Food and the Foster Child

by | 27 Apr, 2018 | 1 comment

It was corn. A single kernel of corn.

“I won’t eat it! And you can’t make me!” the little boy screamed.

“Just a bite, buddy…whaddaya say?”

“I’M NEVER GONNA EAT IT! NEVER!”

Yikes!

I had never really dealt with an outburst like this before. Food is an issue for many families. I suspect that for many foster families, food is a major issue.

An Introduction to the Issue

One of the difficult aspects of parenting a system kid is that they look just like any other kid.

It’s not as if they carry a neon sign, “Trauma! Trauma!” It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand the level of trauma merely being removed from their home may have induced, much less the neglect and abuse that often accompany a kid from the system.

Not having lived it, I know I can never understand.

Lawrence arrived, age 5, the picture of the foster child, showing up on our doorstep in the middle of the night clinging to the caseworkers leg, clutching a dirty stuffed animal and a single Walmart bag with a toothbrush and a change of underwear. He looked like a typical boy, head full of blonde hair, fair skin. His appearance belied a deeper trauma, inevitably betrayed by his behavior.

The honeymoon period lasted for a few weeks but dinner first exposed the breach.

He absolutely and resolutely refused to eat anything even remotely healthy. Meals devolved into a diabolical battle of the wills. Corn brought it to a head. Corn.

“I’m not gonna eat and you can’t make me!” became his stance.

A Clash of Culture

Culture presents a distinct challenge in fostering.

They train you in the classes to respect cultural differences and to be ready for them. Be sensitive to them. Food provides great insight into a family’s culture. You can tell a lot about a family by what they eat.

I know that all kids would rather consume garbage. I’ve met very few, if any, who would willingly consume vegetables or salad. When fostering, you really have no idea of the biological family’s eating habits and how they might compare with your own.

We’ve seen this. We’ve lived this.

Take my 14-year-old son. Unless it comes from a fast food joint or a gas station, he’d just assume not eat it. 

Lawrence was just as picky and I don’t mean picky like, “I don’t like onions” or “I don’t like meatloaf”. I mean picky as in “I like bacon and I like eggs but I won’t eat my eggs if they are cooked in the same skillet as the bacon” picky. A new level of pickiness.

Does it stem from culture? Perhaps.

Perhaps there’s more.

Equality

I’ve noticed that many foster kids share eerily similar traits.

Many possess a tendency to not see past the next 5 minutes of their life, in any regard. Their minds seem to warp the very fabric of the space-time continuum. This is an actual conversation with my oldest son:

    Dad, can I go to the gym and shoot hoops?

    Son, we have to be at church in 20 minutes and the gym is 15 minutes away…

    Okay…so can I go?

They all seem to possess a distinct sense of justice or rather, injustice.

Any kid(s) will always be on the lookout for any situation whereby they might receive less of something than a sibling. This is amplified in the mind of the foster kid. My sons will go to extraordinary lengths to verify that one of the others is not receiving something more than them. Food provides an opportunity for a potential disparity.

As such, they maintain a constant vigil over allotments.

When confronted with a situation to select a portion, my sons will always, without hesitation, choose the largest possible, unless it’s something they truly don’t like. They will even select the largest of something even if they do not even know what it is.

    I want some! I want that piece!!!

    Do you even know what it is?

    Well…no, but I want it!

The thought that a brother or sister would receive more, or even worse, something that they did not receive, is excruciating to them. It induces agony. My 14-year-old, on the cusp of self-awareness, will smile guiltily when I notice him angling for the largest portion. If I remark about it, he’ll steadfastly deny it. Then he’ll do it anyway. He literally cannot help it!

Control

At some point it’s about control.

The foster child lives in a continual state of uncertainty and flux with very little/absolutely no control over their future. They did not choose to be born into an afflicted family, to be removed from what they know. Whether you or I would judge their family life as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is irrelevant at some point.

No matter the conditions, it’s what they know and is therefore good.

Then, without warning, they are ripped from their lives and thrust into the lives of another. Despite the assurances, they must wonder what is happening, if they’ll see their parents again. The case workers do the best they can, but many are overworked, handling multiple cases and at some point, placement supersedes suitability.

Just get the kid placed.

Adding even a newborn biological child to any family can completely upset the fraternal order, the group dynamics. Envision adding a child with an already developed sense of self and culture and righteousness, a child used to things a certain way. At some point, a clash occurs.

Food provides a platform for just such a clash. They have lost control of everything…but what they eat.

Priorities

I can tell, at any point, what my sons are thinking about. Perhaps this is normal to all sons, but for mine, from the system, they are always thinking about food.

Always.

    “When is lunch/dinner/breakfast tomorrow?”

    Even more importantly, “What’s for lunch/dinner/breakfast tomorrow?”

One of my sons will visibly squirm, I mean visibly writhe, at the uncertainty of an imminent meal. “I don’t know,” is not a satisfactory answer. They must know and they must know now and can they have pizza or cereal or chips or whatever.

As an example of this, during church, they sit in a constant awareness of the potential to go out to eat after church, an exquisite torture in the uncertainty. Immediately following the service, I am bombarded by queries and maybe some not-so-subtle manipulation to try and shape events to not just go out, but go to a desired location.

    “Hey Dad, the so-and-so family is going to the China King Buffet and want us to go!”

    “We haven’t been to Taco Bell in awhile,” one will casually remark.

    “Kids eat free at Dickie’s Barbecue,” another will inform me.

Again, as I see this from my biological children, I know it is not unique to my sons. It’s just amplified, taking on a heightened sense of urgency.

Perspective

We got through it.

I don’t remember exactly how or what we did. There’s no magic answer, no trick. We just got through it and so did Lawrence. His mother got clean, got a job, got well and after about six months, Lawrence went home.

His mother remains a family friend to this day.

Lawrence and his mother represent what is right with the system, how it’s supposed to work. For all of its flaws and absent the engagement of the Church, the system is what we have.

I have a few vivid memories of Lawrence’s time with us but most all, seared upon my conscience, is the image of a little boy pouring out his rage at a single kernel of corn. For him, that kernel of corn must’ve represented all that was wrong, things that he could never fathom, things he will never fathom. He unknowingly raged against injustice and the tyranny of affliction all while nursing a gaping wound to his soul.

I don’t recall if he ever ate the corn.

 

1 Comment

  1. E Thacker

    This was a great story. Told with pride and love for all his children. I admire his patience.

    Reply

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Bradford Smith

Bradford Smith

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Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).

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