Last night I had the opportunity to sit and talk with some future foster parents about their journey so far. It was a fascinating conversation about their first interest in foster care and adoption and how it has grown and how their church community is helping to foster their movement in this direction. One of our dinner guest made the statement, “it’s easier to conceive of doing [foster care] being in a community with people who are already doing it successfully.” There is so much going on in that statement, but what it brought up for me was that foster care is a hidden thing in our society most of the time, except for when it blows up. News stories about foster parents abusing children or driving off a bridge with the kids in tow or when a foster kid shoots up his school are real stories, but they are the outliers that skew the story and ultimately the perception of what foster care is all about.
Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, argues that our rational thoughts are the servants of our deeper intuitions. Like a rider on an elephant we believe we have control when in fact the elephant can at any point choose to ignore us.1 For Haidt moral reasoning is a skill that humans developed to further their social agenda and defend their teams.2 The teams we end up on are not the result of rational choosing, but are the ones that share similar narratives to our own. And once humans have bound themselves to a team they become blind to other world views.3
One of Haidt’s many points is that we are narrative creatures. Our intuitions are built in relation to the stories we have lived and seen lived. I wonder if one of the reasons for the stigma of foster care in our world is because we have not seen the successful stories. Too often, at least in American culture, there is the idea that foster parents are heroes because foster children are hard and as such it is an act of bravery on the part of the parents to take in these children. As much as it seems like this sort of praise for foster parents is a good thing, it is actually a curse in a couple ways. There is the false idea of some sort of greatness for the parents and the more false thought that the children are particularly difficult. Additionally this makes it more difficult to tell the more common success stories. If the kid has to start at absolute zero and become a Rhodes scholar for us to tell a successful foster care story then we will tell very few stories. But if we are able to tell an honest story about how a child grew to trust or how a parent struggled and found support in their community then foster care becomes a reality and not a comic book fantasy.
I think that if we start to tell real stories about foster care more families will start to make the move to welcoming foster children into their homes. This leads me back to my friend’s statement that seeing it done makes going into foster care easier. It is a statement of truth that the move in the direction of foster care is not a spontaneously generated idea. It is the result of seeing the lived stories. My children being people of color is significant in many ways, but the most obvious is that it is pretty clear (though apparently not to everyone) they are not biologically related to me. This allows me to tell an honest story of foster care and adoption whenever a stranger talks to me about them and hopefully change their intuition about what foster care looks like. I cannot convince people that foster care is great, but I can show them.
1. Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. London: Penguin Books, 2013. xxi
2. ibid xx
3. ibid xxii