Saturday, May 24, 2014


The two of us have been sitting up in bed talking. Talking about all sorts, mostly nothingy things such as whether the lawn mower has had it, what with Homebase doing 15% off this week. Normal married talk, but in our case we spend more time talking about the foster children than anything else.

I say "children" rather than "child" because although we have only one at this precise moment in time, all the children who have stayed with us are our foster children and always will be.

It's like that tear-jerking moment at the very end of Goodbye Mr Chips where the old Mr Chips is fading away in his bed and he hears two teachers talking about him. One says "He never had any children" and Mr Chips whispers with a smile in his rheumy eyes "You're quite wrong you know, I've had thousands of children. All boys..."

I didn't like the Martin Clunes version or the Peter O'Toole one, because I saw the original when I was quite little, and it had such an impact on me sentimentally, I now realise.

Helping children get going in life is a fantastic thing to do.

This morning we woke quite early and it's a good time to prop up in bed with a cup of tea and have a hushed conversation. You can't really put your heads together in the evening because foster children are superb at eavesdropping and you're usually too tired to get the brain in gear.

This morning I couldn't wait to tell Bill about the latest research in repeated punishable behaviour. 

I can't believe I wrote that last sentence. It doesn't sound like it came from me, but the research is fascinating. And for me, like all human beings, there are few more satisfying things than telling someone else something you know and they don't.

I had phoned Blue Sky the day before when the house was quiet to ask our social worker about a new thing that the child had started doing. A new game the child had invented and wanted to play every evening in which the child pretended to be himself, but not himself, and we had to be "mummy and daddy" (he doesn't call us "mummy" and "daddy" in real life), and he would test our patience. He would "pretend" to misbehave. All the while he is in control of everything, directing us how to respond. Except where the game gets to the point where in a normal situation the parents would say; "Stop being rude/disobedient/messy/swinging on the door etc" In the game, we have to be tolerant and understanding. And occasionally, just occasionally, gently tell him off.

I wanted to know whether we should allow the game to happen as the child wanted it or whether the child really wanted us to intervene and behave like normal parents would if a child misbehaved, namely to say "stop misbehaving" every time.

I got some advice. The social worker told me the exact same thing was happening with another Blue Sky placement. The advice was fascinating to say the least, so much so that I Googled and found myself engrossed in an American research paper on why people are drawn to repeating behaviour that's going to get them into trouble. 

See, it turns out we ALL do it. Even animals!

They had done experiments with mice.

I know, I know...poor mice but hey ho.

They trained some mice to know that if they went into one of the little hutches in their cages they would be "punished". Then they put some new little hutches in the cages, which the mice learned they could go into and not be "punished". Result: the mice repeatedly returned to the hutch where they were "punished". They preferred it.

Why? The experts said that living things prefer the expected to the unexpected, even if the expected is not as pleasant as the unexpected. Not only that, here's the bit that's hard to get your head around: living things develop a way of finding negative relationships rewarding. The psychologists don't know whether it's a defence thing, or a habit thing, but they call it something like "the positive outcomes of negative experiences".

They go on to cite the fact that women who were physically assaulted as children are more likely to experience violence against them as adults. Some men who were physically assaulted as children end up in prison because they act violently towards others for no apparent reason, and when deprived of the opportunity to beat someone up, beat themselves up.

The big thing I wanted to tell Bill is that yesterday morning, getting ready for school, the child had started all the usual things to delay getting ready. Refusing to put on school shoes, refusing to go clean teeth, all the while being grumpy and a bit rude. Up until yesterday I'd had no luck using my calm but firm voice and saying; "Stop messing about, don't talk to me like that, do as you're told!" What had always happened when I did was that he'd throw a mini-tantrum, so I reverted to just banging away being nice, repeating the requests, ignoring the catty remarks.

Yesterday I sensed something was afoot, what with this misbehaviour game. So I suddenly put on my stern face (not particularly scary; on a scale of one to ten it's about a four), and said in a quiet but firm sergeant major tone "Cut! It! Out!"

Yep. Out it was cut. A brief stare at the floor was followed by completely good behaviour. First time ever with this one; no backchat, no tongue poke. Not even a grumpy face.

Jobs done, we're in the car pulling off the drive for school run and I risked a quick quiet "Well done back there" To which I just about heard a whispered "Shut up".

One of the things we find rewarding about fostering is the little baby steps of progress they make all the while they're with you. They want their lives to improve like we all do.

What was the Blue Sky advice on how to deal with the game? 

"Carry on doing what you're doing, sounds like you're doing a great job"

I guess the "positive outcomes of positive experiences" hasn't got a research paper going on it, as it's a case of the flipping obvious.

But if they do ever want to research it, they won't need mice, just a roomful of foster carers.


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