The Three Foster Mom Phrases I’m Rocking This Week

A major component of our struggles as a foster family come from behavior management. Due to the profound trauma many of these kids have suffered, discipline tends to look and feel a little bit different in foster families. Traditional disciplinary methods, like grounding, timeout, spanking (though you should never spank) and even removing privileges can be too emotionally intense for children in foster care to respond to positively. In the absence of those strategies, we do a lot of talking about feelings, talking about safety, breathing exercises and reinforcing positive behaviors.

Real talk though: If I’ve just been smacked in the face by a toddler or watched said child purposefully dump her oatmeal on the floor and roll in it when we were moments from walking out the door to school, it can be a real struggle to whip out one of those nice guiding phrases or have a truly fruitful conversation about the consequences of our choices. So, in the spirit of setting myself up for success, I’ve been trying to build up my repertoire of strategies just a few phrases at a time.

Here’s what I’ve been working on this week:

Are you choosing to be safe right now? The foundation of our behavior plan at home is safety: physical and emotional. Our four year old Little Man can tell you forwards and backwards what safety looks like and why it’s important. It’s the job of the adults at home to keep the children safe, and ultimately that’s why they should follow our directions (not because I told you so or because you’ll be in trouble if you don’t). For example:

The toddler is chewing on an unidentifiable object she found on the floorboard of your car, and even if it was edible at one point it certainly isn’t safe for consumption anymore. Are you choosing to be safe right now? It’s mom’s job to keep you safe, and that thing you’re chewing on will probably make you sick. 

And that brings us to our next one:

 Would you like mom to help you to be safe right now? Even for adults, it can be hard to choose safety over fun (which is why jet-skis, motorcycles and casinos exist). This phrase still gives agency to the child: They still have the power to choose to be safe, a parent is simply helping them in that process. Also, some children have come from homes or situations in which it wasn’t always easy to make a safe choice. Kids in foster care often need detailed coaching on what it feels like and how it looks to be safe. Back to the toddler:

I can tell you really want to eat that, but it will definitely make you sick. Would you like mom to help you to be safe right now? I’ll take that icky thing and find you something better to  chew on. 

I’ll let you choose. This only works if you give your kid two really great choices. Giving them the choice of handing you the contraband or you snatching it from them doesn’t count. Also, you have to be ready to live with whatever choice they make. When you offer a child a choice, disregarding it is basically the same as saying their opinion doesn’t matter and you weren’t serious about them having one in the first place. I made the mistake once of telling Little Man that if he really didn’t want to get in his car seat our only other choice would be to walk all the way to the store. You can guess what he immediately chose. I lost some credibility with him on that one.

I’ll let you choose what to chew on instead of this possibly radioactive thing you found in the car: Would you like a teething ring or apple slices? 

***

The trauma informed care gurus out there will know that these strategies are really just the tip of the ice burg, and I’m operating a pretty novice level in using them. Still, it’s a step up from because I told you so. Give one or two of these a try in your home this week. Why? Because I told you so.

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WIC Experience Review: Quail Springs Target

Full disclosure: I. Love. Target. I love it. I love their in-house product lines; I love the way the stores are clean and bright; I love their seasonal section. When I feel lonely or sad I like to go to Target and think about how all Targets everywhere are essentially the same, and there’s a world full of little havens for me to retreat to. I know this is crazy. I also know that a lot of you out there feel exactly the same.

Devastatingly, my Target love fest hit a serious slow-down when I became a foster parent. WIC (that’s Women, Infants, and Children to the uninitiated) is a federal program designed to help pregnant or breastfeeding women as well as children under the age of five who are nutritionally at risk, including children in foster care.

A few things to know:

  • WIC is meant to only provide enough benefits to feed the eligible child. A family receiving WIC benefits means that they are eligible for a specific quantity of some specific foods each month that is meant to nutritionally supplement the diet of one child under the age of five. Basically, no one is living on easy street or swimming in luxury groceries with their WIC benefits.
  • WIC benefits are extremely specific. For example, each month we are eligible of one unit of 16.3oz to 18oz peanut butter that has not been mixed with honey or any other kind of spread. We are eligible for $8 worth of fruits and vegetables each month, including fresh, frozen or canned, but not dried or pre-cut. We can get up to 32oz of cereal each month, but we have to choose from a pre-set list of cereals (bran flakes are fine, corn flakes are not). You get the idea.
  • Taking your WIC products to the check-out feels a lot like taking a test to be graded, if that test was being graded publicly in front of a lot of impatient people by an instructor who may or may not have any idea what s/he is doing.

So, at this point, you’re probably wondering why anyone would even bother with this mess. My infant foster son can only have a very specific hypoallergenic formula. One 16oz can of his formula costs close to $30. He eats more than $400 worth of formula each month, and we are very lucky that WIC pays for it. Since we use his benefits for his formula, it only makes sense for us to also use the other children’s benefits.

I took the two babies with me to Target to get groceries and browse (aka walk up and down every aisle in the entire store) to give my husband a break one Saturday. While there, we needed to pick up a few groceries, and some of them were covered under WIC. Helpfully, Target has WIC eligible items marked with a sticker that clearly indicates WIC next to the price tag on the shelves. This is especially helpful in the cereal aisle where there are hundreds of options but only the handful of least flavorful and most boring cereals will be covered. Apart from having researched our benefits forwards and backwards, the WIC stickers beside the products helped me feel confident that I was making selections that would ring up correctly at checkout.

I hop in a line with a cheerful looking cashier, and soon I’m dividing my groceries on the conveyor belt explaining that I would be using WIC in addition to my credit card. The cashier was unruffled. She rang everything up, I swiped my WIC card, and a receipt printed stating which items qualified for WIC and which would be charged against my account. The cashier and I checked it out together and everything looked perfect, but when she hit the button to finalize the transaction, all of the WIC items had been charged to my debit card in addition to being taken off of my WIC card. There was no quick fix for this at the register, so the cashier kindly passed me off to customer service

Customer service is where my experience turned sour. Using the barcode on the receipt, the customer service rep would have been able to “return” all of my purchased items with one quick scan, and then check them back out to me with another scan, enabling us to refund the first transaction and try again. When you use benefits like WIC, you begin to expect that it won’t go perfectly the first try or two or three. But that’s not the real problem. The problem happens when the professionals around you are unwilling to give it that second or third try.

The Target representative at Customer Service simply declined trying to ring up my groceries again. She implied that since it was all covered on my debit card in the first place, I really didn’t need to use WIC at all. When I pushed a little harder, she told me outright that, like many people, I must not understand my benefits, and redoing the transaction wasn’t going to change that. In the uncanny timing of children, my toddler chose this moment to begin making a scene, and I was suddenly that parent. That parent with poorly managed screaming children. That parent using government benefits in a store where most people shop with a $4 latte in their hand. Embarrassed and confused and facing down the judgmental looks of the shoppers in line behind me, I fled. Target is lovely, but it’s no longer a safe haven of mine.

Review: Originally I gave Target three stars for well-labeled products and a kind cashier. I dumped a venti latte over those stars and melted them down after leaving customer service.

Overall score: One melted puddle of Pumpkin Spice disappointment.