November 10, 2014
By: Craig Peterson
They came to me after a decade of extreme neglect and severe abuse at the hands of their birthmother’s boyfriend. Both endured more than 20 out-of-home placements after being stuck in the revolving door of family reunification.
My sons had gone without so much for so long. Who wouldn’t want to help them?
What I didn’t realize at the time was their total misunderstanding of the balance between relationships and things. To them, strangers were a means to an end – someone who takes pity and buys them something. Probably something they didn’t need. And certainly something they hadn’t earned.
All my sons knew before coming to my home was charity. People giving them things but rarely – if ever – spending time – a priceless gift costing nothing.
When the date for their move to my home was announced, both immediately panicked. “We’re going to miss the Christmas party at the group home.” The two remembered their previous “haul” from a generous group of church members two hours away – people who had never met them in person, people who wanted to feel good by blindly giving to children in need.
Eventually I agreed to let them stay for the party and adjusted my timeline. Unknowingly, I endorsed the “pattern of generosity.” No one warned me of the potential fall-out.
Did they need new bikes – after not taking care of the ones from last year? Did they need a complete set of the Harry Potter books? Did they need other “stuff” that held little meaning after just a few days? In all likelihood, they equated the presents with affection – since both were now “veterans of receiving” after five years in the foster system.
Ironically, that kind of affection had a price – on them – and eventually me.
Thinking back, I should have started them at ground zero – reinforcing the importance of bonding with me. I was the adult who would take care of them. I was the adult who would keep them safe. I was the adult who would set firm boundaries. And I was the adult who would emerge as their father – for the rest of the lives.
When I adjusted my approach nine months after their arrival, both accused me of no longer being nice. They said I had changed. One even went as far as saying, “You’re just like the others. We can’t trust you. It’s us versus you.”
For the next decade, I would work endlessly to build a connection – the one I had expected to happen on its own. The problem had been clear from the beginning: My meaning of parenting had little in common with theirs.