for short season.  Feel free to share in the comment section below.

Why Would You Do That?

“I heard you took 4 kiddos into your home…Why would you do that?”

This was the question posed to us a few months ago.  It was innocent, and yet, very misguided.  The question came from an elderly Christian who had spent their entire life in the church.  Honestly, we were thrown back by the question and the only response we could think of was, “Why would we not do it?”

The early church made waves, because they chose to do things that were radical, abnormal, crazy and full of love.  Now it seems that when people decide to do something truly Gospel driven they get the most push back from ‘comfortable Christians’ within the church.  These individuals simply don’t understand why someone would want to lay their own life down to serve the ‘least of these’.

Hear our hearts, we have no desire to cast stones at anyone, because on our best days we are still highly imperfect individuals and we know even on the church’s best day it is still filled with highly imperfect people. But, we do desire for people to start ‘getting it’, to start living out the Gospel in evident ways. That is why we hope our lives are a canvas for God to paint His story in all it’s beauty and messiness, to encourage others that although this work is hard, it is possible and even rewarding.

What if it became the ‘norm’ in the church to take care of the ‘least of these’? To live out true religion by taking care of widows and orphans, to be the good Samaritan to our enemies, to forfeit our gain for the gain of others, to act like the early church and pull all our resources together to serve others in the body and show the world who Jesus truly is not only through our words, but our very lives. How would the world respond to that church?

The world has heard about our Jesus, but isn’t it time we as Christians start showing them our Jesus?

Yep, we took in four foster children. Why would we do that? Because, despite our huge imperfections, the Gospel compelled us to do so.

Snuggle Time and Love

Early on in our six-year old’s life we began a tradition called ‘snuggle time’.  Essentially, it is the time right before going to sleep where we lay in bed and snuggle her.  It was something that quickly became a favorite of hers and she would often tell us, ‘I’ll always be your nuggle-bug’.  Yes, nuggle, instead of snuggle.  This tradition has carried over to our second child and she appears to like it as much as her older sister.   We also started night-time devotionals and prayer with our daughters at an early age.  Something they are still quick to remind us of if we ever forget, especially on the nights they are avoiding sleep!

Since coming to our home in October our four foster children have been exposed to devotional, prayer, and snuggle time.  And, while we do not ‘snuggle’ them.  We do make a point to do devotionals and pray together.  Then we give each of them big hugs, tell them how much we love them, how proud of them we are and then we tuck them in to their beds.  And, if we ever forget, much like our biological daughters they are quick to let us know.

Funny thing is, these practices are just habit for us as parents.  And yet, tonight our 9 yr. old foster son asked Staci, “why do y’all give snuggles?’ Staci explained it is our way of showing love to our girls and then proceeded to ask him, “Didn’t you’re mom and dad snuggle you when you lived at home?”  He thought about it for a long time and then said, “No, but when I get home I’m going to teach my dad to tuck me in and read the Bible.” 

His statement is humbling and reminds us that they are watching how we love and how we parent.  It reminds us that our love will extend back into their home.  That our actions as parents now, will be reflected by these children when they are reunited with their biological parents.

These are the nights and statements that make what we do worth it, while also breaking our heart for the children we have grown to love.

If and when these children get to go home;

  • We hope their parents understand how precious these little ones really are. 
  • We hope their parents learn to tuck them in and read the Bible.
  • And, we hope these children remember what it is like to have a mom and dad make them feel important every night before bed. 

In this life we never know how our love will impact others.  But, this we do know…..Our love has already begun to create change beyond the present!

Chosen, A Mother of Six

“From Paul, God Himself chose me to be an apostle and He gave me the promised life that Jesus Christ makes possible.”  2 Timothy 1:1

Being a mom of six isn’t always easy.  There is always laundry to be folded, dishes to be washed, messes to be cleaned up, hugs to be given, stories to be heard, hurts to be fixed, snacks to be made, and love to be given.  But, this is the promised life that Jesus has made possible for me.  He has fought for me to be given this life of endless laundry and dishes, because I have been chosen (for now) to be the mom of an additional four children who are all beautiful inside and out.

This life of endless hugs and ‘I love you’s’.

This life of pouring myself out into others, but getting so much more back in return.

This life of continual blessings.

A life that can be hard at times, but then I’m reminded that I have been chosen, and, for me, that makes all the difference in the world!

Storybook Endings

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For most teen girls, the opportunity to attend a prom is seen as a magical time when they have the opportunity to dress up, fix their hair, and be a princess for the night.  But what happens to the girls who can’t afford to purchase a nice dress and enjoy the magical evening?  One young lady asked this very question and decided to do something about it.  Rachel Smith, a senior at Canyon High, had been a part of service projects in the past and had always wanted to lead one herself, but had never had the opportunity until this past May.  That is when her parents attended an event hosted by Arrow Child and Family Ministries, and learned about the need for the Amarillo community to wrap their arms around young people in the foster care system.  Her parents came home that evening and shared everything they had learned with her.  She knew then she had to do something for these young people.

But what could she, a senior in high school, do to help these children?  That is when the idea of “Storybook Endings” came to her and she began to put in motion a plan to assist teen girls who found themselves in the foster care system during prom season.  As she began her senior year in high school, Rachel began organizing, publicizing, and advocating for other teenage girls to donate their old prom dresses so that girls in foster care would have an assortment of dresses to choose from for their prom in the spring of 2013. Rachel was blown away by the incredible responses by other girls and teachers in her school.  Over the span of a few months she was able to collect over 60 prom dresses and recently she delivered the dresses to Arrow Child and Family Ministries, a local non-profit organization that serves foster children in local foster homes, adoptive homes, and in an Emergency Children’s Shelter.

Wanting to change the world is not a new thing for Rachel, in fact, she hopes to major in Social Entrepreneurship in college and her ultimate goal is to use her skill-set and the skill-sets of those around her to better the world.  Organizing “Storybook Endings” would give her the opportunity to make an impact in the here-and-now, and serve teenagers in foster care, a group who are often forgotten by the rest of society.  Rachel stated that her idea for “Storybook Endings” came from the thought process that for every young girl, prom-time should be a time when they can wear a dress that will make them feel special.  In addition to gathering dresses, Rachel is working on collecting books for children and teenagers in foster care, creating for them a complete storybook ending.

Rachel Smith is proof that everyone can do something to serve others. Her story reminds us that we are never too young to begin changing the world around us, even if it begins with one dress or one book at a time. Everyone deserves a storybook ending, especially children who have already faced so many hardships in life.

To learn more about Arrow Child and Family Ministries and how you might be able to serve children in Foster Care, log on to Facebook at www.facebook.com/arrowamarillo or contact Keith Howard at 1-806-335-9138 or keith.howard@arrow.org

The Gospel Alive

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One thing we love about being foster parents is the fact that the Gospel regularly comes alive in front of us.  Since the first day we took children into our home we have continually expressed our love to them and reinforced how important they are to our family.  The three youngest were pretty quick to reciprocate love back, although never encouraged nor expected.  The oldest child, the boy, has been the most guarded with his words of affection.  And then, sometime around Christmas he began writing us little notes.  Each note simply said, “I love you” or “I love you so much”.

These notes are his way of sharing his heart.

Reading these notes and watching all of this unfold we are reminded of our own lives and the spiritual conflict we have had with accepting God’s love for us.  And yet, regardless of our response, God has always affirmed His love and affection to us.  Gradually, over time we came to a place where we began to affirm our love back to Him.  It wasn’t overnight, but it took time, trust, and experiencing God’s pursuit.  Similar to the process it has taken this young man to understand we love him with no strings attached.

In our opinion, the beauty of foster care is the opportunity we have to love deeply, regardless of any return of affection.  To put ourselves out there day after day to love these children and affirm their importance not only to us, but to the world as a whole.  Much like God has always done for both of us.

Simply, the Gospel has come alive within our home and for that we are humbled and thankful.

***The note above is his most recent one.  I walked in from work this afternoon and he was very excited to give me the note he had painted earlier in the day.