From the Outside Looking In

I’m a people pleaser. This is something about myself that I’ve acknowledged and been working against, because some time ago, I came to the all important realization that I can never please everyone. At some point, I have to be true to myself and my family.

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Back from the family vacay, I now possess new wisdom from hard lessons learned, the most important of which is this: when you’re on the outside looking in, you never have the full picture, so don’t judge.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from my first trip traveling with kids. Kids are kids and make mistakes, sure, but traumatized kids are rarely predictable. For me, what started out as an easy, argument and bickering-free road trip, slowly morphed into something I never expected: the vacation in Judgement Town.

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My foster kids are smart. When I say “smart” I mean really high IQs combined with an extra mature measure of street savvy due to having to learn how to survive from a very young age. So what looked like gross overreactions from me to what seemed like “typical” preteen behavior from my daughter, was actually my escalation after several days of being treated disrespectfully, being disobeyed in even the simplest of tasks, and then being judged by the rest of my family for it and told how to parent.

What everyone else saw: I was being too hard on my daughter. She was perfectly charming to everyone else, so she therefore was being mistreated. My son, on the other hand, was the one I should be paying more attention to, because he “plays” us and stretches the truth a lot.

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What I saw: My daughter being fully aware of how horrible she was treating me and how she deliberately was making me look bad, while being perfectly behaved and respectful to the rest of my family. What she didn’t care to share with those she charmed is that she admitted it all. My son was being exceptionally well-behaved, at least during the first week of the trip. My husband and I knew he was trying to get his way by going to one of us first and then going to the other. It didn’t work well for him very often. We were aware that he tends to stretch the truth, but these were petty lies and easily corrected. He was doing really well, so we let him be a kid and let him have his way some of the time. We were on vacation, after all, and wanted him to have fun.

What I knew through it all: My daughter looks and acts like the “good” child. She seems like she’s perfectly put together and well-adjusted. She learned how to do this before I ever knew her, because that’s how she survived in the midst of abuse. During that time, she also learned how to manipulate people into getting what she wanted and/or needed and learned that people who don’t know her well trust her easily when she’s charming. She’s a skilled liar, and until recently when she let down her guard and we saw through the facade, she’s gotten away with it without consequence. My son, on the other hand, looks like the “bad” child. He whines and acts much younger than his age when he doesn’t get his way, he’ll lie about little things even when we all know he’s lying and he rarely owns his actions. He used to have huge meltdowns and at one point a few months ago tried to pull a dresser onto himself. Dresser dismantled and removed, we held firm and maintained the structure, which he eventually admitted he liked, and the meltdowns eventually subsided. Regressions in his behavior today do not even compare to how he acted when he first moved in. He’s practically a different child now.

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Toward the end of the school year, my daughter got herself into some nasty trouble at school. She came clean, and since then, has been really difficult to relate with. Every time I think she wants to get close, she uses that to hurt me. We’ve talked time and time again about how it’s not okay to hurt others just because she is hurting. She asks “why?” and “who am I supposed to take it out on then, if not you?” every. single. time. we have this discussion. Every time I give her more constructive ways of dealing with her emotions, such as journaling, drawing, tearing up paper, etc. Every time she asks for goals, and I give her some manageable ones, like “think before you act” and still, I’ve made very little progress. What I’m learning, however, is subconsciously, she wants and needs to be held accountable for her actions. She needs to know that no matter what she does or how much she hurts us, we’re not going anywhere. That doesn’t mean, however, that we will allow her to get away with destructive and disrespectful behavior. 

I will admit there was one point during the trip that I had absolutely had enough and ended up flipping off a family member from the shore as she sailed away in my brother’s shiny speedboat (trust me, she deserved it, but that doesn’t excuse my actions). I’m not sure if she saw me, but my husband did, and he wasn’t impressed. Before that moment, I had tried to sit down and have an adult conversation with that family member, and she blew me off, blamed me for all of it, and said that I “was the situation.” This, coming from a woman who didn’t exactly win the award for best-parenting-practices and who is absolutely not trauma-informed, and has absolutely no idea what it is like trying to build a relationship with kids with such a rough past. Other family members tried to school me on my reactions toward my daughter as well, saying that I shouldn’t make a big thing out of it, but those same family members also parented their own kids with the same overreactions and strictness that I did, over things that I perceived as “typical” kid behavior. Unfortunately for me, I can be loud when the rest of my family is quiet. I am a trained opera singer; sometimes I can’t help it.

It all goes to show that when you’re an outsider looking in, don’t be so quick to judge. I don’t have the full picture of my brothers’ journeys with their kids, and they really don’t have the full picture of my journey with my kids. At the end of the day, as parents, we need to provide the structure and discipline that only we, as their parents, know they need and know they respond to. We have to listen to our “gut” when it comes to handling inappropriate behaviors from our kids, and sometimes, we need to tune out the “noise” created by the advice of others who don’t know better, like advice from parents who gave their fifth graders smart phones, for instance. We told our kids that their high school graduation present will be a smart phone if and only if they get accepted to college and plan to attend. Before that, they get the “dumb” phones. This is our choice because I honestly can’t imagine surviving middle school and parts of high school with the presence of social media, and then having access to it at my fingertips. That’s something my kids simply don’t need. They’ll hate us for it in the meantime, and other parents will attack our decision because they’re insecure with their own decision to let their 12-year-olds have smartphones and Facebook accounts, and we’ll ignore that noise too when it happens.

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The other important lesson I learned: toys don’t add to one’s happiness. Sure, they’re fun and provide a certain amount of entertainment for a time, but when all those toys cost thousands of dollars every month in payments that force one to become a slave to the 40-hour work week, do they really add to overall health and happiness? Do they really bring that much joy two out of seven days? Are they worth it?

One thing living in Colorado has taught me is that the best pleasures in life are simple. The beautiful scenery is better enjoyed with a light backpack and a good pair of hiking boots than in a fancy off-roading vehicle you only drive once a year because it was so expensive you don’t want to scratch it. Driving in a car you own — even if it is old and beat up — to meet friends for lunch is always better than driving a car you make payments on just to impress the stranger at the stoplight. Your true friends don’t care about the car you drive, or the size of your house, or your 72″ flatscreen TV, or any other “toys” you might own. They care about you. They want to spend time with you. Over the past few years, I’ve been slowly getting rid of stuff I never use. Some of it was sentimental and hard to let go of, but I felt a lot freer once I did. My house stays cleaner with less clutter everywhere as well. My cupboards and fridge are filled with the food and goods I need for two weeks, tops. It forces me to shop at the local farmers’ market more often and it also helps to prevent waste. Knowing that there are so many people in the world who have nothing, makes me absolutely despise wasting food. There’s an old saying: less is more. I would agree with a slight amendment: less but better. Just because I have a large closet doesn’t mean I have to fill it. In fact, deciding on my daily attire takes a lot less creative energy when I only have a few high quality and versatile pieces to choose from. I also am discovering that I find joy in a clean house and organized closets.

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Okay, I’m getting off my soapbox. Moral of the story: DON’T JUDGE (unless you are a licensed judge, in which case, judge on, but only in the courtroom)!!!