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Fighting for a Childhood

I know everyone has a different experience when raising someone else’s child, but one thing that really gets me fired up is how fast Matthew has been forced to grow up. Childhood is precious, the younger years go by so quickly, yet the effects and the memories can last a lifetime. Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting for Matthew’s childhood, for him to have a good childhood filled with all the wonderful things a child should have and experience.

I spend a fair amount of time teaching Matthew how to protect himself in different situations. Of course, learning some of these things isn’t all bad, but in Matthew’s case, they’re absolute requirements. If he didn’t have some of this know-how, he might not be able to protect himself when he’s with his biological parents (who aren’t always as watchful as they should be). If he doesn’t learn these things, then the courts might shorten the visits or put a stop to them altogether. There is no room for failure when it comes to Matthew’s safety. Because I don’t accompany him on visits with his biological parents, Matthew has a lot of responsibilities that he has to step up to, not because he should, but because he would suffer more than anyone if he didn’t.

There’s so much to teach a child, and it makes sense to make that education age-appropriate. Some of the things I’ve taught Matthew are beyond his years. He shouldn’t have these responsibilities. Sometimes he fights me on them, and I can’t always blame him. He just wants to be a kid. Even still, I feel like one of my most important jobs is to prepare Matthew for the environments that his biological parents provide because he does visit with them, and there’s always a chance that the courts may ultimately send Matthew to live with them. Because Matthew’s long-term living arrangement are not clear, I know I have a slightly different set of parenting responsibilities than what a more traditional family structure would normally provide. It’s difficult to find advice or suggestions on how to prepare children to visit or possibly move back with their biological parents because each situation is different, and as such, each set of needs is different.

I’ve learned a few things along the way. Matthew knows how to reach me (on my cell phone, my home phone, my toll free number and by email). He knows not to go with strangers, even if they have a cute puppy or if they try to convince him that they know each other by means of a quick introduction (I am so and so and you are so and so. Now we know each other and aren’t strangers! NOT!! Matthew’s hip to this game). He knows not to go into someone’s house, car, boat, shed, garage, cave, cabin, swimming pool, whatever, without the EXPRESS knowledge and permission of the adult in charge. And if he can’t find someone to get the permission, then he can’t go. He knows how to apply sunscreen and when to apply it, and I always make sure he has a personal stash handy when he goes on visits. He knows how to check the water temperature, and he knows to be in when the streetlights come on. He knows which shows he’s aloud to watch, and which ones will give him nightmares. He knows it can be just as smart to hide if he can’t outrun an assailant. He knows where to go in case of a fire. He knows how to make simple meals in the microwave, and he knows not to mess with a stove without adult supervision. He knows how to adjust and clean his glasses, and pretty soon I’m going to enroll him in a first aid class. He also knows how to swim.

I keep an open mind and I keep the communication lines flexible and open. Matthew and I talk a lot. I do expect him to talk to me in a respectful tone, but he knows he can (and usually does) come to me about almost anything.  I try to squeeze in different ideas on how to help him keep himself safe and make good choices. I know it’s hard on him to have to be more responsible for himself than he should have to at his age, so I make it a point to praise him every chance I get, for doing it so well. I don’t chastise him about mistakes, but we talk about what he might have done differently when he does goof. I treat him like he has common sense and tell him I’m proud of him often. Because he does take on responsibilities beyond his years when he’s with his biological parents, I try to take some of the pressure off when he’s at home with me by doing special things with him or for him. I make special things for his lunch box that aren’t food related (drawings and notes). He loves when I do stuff like that. I give him age-appropriate choices on a variety of things such as clothing, or sometimes let him pick the veggie of the night. I taught him to use a microwave, read cooking instructions, and let him help me cook if he wants to, but I don’t make it a demand.

Matthew used to have a lot of behavior issues at school and at home. There were times when he spent more time in time-out than he did out of it. But he has learned, he has grown, and he has succeeded and exceeded expectations in many ways. He’s hardly ever in trouble anymore, and when it happens (because it does every few months), we talk about it, discuss better choices, and move on. I don’t belabor issues that I think he understands, and sometimes I think his worst punishment these days is my disappointment.

In the meantime, I do lots of things with Matthew that give him a sense of his childhood. We work in the garden together, goof around, make jokes, send each other emails, go bowling, listen to music, and travel. We play putt-putt golf, hopscotch and catch. I coach his little league team, and we go ice skating. We love movies, air hockey, and horseback riding. We also go to his school’s football games, other school events. And I take lots of pictures that we enjoy looking at together. I tell him stories of when he “was little” and he totally loves it. I kiss him goodnight every night, and tell him I love him at least twice every day.  I think these things are what childhood should be about.

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Standing in place of the parent, or acting parent, or "in loco parentis" is a big job that comes with a unique set challenges. I created this blog to share my story and my experiences with those who find themselves in a similiar situation. I look forward to hearing your comments!

The expenses do add up, so if you’d like to pitch in, please feel free to donate a few bucks. I really appreciate your generosity!