Sunday, June 22, 2008

Parental Authority

When you have raised a child from infancy, or from whatever age it takes for them to regard you as (one of) their "real" parents, there is a sort of authority you have that you simply don't have with foster teens.

It is difficult to explain.

Frankie was a good example. He hated the school that we sent him to. That he had been part of that decision was not relevant to him. He did not like it there. He wanted to move. We explained that no other school in the area would accept him out of that program without their recommendation. He was stuck. As long as he lived anywhere close to here, he had to go to that school.

The solution? Move to a new family in a new town. For him it was as easy as a simple arithmetic problem.

Andrew and Brian may dislike rules that I have for them, but they would never even think, "Well, I can always get new parents." I would have been totally ignorant of the sort of power I have over my kids if I had never been a foster parent. If I told Brian that I was signing him up for a school he did not want to attend he might make my life miserable, but he would not run away. I am not saying it is wise to parent any teenager that way. I don't think it is. I am saying though that with most kids you have access to that sort of power. You can say, "You must" and your teenager will not even consider rejecting you as parents.

With the foster boys it is different. It may ultimately be a difference on a continuum, but it is important to note.

Did you ever watch The Emerald Forest? It is a story about a boy who is stolen from his parents and raised by "The Invisible People" who live in the Amazon. The boy's first father finds him at one point asks the chief to order the boy to go home. The chief responds with, "If I tell a man to do something he does not want to do, I will no longer be chief." (Quote from memory, probably not exact.) It is a funny line, but it is true. The chief's authority is based upon the people's recognition of his wisdom. Mostly they trust the chief to coordinate their actions so that they can all accomplish their communally held goals. If he starts ordering people to do things that they in no sense want to do, then he is no longer chief. That he could hold power as a dictator does not seem to occur to him, or perhaps he just not regard that as desirable.

Parental authority with teens, especially foster teens, is a lot like that. You can have dictatorial power up to a point, but for the most part teens will only follow your rules they trust you and believe that the rules you have are reasonable.

I'm finding as I write this that some other part of my brain is arguing with what I am saying. I have learned that I don't have to have my children's permission to parent. I remember a conversation with Evan and his therapist about my going into his room. I asserted that if he took things that belonged to the family and left them in his room I was going to go in and get them. His position was that it was his room and I should never, ever go in. My going in was a violation of his privacy so profound as to be unimaginable. The counselor and I came up with multiple options: I would go in only when he was there; I would stand in the hallway and have him hand me things out. Nothing was okay with him. We got to a point at which we both stopped talking. The argument was over. The counselor asked what just happened. I said, "I will go into the room when he is not home and get our things." She asked him if that was okay with him, he said no. She turned to me and I said, "I don't need his permission to be the parent or get things that shouldn't be in his room. If at sometime he wants to agree to any of the options we have given them he can tell me. " She asked him if he agreed with that. He shrugged. I said , "he doesn't have to agree before it is the rule."

And I believe that. Ultimately I don't have to convince the kids that the rules are good or reasonable. That actually saves me from a lot of arguments. I give a rule; the kids argue; I listen and re-assert the rule. I don't believe that their agreement is necessary. I don't need their permission to be the parent.

And though I believe that in particular cases, I don't believe it in the global sense. My ability to assert particular rules in a more-or-less dictatorial way is dependent upon their trust, and on their acceptance of me as a parent. And one important fact about parenting foster teens is that underneath it all, they know they can get new parents. Whatever authority I have is based upon trust and a confidence that following my directions will help them achieve their goals.


  1. You write, "I am saying though that with most kids you have access to that sort of power. You can say, 'You must' and your teenager will not even consider rejecting you as parents."

    Actually, this is how a lot of teens come into care: Their parents say, "You must," and the kid says flat out, "No." Somewhere along the way, something went wrong, and the kid doesn't trust his/her parent and does not endow that parent with power over him/her.

  2. Well you also have to look at it this way... We're taught that it's easy for them to give us away when we do the slightest things wrong or that they don't approve of, so why shouldn't we be able to "give away" them as well...

  3. GirlSpeaks,

    Oh I completely understand it. It is what they have been taught by the system and many/most of the people in it.

    I don't condemn the kids for this way of thinking. The post was about reminding myself about all this. Gary is insisting that he wants to graduate early. I have been trying to convince him not to, mostly because I am afraid that he won't finish his courses by the time he is 18 and will leave with them undone.

    I need to remind myself that I really can't stop him.

  4. IM a new visitor to your blog. Im trying to find helpful informative fostering blogs :) yeah for yours!


Comments will be open for a little while, then I will be shutting them off. The blog will stay, but I do not want either to moderate comments or leave the blog available to spammers.