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6.11.04 All they need is "love"

Yesterday's entry was on the movie "Midnight Cowboy." That story shows that "love" comes in strange packages and that even the biggest losers are capable of genuine feeling.

It's pretty clear that the most incompetent parents -- the ones who neglect their kids and slap them around and swing from ignoring them to punishing them -- are still filled with a sort of raging love for their children. And their abused children fiercely love them back.

When good-hearted people consider fostering or adopting a troubled kid, they often make the mistake of saying, "All this kid needs is love." Social service providers see that statement as part of a rescue fantasy. The annals of failed older-child adoptions are filled with disillusioned adults who thought all a kid needed was their "love" but quickly became overwhelmed by the force of the child's manipulative and desperate personality.

So, when Maria and I started gathering material for our foster parent recruitment video, we were warned not to say "all these kids need is love."

And yet... the five long-term successful foster parents we interviewed each said, in so many words, "all these kids need is love." What's up with that? Are they just spouting clichés for the video camera?

My conclusion: successful foster parents have a very specific definition of love.

They don't mean grandmotherly warm-heartedness or doting "boys will be boys" or any kind of "let's be pals" malarky. For them, "unconditional love" as a parent means structure and clear expectations. They listen, they teach, they try to understand the child's strengths and needs, they don't let the small stuff get to them, and they set boundaries. They are organized, have schedules, follow daily routines.

Of course they are also warm-hearted, genuinely like children, and know the value of a good sense of humor. They aren't drill sergeants. They simply know the power of a predictable environment over time.

They have an advantage over regular parents because they aren't so biologically and psychically entangled with the children. They have a team of service providers available for 24-hour advice and back-up. And they know they can call it quits with a child who does not respond to their style of parenting.

Still, ya gotta hand it to them -- they've figured out a great working definition of "love."





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