Traditional Parenting – it probably won’t work

Apparently, when I was 3, I convinced a babysitter I could read. In fact, I’d had this book read to me so many times I knew every single word. My parents, and other relatively responsible people, spent time with me.

We once fostered a kid who didn’t go to bed.

Well, at least not willingly.

Every routine, every trick, every approach led to meltdowns, anger, destruction and frustration.

The kid wasn’t too happy either.

Everything that had worked so successfully, more or less, with our birth kids was like spitting at a wasps nest. Actually, it was more like licking a wasp’s nest.

My wife and I tried the tag team approach, and I was on.

I began the routine at the normal time.

The bath, the story, the snack, the tucking in, the endless, endless reassurance that I was nearby if I was needed.

I tiptoed downstairs, looking for some quality TV time.

Then came the inevitable thud as the kid climbed out of bed, plodded down the stairs, appeared at the lounge door and announced that they’d been to bed, didn’t like it, and wouldn’t be going again.

It was a Thursday, a Europa League night, and I spent the whole of the first half trying to get the kid back out of the lounge, across the hall and to the bottom of the stairs.

By the end of the second half we’d got onto the first stair.

We made good progress in Extra Time, and had reached that bit on your stairs where there’s a mini landing and you turn left.

At this rate of progress, I’d calculated he’d be back in his room by the second leg in two weeks time!

I jest.

It wasn’t going nearly that well.

I then made a classic Foster Carer’s error.

I tried a traditional parenting approach!

‘If you don’t go to bed right this minute young man, there’s going to be a consequence!’

‘Like what?’ He said back to me.

‘Well, I don’t know, but you won’t like it. You mark my words!’

He stared at me.

‘What are you going to do to me that hasn’t been done before?’

He wasn’t defiant, he was just asking a very very pertinent question.

I wouldn’t tell you his history, even if I knew it, but it was clear to me that no consequence, no sanction, no chastisement, no matter how draconian would have any influence on his behaviour.

I don’t think the promise of a reward would have worked either. I could have go online and bought him a trip to Disneyland, Florida, and I think he’d have just stared back at me.

I changed tack.

Traditional Parenting Techniques don’t work with a traumatised kid. You might as well shout at a lizard or tell it you’ll take it to the cinema if it’s good.

‘That’s a very very good question. You’re right. You’ve had a difficult life. Here’s a plan. I’m going to sleep. I’m going to give you an iPad. I’m sure you’ll find something to watch, just do it quietly if you can’.

I got him a fully charged iPad and handed it over.

I went into our room and lay down next to my wife.

‘What have you done? You’ve given in. He’ll want to do this every night.’ She whispered frantically in my ear.

‘I know, but I had nowhere else to go.  I was out of ideas.’

A couple of minutes later the young man’s voice called out.

‘Goodnight. I will see you in the morning.’

This became our new routine.

Instead of hours of arguing, cajoling and shouting, the kid went to his room with a loaded iPad and we didn’t see him until the morning.

He was getting about the same amount of sleep.

We got our evenings back, and our house became calmer.

We’d just given him a little bit of control.

Tracey Beaker and the Dumping Ground has always been a popular programme in our house.

He was 7.

His favourite programme was Tracey Beaker.

You will learn more from Pass the Parcel than you ever will at school. Trauma and Life story Work.

Kids’ parties in the 1970s were heady affairs. Fuelled up on E-numbers and dressed as pirates, we were expected to be as high as kites for Musical Bumps, but to sit calmly for Pass the Parcel

Did you play Pass the Parcel as a kid?

Did you sit, cross legged, in a circle, with friends or family members, in special, smart, birthday party clothes?

Did you watch the parcel go ever so excruciatingly, slowly around the circle?

When the parcel come to you, did you ever so slowly hand it from one of your hands to the other, desperate for the music to stop?

Did you glance over your shoulder at the all powerful adult, willing them to press stop?

Did you sit up straight, hoping that a rigid back would somehow impress the DJ?

And when the music stopped, and the parcel was in your hand, could you contain your excitement?

Did you rip frantically, or casually unwrap?

Were you the clever kid who knew it was just too soon for you to get the present inside?

Did you do the Maths, and think, there was just a chance, a small chance, that you might get another go?

Had you worked out that there would typically be 5 or 6 layers of paper before getting to the prize?

And if it was your birthday, did you know the unwritten rule that said you couldn’t win?

Perhaps you were the kid who just couldn’t contain themselves, and bounced around the room, ‘helping’ other kids when it was their turn.

Maybe you ‘snatched the parcel’, the worst of all social crimes, and tore into the paper, ruining the game for everyone and bringing shame and scorn on your whole family.

Was the circle of children surrounded by a circle of adults, enjoying the game but also silently assessing the behaviour of the children?

After the games, was there party food?

When I was a kid in the 1970s, there was another unwritten rule that you had to have a sandwich before you had cake.

And only boys could overload their plates. If a girl were to do this, mothers’ mouths would turn to ‘cat’s bums’ in disapproval.

Alma’s Not Normal is a comedy drama series inspired by Alma’s real life experiences. it is simultaneously hilarious and beautifully sad.

There are probably similar principles in play today, but it may involve humus, breadsticks and gluten free options.

Pass the Parcel is a test of character.

Can you delay your gratification? Can you cope with other people being randomly blessed or rewarded?

Do you have the physique to sit cross legged on the floor?  I think it’s called ‘core strength’.

If your formative years were spent strapped into a buggy, or left in a soiled room seeking scraps of food, you probably didn’t play much Pass the Parcel.

If your parents were heroin addicts, or alcoholics or had significant mental health issues, parties were probably not on the domestic agenda.

Science has proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that ‘Baggy Trousers’ by Madness, is the best song for Musical Bumps.

Last week, our Little Man came into our bedroom breathing very very heavily.

It was about 11.30pm, and we were just on the cusp of sleep.

There’s an armchair in our room.

He sat down.

‘Where I used to live the woman wouldn’t let me have water when I needed a drink. And if you were hungry she said ‘You’ve had enough’, and you couldn’t go for a wee when you wanted. There was a spider and she said it would get me, and then she shouted and shouted, and she said the people would come and take me away. The man was nicer but he didn’t stop her.’

This catalogue of physical and emotional mistreatment tumbled out of his mouth for over an hour.

We lay in bed.

Just listening.

We have learned enough to know that we just need to let these emotions run their course.

Tears ran from my eyes.

This Little Man is quite capable of driving a very very patient person to utter distraction, but when you hear what was done to him, through absolutely no fault of his own, your reserves of patience and love are refilled.

Perhaps you may want to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. As a Foster Carer, I think you have to put all those thoughts aside, although I do sometimes wonder what happened to people in their own lives to make them so damaged, and then damage a small child in turn.

As The Little Man’s torrent of words slowed to a trickle and finally began to dry up, he finished with the immortal sentence;

‘And they wouldn’t let me watch Pointless’.

Has anyone ever met anyone who has been asked the Pointless questions? And I don’t know anyone who has been part of a Family Fortunes Survey either! I think it’s all a con.

Quite how being denied the pleasure of the BBC’s anchor quiz show can be equated with years of shouting and maltreatment is a question for another day, but it did make me laugh.

And then, the Little Man stood up, and left.

It was nearly 1.00am.

We are not quite sure why he chose that day and that time to revisit his memories and tell us these things.

In Fostering, processing the past is generally referred to as ‘life story work’.

Life Story Work is often scheduled for the convenience of adults, whether they are Social Workers, Therapists or Foster Carers.

I think a child will share when they are ready and on their own timetable.

This kid has been with us over seven years.

What is this Panel thing?

Our Local Authority generally offers a superb range of biscuits when you go to Panel. It’s not the best reason to foster, but it’s certainly worth considering.

There are three things you need to know about Panel.

  1. It’s not nearly as bad as you think
  2. It’ll be running late
  3. Panels are held in buildings that you’ve probably never been to before

Your Assessing Social Worker will give you the time, date and venue of when you’re due to attend.
You’ll be unsure about what to wear.
If you’re me, your wife will tell you. I’m afraid you’ll have to make your own decision.
I normally go with Polo Shirt and jeans.
The more Panels I attend, the scruffier I’ve become.
I really don’t think anyone is too bothered.

On the day of Panel, you’ll fret about finding a place to park, then you’ll park, wonder if you should straighten up, and then realise you might be late, leave the car, and go and find Reception.

You’ll find Reception.
You’ll say you’re there ‘for Panel’ and the Receptionist will wave you through into a waiting area.

You’ll hang around in the waiting area, possibly drinking a lot of tea and eating a lot of biscuits.
You’ll need a wee, but will be afraid to go in case you get called in to Panel.
If you’re me, you’ll be nervous and talk a lot, guessing what you may or may not be asked.

I like to dress ‘smart casual’ when I’m going to Panel. You don’t need a shirt and tie.

Your Assessing Social Worker will arrive just in time, and you’ll be relieved to see a familiar face.
Your Assessing Social Worker will go into Panel first, will be in for about 20 minutes and come out smiling. They’ll then rush off to deal with another child who needs their help.

Then, it’s your turn.
Panels often sit in a horseshoe formation.
There can be about 7 or 8 members and in my experience, they will all be smiling at you.
The Chair will introduce themselves and try to reassure you not to be nervous.
The Panel will introduce themselves.
Some will be Social Workers representing the Council.
Some will be Independent Members which means they will have no connection with the Council. There will be a solicitor from the Council, but they probably won’t say anything.
If you’re a man, you’ll probably be in the minority.
At least one of the Panel will be a Foster Carer. The Foster Carer will be another Independent Member and will foster for a different Local Authority.
The Foster Carer will normally be the most casually dressed.
You won’t remember any of this.
You won’t remember any of their names or their roles

A good Chair will then:-

  1. Apologise that they’re running late
  2. Tell you again that they are not trying to catch you out.

This is true.
This is not an interview for a job where you have to beat the other candidates.
Unless something absolutely weird happens, if you’ve got this far they want to approve you.
Although it’s far from easy to become a Foster Carer, society needs us.

The Panel will all have been sent your Form F, and they should have read it.
They will ask you a handful of questions about Form F.
Prior to your arrival, the Panel Members will have worked out who is going to ask what, and in what order.
Sometimes they get out of sync and glare at each other.
This is quite funny.
Even if you think the answer is definitely in your Form F, resist the temptation to say so.

Just answer as honestly and as clearly as you can.

Typical questions might be:-

  1. Could you tell us a little more about how you think your own children will react to a Foster Child arriving in your home?
  2. Could you tell us a bit more about your Support Network?
  3. Is your fish pond ‘child safe’?
  4. How did you find the process of being assessed?

If you’re a couple, you’ll look at each trying to work out who is going to answer.
Try not to disagree or have a row in front of the Panel.
It’s not the end of the world, but it doesn’t look good.
If you’re a big talker, like me, you’ll start a monologue, throw in some random ideas, add a couple of anecdotes and then end with ‘I can’t remember the question, but those are some of my thoughts and I’ll stop talking now’.
This is fine.
Panel like it when potential Foster Carers are real people with frailties and gaps in their knowledge
The Panel will have decades and decades of experience between them.

The Panel are generally very knowledgeable with years of experience. They’ll ask if you have any questions. The questions need to be about fostering, not the possible whereabouts of Elvis Presley.

You may be asked if you have any questions.
Any questions you have should refer to fostering.
Don’t ask them if they think Elvis is still alive and working in a chip Shop?

You leave.
You hang around in the Waiting Room and wonder if you did alright.
The Panel will have a chat.
They’ll call you back in.
They’ll almost certainly confirm that they want to approve you to foster.
Technically, this is only a recommendation.
All the paper work has to go to be verified and checked by a very important person in the Council.
You’ll then get a letter saying you’re approved to foster.

I’ve known people to get a phone call on the same day asking if they can take a child, I’ve known others wait several weeks.
It’s no easy thing to become a Foster Carer, and rightly so.
The Assessment may have taken 6 months from your first enquiry, or, significantly longer.

Even though it’s very very thorough, I’ve never known anyone to feel fully prepared to welcome a child into their home.
But, you’re as ready as you’ll ever be.

What training is there? ‘I’ve got skills, they’re multiplying’

When you become a Foster Carer you go on a course called Skills to Foster.

It can last two or three days and is often held in some sort of inhospitable Council Building.

‘I’ve got skills, they’re multiplying’ I decided to entertain my wife by singing this at every opportunity. All foster carers go on a Skills to Foster course.

We had found childcare for our Primary aged children and it felt like we were going on an adventure, perhaps even a hot date!

I’m a massive extrovert.

I’m invariably the loudest in the room.

My wife held my hand as we sat in a circle of strangers. This was not so much a loving gesture, more a recognised control mechanism. I knew a gentle squeeze meant ‘Perhaps you should consider talking less’. It’s a simple system and it works for us.

Our course was made up of an eclectic mix of potential foster carers. If you did not know the context, you would have no idea what we had in common.

There were three couples, and a handful of single women.

I’ve only ever met one single, male Foster Carer.

We represented a range of ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds.

I’m guessing we were mostly middle aged or older.

The course was run by Social Workers and Pete.

Pete was a Foster Carer. He’d been a taxi driver and had had numerous contracts driving children in care or children with additional needs to and from schools. He’d enjoyed being with the young people so much, that he and his wife decided to foster.

The Social Workers spoke the most, but Pete’s interjections showed a dry sense of humour, a deep understanding of kids, and a relentless desire to help people. We all liked Pete.

I was concerned that the course would be a bit like school.

I’m not very good at sitting on a chair and listening to presentations or monologues.

I start mucking about. This is somewhat ironic, because I’m a teacher.

I’ll let someone else decide if I’m a good teacher, but I’m pretty sure I’m not a boring one.

If one of my classes is settled and working, I’m the one who causes a disruption.

In some lessons, I think I should be the one who is asked to leave the room and take some time out.

The course was much better than school and I still think back to what I learnt.

We were encouraged to think, to reflect and to empathise.

If your house were burning down, what one thing would you take? Your pet, your photos, something of sentimental value? For me, it would be my Grandfather’s ring, that I will one day bequeath to my son.

I think my Grandfather had this ring made in World War 2. It has his initials on it. One day, it will be my son’s. I am available as a ‘hand model’.

But what if the fire were so intense that I had to leave the ring behind too?

I’d be devastated. It’s irreplaceable.

How did you get your name? My middle name is the same as my Grandfather’s. My son also has this name, even though he was born 25 years after my Grandfather died. I have explained this to my son.

These questions and discussions helped us consider issues of identity, and issues of loss.

How would it feel to lose everything? Absolutely everything.

How would it feel to not know your own history, to be navigating life without a grown up who was totally and utterly on your side?

I know who I am and where I’m from. If I want to know more, I ring my brother or my Mum.

For kids in care, identity and family history are far more fragile.

I’m white, I’m male, I’m 6 foot tall, I’m heterosexual and I went to University, twice.

There are examples of people who look like me on the TV, in the government, and more or less  in any profession you care to mention.

Our Council provided as many Time Out bars as you could eat on our Skills to Foster Course. We also learnt a lot about identity, empathy and how to handle loss.

I have rarely had to fear for my safety, and expect to be treated reasonably and courteously by anyone in authority.

It’s hard to be aware of the privileges you enjoy, unless you think long and hard.

The activity that has stuck longest in my mind is when I had to pretend I was 15, black and a lesbian.

If this were my identity, could I kiss my partner in public?

Could I get on a bus and go anywhere in the city where we lived?

How would I be received if I joined a new school or applied for a job?

Others on the course had to pretend to be disabled, suffering from depression, be a different ethnicity or background.

We also had to consider how it would be if we were a child in the Care System.

The film ‘Instant Family’ gives some good insights into how difficult it is for kids in care to maintain a relationships.

There are no definite right or wrong answers to these questions.

It’s amazing what some humans can overcome, and achieve.

But we don’t all have the same starting point.

The child in care is more disadvantaged than most.

You can’t learn all you need to know on a Three Day Course.

But it’s a good place to start.

Support networks: It takes a village to raise a child, and, ideally a dog!

I think this a labradoodle. The human is our daughter.

We haven’t got a dog.

But some of our best friends have.

The dog is called Maisie.

Her owners live around the corner and we’ve known them since our kids all went to the same local playgroup as toddlers.

We asked these friends if they’d be part of our Support Network when we started to foster.

They agreed even though none of us really knew what it would entail.

Our Assessing Social Worker went to visit them and we were all delighted to discover that they did not have a criminal record.

What do they do to support us?

Well, they do normal stuff that everyone does but they sometimes take a foster kid along.

They walk their dog, they go to the cinema, they feed the ducks, they get a Take Away, they dig in their allotment and sometimes they wash their car.  And sometimes, they have a foster kid helping.

It’s not actually massively complicated, but they’re very very good at it.

Maisie the dog, and her owners, have provided countless hours of therapy for kids who believe, with good reason, that everyone and everything is dangerous.

Hanging about, doing normal stuff, is healing.

We don’t live near our own families, but we visit them at Christmas and Easter and sometimes go on holiday with them.

We generally take our foster kids along.

We’ve usually mentioned this in advance and it says something about the wonderful flexibility of our parents and siblings that they’ve gone along with the whole thing.

I suspect, if pressured, they would say they’ve been slightly nervous about meeting a new foster kid.

I think many adults want kids to be happy, and if they have any streak of altruism, they want a foster kid to be happy.

I think many Kids in Care know they come with a reputation, whether it’s deserved or not.

Some adults are scared of them.

Some adults want to help them.

Some adults want the kid to really like them.

Most adults are a combination of all three.

This little kid is holding my Mum and Dad’s hands. He’d been with us about six months and had learnt to trust them and feel safe.

There has been the occasional tension.

Allowing a Foster Kid to eat Spaghetti Hoops for Christmas Dinner and not using traditional parenting techniques when he tippexes your mother’s laptop needs some explaining.

Watching him smash a birthday present to sh*t with a hammer is moderately embarrassing, even though you know his hatred is aimed at himself rather than ‘foster granddad’ or the phone itself.

Explain as much as you can.

Take your family and friends on the journey, telling them what you think they need to know.

Mischpoke is my favourite Yiddish word. What’s yours?

The ‘hellos’ can be unnerving but don’t forget that everyone mourns when a child says ‘goodbye’.

It takes a village to raise a child. Our family and friends have become that village.

I think most Foster Kids have very good reasons for not trusting people. Our family and friends have shown them that many many people are good.

Yeah, but what about your own kids?

Find a big mirror. Stand in front of it. Trace the image of yourself . If you look like this, you’ve probably done it wrong.

“He’s drawn a picture of himself. On my mirror. It’s full size, like as big as he is. And he’s done it with my lipsticks, and they’re ruined. You owe me new ones!”

Our birth kids, or ‘the kids’ as we tend to call them, were 5 and 7 when we started the Assessment Process to become Foster Carers.

We’re not totally stupid, and did consider what impact our decisions would have on them.

They had also been interviewed, on our sofa in the posh lounge, by our Assessing Social Worker.

Our son, aged 5, had explained that he thought it might be fun to have a foster brother or sister and that he could play with them. He thought it might be ok to share toys.

Our daughter explained that she knew there might be tricky moments with a foster kid but we, her parents, had said that if anything ever got broken or stolen, we would replace it without any quibbling.

Well, that time had come.

The drawing on the mirror was not malicious.

It was just the work of a kid who’d seen himself in a mirror and thought he’d draw himself.

He’d used the nearest thing to hand, some lipsticks!

I reached for my wallet.

Make-up isn’t really my area, but I knew there was a Superdrug 10 minutes away.

‘Superdrug!  Are you messing?’

My daughter, by now a teenager, and a teenager in a Northern City, took great great pride in her appearance.

‘The lipsticks were Mac, £20.00 each and they’re all ruined’

So, it cost us £60.00, but ultimately, very little harm was done.

There are two types of lipstick. Affordable ones and stupidly expensive ones. This information was not covered in our foster training.

This incident aside, no one loved that little boy quite like our birth daughter.

Our kids, now 16 and 19, can’t really remember when we didn’t foster.

There have certainly been some stressful moments, fraught days, and even prolonged periods, lasting weeks, when there’s been significant tension in the house.

Our kids have never felt threatened by a foster kid, generally because they’re bigger and they’re confident. As the adult, you need to ensure everyone gets the time and attention they need. One positive side effect of fostering is you have to be home for the foster kid. This means you’re also home for your own kids.

Fostering has always worked best when the foster kid has been the youngest, generally two or three years younger. The pecking order is clear, and kids generally understand that.

I think the kids we’ve fostered have benefitted massively from having older siblings, even if they’re not related.

Our son escorted a new foster kid into his Primary school.

The newly arrived six year old was enrolled in the same school as our two, which made the practicalities and logistics really quite straightforward.

What we didn’t learn until much much later, was that our son and his pals had organised a little rota to go and check on him in the ‘Infant Yard’.

I found this photo on a smashed old phone. The big kid is our birth son. The little kid is fostered. He’d arrived a couple of days before.

‘If anyone had touched him, we’d have sorted it’.

Big brothers are allowed to wind you up, but will often step in if anyone else tries it.

Our birth kids have been invariably protective of the children we’ve fostered.

They understand that not every one has the benefits brought by the accident of birth, and that sharing your privilege is a good thing.

This is an important value to our family.

I think our birth kids have been vital in helping our foster kids learn some of the most vital lessons in life.

We fostered a ten year old who was very angry. He would bang doors, stamp, swear and be really rather unpleasant.  When he was in such a mood, we’d learnt the best thing to do was to keep out of the way. There was no reasoning with him and an adult presence would only enrage him.

Kids in a tree. This is our daughter hugging a foster kid, whilst our birth son works out how they’re going to get down.

One day he was in such a frame of mind.

He stamped upstairs to go to the bathroom.

Our birth son, by now at Secondary School, was significantly bigger and not easily intimidated.

When in a mood, this foster kid was no respecter of adults, particularly us.  I’m a big man, but he’d happily tell me to f*ck off if he was cross.

However, as our birth son came out of the bathroom, the foster kid took a step back and let him past, in a deferential manner.

This was a golden moment to us.

The foster kid had learnt to regulate himself.

He’d been indifferent to any reward or any consequence when the red mist descended.

However, he really looked up to his big brother with a degree of awe and respect.

He wouldn’t disrespect him, even when he was in the foulest of moods.

He also knew if he pushed past his big brother he was likely to be pushed back.

To all intents and purposes, they were functioning just like two regular, ordinary, relatively normal brothers.

Here’s a Foster kid and our birth son on a camping trip in Wales. These two were quite capable of winding each other up. But they also created a bond that needed no words or explanation.

It must be difficult  to watch a 4 year old foster kid call your Mum or Dad a C*nt and that he’s going to f*ck them up.

However as our birth kids have matured, I think they know they’ve already done some fantastic things in their lives. They’ve stepped in as family for kids who don’t have one.

If they had not liked fostering, we’d have stopped in an instant.

Looking after kids is a family affair and we’re all involved.

Form F: Hello. I want to know everything about you.

“Hello, my name’s Pam. Put the kettle on and let’s have a chat. I want to know everything about you. Leave nothing out”.

Pam liked a plain Hob Nob, no chocolate, no nuts, no caramel base, just plain, nothing fancy.

Pam, our Assessing Social Worker, was nosey for a living.

She poked around our house advising on what was potentially dangerous and making predictions about what would almost certainly be broken should we be allowed to foster.

‘I can just imagine a four year old with ADHD sending these ornament flying’ she said, almost gleefully. These ornaments were in fact Napoleonic figurines, but any balance of power was yet to be established and my wife had advised me to ‘be as quiet as possible’.

Pam was impressed with our house.

These are 54 mm Napoleonic figurines. We also have about 500 25mm Napoleonics on display around the picture rail in the hall. No foster child has ever deliberately harmed any of them.

‘It’s a home. It’s warm. It’s clean, You’ve got a spare room. Any child will feel safe here and be safe here.’

Pam wanted a variety of smoke detectors to be dotted about the house, and had meticulously toured our modest garden looking for ponds, and any other ‘bodies of potentially hazardous water’.

We needed to put a lock on our bathroom cabinet and make sure all cleaning products were out of harm’s way.

House inspection over, Pam settled down at our kitchen table.

‘We need to fill out a Form F.  It’s not really a Form, more of a book actually.  A book about you. I’ll then advise a Panel of people as to whether I think you can foster’.

Pam really did want to know all about us.

Her first questions were about our upbringing and our families.

My Mum and Dad moved into a house in 1975, and they still live there.

If I visit my Mum and Dad’s I sleep in the same bedroom I had when I was in Infant School.

The wallpaper is different and the radiator now works, but a lot is still the same.

They still have a VHS video recorder in the ‘posh lounge’.

My parents, inspired by Which?, owned a Betamax C5 originally. They still refer to their VHS as ‘new’. They are getting to grips with ‘Catch up’ as we speak.

Our kids have played hide and seek in the same cupboards as I did when I was their age.

Our kids climb the very same trees I used to climb in the 1970s.

I’m from a very very stable background, teetering perhaps, on boring.

‘So why do you want to foster?’ asked Pam

‘Altruism’, I answered. ‘I just think it’s a good thing to do. I’ve always known stability and I want to share it.  I believe helping other people is good’.

Pam nodded and wrote it all down.

There is no right reason to foster, but you do need to have a reason.

You may have been in care, have worked in education, have grown up in a family that fosters, or you may have very little experience of the Care System.

You may be motivated by faith and have a history of charitable good works. Or you may not.

The main thing is, you need to have thought about it.

You need to have thought about how you’ll practically fit looking after a kid into your life.  There are numerous practical and emotional considerations.

Could you get a kid to a Primary School in the morning?

Could you cope with a kid who is so traumatised that they’ll wet the bed again and again again?

How might you react to a four year old getting in your face and telling you to F*ck off?

How would you react if he did the same to your wife?

You cannot possibly be prepared for every scenario.

Fostering is an enormous test of character.

You won’t really know how you’ll react until it happens.

And ‘it’ will happen, probably at 4.00am, when you’re exhausted.

If you google ‘Form F’ you get this particularly inspiring image.

In my experience, and there’s some research about this, most foster carers have an acute sense of justice. We are flexible in our approach to problem solving and are generally very relational. We are all ever so slightly crazy, but in a good way.

Pam wanted to know we were safe, we’d do our best, we’d listen to advice, we weren’t stupid, and we weren’t naïve.

I think Pam visited us about 8 times in total.

She liked her tea with milk, no sugar, and was partial to a hobnob, plain, no chocolate or anything fancy.

Our Form F was eventually packed with information.

Pam learnt that we had gay, deaf and BAME relatives.

She knew we’d never been married and had no serious previous partners.

She raised an eyebrow when we told her we’d already paid off our mortgage, but was happy to tick the ‘financially stable’ box.

She interviewed our kids to make sure they had at least some idea of what was going on.

She had references from employers, friends and relatives.

She knew we had clean criminal records, didn’t smoke, and she didn’t seem too bothered that my Medical said my BMI was one point off ‘obese’.

There were only a few things left to do.

One of them was to go on a Skills to Foster Course.

‘What’s one of them I said?’

‘Well, I’ve booked you in to the next one, so you’ll soon find out’ said Pam.

I like to think I got on pretty well with Pam.

Other than my wife, I think she knows more about me than anyone else.

Don’t foster for the money or the biscuits!

We went to a ‘Foster Information Session’ run by the Council. You could eat as many Custard Creams as you liked.

I’m only here because of my wife!

She suggested we go to a Council Event about fostering.

As a typical middle aged man, I was prone to taking the path of least resistance, and thought ‘why not’.

I’d been on worse nights out.

The event was run in a local Community Centre.

There was tea, coffee and as many Custard Creams as you could eat.

I wouldn’t say the evening began particularly well.

A Social Worker was giving us a lecture about how you become a Foster Carer.

As an enormous extrovert, and invariably one of the loudest in any room, I was quick to put my hand up.

‘What’s a LAC?’, ‘What’s an I.V.? What do you mean by ‘Panel’?

These were just some of the terms that had confused me within the first five minutes.

The Social Worker was surprisingly patient as she explained that we would be caring for Looked After Children (L.A.C.) but would need an Initial Visit (I.V.) before we went through an assessment process and hopefully, eventually, be ‘approved to foster’ by an Independent Panel of people (Panel!).

The next guest speaker was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met, but did even less to encourage me to foster.

She was a single woman of an indeterminate age, and probably exactly how I imagined a foster carer to be. That is to say, she was nothing like me.

She explained that she was particularly tired today.

She’d spent the early hours of the morning looking for a 14 year old in her care who had done a runner. With the help of the Police, she’d tracked him down, coaxed him back into her car and taken him home.

She’d then had to call upon the Police for a second time because the 16 year old she was fostering had invited her boyfriend over.

As a convicted drug dealer, this boyfriend was banned from her home and had to be ejected.

I was very glad someone was looking after these teenagers, but I was probably more glad that it wasn’t me.

We had a nice life.

I was a teacher, my wife worked for the Council, and our two kids were doing well in Primary School.

We had two Guinea Pigs, a compost bin, and a pebble dashed, extended, semi-detached home.

Did we really want to risk all that by inviting the unknown into our home?

The third speaker of the evening was a ‘Care experienced young adult’ or ‘Ex-LAC’ or, as she introduced herself, Lucy.

I’m guessing she was about 20.

She changed my mind.

She stared at her audience, who were all significantly older than her.

‘If I told you, that you had to come to stay at my house for reasons that I’m not going to fully explain, would you come?’

‘If I said, that you had to leave everything you knew, all your stuff, all your family, all your friends, all the smells, all the noises behind, would you come?’

‘Even if your home was dangerous and chaotic, would you gladly go and live with complete strangers, with their funny ways in their funny home? Would you?’

‘When you’re a kid in care, especially when you’re very young, like Primary age, you don’t understand what’s best for you, you’re just scared.  Could you make a scared kid feel safe?’

Sometimes, if we go on holiday it takes me time to adjust to new surroundings.

The first day at a new job can be the hardest day, and we are glad to get through it and get home.

When kids go for sleepovers with their friends or family they sometimes feel homesick or anxious.

I’m an extrovert, but even I like to be on my sofa, in my home with my own TV remote, on my own.

My wife and I spent the next few days considering the pros of cons of fostering.

We decided to apply.

In my experience you get much better biscuits when you are about to ‘go to Panel’. It’s not as scary as it seems. My wife’s top tip was ‘try not to be too funny’.

We knew it would take about 6 months to be assessed and approved to foster.

It was possible that the Council’s Social Workers would decide we weren’t suitable to foster.

It was also possible that during this time we’d decide that fostering wasn’t for us and withdraw our application.

In fact, we were approved to foster ‘one child between the ages of 0-18, with a preference for an under 5’.

And that’s when the adventure really began.

Fostering a baby

I expect you’ve got a baby photo

Don’t be fooled! This was as friendly as me and my brother ever got in the 1970s. Now that we are grown ups, we chat regularly on the phone, laugh about the past and plot the future. He supports QPR.

Here’s one of me in the arms of my mother, staring at my big brother. I was born in the upstairs bedroom of the house where this photo was taken.

We moved when I was 5, and my Mum and Dad still Iive in the ‘new house’. 

When I return, I still sleep in the bedroom I had when I was at Primary School, although my parents did redecorate sometime in the 1990s.

We’ve only ever fostered one baby, but he did stay twice.

We had him more or less as an ‘emergency’, for reasons I was never quite sure about.

Although we were more set up for school aged children, we did our best.

We fed him, we kept him warm and safe, we changed his nappy, and we sung nonsensical songs to him.

He gurgled and grinned back at us, just as babies are supposed to do.

Our birth kids, particularly our 7 year old daughter, thought he was very cute.

He didn’t sleep well, by which I mean we were lucky to get even an hour of peace either in the day or in the night.  We didn’t know why.

Perhaps it was health issues, or perhaps his body was full of adrenaline, somehow aware that his future was so uncertain and precarious.  Perhaps he was just a poor sleeper.

After a few days, the Social Worker told us she’d found a more permanent arrangement.

I was instructed to drop the baby off at a local Nursery.

I remember learning about Moses being cast adrift in the Nile as a kid in Sunday School. To me at the time, it was just a story and a colouring-in sheet. I am rubbish at colouring in and have no interest in keeping within the lines.

This was a simple enough task, but I did find it very emotional, believing I was unlikely ever to see this child again. The image that came to my mind was a colouring in sheet I must have done when I was 3 or 4. It was of Moses’ mother pushing her infant son into the Nile, nestled in a basket of bulrushes. I hoped and prayed that this little kid would be safe.

That night we got the best night’s sleep we’d had for some time and then carried on with our lives.

A few days later, I arrived back home from work to find a Social Worker looking sheepish in our kitchen.  My wife was cooing over a baby, the same baby I’d dropped off a few days before.

The Social Worker had arranged with my wife for the baby to stay just one more night, as an absolute last resort emergency.

In 1982 I sent this photo of my Mum into a ‘Glamorous Teacher’ competition in The Eagle Comic. I won! My Mum got some chocolates and flowers delivered to the school where she worked. She had no idea I’d done this. I won £5. Viewed through modern sensibilities, this whole concept now seems problematic.

I asked for some further explanation.

‘The baby was due to be picked up by his Mum, but she had never turned up. We can’t find her or contact her.  We knew you still had a cot and the bottles.  It’s 7.00pm and there really is nowhere else.’

Although usually phlegmatic, I was cross.

Who was this feckless mother? What was she up to when she should have been looking after her helpless child? Who would deliberately abandon their child in such a way?

I voiced my thoughts.

The Social Worker, quite rightly, explained such details were confidential.

However, we were told that the Mum had only recently became a teenager and was in care herself.

I know, if it had been possible, we’d have found room for that young Mum and the baby to stay in our home.

This story is 10 years old, and we’ve no idea what happened to that baby.

I do know, that for a few days at least, he was safe.

Building self-esteem: ‘Phil, Phil, look at me!’

It’s not unusual for a kid to want attention.

This painting has an uncanny resemblance to my birth daughter and adopted son. It was painted by my old friend Sonya Vine. She’s never met either of them.

It’s not unusual for any of us to want to impress.

Who doesn’t want praise and affirmation?

If you’ve had a traumatic start to life you might not know what to do with praise.

The narrative goes something like this:-

My Mum and Dad didn’t love me enough to want me or to keep me safe. 

They chose alcohol or drugs or a violent partner over me.

Therefore, I must be unworthy of love.

Therefore, when someone shows me love, it doesn’t make sense.

I will reject their love.

The life expectancy of a pair of swimming goggles in the hands of a child can be measured in minutes.

I used to spend Saturday mornings perusing the local car boot sales with a nine year old foster kid.

He was generally interested in anything with buttons, particularly old phones or bits of laptops.

On one occasion, in a departure from routine, he spotted a pair of swimming goggles.

He’d been swimming before.

We’d taken him and he’d gone regularly with his school.

He was by no means proficient, but he was quite good at standing by the shallow end, and particularly enjoyed getting crisps from the vending machine.

I am not aware of any research that’s been conducted into why a Vending Machine is so incredibly exciting to the human mind. I’m pretty sure there’s a PhD waiting to happen. I’m happy to help with the project.

For some reason, these goggles caught his imagination, and after a brief haggle, a deal was struck, and the goggles became his.

Like most small kids, he put the goggles on straightaway, and wore them all the way home.

My wife was not surprised to be confronted by a nine year old fully dressed but wearing swimming goggles when we reached home.

Foster carers learn not to be surprised by anything.

What did surprise both of us was his sudden enthusiasm for swimming.

In our city, Foster Carers get free access to local sport centres.

I’m not sure exactly how often we went, but it felt like a lot.

We followed the same routine each time.

Walk to the pool, find the same changing cubicles as yesterday, get changed, find the same locker as yesterday, lock our clothes away, find clothes we’d dropped, reopen the locker, relock the locker, head to the pool, stand on the edge of the pool, consider if it was deep or cold or if there were sharks.

And most importantly, put on the goggles.

On the first few trips, we didn’t even get wet.

Foster carers learn to be patient.

But gradually, after a few weeks, we started to paddle, then graduated to wading, and eventually we were ready to put our head under the water.

The goggles, a bargain at 50 pence, suddenly came into their own.

As we explored every inch of the three foot deep shallow end, his confidence grew.

Clinging on to my back, we tentatively began to head to deeper waters.

Within a few months, we were undeniably moving through water, perhaps in a close approximation of ‘swimming’.

Our feet were still on the bottom, but foster carers learn not to be too pedantic about such details.

Then, one day, he climbed out onto the side.

‘Kids in care want the same as everyone else. They just go about getting it using alternative strategies’. Wise words from one of our Social Workers.

He slid back in.

He repeated this several more times.

And then it happened

‘Phil, Phil, look at me!’

The kid jumped in.

‘Well done’ I said.

We’d learnt not to be too effusive with our praise.

He sniffed it out immediately if it was said without conviction or sincerity.

He invariably reacted angrily or even violently if you actually meant it.

We had seen him destroy artwork, schoolwork, phones, presents and anything else that suggested he was worthy of praise.

But this was still a golden golden moment.

By drawing attention to his progress, he was showing pride in himself. The narrative of self loathing was being undone, one swimming trip at a time.