New kids + new workers = better experience

Pretty  much any adult knows that in the workplace, WHO you work with can make all the difference. Some workers are good at their jobs, some aren’t. Some workers have good attitudes, and some do not. Some are encouraging, some are defeating. And so on.

It’s that way in foster care, too.

We took the plunge after our recent experience and accepted new children into our foster home. We accepted a two-year-old girl, and soon after accepted a 12 month old boy. The experience has been night and day different from our last.

I haven’t had to struggle to find resources for these kids – the caseworkers had recommendations for me within the first week. I haven’t had to contact a single supervisor to get an answer to an urgent question because these workers are actually reachable and they respond to me. I haven’t had to deal with snark and rolled eyes, either, because the caseworkers these children have act like the professionals they are. It is SUCH a relief.

Foster parents should be – and NEED to be – adequately supported by their workers.

The one year old boy has already returned to his parents. I was extremely pleased when I saw how quickly they got their act together and did everything they needed to do, and their child was returned to them at the next court date. I was honored to testify on their behalf, saying I had no reservations about their newfound ability to parent their child in a healthy manner. A new experience for me! And one I hope I get to repeat with other children.

The now three-year-old girl is still with us. She’s our only girl placement to date, and it’s really fun and really different! She likes pink, and sparkles, and likes to have her things organized. She puts her shoes in a row in her room because it’s “pretty” that way. She definitely has things we need to work on, for instance it takes three baby gates and obnoxiously loud alarms on all the doors just to keep her inside the house! But her general attitude and the things she likes are so different than any of the boys we have had.

I’m grateful for the good workers we have running this case, and I hope the rest of our foster care experience runs in the same way. Good workers can make all the difference.

About these ads

Yes, No, Maybe So

It has been a long time since I posted, and with good reason.

The boys are gone. We almost quit foster parenting.

Some types of trauma can not be healed in a family foster home, and that is hard to admit when you are the foster home in question.
Some types of trauma do not show up in a child’s behavior in public, but only in private, behind closed doors, when nobody but a sibling is there to witness it.
Some types of trauma leave no scars on anything but a child’s psyche, and a child’s psyche can not be presented as evidence in a court of law.
Sometimes it isn’t possible to track abuse to its source. We will likely never know the identity of the person who first hurt these boys.

We did our best. We taught them manners, how to ask for things politely and how to say “thank you”. We taught them it was safer to to hold an adult’s hand when crossing the street. We taught them what it was like to be tucked into a clean bed with warm blankets.

In our home, they learned that waiting for something wasn’t the end of the world. They learned that sometimes – sometimes – you can trust an adult to do the right thing. They learned that it was never, ever, ever, EVER acceptable to hit a dog or a cat. They learned how tightly to buckle their own carseat buckles, just in case the adult they were with didn’t know.

The older boy arrived not able to sing the ABC song, and left 4.5 months later able to sing the song, write the alphabet, and identify all its letters both capital and lowercase. He went from a preschool IEP in January to “no accomodations needed” in June. The younger boy’s vocabulary exploded with new nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

All this in spite of behaviors that were rapidly spinning out of control. Ultimately, we knew we were not going to be able to keep these boys safe. Their behind-closed-doors behaviors were just too extreme and dangerous – to each other – and to us.

Did you know it is possible for a preschool aged child to be so traumatized that he will require inpatient psychiatric care in order to heal? And, did you know that psychiatric inpatient programs at hospitals are not available to children that young? Nasty catch-22 there.

In short, the boys are now in homes that are better equipped for helping them heal. Yes, two separate homes. It was eventually determined that in order to heal, the boys must not be constantly triggered by each other’s presence. If they can heal, and learn that siblings should support each other and not hurt each other, they will be placed together again. But they have much healing to do before that can happen – an amount of healing that is more than many adults are able to accomplish.

May God speed you both to full recovery, boys. And may you each get the type of permanent home and family that will enable you to continue healing the rest of your lives. God bless you, Tiny Viking, who upon seeing the sea for the first time, hit it with a stick and demanded “Stop Moving!” and the wave withdrew. God bless you, Puzzle Prince, who upon being told “you’re smart!” for the first time in your life, responded by looking shocked and then slowly saying “yes, I am”.

 

If you are a parent, struggling with a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder or Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or you find yourself being a “Trauma Mama” to a child who has endured unspeakable trauma, feel free to contact me for verbal support via the comments on this blog. I hear you. And I KNOW it is not always the fault of the person doing the parenting right now. We didn’t cause it. We can’t cure it. And we need to stand with each other, no matter what we choose to do (or have to do) to further the healing of these children we love.

My preschooler’s negotiation skills need work

One of the preschoolers has hit a phase where he wants to negotiate everything. He wants more, he wants better, when given two choices he wants the unnamed third that exists only in his mind.  Completely age appropriate, but of course we’re working on it, especially trying to get him to do his negotiation more politely. But sometimes he is just so funny I have to laugh.

Me: Would you like a peanut butter sandwich for lunch?
Him: Peanut butter and JELLY!

Me: It’s almost time to leave the park. Five minutes more, boys!
Him: Five minutes AND five minutes!

Me: Thank you for behaving so well this morning! Would you like a sucker or a cookie for your treat?
Him: TWO suckers!

Me: Would you like to wear your jacket or your coat today?
Him: Put the jacket on top of the coat!

But sometimes he’s so focused on the negotiating that he completely misses the point.

Me: No, you do not hit your brother. Here, stay in your room and get your body under control. I will come back in three minutes.
Him: NO! Come back in FOUR minutes!

I could not keep myself from laughing. I know he did not intend to sentence himself to a whole extra minute of quiet down time, he’s just a preschooler whose negotiation skills need some work. Hope it makes you smile!

I miss my backyard

I realized today just how long it has been since I have spent any time in my backyard – two months. Yep. That’s WAY TOO LONG. But what’s a mother to do? My priorities are just different at the moment.

But I still miss it. I miss the smell of the grass. I miss the cluck of the hens. And even though I sold the last of my Angora rabbits a few months ago, I’m missing them today too. They went to a great home that will be able to utilize their fiber better than I could.

I’ve hired someone to do some of the maintenance that I have let slip. He’s power-washing the rabbit cages for storage, chopping down the new blackberry vines that keep appearing, and doing some general cleanup. Although I was really happy to notice that last month’s storm did not drop a single tree branch in any part of our yard! That was really nice to discover, given the number of downed branches and entire trees in the rest of the town.

I admired my yard through the window this afternoon as I went back and forth between dealing with laundry and dealing with preschooler tantrums. I will have to make some time to get out there soon. It is so rejuvenating to get into nature of any kind, and nature I can dig my hands into is especially invigorating.

The preschoolers and I planted some seeds last weekend. We had gone to a propagation fair – basically a seed swap with some professional talks. Free admission, free local/organic seeds, free talks, it was great! I picked out some seeds I want to try in my garden this year, and then let the boys each pick out some flower seeds. I got some peat pots and soil that day, and we planted the seeds and placed the pots on the front porch so the boys can see “their plants” every morning on the way to the car. I hope some sprout before the boys lose interest!  I know we’re playing roulette with the weather but the seeds had the boys’ interest so I struck while the iron was hot, so to speak. It’s so rare to get them interested in much of anything.

We still have the chickens, and added a fifth hen to them before Christmas. An opossum or raccoon had decimated a friend’s flock, leaving him with a single  hen. Rather than bring more hens into a coop that needed additional predator protection, he gave her to us. I was pleased with how quickly she was accepted. We placed her on the roost at night in the dark, and she spent about three days being ignored and run off by the others, then everything was fine. No fights, no blood, it was pretty tame as far as introductions go. A beautiful, large, shiny, blue/green-black hen that lays large medium brown eggs.

And about the eggs – I’m glad its winter and the chickens are molting, because I haven’t even been to the chicken coop in those two months! I could have eggs out there and I wouldn’t know about it, but this time of year that is unlikely so at least I’m not wasting eggs. When the preschoolers arrived we realized just how hard everything was going to be for a while, so we opened the coop and run and let the chickens have the run of the backyard. Feeding them now takes 10 seconds in the morning – open the back door to let the dog outside, toss out the day’s ration of chicken feed and call “chick, chick, chick!”. They all come running – five chickens, two legs and wings apiece, no new feathers missing, call it good. Whistle for the dog and close the door.

Although I did get to go in my neighbor’s backyard once! One of the chickens got over the fence. I tossed out the food and only four chickens came running, but I could hear the fifth. Stuck my head out the door and I could see her, running up and down the fenceline. Thankfully I had a guest that morning, someone from the boys’ therapy office, and she was willing to supervise them while I ran next door to catch the recalcitrant hen. It didn’t take long. I opened the gate and shooed her back into our yard where she happily joined the others at eating breakfast, none the worse for wear.

This blog has really undergone some changes in the past two years, hasn’t it? Micro-farming, a crazy amount of pets in a crazy small amount of space, becoming a foster family, and now back to wanting to garden. About the only consistency is that I’m still ranting against the boxes we humans can get stuck in. There is always something else out there that we can see, that tempts us to be more than we currently are. I’m going to get out of my mommy-to-traumatized-kids box pretty soon and get back to nature. It doesn’t mean the kids are going away, it just means that they can no longer be the sole focus of this household, because such single focus isn’t healthy for anyone. Our horizons are going to expand and we will find life outside our current “box”. What box are you going to get out of?

Things I have actually had to say

I used to read all those blog posts about “things you learn when you have boys“, and laugh. I enjoyed them, but surely children who do and say those things are the exception rather than the rule, right?

HA! No. Here is my list of things I have actually heard come out of my mouth. You can imagine all the fun that preceeded me needing to say these things.

Take your bottom out of your brother’s face.
Do not use your brother for a chair.
Please do not fart in the bathwater.
Keep your poop to yourself.
No, you may not pee on your brother.

Stop playing with your penis and finish your bath.
Farts are not supposed to be funny.
Poop belongs in the toilet.
No, you may not both pee in the toilet at the same time.

Did you wipe?
Did you wipe?
Did you wipe?
Go back and wipe.

Do not climb the curtains.
Do not use the window frame to do pull-ups.
Punching the window is not a good idea.
Get off the top of the dresser.
Beds are not to be used as bumper cars.

No wrestling.
No wrestling.
No wrestling.
Stop touching each other.

Do not use your brother for target practice.
Books are not frisbees.
You may not bite people, not even when you are playing dinosaur.

Do not spit at your brother.
Do not spit at me.
Do not spit.
Keep your spit in your mouth.

And this list is not exhaustive! And it represents only 6 weeks with two preschoolers. I’m sure the coming weeks will have many more unexpected things coming out of my mouth. Stay tuned!

Foster parenting is complicated

Sometimes I just don’t know what to do.  When a child’s behavior is unacceptable… do I allow natural consequences to happen? Do I assign a punishment for the behavior? Do I write it down to address with the counselor because the behavior is based in past trauma? Do I let it pass without comment because in the larger scheme of things it not something I choose to address right now? Do I pull the child in for a long hug because the behavior is based in past hurt and shame and a need for appropriate attention from an adult? Do I do several of those choices?

And it is complicated even further by the sheer number of unacceptable behaviors that sometimes happen one right after the other. Before I have fully recognized the first and decided how to respond to it, there is a second. And a third. And sometimes a fourth. Sometimes they are an escalation of the first one, sometimes they are unrelated behaviors.

For instance, the boys may be eating breakfast cereal. One will spit a mouthful at his brother (or the cat, the dog, or the curtains). Obviously this means he isn’t hungry anymore, right? As I put down the milk and approach the table to calmly enforce the natural consequence of removing the cereal, the preschooler says “it’s YUCKY. Brother, you’re eating POOP cereal!”. Brother starts to cry and says “No, I’m not!”  OK, this is no longer a kid spitting out food because he’s not hungry, this is upsetting brother on purpose. But do I comfort brother and ignore the instigator? Or do I remove instigator from the table, and if I remove him do I simply send him to get dressed or do I send him to time-out for saying what he did? In the process of removing the cereal bowl and getting instigator down from his booster seat, brother (still crying) throws his entire bowl of cereal at the instigator, covering him, me, and the wall behind us. So now, do I continue with removing the original instigator, do I switch to comforting the brother who was obviously upset by the idea of eating poop, or do I now address the throwing of the cereal bowl?

You can see how things stack up quickly. What I just described can easily happen start to finish in 10 seconds or less. (And of course it isn’t finished.) And for those who are curious, the day I attended to the crying brother instead of the instigating brother did not help diffuse the situation any faster – it was just the instigating brother who got angry and threw the cereal bowl rather than the crying brother.

This is what foster parenting to children who have experienced WAY TOO MUCH TRAUMA in their lives is like. Every hour is a new crisis. Sometimes every 10 minutes is a new crisis. And sometimes they can go on for hours before I can break through and get a handle on just one little part of the crisis and defuse the situation.

Unfortunately, that handle that is available for me to grab on to might be different on different days. One day a child might hit his brother because he thinks he’s going to be hit first. Another day he might hit his brother because he is angry they are not playing the game he wanted to play. Another day he might hit his brother because he’s tired and grouchy and the brother happened to be the one there. And sometimes the way to grab the handle is laughter. Other times it is a quick reminder that the behavior will not be tolerated here. And still other times extending some grace and ignoring the behavior is the handle.

Preventing every possible reason for unacceptable behavior just isn’t possible. And neither is interrupting all unacceptable behavior. All that is left is finding how to respond to it – and realizing that responding in the exact right way every time isn’t possible either. It takes a mixture of all of these.

No parent is perfect. No parent can prevent everything. No parent can correctly respond to everything. And parenting kids exposed to trauma just makes the job exponentially harder, like a math equation. (Normal child behaviors) times (types and amounts of trauma experienced) times (siblings who feed off each others’ behavior) times (previous experiences where unacceptable behavior got good results for the child) = a crazy complicated time of trying to heal the children.

Internet privacy vs internet support

A month ago, I was grieving the loss of one of my foster children. Our foster home was empty. But foster homes rarely stay empty for long! We have two new boys, brothers, both preschoolers. We’ve had them for a couple weeks now, and I have delayed posting about them. Nicknames haven’t come easily for them. And I did not know how to post about the struggles I am having with them, while still respecting their privacy.

Things on the internet don’t disappear! Even if I deleted a post from here, or deleted my blog entirely, there are ways my posts could still be read. Perhaps someone copied it. Perhaps someone emailed it to themselves. Search engines keep copies of pages in their records for indeterminate amounts of time. For that matter, the beginning of each post is included in the email you receive if you subscribed to receive my posts by email.

Obviously, nothing I say about my foster children is in any way identifying. Unless you already know the child personally, nothing I say would enable you to pick the child out of a crowd.

But thinking 20 years down the line… adults who used to be children in foster care do know themselves personally, and it is entirely possible that one of my previous foster children may find my blog and … recognize themselves. The dates will line up. Ages will line up. Descriptions… positive or negative… will line up. What do I want my former foster children to read about themselves? What attitude toward them do I want to display for them to read later? What amount of information is fair for me to share about them in a public forum?

And yet, the internet is also a wonderful source of support! I love the comments of support that I get, the suggestions, the encouragement. And I don’t want to give that up. If I gave it up, I wouldn’t be as good of a foster mother. (“Put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you.”)

So, I am seeking a middle ground. My blog posts will have a different tone to them. Mostly, I will not be providing the details that I provided with the two toddler kids I had in months previous to this. The children I have now are … challenging … to say the least. Their stories are heartbreaking. Their family is shattered. Their behaviors reflect this. It’s their reality.

My reality right now is being punched. Kicked. Spit on. Called names. Sworn at. Replacing broken light fixtures.

But my reality is also holding a child while he sobs because he misses his family and is old enough to articulate that while seeking comfort from me. My reality is having a valentine heart made for me by one of them. My reality is wearing a pipecleaner “bow” in my hair all evening because one of the children made it for me. My reality is a child who never tried stir-fry declaring it “yum” and asking for seconds, please!

I will take extra precautions in safeguarding these children’s identities. I will still post about my home, and about the struggles my husband and I face being foster parents to them. But I won’t give nicknames for them, and I won’t even state their ages. They’ll be “the preschoolers” or “one of the preschoolers”. And in every post I will make it abundantly clear that I love them. I am an adult, and I can love who I choose to love. I choose to love these children, and to display that love through my actions.

Twenty years from now, I hope I can show these posts to the (former) preschoolers, and have them know that despite how they acted, they were loved, and no matter what they did, the love was stronger than their behaviors.

The end was like the beginning

The first month DC was with us, he couldn’t fall asleep. New place, new crib, new faces, it was all so unfamiliar to him that as soon as he relaxed enough that sleep was possible, all the strangeness rushed in and he’d wake up again, crying. I’d go to him, pat his back if that’s all he needed, or pick him up and rock him. Whatever it took to let him feel more secure and more love. Sometimes I’d be rocking and gently bouncing him, sitting on the corner of the guest room bed, for hours.

That was true the first month that DC was with us, back in July. I was up all hours of the night when he would wake up in a strange place and begin to cry.

And that was true again this past weekend, which was DC’s last weekend with us. I don’t know how he knew what was going on, but he was unsettled again, wanting to be held, and crying when he would not fall asleep instantly. Today he moves to live with his uncle, aunt, and cousins. They are the lucky ones who will get to cuddle him forever.

Maybe he knew *I* needed it. I needed those extra cuddles these last few days, too. I needed hours spent on the exercise ball, lights out, bouncing gently, whispering “I love you”. I needed those little arms reaching up out of the crib, asking for a hug.

I will miss being his mother.

God speed, little DC. May you grow strong in the house with your relatives. May you learn to trust them the way you trusted us. And may God bring us new children who need to be loved, rocked, hugged, and cuddled long into the night. You trained us well, and we’re ready for them.

 

When God says “Don’t do it”

I think that most of us have had the experience of doing or saying something and almost immediately having a realization of “I shouldn’t have done that”.

For me, it’s almost always accompanied by a heavy sinking feeling in my stomach as I realize that whatever I just did or said was most definitely the wrong thing, and that it has implications and ripples far beyond what I had anticipated, and that it is not being received or understood in the way I had intended.  It was just flat-out the wrong thing for me to do.

In conversations with friends, I have sometimes commented that it would be nice if instead of that sinking feeling afterward, if I had some sort of early-warning system instead to PREVENT me from saying or doing the wrong thing.

Well, in God I do.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. And sometimes I ignore Him and plow ahead and do something dumb anyway. Sometimes I allow logic and good intentions to drown out His voice and end up astonished that things did not work well.

But when I’m quiet, and prayerful, and I listen for His still, small voice, I can save myself (and others) from my own bullheadedness.

God may prompt you to bake some cookies for a neighbor. Or drop a little-used coat off at a charity drive. Or put an extra $5 in the offering plate at church. Those are easy to understand, and in most cases easy to do, and they often come with a human reason as to why they are important. In my own life I have one wonderful story about a time God prompted me to do something, and showed me why. I was going to Ecuador on a sponsor tour/missions trip. We had been told to pack work gloves for a day we would spend working at one of the projects. And somehow to me it felt very important to find exactly the right kind of work gloves. I have hands that are difficult to fit with gloves. My palms are small, and my fingers long. I knew I wanted leather gloves, not stretchy fabric ones, and that made the hunt even harder. I probably spent 16 or more hours looking for just the right gloves. I visited every big box store and hardware/building store in my city. I felt driven to find exactly the right ones. Finally I settled on a pair. Solid leather, with fingers the right length, palms a little wide but that was OK, and a velcro wrap-around on the wrist so they would not slide off. They cost much more than I had wanted to pay, but they were wonderful and worth it.

I arrived in Ecuador, and enjoyed the trip very much. We arrived at our work day and I was shocked. I was not on the work crew at all. I was assigned to the CLEANING crew. A whole day working not with lumber and hammers, but with soap and water and mops. My leather work gloves were useless for working with water. Water would stretch the leather, keeping it from being able to protect my hands. The stretched out leather would rub, and leave me with blisters. I was disappointed, and irritated that I had thought buying those gloves was so important, and I stuck them back in my bag and went to work bare handed with the mop.

Fast forward a couple of days to the day I would meet my sponsored child. I was packing a backpack in my hotel room to give to her, and I came across my leather gloves in my luggage. I could not return them; I had removed all the labeling. So I tossed them into the backpack and hoped my sponsored child’s family would have a use for them. Meeting my sponsored child and her mother was WONDERFUL. Simply wonderful. After lunch we sat down at the park and I gave her the backpack of gifts for her and her family. She dug in to the backpack, exclaiming over the useful and girlish things I had packed – the school supplies, the hair accessories. She quickly handed over the kitchen utensils and leather gloves to her mother and continued exclaiming over the rest. After a moment I noticed that the mother was crying. I asked her why, and learned why I had felt it so important to purchase those leather gloves. Two months before, the family’s house had caught on fire and burned down. The family was OK, and they were staying in a tent on the property, still all together. The extended family had banded together and were slowly buying enough cinder blocks for the mother to rebuild her house, but the mother had been struggling because the work part of the project was up to her – and moving the cinderblocks by hand had been hurting her hands, leaving them abraded and with small cuts. She could not do much work with the cinderblocks at any one time, or she would put her job as washer woman and maid in jeopardy.

I had given her leather work gloves. Gloves that exactly fit her small Ecuadorian hands with exceptionally long fingers.

Sometimes God shows us in no uncertain terms that he knows exactly what he is doing.

I often hear sermons asking “What does God want you to do?” – I believe that it is just as important to ask “What does God NOT want you to do?” Sometimes it entails just listening to that voice that says “no” or “stop”, or “don’t say that” or “stop talking now”.

Just as easily as he can prompt us to do good, he can prompt us to avoid evil. He can prompt us not to share that gossip you heard about a neighbor. Or not to buy that oh-so-beautiful but out-of-budget item. Again, many of these are things that we can see the benefit in. That doesn’t make them always easy to do, but when we listen to God and choose to stop ourselves, we are aware that listening has benefitted us.

But sometimes what He tells us flies in the face of what we believe to be right. But which is ultimately “right” – God, who knows all and sees all, or us humans, who know little and see little? That is so hard to remember and to do in practice.

How experienced are you in listening for God’s voice? Can you discern what He is saying even when it does not align with what you believe is the “right” thing to do?

What if you had a coat in your car you intended to drop off at a charity on your way home from work, and you had a strange moment where you thought maybe God did not want you to do that. Which would win – the logic of dropping off a coat here you knew it could be used for good, or the belief that God wanted you to do something else? How long would you spend arguing in your head between the logic you believed and the voice you thought you heard, before picking one?

I’ve been working on this a lot lately. There are so many “good” things that I can do, but which are the things I am *supposed* to do? Knowing that there are only some that I am supposed to do means that there are some that I am being told not to do. Sometimes God does tell us not to do something we believe to be good. He has something better in mind, but we have to believe Him, and obey Him by not doing that thing we think is good, before we can get to it. If we stay too busy doing things that “we think” are good, we can miss the things that “He KNOWS” are right. In the example of the coat, perhaps if you listen and hold on to it for just a day or two longer, you may have the privilege of handing it directly to a person who needs it. Who knows? Only God.

God is never taken by surprise. He knows all the possibilities, all the implications, and all the ripples. He KNOWS what is best. But are we listening to him?

That still, small voice of God can be hard to hear in our busy world. What do you do to ensure that you can hear Him? What has He told you to do? What has He told you NOT to do? Have you been blessed with knowing the reason for his instructions, like I was in Ecuador? Or are you still just trusting Him, knowing that He knows best?

Why does Santa treat different families differently?

I have heard this question, in all its forms, so many times. A child whose family can barely put food on the table wonders why she received a hat and scarf from Santa when her schoolmate received a most-coveted Rainbow Loom and dozens of packets of circlets. Another family wonders why Santa skips his house, not understanding the differences between his Christian neighbors’ celebration of Christmas complete with Santa, and his on Jewish family’s decision to celebrate only Hanukkah. Another family struggles to explain how Santa left footprints on their friends’ fireplace and reindeer poop in their yard, while leaving no sign of his presence at their house besides the presents.

All parents must decide how to explain Santa, at some point. The man in the red suit who shows up in the mall, on decorations, and in movies must somehow be explained to little ears who want to know who he is. This post is for those families who are willing for their children to believe in Santa, whether you include him in your celebrations or not.

In the world of adoption and foster care, the questions are sometimes even harder.

A child who was abused by her babysitter’s boyfriend might say: “NOOOOOO! I don’t WANT a strange man to come into my house. MOMMY NO! You said this house was SAFE and noone could get me!”

A 3rd grade boy struggling with ADHD and low self-esteem might say: “Dad, I’m sorry. I forgot my homework at school. I’m so stupid! I can’t remember anything right! I’m gonna get coal in my stocking.”

A child in foster care for the first time might burst into tears at the sight of Santa in a book and sob “Why couldn’t Santa find me last year? Mommy said he couldn’t find us so couldn’t give me my presents. Why couldn’t he find me? Will he find me this year?”

Or on the other hand, a child who was in foster care last year, who you have adopted might wonder: “Why didn’t Santa bring presents this year? Why do I have to write thank-you notes to grandparents? Santa brought all the gifts when I lived in my other home!”

The stakes are so much higher when you are parenting abused or neglected children, or ones who have memories of different homes and different parents in years past. Regardless of your personal beliefs about Santa and how much “reality” to use when explaining him, sometimes children arrive in our homes with opinions and past experiences that have shaped how they already think about him.

Noone reading this blog is going to insist to that abused child that Santa will come down the chimney, unknown to even the adults, in the face of such “stranger in my home” fear. But especially if there are other children in the home who expect Santa’s visit, just how do you handle it? Or the child who was accustomed to Santa before, if you do not celebrate him in your house? Or the child to whom you have to explain Santa’s absence and the parent’s fib last year, whether or not you have him at your house?

Many years ago I read a story about one little girl’s fear of the Tooth Fairy. She desperately wanted the dollar the Tooth Fairy would leave if she put her tooth under her pillow, but equally desperately she wanted to save her tooth to show her mom at next week’s visit. Her dad was a smart one, and said he’d talk to the Tooth Fairy and make a deal with her so that his little girl got her dollar AND got to show her mom the tooth. And suddenly, peace reigned at their house.

Can we do that with Santa Claus? Can we, as parents, decide that not only do we each get to celebrate Santa (or not) in our own way, but also explain to our children that it is the parents’ decision that makes Santa do what he does?

I propose a Santa Contract. Each family makes their own, and takes ownership of it. In one family the contract can state that Santa brings the most wished-for items. In another family, it may state that Santa brings the most needed items. When I was growing up, our family’s contract would have stated that Santa would bring identical items for each of the children, since that is what we received each year. Another family’s contract may state that Santa not leave presents at their home, because they choose to give gifts to each other themselves.

The Santa Contract can also state where the gifts may be left. Sure, it’s often fun to think of Santa sliding down the chimney, but it is no less wonderful to receive gifts discovered on the back porch if that is where your contract said to look! (And this eases the fears of children who do not want strangers in their home while they are sleeping.)

A contract with Santa can also take care of “mistakes” he made in the past. I know of one family who adopted two little girls from Tanzania, who were sad that this Santa they had heard of had never visited their orphanage – that they had been so “forgotten”. On their first Christmas, under the tree Christmas morning were multiple presents for each girl – one for each year of their lives. They were labeled with their names, and the year they would have received them. So in the package marked “first year” each girl received a rattle. In the one marked “second year” each received a pair of baby shoes. And so on. Santa also left a note that explained that houses in Tanzania don’t have numbers or names on them, so he couldn’t know where each girl lived. That he loves everyone, and now that they have parents and now that he does know where they live, he wanted them to know that he had always remembered and never forgotten them. What a boost to a little child’s way of thinking about their worth!

This little idea can not fix everything. No single idea can. But if you are struggling with your child’s questions about Santa and the different treatment they notice around them, it may be something to consider. Because we each want our children to feel loved, and valued, and keep them from unnecessary trauma, don’t we? And even if Santa is just a game in your home, it’s never fun to miss your turn in a game, so this Santa Contract idea may be one way to make past hurts feel a little less sharp.

I hope this helps someone, in at least some small way.