When It’s Time to Let the Mullet Go: Knowing Better and Doing Better in Foster Care

I was a child of the 80s.  I was raised on Trapper Keepers, mix tapes, and scratch n sniff stickers.  I even remember when Honey Smacks were more accurately still called Sugar Smacks (according to a 2008 study they are more than 50% sugar by weight – no kidding).

And I had a mullet.  Business up front, party in the back.

It could be argued that the mullet is a timeless hair fashion.  Apparently, archaeologists have discovered evidence of the mullet in ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and Greece dating back to as far as the 16th century BC.  

So while the 80s didn’t invent the mullet, our generation re-discovered its ancient glory during this time.

Many of us carried the mullet into early 90s as well.  I entered college as a music major with a mullet on my head and leather jacket on my back.  Yes, I was a living, breathing cliché. Then, after my freshman year, I went to California for a summer-long missions experience.  Part of the deal was that we all had to find a summer job within the first two weeks of arriving. One of my very first interviews was at fast food place.  “You have the job…but you will have to cut your hair.”

Thanks, but no thanks.  The mullet stays.

Several days passed and then a week.  I still didn’t have a job. I was from Kansas and it was sort of surprising to me that California, of all places, didn’t seem to have an appreciation for cool hair.  As the job deadline approached, I was beginning to come to grips with my fate. I had an interview at a Jack in the Box and predictably I was told “You have the job…but you will have to cut your hair.”

Mercy. Uncle.

Watching several inches of hair fall to the floor of the barbershop didn’t prove to be nearly as devastating as I might have thought.  I got used to the change pretty quickly. My girlfriend didn’t even dump me for a guy with cooler hair (in fact, she eventually married me).  Every once in a while, we reach a point in life where we realize that it is time for the mullet to go.

Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better do better.”

Nearly every one of us entered the foster care world naively.  We were convinced of a lot of things. From the moment we make the very first phone call to ask how to apply to be a foster parent, we begin to slowly and steadily have our assumptions dismantled.  We are excited and willing to help kids who are waiting for help. Of course, the person on the other end of the phone is going to be just as excited to receive my help and will call me back right away and tell me how wonderful it is to hear from me.  And then there is the paperwork that seems more geared toward keeping people out than letting people in. Then comes the training where it sure sounds like they are trying to talk folks out of this whole thing. Then the kids show up and, over time, their preciousness exceeds our expectations as does the manifestations of the trauma they have experienced.  We brace ourselves to meet their monstrous biological parents only to find people broken like us and merely slightly taller versions of their precious children, looking for ways to heal themselves of their own childhood wounds.

The same is true for those that enter into the child welfare profession.  Every day holds a new reminder that this whole thing is not exactly what you thought it was.  Change comes harder and our enthusiasm seems to have less effect on justice than we had once dreamed.

The more experienced we became, the less we know.  This easily and all-too-often leads to cynicism and burnout.  But it doesn’t have to.

We can either say “nothing works” and resign ourselves to diminishing hope or we can choose to say, “maybe it doesn’t work because we didn’t do it the right way.”  Every one of these disappointments can be a building block of experience that helps us to know better, and then do better.  The good ol’ days are not always that good if we think about it. Occasionally, it becomes clear that it is time to move on to better things. We realize that it is time for the mullet to go.

I was recently at a conference where child welfare professionals and advocates gathered from around the country to learn from one another how to do better.  Here are several examples from this conference and beyond:

  • We know now that advocating for specific children with the people who already know them is a better way to recruit than putting up a billboard on the side of the interstate.  
  • We know now that the language we use in recruitment can sometime attract folks looking to rescue kids from “bad” families and put them into “good” families.  We can change that. We can instead recruit potential foster families that are passionate about coming alongside biological families to bring restoration and reinforce those relationships — even in cases where children can’t return home safely.  
  • We know now that half of foster families won’t last a year unless they are surrounded by people who love them and support them.  So let’s not sign them on until we help them get the support they need.
  • We know now that the behaviors of our children are very often the result of the traumatic things they have experienced.  This shouldn’t cause us to abandon structure, expectations, and discipline, but rather help us to add empathy and understanding to these things.

When we know better, we do better.

There is another side to this that is really important for those of us that have been in this for a while.  When new people come along, we have to be exceedingly careful not to despise them for being naive like we once were.  The temptation is to give into cynicism and dismiss them. The right thing to do is to remember that we were there once, and we needed others to come alongside of us and help us to grow.  Here are a few examples you’ll be familiar with:

  • When someone suggests to you that they’ve always wanted to build an orphanage for kids in foster care, don’t get judgy on them.  Just gently guide them in the things we know now about the importance of family. They are a potential ally for you to help kids and families.  They are at least thinking about helping kids — remember, that’s not true of everyone.
  • When a couple calls about foster parenting and asks for only babies under a year-old, don’t turn them away and coldly tell them there are only older kids in foster care.  For one thing, that’s simply not true. Secondly, you have the chance to help this couple grow in their understanding and potentially help a child they never dreamed would be in their home.  
  • When someone says they couldn’t do foster care because they couldn’t deal with the birth families, don’t write them off.  Plenty of people have completely changed their philosophies about birth families after a single interaction with a birth mom.

When we know better, we do better.  Let’s help each other on both fronts.  When it’s time to leave the mullet behind, don’t look back.  Better hair is ahead.

This post originally appeared in our Foster Roster e-newsletter which is delivered each Friday. We keep it short and sweet and fill it with practical articles, videos, blog posts and other tools for leaders like you working to help kids and families in foster care.  To sign up, go to http://bit.ly/1rwn6eO.