When my children first came home from foster care, life was different for all of us. I was clean and sober, thrown into a new apartment withthree little strangers. My children were 10 years, 5 years and two weeks old when they were removed, and 12, 7 and 18 months when they were returned.
At first, I was very confused how to parent my children. The fact is, during my children’s early years I used the parenting style I learned from family members. You know the model: beat your children if they disobey you, beat them if they talk back, beat them if they get in trouble, steal, have sex at a young age, act disrespectful. Beat them!
Don’t get me wrong, some of the old-school rules are good and important. For example: have manners, respect your elders—that’s a must. But techniques like, “Children should be seen and not heard” and beating or controlling your children had to go.
My theory is that, for my community, this method of raising your kids began with slavery. Parents probably figured that if they beat their own children, their masters wouldn’t, and this would save the children’s lives. The method was meant to protect children. But beating your children really doesn’t work. It creates silent and enraged children who, too often, grow up to be rigid and insensitive to their own children’s feelings and needs.
I Needed to Change
Once I took parenting classes, I also realized that the model I mimicked was not legal. If I wanted to keep my children out of foster care, I needed to change my style.
But when my teenage son started running wild, I didn’t know how to respond. My son was having many problems at school, at home and in our neighborhood. He started getting high and gang banging. I thought I was going to bury my son before he was 18.
I was so afraid of disciplining him the old way, but all I knew how to do was yell at him. We were arguing and cursing all the time. Our relationship was crazy.
Then came a knock on the door: A detective from the local precinct came holding a manila folder as thick as a cinderblock. The detective had evidence that my son had been committing robberies dating back two years. My son and I sat at the kitchen table with this detective. That was the first time I saw my son smoke a cigarette. He was tight.
I looked in his face and asked him, “Did you do these robberies?”
He said, “Yes, Mommy.”
“Well, then you must take ownership,” I told him. We wrote a full confession and the judge sentenced him to 15 months in a group home.
I started thinking, “Really, what can I do to parent this kid?” I thought back on the parenting and anger management classes I took when my kids were in care. I decided to create a parenting style for my son that I called, “Firm as a father, soft like a mother.”
Keeping My Distance
When my son got locked up, I didn’t scream and beg and cry. I let him do hard time for 15 months, firm like a father. I didn’t want to give him extra attention for doing negative things. I was afraid this would only encourage him to commit crimes again.
But once my son came home, I began listening to him more, soft like a mother. I encouraged my son and held him to the standards he set for himself. Soon my son dropped his gang activities, went back to school and got his GED.
Trying Straight Talk
I faced similar challenges when my daughter was around 14. My daughter was suddenly a whole new child. She began hanging with sexually experienced girls and started asking a lot of questions about boys.
I did my best to detour her from sex, but soon I found out that my daughter was having sex with a 17-year-old boy. I was shocked, but I knew that if I overreacted she would not open up to me, so I tried to play it cool.
We sat down in the living room and I asked her, “Why are you dealing with older boys and having sex right now? It seems like you’re too young.” I explained that I was not trying to take away the wonderful experience of sex, but that I worried that the sex she was having could come with painful experiences, like unwanted pregnancy and STDs.
Learning to Listen
But straight talk did not help my daughter. Soon she started cutting school and running away from home. It was so serious that I went to the child welfare system for help before they came to me, charging me for educational neglect because she was truant. The caseworker told me to put her in therapy and I reconnected her to our former foster care agency. But she went to three sessions and refused to go back.
Once again, I had to dig into my bag of parenting skills and find a way to reach her. I decided that what my daughter needed was nurturing, compassion, connection. I started having girl talks with my daughter. I didn’t do much talking; I just listened openly. We even invited her runaway partners over to our house to have real heart-to-hearts.
My daughter is doing well for herself. She stayed with my grandmother for two years and recently moved home again. Now her GPA has gone from a 40 to an 87. She applied to a college program in her high school and was accepted. She also got a job at our local supermarket.
All Children Need Kindness
As teenagers, my children needed two different parenting styles. My son needed me to let him experience the consequences of his own mistakes. My daughter needed me to come closer. Both needed me to listen.
I try to use patience, open-mindedness, understanding, empathy, nurturing, respect, kindness, honesty, courage, security and discipline. To be honest, these skills came from the many classes I completed while my children were in foster care. I’m thankful that I learned these skills. I needed more tools to deal with my children.
I believe parents should surrender the punitive parenting styles that they suffered as children. Adults who are good providers associate brutal beatings with their success. They tell their children, “It worked for me, it will work for you.” But children need to feel safe. They need our support to get ready to be responsible.