This was an opening exchange with a four year old, who we fostered for just a weekend.
The little boy had been in care all his life. Whilst his regular Foster Carer was having a minor cataract operation, it had been arranged for him to spend the weekend with us.
We were new to fostering, but had tried to give the first few minutes of a child arriving some thought.
As a general principle, your feelings will be nowhere near as tense as those of the child. Imagine the anxiety of staying with strangers for an indefinite period of time? It would be difficult for an adult, never mind a child.
At six foot and slightly overweight, I know I can appear intimidating, so I had crouched down to greet our guest.
I was somewhat taken aback to be called Alan, but I pressed on.
“What would you like us to call you?”
As a Foster Carer, you’re looking for any body language or facial signals that will give you insight into the character or experience of this little child. No eye contact is quite normal. Starring without blinking is just as likely.
What can you ask and do to make a difficult day better? Without being too intense, we tried a few opening questions.
“This is our house. Is it like where you live?”
“In our house, there are four people and you. How many people live in your house?“
We introduced our birth children, who were both in Junior School at the time.
“Shall we show you around the house?”.
We have learnt not to assume anything.
You have very little idea what this child knows and what they may have experienced.
You may know their age and know, for example, what a typical four year old can and cannot do.
You may have to forget all your preconceived ideas.
“This is the room where you will be sleeping. This is your duvet and this is your pillow. I hope it’s comfy for you. You can leave your things in here and they will be safe. Do you want to unpack yourself or would you like some help?”
“This is the bathroom. This is the toilet. This is how you flush the toilet. This is the toilet paper.”
We once fostered a kid who thought bedtime meant lying on the sofa under his coat. He appeared to have never seen a bath and wanted nothing to do with the whole idea of washing.
All the time we were looking for clues of comprehension. Is this all familiar to the child or brand new? There’s a fine line between explaining and patronising.
In our experience, the bathroom and the kitchen are likely to be the cause of most confusion and interest.
“In our house we usually eat around the table. Is there a place where you would like to sit?”
“These are the cupboards where we keep the food and this is the fridge. In this house, there is always enough to eat. Is there anything you recognise, that you know you like?”
We once set a place at the table for a 3 year old. We’d bought him a Peppa Pig fork and spoon, Peppa Pig plate and a Peppa Pig cup. We felt very proud of ourselves, as we offered him spaghetti bolognese.
It soon became clear, he’d never used a fork or a spoon, had never sat a table, had no knowledge of Italian or any other cooked food, and had survived by eating discarded takeaways and milk. He’d never seen a TV either and was oblivious to pigs and to pepper.
I’m not sure if that’s extreme, but, as a rule, assume nothing.
That three year old also hated having his back to an open room. He needed to have his back to the wall so he could scan for danger.
As Foster Carers, we have learnt that you cannot plan for everything, as you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. I know that we do our best to keep kids safe and that by watching, by asking and by learning we have done our best.
Often we’ve never discovered why a child behaves in a certain way.
However, once her cataracts had been sorted I did ask the four old’s regular Foster Carer why he might have called me ‘Alan’.
“Oh that’s easy that is. He had a Social worker called Alan. He was white like you. He must think all white men are called Alan.”
When a new kid arrives, assume nothing and don’t be shocked. Keep them safe, and then learn how to help them thrive.
Big respect to all Foster Carers, regardless of name, colour or creed.