Now that I've had quite a number of foster children at our home, there's one big thing I've noticed about a high proportion of them. They often have a very keen set of eyes and ears, and are very attuned to an adult's tone of voice, demeanour and mood. They have advanced minds, in certain things.
They sometimes have a sophisticated insight into adults. We adults like to think we are one step ahead of children. We usually are with our own kids. But looked-after children are often on a different level than other children.
At training we learned that many looked-after children had to develop these skills from an early age, as young as just a few weeks old.
They had to start thinking about what sort of behaviour would get what they needed and what would help them avoid things they didn't need. This is in a chaotic home shared with parents or other adults who might be struggling to keep on an even keel. These adults might be devious, selfish, unpredictable, unkind, even dangerous. In vulnerable children the part of the brain where individuals create strategies was wired up at a much earlier age than most children.
Survivalism honed their abilities to notice things in people and situations. Unfortunately they often have an average mental game for what to with their perceptions.
One child we had stay with us early in my fostering days noticed something on day two at our house; that I kept sharp knives in a cabinet high above the sink. He asked about it. I felt foolish, because I could tell he knew I didn't want knives to be available. The boy had no problem with knives, no violent record, he was good as gold. I'd started putting the knives out of reach before we had our first foster child arrive. When I mentioned it Blue Sky advised me it wasn't necessary, they'd tell me in advance if it was ever advisable. They never have.
The knives went back in the kitchen drawer. But I realised the child was taking everything in, trying to work out where he stood with us at every given moment, in everything we said and did.
Foster children notice things, perceive things. They are especially vigilant on one's tone of voice and facial expressions. Mind, they don't always come to the right conclusion.
At one training session the Blue Sky psychotherapist told us about a foster carer who looked out of the window one morning and realised it was wheelie bin day and the truck was almost at her front gate. She ran out in the rain and hauled the bin up the path, and came back panting and cross with herself for forgetting. Whereupon her foster child became upset. The child was frightened because he perceived her mental state but associated it with danger for himself. He got a picture of her emotions, but wrongly thought it meant trouble for him.
One child we had will make a fantastic lawyer if he gets an education, so agile was he about our house rules and how they are observed. He could turn everything into a clever argument. Bedtime, for example. He was only seven, but he ran rings around us on the question of whether bedtime at 8.00pm meant going upstairs at 8.00pm and getting pyjamas on, then cleaning teeth followed by a glass of milk then me reading him a chapter of Winnie The Pooh before lights out at about half past eight, in which case bedtime wasn't 8.00pm it was about 8.30pm, OR if bedtime was actually 8.00pm didn't that mean going upstairs at roughly half past seven and going through the pre-lights out jobs so that it was lights out at 8.00pm on the dot. He could have resolved the age-old riddle of how many angels can dance on a pinhead, but he couldn't hardly read or add up.
Another child was brilliant at feigning she didn't understand or didn't remember any arrangements that didn't suit her. Her catchphrase was "I'm confused" which roughly translated meant "Change the deal again, so it suits me better or else I won't keep my half of the bargain because like I said, I don't understand".
We often hear on the media of people complaining that children don't have a proper childhood anymore, sometimes I think that's true and sad.
Most children are desperate to grow up. Ask a child how old she is the day after her ninth birthday and she'll say "I'm nearly ten!" It's our job as parents to try to give them a childhood even if they want to be grown up.
It can be painful how little of a childhood our foster children have had. They've gone straight from being able to walk to being world-weary enough to refuse to vote. They are aged seven going on thirty seven. No in-between. No wide-eyed wonder at Santa or mud-pies in the rain. No skipping until after dark. No tooth fairy. No bedtime story reading, no nursery rhymes.
Once innocence is lost I guess it's gone for good. But we can give them glimpses of how it should be, so that even if the scales don't fall from their own eyes they'll be better parents to their own children.
We had a parent and child placement, the parent was 19 years old, I had to teach her nursery rhymes to sing to her baby, she had never heard a nursery rhyme in her whole life.
Never put on a Sooty Show for mummy and daddy. Never played french cricket in the garden. Never cried when the budgie died, never looked forward to meeting the budgie again in heaven.
She lived in a town 5 minutes from the sea, but she'd never paddled in the surf. We took her to the beach with her baby and ended up treating her like a happy infant, all sand-in-the-toes and candy floss. You could see in her eyes that child-like contentment maybe for the first time.
She felt a bit of the relaxation of knowing that there is a big grown-up or two who want them to feel at peace and are protecting them from the world's burdens for all the years that they are children.
This is why fostering is the biggest and the best job in the world.