Older Kids in Foster Care: Finding Their Voice

Older kids in foster care in a restaurant.

We met our adopted son through a matching program for older kids in foster care

We met our adopted son through a matching program for older kids in foster care seeking adoptive parents. We started out with weekend visits, which gave us all a chance to get to know each other slowly. We wanted these weekends to be fun for him, and we tried to think of activities that a teenage boy might enjoy. We tended to propose camping trips, X Games, Speed Zone…things like that.

It was hard to ascertain his preferences. He was accustomed to wearing a stony, resigned expression; spontaneous acts of enthusiasm were not his thing. And the situation would have been awkward under any circumstances—what 15 year-old-boy wants to spend an entire weekend with two adults he only just met? I admired him for hanging in there.

The concept of “mandatory” is all too familiar to older kids in foster care

Something as basic as “What would you like for dinner?” invariably produced the reply, “It doesn’t matter.” We learned to give structured choices: “Would you like a hamburger or spaghetti for dinner?” But that didn’t give us much insight into his personality.

Then one day, about two months in, we proposed that we go to a street fair near our house. It was an Ethiopian festival and we thought it would be fun to have dinner at one of the food booths. To our surprise, T. asked, “Is it mandatory?”

We nearly choked trying to stifle our laughter. Mandatory? Most certainly not! And where did he get that word?

It turns out the whole concept of “mandatory” is all too familiar to older kids in foster care who have spent a lot of time there. There are a lot of things that simply must be done—new house rules to follow, new orders from the child dependency court. The concept of individual choice and asserting one’s preferences was comparatively foreign to him. At some point, he had learned not to assert his agency in order to stave off inevitable disappointment. Like many older kids in foster care, he had been trained to comply.

He no longer believes his preferences don’t matter

Although we assured him that eating Ethiopian food was not mandatory by any stretch, he chanced it anyway. He hated it. Good to know! It turned out that he hates a lot of things; gradually as he realized that many aspects of family life are about negotiation, not requirements, he got braver about voicing his preferences.  For example, it turned out that he hates crowds, so our trip to X Games had been a miss! He hates to be dirty, so camping had been torture for him. He hates onions, so a lot of the food we served turned him off.

The more he talked, the more we learned, and the closer we grew. It took many, many months. But the personality that emerged was delightful and original. He loves many things we would never have guessed at, so it was good that he decided to tell us: fine clothes, visits to spas, oldies music, grilled cheese sandwiches, and movies about World War II.

Today, he no longer believes that his preferences don’t matter, and he knows that very few things in life are mandatory. And he knows that speaking up about what you want doesn’t always lead to disappointment.