adoption, family, fostercare, parenting

Am I the “Right” Parent to Adopt This Child?

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Am I the right mother for this child? Is this the right family for this child? Is this the right child for us? These are the questions I often hear in the adoption community. These are questions adoptive parents ask themselves when the children begin to exhibit emotional problems and difficult behaviors. These are questions that haunt adoptive placements. And I have the answer.

In a word, “no.”

I am not the right mother for anyone. I am not a saint or a savior to my children. I’m a curly-haired, highly caffeinated, slightly befuddled woman on my best days. On my worst days? I’m grumpy and discombobulated and I serve cereal for breakfast instead of pancakes and bacon. I spend all day herding chickens only to realize at 2:00 AM that one of the 6 had a psychiatrist appointment I completely missed that day. I am not perfect.

My kids are not “lucky” to have me. I read to them and snuggle them and kiss their boo-boos. I help with homework. Sometimes I bake cookies. Sometimes I burn the cookies and show up late to football practice.

I soothe intense tantrums. I am used to my children flying into a rage at me the moment they realize how much they love me. I sing crazy off-key songs to soothe their fears over showering, going to school, or unexpected spiders. I have been hit, kicked, bitten and scratched. My love and super-parenting skills do not cure disorganized attachment or reactive attachment disorder. I can’t wipe away my childrens’ past traumas or banish their nightmares. I can, however, make hot cocoa at 3 AM when my 14-yr-old son wakes up sobbing that he is afraid of his closet.

When they came into our home they started to fall apart. their past wounds and hurts all came out. They disclosed information about their pasts that they’d never spoken about with their social worker.They admitted how hard it was to sleep at night and sought our help, whereas in foster care they simply dealt with these fears amongst themselves. Yes, they fell apart when they began to trust us. They trusted us enough to let us see their hurts and their distress. They trusted us to help them to find healing.

No, I am not the “right” parent for my children. They have PTSD, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder. They are traumatized beyond anything I’ve ever seen before.  How could I possibly ever be enough? How could we meet all of their needs? Isn’t there someone out there better qualified to raise this sibling group?

In a word, “NO!”

The right parent for any child doesn’t exist. It’s a myth, a lie we tell ourselves, the Santa Claus of adult culture in America.

I am not a hero adopting these kids. My husband and I are not saints as so many have told us. On my best day, I’m just a normal parent.

No, I’m not the “right” mom, but I am their mom. And that is all I have to be. No one could ever love them this much. No one would ever try as hard. I  am not perfect. I am not a super hero. I am something more. I am “mom.”

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adoption, family, fostercare, infertility

Why THESE kids?: Adventures in Finding Our Children

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“What drew you to THESE kids? Did you originally plan to adopt so many?” A friend of mine asked me recently. I had to stop and think. We certainly didn’t plan on having this many. Does anyone aside from maybe the Duggers plan to have a family this huge? Perhaps, but I haven’t met them yet.

But why? Why THESE particular children? I honestly couldn’t answer that question. Who knows? They were just our kids.

I think everyone starts a family in pretty much the same way. They want to be parents. They want to share in little league games and pre-school macaroni necklaces. People want to give goodnight kisses and pass on family traditions to a new generation.

What I want you to know from this adventure is that life never works according to a plan. Luke and I took a lot of the steps that we thought would lead us to parenthood. We got steady jobs with pensions. We bought a little house in the country with room to grow. Our neighbors has horses and goats and there was forest all around us. There was a big yard with great trees for climbing. Luke already had two children from a previous marriage. We thought we would have two more. Our plan was to conceive one child and adopt one from foster care. As a teacher I saw so many children in the system that I wished I could take home. They needed so much and there were so many amazing kids.

The plan was that I would acquire some great mom skills and then we would adopt when I was a seasoned and proficient parent. After all, if we adopted from foster care, then that child would need someone with experience and exceptional parenting skills. Right? Wrong!

Luke and I got pregnant right away. It was an ectopic pregnancy that came close to claiming my life. The damage from it made it difficult to conceive again. Even the thought of another pregnancy was terrifying to me.  We decided to take the foster parent classes and start there. Maybe we would foster a few sibling groups. Maybe eventually we would foster a child that would need us forever.

What I want you to know is that everything changed the day we me them. Our family. Our kids. We went to an “adoption party” at the encouragement of some friends who had adopted two siblings this way. I think we went more out of curiosity than actually planning to adopt right away.

It was a huge building with a million different activities. Basketball, Arts and Crafts, games and pizza. Luke and I went into the woodworking area and I looked around nervously. There was a 12-year-old boy in a huge sweatshirt building a bird house. His name was Sean. He had 3 finished products next to him already. He had curly black hair, huge brown eyes and thick eye lashes, just like my husband. He began talking to me a mile a minute. He showed me everything he had built. He was talkative and animated and he laughed so easily. He told me he loved science. He loved the Percy Jackson book series, and reading was his favorite pastime. As an avid reader I quickly became immersed in a conversation about books.  Within minutes I was smitten. I looked over his head at Luke. I nodded and he nodded back. Silently, we knew. This boy was our son. I made a wooden ring toss with him and we played a few rounds. That ring toss now sits on display in our dining room. Sean takes it down whenever he wants to see me cry a few happy tears.

12-year-old Sean introduced us to his little brother, Carl. Luke sat down with Carl and built a little wooden car. As I watched them bent over the project I had a small flutter of excitement. We had always wanted to keep siblings together. We could adopt these 2 boys and our family would be complete. I had a feeling of relief. No more pregnancies, no more trying. We would be a family without fertility treatments, worry, and fear.

After we finished building our woodworking projects it was time for the boys to eat lunch. Sean led the way and invited us to come. He said, “Do you guys wanna meet our sister?” Sister??? There were 3 kids?! Were there more? Oh my. We went anyway.

She was tiny. Mary was 6 years old at the time. A small Hispanic girl with blonde curly hair. She could have been our biological child. Not that we were looking for “matching” children, but it just seemed like some sort of sign. Sean quickly spoke for her and told us she was “quiet.” He doled out food for them and told them what they must eat and what they didn’t have to eat. He was a tiny little grown-up and they depended on him. They didn’t even all live together in the same foster home. Carl was in a separate home and it haunted me that they should all be together. Their love for each other was obvious. Another woman was at the table briefly to inquire about just Mary. the youngest only. I felt immediately protective over this little group. Who would want to break this bond? The woman was obviously impaired if she didn’t enjoy charismatic Sean and his tales from the Percy Jackson books!

Mary looked down at the table and avoided eye-contact. The woman eventually walked away. As soon as Sean scooted next to his sister, Mary leaned into him and chewed absently on his sweatshirt strings. I introduced myself and made some comments about her art project. She answered me and said a few words. It wasn’t until later I found out that she was selectively mute. I was the first adult she had spoken to outside of her family, in a very long time.

We were sold. For months afterward we pursued these kids. Luke and I spent hours debating if we would be the “right” family for these siblings. Could we do it? Financially? Emotionally? Logistically? We debated, we planned, we searched within ourselves. In the end, we couldn’t stop thinking about them. We later learned that they had an older brother. He didn’t want to be adopted at the time so we just asked if he could visit his siblings with us. Maybe we could build a relationship with him. We didn’t want our kids to lose more than they had already lost. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would eventually meet Marcus and fall in love with him, too. We brought him home a year after we were placed with the other 3. Love is a complicated and unpredictable thing.

What I want you to know is that there are things you can’t plan for. We didn’t plan to fall in love with a large sibling group. In the end we didn’t have any more money, house space, free time, or extra-super parenting skills. All we had was love and commitment. What I want you to know id that there are no perfect parents and there is no perfect family. We adjusted, we accommodated, we fell into place. We went from 2-sometimes-4 into 5-sometimes-8 in the blink of an eye.

What I want you to know is that taking a risk is the best thing we ever did. I wouldn’t trade this journey for any other.

If you’ve ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to start your own adventure today!

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** Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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family

It’s Only Ebola: Adventures in Parenting Traumatized Children

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“I have to smell you!” Carl wails from the other side of the bathroom door. “Just let me smell you! Just one time! I’m worried, Mama. Please!!!” He is insistent as he pounds on the door. He has a disproportionate amount if strength for a 9-year-old little boy. His 8-year-old sister Mary is crying in my husbands arms. Our 14-year-old is intently plugged into his iPod, and ignoring his environment completely. This is his most common signal of distress.

Luke, my amazingly talented super-hero hubby, is attempting to convince this large audience if distressed chickens that mommy is fine. He is insisting he can put them to bed and that they will still see me tomorrow. From where I sit, it sounds like he is making very good points about his bedtime abilities. For instance, he has just pointed out that he is, in fact, still standing upright. This puts him in the unique position of being the only adult currently in the house with this ability. He is literally the last man standing! One would think that this alone would qualify him for bedtime duties. According to our chickens, however, nothing can be accomplished until I have been smelled.

I am lying prone on the bathroom floor with my feverish face pressed against the cool tiles of the floor. My hair is stuck to my head in sweaty clumps and my skin has taken on a rather disturbing greenish tinge. As an elementary school teacher I have the woeful propensity to contract the stomach bug at least once a year. This may be the worst one I’ve ever had. I lost count of how many times I’ve vomited. I can’t even be more than a few feet away from the toilet. I have a cup of ice chips and a blanket with my on the floor because I am alternately freezing and then sweating. I do not want my little chickens to see me like this. I’m afraid they will be so worried about me that they will not go to bed. My chickens, however, have other ideas. They adamantly feel the need to smell me. I’m pretty sure I smell strongly like puke.

I open the door a bit and sort of lurch into a sitting position. Little Carl rushes over to me and shoves his face I to my neck and hair. And then he takes a giant whiff. Yup, I’ve just been snorted by my son. Will he gag? Will he balk at my yellowish greenish skin? Will he see my scary bed-hair and decide I’m unfit as a human, let alone one that is his mother?

He breathes a HUGE sigh of relief and walks off as if nothing weird has just happened. “It’s ok, guys.” Carl smiles down the hallway at the others. “She’s not drunk. It’s probably just Ebola.”  “Oh,” says little Mary nonchalantly, “That’s no big deal then. Daddy can put us to bed.” And just like that, they go back to playing with Legos and watching TV. Meanwhile, I was stuck with the Ebola.

Their trauma history was triggered but they got past it. Maybe their bio-mom spent a lot of time throwing up in the bathroom after drinking. Who knows. What could have been an epic full-scale chicken panic turned out to be no big deal. Luke successfully put everyone to bed without a fuss. What was there to fuss about? After all, it’s only Ebola!

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If you’ve ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to start your own adventure!

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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adoption, family, fostercare

The Fruits of My Labors: Adventures in Fostering Kindness in My Teen

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“She babies them. They all act like fruits. All they do is hug her all the time.” At 17, Marcus is the newest addition to our household and the biological brother of our other 3 chickens. He has some very strong objections to my parenting style. For example, he has taken a quite stringent stance about hugging. Absolutely no hugging shall be allowed in his presence at any time. Since we are a family full of hugging, this leads to a great deal of outraged teenage protests such as, “You guys are so gross!” or “This is so girly!”

He has become increasingly agitated over the few weeks he’s been home for good. He quit talking to me all together last week. If I walk I to a room with one of the others he leaves. Immediately. My husband Luke, on the other hand, is immune. Marcus wants to spend all day, every day with Luke. Since he never got to have the “dad” experience he is reveling in it now. I’m pretty sure Marcus has started to dress like him.

We desperately needed to bond. I had to find a way to get through to Marcus that I am not the enemy. It isn’t weak to be kind. It isn’t weak to show affection.

We made a mural as a family last week. We got huge posters and all kinds of markers and sat around the table. Luke got Marcus to come and sit at the table. I drew Luke and I surrounded by chickens (of course!) and Luke drew cars for Carl. Mary made hearts with family names. Sean made symbols of all of the things we have done together over the last year such as the family crest we made and our “cozy corner” full of sensory diet materials.

Marcus put his head down and stared at the table. He passed markers to the littles when they requested a certain color. He didn’t say a word. He did not pick up a marker for himself. Slowly, our mural began to fill up with pictures. Marcus sat in front of a blank space. A huge family collaboration with a big hole in the center where Marcus should be.

He claims that he wasn’t raised to be “soft” the way we are. Too many hugs. Too much “nice!” Too much “Mom.” I matter-of-factly told him that this is just who I am. It’s how I parent. He said he was raised to be “hard,” to be the strongest and the toughest. He was encouraged to fist fight and show others not to mess with him.

What Marcus is experiencing is a conflict of loyalty. If he accepts the way I parent, then he is betraying his biological mom. If he allows himself to be “soft” then he becomes weak and vulnerable. He is hurting and therefore he needs the world to hurt with him. In situations like this bonding and attachment take precedence over consequences. Heck, they take precedence over my own personal feelings of failure. I must get through to him and show him how to be kind. For kids who have become “hardened” to human relationships, they need to experience a form of empathy and compassion with something less important than their caregivers. With the littles, we had them care for dolls and modeled how to talk to a baby doll and care for it lovingly.

For Marcus, it’s horses. In the hopes of building a positive experience that he associates with me, I scheduled him for riding lessons. As a surprise. Here is my sullen, angry, quiet teenager from the city. He has a notebook at home with the words “thug life” emblazoned on the cover with graffiti handwriting. At first he looked out of place in a barn. But then, I saw him with the animals. He smiled. A huge smile! He actually laughed a few times as his instructor joked around with him.

And then came his interaction with the horse. This “hard” city kid was showing kindness and affection to a farm animal. Here he was gently stroking the horse’s mane and patting the horse’s neck.The same angry, sullen boy was whispering to a horse. The same boy who threatened to rip off his brother’s arms and use them as weapons, was gently stroking a horse’s mane. The truth is, sometimes it’s easier for attachment-challenged children to show affection to animals. For Marcus, I chose to surprise him with horseback riding lessons. Just the two of us. I really wanted to show Marcus that he could be caring in a way that wouldn’t be too “soft.” And it worked. Hopefully, he will grow to generalize this kindness to the rest of the family. For now, it’s enough.

He may not say anything, but I saw our family mural. It was changed. There, in the middle, was a sky full of stars and a beautiful drawing of planets. His area was complete. I love you, too, Marcus.

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If you have ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to start your own adventure!

*Names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of the children.

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adoption, family, fostercare

Sticky Face: 4 Silly Games to Build Attachment Through Play

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Having a face full of stickers may be one of the best things I’ve done to build attachment with my littlest chickens. Bonding and attachment can be very difficult for the adopted child after suffering abuse and/or neglect in their biological home. Our chickens needed to form attachments to their caregivers (us) in much the same way that infants do. They need eye-contact. They need skin-to-skin contact. They need to build a wealth of positive experiences to associate with their caregiver. They need to learn reciprocity of emotion and expression. The following are 4 silly games we’ve made up to play with our chickens. Laughter and play are the best ways to attach and fall in love with your kiddos!

1. Sticky Face

This is a game we made up with a spinner but you could also make your own playing cards on index cards etc. You will also need stickers. We have the categories “left cheek, right cheek, chin, nose, mouth, forehead, and ears.” The way to play is to spin a spot and then place a silly sticker there on your opponent’s face. The person who keeps all of their stickers on for the longest time wins the game.

Attachment Benefits: This game builds attachment by promoting eye-contact. The more time the child spends looking into your eyes, or even at your face, the more they can bond to you. This game involves touch in a playful and fun way. It promotes safe and happy feelings that your child will associate being close to you. Infants are held and gazed at. Your older child also benefits from physical closeness and eye contact. For bonus silly points? Start the game by having a sticker on your face already and avoid commenting on it until your child initiates the game. Or wear your “sticky face” out together to the drug store or grocery store! 

2. Finger Face

This game is played in much the same way as sticky face. We created a spinner for parts of the face and one for fingers. You could easily create two separate card decks as well. If I spin on “left finger” and “right cheek” then I place my left finger on my daughter’s right cheek. It is a little bit like twister for your fingers. Also, your fingers are in someone else’s face! The person who lasts the longest without dropping a finger, wins.

Attachment Benefits: This game encourages eye-contact and physical touch. It’s also a really funny game and you look ridiculous with your finger on your child’s nose. It also allows your child to get used to having someone close to them in their personal space, while feeling fun and silly. This is particularly helpful for those children with PTSD who flinch when someone’s hand is near their face. It’s a corrective experience that teaches a positive association (ie hands are for fun and affection, not for hitting)

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3. Penny, Penny, Where is the Penny?

This game requires a handful of pennies and a large T-shirt, or blanket with a scent-memory component. A child’s favorite blankie will do but a shirt that the parent has worn, or a blanket or pillowcase they sleep with is better. Objects that smell like the parent’s unique smell will help to build positive memories associated with this scent. I’m not suggesting anyone stinks! It’s just that everyone has a unique smell made up of shampoo, body lotion, shaving cream, soap, hair products, sweat, etc. Hide your child’s entire head under the blanket or shirt, if they will tolerate it. if not, allow them to hold the shirt and face a wall. Hide a penny somewhere in the room in a very difficult spot. The child must turn around and find the penny. The adult gives clues such as “you’re getting warmer.” etc. Make sure to exaggerate your facial expression and tone of voice. Use a panicked “Oh no! You’re getting hot! On fire!” When the child is close. The child will have to look to you in order to find the penny. Let the child keep each penny that they find.

Attachment Benefits: In this game, the child is learning to rely on you, the caregiver, for guidance. They are also learning to match your facial expression and tone of voice, to an appropriate response and reaction. Children coming from homes of neglect have often experienced a disconnect between adult emotional response and action. For instance, a child may have been physically abused by an adult who was laughing or an adult may have begun to cry or yell uncontrollable for no reason that was apparent to the child. This confuses their ability t express and interpret their own feelings and the feelings of others. The more they practice this, the more they will learn to trust that their current caregiver has a reliable cause and effect system with their emotions. The child also must trust the caregiver that the penny is, in fact, hidden. This promotes object permanency with a child who may or may not been able to rely on a previous caregiver. For example, a caregiver may have promised food when in reality, they failed to produce food for the child. 

4. Are You My ____ Baby?

I like to use this game for my very active 9-year-old son. You do not need anything but yourselves for this game. Without any previous  warning, I begin to scuttle around the kitchen like a crab, calling out, ” I am a crab. Have you seen my crab baby?” My son will squeal in delight and get down into crab mode saying, “Here I am! I’m your crab baby!” Then it’s his turn to hop like a frog or slither like a snake, etc and say ” I am a frog. Have you seen my frog mommy?” Then I must hop like a frog and answer “Here I am! I am your frog mommy!” Some fun animals to use are the penguin, duck, spider, elephant, gorilla, turtle (pop your head in and out of your shirt for a “shell”) and horse. Try your own! You get bonus points for using a different accent for each animal. End the game by becoming yourself and saying, “Baby, Baby, have you seen my baby?” The child can choose to be themselves or to role-play being an actual baby. Show exaggerated delight in finding your “baby” no matter how old they are.

Attachment Benefits: Sometimes children who have suffered abuse and/or neglect have skipped early developmental stages. This gives them the opportunity to become a “baby” in a non-threatening way. Children who did not get enough of this in early childhood will often show you by craving infant role-play. This is a fun and silly way to meet that need. It also builds the concept that families work together. If you are a frog I will have to bend a bit and become a frog mommy. When I am fish, you will have to bend a bit and become a fish baby. It builds compliance as well. This game also builds on the idea that you should be together because parents need children and children need parents.

No matter what you play with your child, please make time for fun and games and silliness. The more fun they have with you, the easier it will be to work together with you on harder things, like non-preferred tasks. Adopting can be hard. Don’t forget to stop and enjoy the ride. Have fun with your chickens (my favorite animal to play!) If you have ever considered foster care or adoption, I encourage you to start your adventure today!

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adoption, family, fostercare

Mom and Dad Are Terrorists: Adventures in Accepting Nurture

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“You always say that!. You always say you love us! But you’re lying! And you’re NOT REAL!” This is from my 9-year-old son Carl. We are adopting his group of siblings but it isn’t finalized yet. He doesn’t believe in it. He doesn’t believe in me. He doesn’t believe in mom. He doesn’t have a concept of it yet.

I stare at him with mouth agape  “Wait a minute!”I gasp in astonishment, “you mean I’m a ghost?! Can other people see me? Wow! Being a ghost mommy is cool!” I float around for a few minutes and say “Boo!”

The problem for our kids is nurture. They don’t understand it and they haven’t had it in this way before. When their caretaker takes care of them it’s scary. They feel like they are losing control by letting someone else care for their needs. This is because our kids have learned not to trust adults and to rely on themselves to meet their own needs. In their early childhoods they experienced trauma. When they cried or needed something as babies, their caregiver’s response was unreliable. Sometimes their infant/toddler cries were met with love, affection, and immediate response. Sometimes there was no response at all or an indifferent response. Sometimes their needs were met with anger and resentment. Would you trust adults if they had proven to be this unpredictable? Unlikely. So our children have learned to take care of themselves and exert control over their environments. When they can only trust themselves to meet their own needs this is how they feel safe.

When consistently nurturing caregivers enter the picture it’s confusing and hard. They wonder when and if we will leave them. They wonder when and if we will hit them. By providing for them we are essentially displacing them from their primary role in the family. The love and nurture we provide causes anxiety, confusion, and even pain. Accepting love can be painful because tomorrow it could be all gone, at least in their experience.

Big Sean would rather wear old mismatched socks than allow us to buy him new socks. He would prefer to make his own clothes out of older clothes, bubble wrap ( see picture above) and maybe even newspaper than allow us to buy him new things! Sean hid in his bed crying for hours last week because Luke bought him a pair of shoes. They went on a shopping trip and Luke offered him a lot of things. The problem is that Big Sean is used to taking care of others. He isn’t used to people taking care of him. At 14, he wants to wear his shoes until they have holes in them before getting a new pair. He’s already outgrown his current shoes by 2 sizes. He hobbles around in them as if he is just learning to walk. Sean’s shoe problem is twofold. On one hand, he doesn’t want us to spend money on him. A good pair of Nike sneakers, (even on sale!) is enough to shut him down so that he stops speaking completely. He doesn’t want anyone to “waste” their money on him.  The other problem is the amount of attention he gets from a shopping trip. He cannot stand events that are centered around him. He puts his sweatshirt on, puts his head down, and refuses to look at anything in the store. When he gets home he hides whatever was bought for him while he was staring intently at the floor. Then he cries for a long time before ignoring the new things completely and wearing the same old clothes he has had for years.

Sean took the longest to start calling me “mom.” He has never ever stopped.  At 14, he was the first to hug and cuddle and say, “I love you.” He has run away from me though. Once in a parking lot at Target.

When they go too far in depending on our affection and care, they pull back. Waaaay back. They react against their feelings as a mechanism to protect themselves. Too many kind words or compliments send them into a tailspin, particularly if they are face to face compliments.

Luke and I took a much needed respite weekend to ourselves in Vermont. The kids stayed with Grandma for the weekend and we got to explore the little town of Brattleboro and be as romantic as we wanted without four smaller people saying “Eeew! Gross!” I was surprised that by the first night, Sean was texting me. A lot. He was actually missing us. He even went so far as to tell us that we could bring him home a souvenir! That day, as we walked the streets looking for little presents that wouldn’t offend our kids with price tags, Luke laughingly told me that I looked just like a tourist. I was taking way too many pictures and delighting in way too many things. I relayed this to Sean who was texting us throughout the day. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see my amazing photos of innocuous street signs and Vermont shop windows?!  I think I make an excellent tourist! Sean responded with, “Yeah mom. You are definitely a terrorist. You guys are both terrorists.” It was hilarious at the time, but it made me think.

One definition of the term “terrorist” is “one who terrorizes or frightens others.” Luke and I are certainly frightening them with our love. We are changing their way of life and threatening the only definition of “mom” “dad” and “family” that they have known. As wonderful as our parenting experience is for us. it’s very scary to them. Sean is right in a sense. His mom and dad are terrorists.

When we picked up our little chickens on Sunday they actually ran to us with hugs. This doesn’t always happen because a lot of times the younger two need time and privacy to express their affection. They laughed and squealed with delight and opened their gifts. Even Sean. That’s when I noticed something different about him. His shoes. He was wearing his new shoes!

We have to be patient. We must remain consistent. It will take a long time for our little chickens to trust our love and our nurture. They will learn that we are capable of taking care of them and meeting their needs. They may even learn that mom and dad are not really “nurturing terrorists!”

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