People generally get into foster care because they like kids. Some foster parents prefer younger foster children while others prefer teens. It can be easy to get into foster care with the intention to provide care for kids who need it and then lose sight of your original goals as your schedule fills up and you suddenly find yourself racing to appointments. Before your know it, your foster children may be going back to their birth family. Foster parents may find themselves regretting that they didn't spend more time with their foster children while they were there. As a foster parent, you need to give yourself permission to enjoy the day-to-day of what you do and forget the pragmatics sometimes.
As a foster parent, you can't miss your foster child's appointments. You need to show up on time for birth family visitations, dental appointments, and other necessary meetings. But you do need to take a time out every now and then and have fun with your foster kid. Kids are fun and fun is a necessary part of the bonding process. If you fail to have fun with your foster kids, you may very well burn out on the whole foster parenting process. Fun is the glue that really keeps people together in relationships. Figuring out how to have fun with another person, is a big part of foster parenting.
Recently, a 15-year-old boy came to live with us. His mother had tried to commit suicide and we thought that it would be a short-term placement. As he took up a more permanent place in our home after 3 months passed, we started realizing that he was spending more and more time in his room. We didn't feel like this was healthy, but it was hard to cajole him to come out. Finally, we decided to take him on “adventures” each week. He had never had a father figure and his mother had been an alcoholic, so we decided to do some “guy stuff” with him like hiking and snowshoeing and wall climbing. He was interested in Brazilian Jui Jitsu, so we took him to a few classes. Over the New Year, we took him to New Orleans. These activities not only got him out of his room, but also helped our family bond with him by creating memories and things to talk about. When I think about having fun with foster children, I think about creating “shared experiences” where everyone in the family has a place in positive, shared memories.
Having fun is really a big piece of close relationships. In close relationships, it can be easy to get to know each other so well that there seems like there's nothing left to discuss. You can settle into a routine and way of doing things that actually creates distance in the relationship. But fun can keep old relationships young. When you're trying to build a new relationship with a child, fun can bring out a different side of your foster child that you've never seen before. Fun can make it possible for you to have a shared experience with your foster child. Shared experiences will become the stories that your foster child will be able to tell and remember much like the stories (some of them fun, some of them traumatic) from her biological family.
Some scientists have actually studied the phenomenon of fun because it is such an important part of mental health and relationships. Fun typically involves activities that are just a little bit challenging. Things that are too easy are usually not “fun”, but they might be relaxing. If you're needing relaxation, that's different than needing to have fun. Children don't usually enjoy relaxation the way that adults do. If you're trying to come up with something fun to do with your foster children, come up with something that's interesting and just a little bit challenging.
Scientists who have studied fun have a word to describe the state of mind that happens when you're having fun. They call it “flow”. In reality, fun happens when you're “in the moment”. That makes sense because if you're doing something that's so easy it's automatic, you're probably thinking about something else. If you're doing something that's too difficult, you may feel frustrated instead of being in a state of flow. It can take some serious thought and research to come up with an activity that will get a whole family involved in “flow” experiences, but it is possible to orchestrate this. And it's one of the most important things you can do to pique your foster child's interest in your family.
You may have a tight schedule of meetings and appointments for your foster child, but schedule time to have fun too. Many foster children have fun doing simple things that are new to them, like walking downtown to a coffee house, or visiting a pet store. I have to admit that orchestrating fun for my foster children was fun for me. I listened carefully to what interested my foster children and what got their attention and then tried to come up with activities that would activate and engage them in that interest. Watching the process was the engaging part for me.