How Do I Get the Good Kids? Receiving My Perfectly Imperfect Foster Care Gift

How Do I Get the Good Kids










I have been asked this question many times over the years in my work as a foster parent trainer and child welfare advocate.

“How do I get the good kids?”

If you have ever considered becoming a foster/adoptive parent, this thought has probably formed in your mind in one way or another.

Sometimes the question is asked like this…

“What if I get the kids with LOTS of emotional issues? Or worse, behavioral issues?”

In my own process of becoming a foster parent, I was not exempt from such fears. Then, I found my fears becoming a reality after taking a five-year-old boy into my home.

The first gift I ever received from this foster son was a picture of a man punching a woman in her face.

On Mother’s Day in 2008, he proudly handed me this prize, rolled like a scroll and wrapped with a delicate pink ribbon. He had drawn this for me as part of a Kindergarten class assignment to make a nice gift showing his mother how he felt about her. He presented it to me with a smile.

I couldn’t wait to see what my little boy thought of me as I eagerly untied that tiny slip of ribbon.

And there it was.

A punch in my gut.

Or more literally, the idea being lovingly presented to me that my son was fantasizing about punching me in the face.

Tears immediately sprang to me eyes. Questions raced through my brain. Surely, I was misunderstanding what I was looking at. I asked him to explain. With that same ironic smile on his lips, he confirmed what I thought. “See this guy,” he pointed at the angry looking man. “He is punching her.” His finger moved to the injured woman, whose head was falling backwards.

I waited for more, but that was all he said.

Why would he make me this? I asked myself. Didn’t he think better of me than this? Didn’t he care about me? Didn’t the months I had poured my heart and soul into getting him to warm up to me mean anything?

It wasn’t the first time I had seen gruesome themes depicted in his art. I had become accustomed to being the mom of the kid whose artwork scared the others kids and school (and even the teacher). I had humbly swallowed down my humiliation that day at Kindergarten open house that my son pinned up a picture of a boy with shark teeth and an anger V drawn on his forehead. Because I’m not perfect, I stared enviously at the other parents whose children splayed bright colorful rainbows and happy family themes across their papers. I wished I could feel as carefree as those parents with their miniscule Kindergarten concerns and their psychologically healthy children.

Instead of stay stuck in these feelings though, I took action. I put my son in art therapy. I stayed the course despite warnings about what such violent thoughts/fantasies could indicate about this young stranger who was sleeping in my home every night. I was proud of the fact that I wasn’t one of “those foster parents” who let fear motivate me to disrupt a placement. I even let him hang these pictures on my fridge.

We were making it work.

But really? I thought as I placed his morbid gift on the table beside me. On Mother’s Day?

This is all I got for all the love I had poured into him for the past year? This is what he thought of me despite the many nights I spent rocking him and speaking love into his heart?

I stared at him in betrayal before retreating to my room to cry. For the first time, I truly wasn’t sure that I could keep showing up for this day after day. As I stewed in my room, I thought of how shocked he had looked that I wasn’t pleased with his gift. And the anger just burned hotter.

What was wrong with him? What was wrong with me as a mother that I couldn’t motivate him to be kinder than this? Why couldn’t I break through to this troubled little man boy, who refused to talk to me about how he had become this way?

Why did he hate me so?

My desperate plea was answered by a soft knock on my bedroom door. I opened impatiently and looked down to see his fuzzy brown head and soft chubby cheeks staring up at me.

My heart refused to yield to his cuteness. I figured my husband had made him come apologize, and I was just so tired of feeling like I was not getting anywhere in my relationship with the boy standing before me.

How could a little person, so tiny and sweet, carry such mean thoughts inside of him? I wondered.

So I (a social worker who understands the dynamics of trauma, a victim of child trauma myself, and a parent who usually keeps myself together) behaved like a mere human. I forgot to remember the number one rule of parenting a child in foster care. I forgot to remember that “it’s not all about me.”

“Why?” I confronted him before he even had a chance to speak. I made my way to the table, picked up his gift and flashed it accusingly in front of his face.

“This is how you think of me!” I exclaimed. “Is this what you want to do to me?”


Shock spread across his face. The hint of attitude he usually carried along his jawline disappeared.

He looked hurt.

“What?” he asked, confused.

I repeated my question.

“No,” he answered, like I was ridiculous.

Now I could see he was the one who was offended.

“Then why?” I demanded, still clueless. He refused to answer, remaining steadfast in his commitment to keep people out of his heart. Drawing pictures was one thing–sharing feelings was another.

I was asking too much.

But I did not relent. I continued to stare him down in expectation of an explanation. Finally, he yielded and began to speak.

“You always tell me that I can talk to you about stuff…”

“Yeah,” I replied impatiently.

His little tennis shoe scuffed the ground as he struggled for emotional words that he wasn’t used to speaking.

“Well, that’s what I was trying to do. This,” he pointed at the man in the picture. “This is my other dad hitting my other mom.” His eyes dropped painfully to the floor at the memory. “I wanted to tell you about it, but I,” he nervously chewed the inside of his cheek. “But I just couldn’t. So I drew it for you. To let you know that I wanted to talk to you about it.”

For the first time since he handed me his prize, I received an actual punch in the gut. The blow was delivered by a little friend called GUILT.

My son had just handed me the greatest gift he had to give–the thing I had waited the past 425ish days for. He had proudly presented to me the gift of his TRUST, carefully wrapped up in a lovely pink ribbon.

It wasn’t delivered as I expected it to be. It snuck in on the coattail of a child’s only coping mechanism–art.

But there it was.

Raw. Honest. Beautiful.

As beautiful as the soul of this young man who I had been chosen to mother.

As perfect as the young man who reminded me, on this day, that they are ALL “good” kids.

Sometimes, we just have to look beyond the obvious to see it. Sometimes, we have to pull back the curtain of a heart guarded by scary behavior or words or artwork. We have to identify the goodness inside and show it to them, until they can see it and trust enough to show it to the world.

Sometimes, without even intending to, they remind us of our own need to push away the defense mechanisms guarding our heart.

My son did just that on Mother’s Day in 2008, when he handed me his imperfectly perfect gift…



*Disclaimer: This story is posted with the permission of my teenage son, who is discovering his own desire to use his past to help others. The picture is the most recent heart gift I was given by this amazing young man that I call my son.

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Liz Hunter

Liz is a Social Worker, Foster Alum, Adoptee, Foster & Adoptive Parent, Writer, & Public Speaker. She is currently in the process of publishing a memoir, chronicling her 15 year journey to adoption and the 7 years she spent in the American foster care system. Her degree specializations are Psychology, Sociology, Social Work, & Criminal Justice. She founded Foster Noise/Adopt Peace in hopes of creating a forum to elevate the voices of the real life heroes and survivors of the foster care system.

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