Riding Shotgun and What It Can Teach us About the Foster Parenting Experience

We have twin teenage daughters currently learning how to drive.   Their learning experience is much different from mine.   My childhood was spent in a small Kansas farming community, but our family lives in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area.  The girls are learning to drive on paved streets, while much of my initial driving was done on dirt roads (yes, we did, in fact, have paved roads in Kansas, but most of the routes to my friends’ houses required travel by gravel).  Another difference is that very early on, my daughters are having to navigate a major multi-lane highway.  We didn’t even have one of those nearby when I was 16.

But for all the differences between their experience and mine, one thing is still the same:  There is a nervous parent in the passenger seat.

There is nothing like teaching a teenager to drive to reveal your control issues.  This has to be one of the hallmarks of parental love:  to put your very life in the hands of another human being whose prefrontal cortex is not yet entirely developed.  It’s vitally important that we as parents are in the car, but we simply don’t get to be in control of what happens.

Sounds a lot like foster parenting, right?  We are present, but we don’t have the amount of control over what happens that we would like to.  Here are three ways that foster parenting is like riding shotgun:

  1. You don’t get to control the speed at which you progress.

We’ve all been there. We are in the passenger seat and cruising along the highway, when we see the car in front of us suddenly apply their brakes.  As the driver slams on the brakes, we press our own foot into the floorboard to assist with the stop.  This, of course, makes no difference, but we do it anyway.

On the flip side, student drivers, as you would expect, don’t always feel  comfortable going as fast as the speed limit allows.  Our foot again reaches for the floor board hoping that there is a secret gas pedal beneath the floor mat.  Sometimes we really need things to slow down and at other times we desperately wish they would speed up.

Most of the time, foster care feels like it is going WAY too fast or WAY too slow (in our humble opinion). Goldilocks and her persnickety preference for “just right” would certainly have turned out to be a very frustrated foster parent.

On the “too slow” side, you grow weary of the long wait for your initial paperwork to get processed, and you are flabbergasted that the judge just extended the case another 6 months.  On the “too fast” side you get calls letting you know that an 8-year-old will be coming to live at your house in 90 minutes, or you find out suddenly that a child who has been with you 9 months is leaving tomorrow. In both cases, you feel like you have very little power to control the speed things go.

  1. You don’t get to choose the direction you will go at the next intersection.

While riding shotgun with a student driver, you can make suggestions or even demands about where the driver goes.  After all, you know the lay of the land, and your experience qualifies you to make suggestions about the direction things should go.  But, at the end of the day, you are not the one holding the steering wheel.  Sure, you could grab it if you want to, but of course, that rarely ends well.

As foster parents you have great insight about the direction a case ought to go.  You have experience with this child and in caring for other children that in many ways makes you as qualified as anyone to make decisions about what should happen next. However, the truth is that someone else is at the wheel.  It can leave foster parents feeling powerless.

  1. You can see the obstacles in front of you but have limited power to avoid them.

You see the pothole or the dead skunk or the stray piece of debris that fell off of that old pick-up truck in front of you.  You know from experience what impact those things could have if they are not avoided.  And yet, you have limited ability to control whether you hit them or not.  It is a truly powerless feeling.

Similarly, you know the child in your home and the impact on them if they aren’t given the transition time they need.  You know that their birthday is coming and what that will mean for how they feel and how they behave as a result of their past trauma.  You can see it, but you can’t completely avoid it.  So often it feels like you have to close your eyes, knowing that you are running directly over an obstacle and hoping it doesn’t cause you to blow a tire or lose control all together.

So what can be done?

While being a passenger in a car comes with a lot of limitations, there is one thing you have that can make a tremendous difference in each of the three cases described above:

It’s your voice.

Your voice is a powerful tool that can help slow things down or speed things up.  Your voice can suggest a left turn at the next intersection.  Your voice can point out the obstacles ahead and even provide wise insight on how to avoid them.  Now, the temptation in every instance is to use our voice in a loud or even angry way.  After all, we are talking about life and death here.  The problem is that in the midst of chaos, screaming only makes things worse.  Yes, when you are louder you can get people’s attention and sometimes that is called for.  But as any teen driver will tell you, if you are always yelling, you are going to get tuned out.  And if your voice gets tuned out, that’s bad for everyone in your car and everyone else on the road.  We all need your voice.  On the road, your voice can save lives.  In foster care, your voice can change them.  Your voice makes things better for kids and families.  Use it well.

This article first appeared in CAFO’s regular Foster Movement column of the Fostering Families Today magazine (September/October 2017 issue).  To see a preview of the magazine and learn more about how you or your organization can subscribe to this great resource, click here.