4 things you should definitely say to a new foster parent. (And 4 things you shouldn't. Just... No.)
There are an estimated 400,000 kids in the 50 foster care systems across the U.S.
That may seem like a huge pile of kids, but it's still fewer than the number of people who caught the midnight showing of the final Harry Potter movie.
As a foster parent in training, who's taking the required 10-week prep course before the licensure process, it's not uncommon for me to be surrounded by people who don't know a single person involved in the foster care system.
Since I started this process, I've had enough of the same conversations that I wanted to put together a guide for the "Well-Meaning, Supportive, and Slightly Alarmed Foster-Adjacent Friends and Family."
Here are the four things you should definitely say to a prospective foster parent. (And four things you really shouldn't. Really. Just... No.)
1. When I first tell you I'm going to become a foster parent...
What to skip: "Aren't you worried? Those kids can be so tough. Let me tell you a story about a book I read about the foster care system and how I couldn't stop crying about it for days."
Here's the thing: Nobody becomes a foster parent by accident. We apply, take classes, and go through licensure. Every step of the way, we have to confront massive questions about ourselves and our lives ... sometimes in 20-page handwritten applications. Even if we didn't begin with that level of consideration, the system forces us to take that time to think about our choices.
What to say: "I'd love to know more about what led you to become a foster parent."
This shows respect for all the work and thought I've put into this. If you listen to my story and then have follow-up questions? Great. But chances are, I'm going to answer a lot of your questions before you ask them. Like, yes, I do plan to invest in some indestructible furniture.
2. If you're thinking about the challenges of being a foster parent...
What to skip: "I could never do what you're doing. It'd be too hard for me."
This is like responding to someone's "I'm pregnant!" announcement with, "Oh, but I've heard labor is SO PAINFUL."
Honestly? We've all chosen to do painful things in life. So, maybe you haven't chosen to be a foster parent. But you've probably risked vulnerability for love. You've moved away from friends and family. You've played a sport you loved even though you now have a knee surgeon on speed dial. Humans do painful things all the time. Think of how you got through the last painful experience you had. Think of what your loved one said while they held your hand and fixed you sangria on top of a pile of ice cream.
And if you can't stomach my rants about "The System," or learning a new name every so often, or watching me go through the heartbreak of transition, I get it. It can be a lot. We can go our separate ways. Right now, I need friends who are ready to offer support and camaraderie.
What to say: "It sounds like there are going to be some rough times, but you can count on me. I might not know what to say, but I'm here for you. Do you think you'll want sangria or ice cream when your heart is broken?"
Both, please. I want both.
3. When you're thinking about how foster parenting might be different from other types of parenting...
What to skip: "I just think you're missing out on the true experiences of parenthood, like pregnancy and labor and getting to name your child…"
If you stop to think about it, what you're essentially saying is, "You will never be a real parent. Not fully." And that's a rejection of everything I'm working toward.
I get it. The rhyme never said, "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a lifelong entanglement with the child welfare system and a series of placements that will set your heart on a path of growing and breaking forever."
Unless we grew up in the foster care system, none of us was taught how to do this. But I'm taking a deep breath and going for it. Sure, there will be things I don't experience. Heck, my grandfather still thinks I'm leading an unfulfilled life because I refused to take any engineering classes in college. But I'm still breathing, and he and I have a rich and loving relationship despite our radically different careers. You and I can, too.
What to say: "What parts of parenthood are you looking forward to?"
There are lots of experiences I'm going to get to have as a parent — and I'm excited! Ask me about them.
4. If you think I'm doing the world a favor...
What to skip: "You're doing such a great thing, saving those poor kids."
There is nothing that gets under my skin like fire ants faster than the savior narrative of foster care. There are no heroes, and there are no villains — only the incredibly snarly, messy, complex, and beautiful families and people that make up this system. And I include myself in that system, by the way. I am snarly, messy, complex, and beautiful.
I am not saving anybody. I'm providing a safe and loving home for a child for as long as that child is with me. I'm going to school meetings and soccer practice and kissing bruised knees and checking for monsters under the bed. None of this is heroic — unless it is heroic when you do it too.
Sure, kids who've been through significant trauma have a lot of healing to do. But giving them a safe place to do the work is not an act of heroism. It's an act of humanity. If I get a medal for it, than so should you. And also your kid's teacher. Possibly their doctor too. And that really great babysitter.
Kids come into my house whole, not broken. They come with trauma and baggage and very few belongings. But they also come with wholly formed personalities, senses of humor, survival skills, smarts, and playfulness. There is nothing to fix, only to heal and continue to grow and thrive.
What to say: "Tell me about the kids you've cared for."
When you say this, I see that you recognize my kids as individuals, as whole, sparkly, fabulous people.
And if you're an experienced parent, I may need your advice, especially if I'm dealing with a situation I've never encountered before, like advocating for my kids in school or choosing a piano teacher. Ask about how they make me laugh, how they push my buttons — and I'll ask you right back.
Because we're there with other parents. Our kids may change, and we may have a lot more paperwork to fill out, but we are just as up to our elbows in mud, poop, grinning, anticipation, heartbreak, and exhaustion. And like other parents, we wouldn't trade it for anything.