Friday, April 06, 2012

Foster Parent Friday - Handling Birth Family Gifts

I got this question from a blog reader after my last Foster Parent Friday post.  As a reminder, please feel free to ask me questions anytime by writing it in the comments or by e-mailing mie (see my contact page or my link on the right side of this page).

Q: How much is too much for biologicals (bio parents, bio grandparents, etc.) to spend buying gifts for our kids? Our girls just came back from spending a day with a biological grandparent - a good relationship, we trust them greatly. But I know that at least $200 was spent on 2 pre-school aged girls today. Every time they see this person, it is gifts ... gifts ... gifts! How much is too much? How do we teach them that love with bios is more than just gift-getting?

A: This is such a great question.  Though the specifics of this person’s question may only relate to their case, I can say I’ve seen this type of situation at least a few times before.  Sometimes its nice but often times as the foster parent it is annoying and frustrating at the least.  That being said, if I’ve learned anything from foster care its that my idea of what is black and white is not sufficient to judge wrong or write in all circumstances.  In other words – it depends.  Things are so complex with foster care and there are sometimes numerous acceptable answers.  That being said, I firmly believe that in every situation there is a best answer, whether all options are “wrong” or all options are “right” – one is best. 

The best answer in foster care – We wouldn’t be making these decisions – birth parents would be whole and complete, always able to provide sufficiently for their children with love and wisdom.  Birth children would always be with their birth parents, who would be parenting together, for the best interest in raising their children to be responsible, loving, caring adults.

We don’t live in a perfect world though so we have imperfect things to face, like the one where you have parents who are unable to sufficiently parent their children for a variety of reasons, therefore their children are in foster care, and these parents feel the need to shower their children with gifts, in spite of or because of their children not being with them.  Here are the things I wrestle with in answering this question:

Support for these gifts
·         The $$ amount purely depends on someone’s financial position, both the birth family’s and the foster family’s.  I just took my kids to Disneyland – tickets are $80 per person with a $5 discount if the child is under 11.  We bought food.  We bought souvenirs.  It was something we could afford – it may not be something someone else can afford.  Often times I can afford to give my kids new clothes as they need them (and by new I mean new, never used).  Though I’m frugal and choose not to do this stuff all the time I know for a fact I can do it more than most of the birth families I’ve had.  I spent $150 on Easter baskets & presents, Easter outfits, and Easter activities (egg decoration) and that doesn’t count the food or other stuff we’ll buy for our Easter day festivities.  Is that a lot?  It depends – some people spent way more while others struggled to buy anything.  The fact is that while I could judge a birth family for spending a particular dollar amount that I don’t see appropriate for certain ages, I could also see them pointing right back at mie for doing the exact same thing.
·         If you’ve read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages series, you’ll know that some people express and/or feel love through gifts.  This is NOT my love language and in fact associating gifts with love grates on mie significantly.  If you ask people who really know mie, they would tell you that I hate receiving gifts.  I don’t like the association between “I love you” and money.   (I also have a strong fear that I won’t have a reaction that honors the gift and therefore the giver, so I’d rather not receive a gift).  But I love giving – not to say “I love you” but to bless someone else with something they need or want.  With all this said it may cloud my judgment on what is right and wrong with gift giving.  I do know that giving, even things of monetary value, is Biblical and that God gives “good and perfect gifts” to his children because He loves us.  Far be it for mie to stop someone from expressing their love to their kin through gifts if the basic idea is Biblical.
·         Giving gifts is one of the only things birth families can do to know, without a doubt, that the kid can remember their parent while they are away from them.  If they give their children a special doll (or 5) or a stuffed toy or something like that, it helps the parent feel like the child can physically take those things with them during the week and have a piece of the parent/child relationship even though they are apart. 

Opposition to these gifts
·         Love is more than gifts.  I deeply want to write “gifts are not love”, but again we know that giving is a part of love so that wouldn’t be entirely true.  The problem with birth families showering gifts upon their children is that it ends up being one of the only ways they are showing love to their children in foster care.  Frankly, they often only see their children on court appointed visits 1-2 hours per week.  If they spend their time eating candy, soda, and opening gifts they don’t have much other time to show other types of love.  Love languages are primarily learned (rather than biological) and so by only showing one type of love to their child the child learns to only feel love through one thing – this thing being gifts.  Again looking at the 5 love languages – they miss out on physical touch (hugs, etc.), quality time, words of affirmation, and acts of service.  Even if a parent is showing sacrificial love by doing everything they can to get their kids back, the kids don’t often get to see those efforts and that type of demonstration of love because they aren’t together as it is happening.  Though no parent can show perfect love to their children because we aren’t perfect to begin with, it would be better for the children if they didn’t always associate love with giving gifts, especially parental love, if for no other reason than it sets the child up for not feeling loved if they aren’t constantly showered with gifts.  At the end of the case, no matter how it is resolved birth parents will not be able to constantly shower the child with gifts and at that point the child will feel as if they are not loved.  It isn’t best for the kids.
·         It sets up an unrealistic standard for the foster parents.  Foster parents have to be parents 24/7, not just an hour or two a week.  This means that not only can they not shower the children with gifts constantly but they also have to show love in other more practical ways.  For example – feeding the children, bathing them, providing them with a roof, cleaning the house, and discipline.  Foster parents almost always have a disadvantage in parenting – they will always be second best.  That’s ok, but when biological parents setup the standard of showering the kids with gifts it makes the challenge that much harder.  Discipline is a big one and I can give you an example with one of my kids.  Most of the time when I discipline or tell her no, one of my children pouts and eventually cries that she wants her mommy XXXX.  Does she want her and miss her?  Sure, but really what she’s doing is associating the fact that her mommy wouldn’t discipline her or would give her whatever she wanted.  Why is that?  Because for the length of this case that is what happens on visits.  So, when she asks for that second bag of chips and I tell her no, that she can have a healthy snack instead, she bursts into tears because mommy XXXX would let her.  If she has to sit in time out for hitting her brother she wants her mommy because she wouldn’t make her sit in time out.  I work through this with her, but its not fair to mie that I’m the evil step-mom because I’m teaching her boundaries and worse yet its not fair for her to be overly tormented by reasonable boundaries. 
·         Foster parents are responsible for providing things to their foster children, especially clothes, food, etc.  When you have a birth parent who showers gifts on their kids it makes it very difficult for the foster parent to know what needs purchased and what doesn’t.  It also makes it difficult come birthdays and holidays for other foster children or forever children in the home.   With our last Christmas we went out and purchased gifts for all of our kids.  We purchased the same number of gifts for each child (one from mom, one from dad, one from each of the other siblings, etc.).  This is a well-groomed system in our home.  The visit before Christmas (after we purchased all our gifts to the tune of approx. $800), the foster kiddos came back with 2 LARGE bags of stuff from their mom and extended family.  Do I begrudge them this?  No, certainly I want them to purchase gifts for their children, but now what were we to do with our own kiddos?  They didn’t get any extra gifts though their lives are constantly turned upside down to be good siblings to new kids.  So should I take our gifts back?  No, that’s not right because on Christmas morning then the fosters are singled out with less gifts and that’s not cool.  To make matters worse Summer was a foster child when the gift lists went out and so she too got a slew of gifts from the state even though she had been adopted by that point – the only person who didn’t was our bio son.  Clothes are similar – they sometimes come with clothes but when its time to buy new ones we do our best to get them quality clothes that fit them.  It never fails that we go out and buy their new season wardrobes and two weeks later the birth family sends a new set (it does fail – it doesn’t happen that often but does happen).  Now what do we do?  We’ve already cut the tags off our new clothes so now we have a ton of clothes that we don’t need.  Which brings me to the next point.
·         Managing the children’s things versus things from the home can be a nightmare.  Take the clothing example – where do you put an extra set of clothes that you don’t need when you already have 4 kids and extra clothes for other kids you don’t have?  How do you make sure that you keep the stuff they came with separated so that they leave with what they came with.  I know some foster parents send everything home with the kids – but we don’t do that.  We do send some things we buy home with them, but there are other things we have like baby gear (blankets, bottles, etc.) that we keep when they leave.  I have a playroom stuffed with toys – how can I remember which toys came with the fosters, which they got while they were here from the birth parents, and which we bought that might stay.  It really is complicated.  I don’t ever want to be accused of keeping things that rightfully belong to the kids but honestly it’s happened just because there is no way I can fully keep track of who belongs with what all of the time.  Our recent birth mom writes the kids name on their stuff with black marker.  This is fine, but sometimes we don’t use their given last name for their protection.  At church we use ours so there is no doubt those kids should come home with us and not someone else who may claim to be the parent– so now there is black marker with a name that the nursery staff doesn’t recognize on their stuff – how likely is it that we’ll lose it.  I assure you no matter how much we try we will lose something and I hate to do that after the birth family went out of their way to buy them something.
·         Often times things the birth family give are not appropriate and it causes a dilemma.  In our home we don’t watch spongebob – I can’t tell you how many things kids have brought home with his mug.  What do you do?  Do you take it away and say its not welcome in our home?  Do you let them play with it?  How do you explain that lack of consistency?  Food is often another problem.  I had an 18 month old come home with a bag of funions.  We don’t feed 18 month olds chips – so what do you do?  On holidays like Easter they’ll send bags and bags of candy, cookies, etc.  I don’t let kids eat that much junk food, maybe a little here and there, so do you let them or not?  These are all things we have to face.  The clothes are often inappropriate – when #7 came all of his clothes said something like “Here comes trouble” or “I’m looking for a time-out”.  Well that poor kid was my RADish one and he didn’t need anything preceeding him to label him a troublemaker.  What do you do?  Hide them, let them wear them?  Complicated.  The Christmas toys I mentioned earlier – most of the toys in that bag were things found at the bargain store.  Nothing wrong with that per se but in this case they broke within minutes or in some cases were hazardous.  Then I was left taking away a toy the parents gave them or throwing it away – both for their own good, but clearly then I’m the bad guy for doing something a GOOD parent would do.

Bottom line – when the birth families shower the kids with gifts its not wrong, per se, but it causes a lot of challenges they probably aren’t aware of and in the end are probably not the best for the kids.  If you look at the supporting reasons, they are mostly centered on meeting the parents needs, not the kids.  If you look at the opposing reasons, they are mostly focused on the needs of the foster parent, still not the kids.  Personally I think the thing that bothers me most about excessive gift giving by the birth family is that as a parent it infuriates mie to see them spend money they often shouldn’t be spending on stuff when what their kid really needs is for them to show them love by getting their act together and being a good parent.  We see parents who can’t afford to keep their lights on or who live in rodent infested apartments find a way to spend $50-$100 per week on junk for their kids when they could be spending that to find a better place to live or pay their bills more consistently.  We see parents who throw a party for their kids each visit and then go off the rest of the week and get high.  We see kids who were beaten, bruised, and told they are worthless receive nothing but gifts during visits and it makes us mad.  All the kids want and need is to have their birth parents love them enough to provide a safe, nurturing environment for their children.  That’s it.  We provide that for them but we’ll never be good enough – their kids want that from their birth family. 

So, what do I do?  Here’s my advice –
  • Relax standards a little bit – you may not let them watch spongebob but maybe sleeping in their favorite SB pajamas once in a while won’t hurt.  Maybe you don’t let them have junk food but finishing that sucker they came home with won’t kill them.  Pick your battles wisely and remember, for the kids sake, that these objects may not be great but it IS a symbol of their parents love, pure or not.
  • If kids come with a ton of stuff (toys), allow them to pick one or two things to play with at a time and keep the rest in a separate area where they can switch out toys as needed.
  • Set standards for the birth family – if they are always bringing junk food explain to them, away from the child, that in your home you eat healthy food and anything unhealthy will be thrown away.  Make suggestions on healthy things the kids can have that would be a better choice they could provide (Your son LOVES string cheese – maybe you can pick up that for him next time?).  Tell them if the child has a need – if they need PJS, tell them they need warm weather PJs in size 2 and that they love Thomas the Tank.  Tell them they need new socks.  Tell them its your job to provide them and you will but if they want to send something to let you know.  Also warn them that though you’ll do your best to return anything sent home with them when the kids go home, you can’t guarantee that it will all make it through the time the child stays in your home.  Explain that if there is something with special value they should keep it with them for visits only.
  • If, as in the blog reader’s question, you’re dealing with a foster-to-adopt or straight adoption situation, don’t be afraid to set even higher standards.  Our daughter’s birth parents have asked for our address several times so they can send gifts (yet they haven’t made it to their visits).  I explained to them that our agreement is that we have contact during certain months, which happen to be visit months.  I explain that she has everything she needs right now and the most important thing they can do is save their money so they can come see her – if they have gifts then they can bring them to her themselves.  If you have extended family or birth parents, post adoption (I wouldn’t risk it before adoption is final or at least rights are terminated), who insist on showering them with too much stuff, explain to them that you are now the legal parent and you feel they are spending too much on them.  Set a limit that is more reasonable for you and explain that if they want to do more than that they can put the money in a college fund, CD, etc. in the child’s name so they can use it later. 
  • Don’t hesitate to involve the caseworker, CASA, or ad-litem if need be. 

Gifts in foster care can be a tricky thing to navigate but if you try to remember that most parents are TRYING to show love to their kids in a way they know how and then try working with the parents as needed, it is something that is possible to navigate successfully – as successfully as anything can be done in foster care I suppose!


Mitzy said...

Great topic, I appreciate your thoughts and agree with most of them.

We are experiencing the opposite dilemma. Our little guy's bio parents don't give him anything, which is fine he is a baby and doesn't know the difference. However I feel that it is important that he have something from them, for example a stuffed animal, a toy or a blanket because I'm not sure if he will ever live with them again and I think it would be nice for him to feel he had something from his bio parents.

He also has siblings, and when we gave each of them a small Christmas present from Primo, their bio parents took the gifts home with them. They do not allow their children to keep any gift, no matter how small at their foster homes. Even the gifts the bio parents themselves gave Primo's older siblings (there was nothing for him) for Christmas were then taken home by his bio parents.

I'm sure there is a happy medium when it comes to gifts and presents, and I hope to find it/see it some day.

Mie said...

Mitzy - I completely agree with you on that. I think it's important for them to have something from their birth family, some history. It's hard to balance all of that when you don't know where they are going in the end.

I just went through all #9's schoolwork today. I am giving most of it to bm so she can have some stuff (and so I don't have to throw it away). I hope she keeps some of it. I kept all of the things that were handprint-ish or pictures of her so that I can have them for her when her case is done. If she goes home I may keep one or two for memories and give the rest so she can have them as she gets older. If she stays with us, I'll have those treasured keepsakes. If she's adopted elsewhere, I can send them along.

It's the same kind of discussion with gifts. You want them to have something to keep but you don't know where they will end up in the end.