We always do our best not to be hypocritical when enforcing rules with our children. Lead by example is the policy we try to follow, but this can be quite difficult in some circumstances.
When telling a child not to talk with his mouth full of food while they’re doing it sometimes means you have to bolt your own without choking and I have been caught out and reprimanded several times for breaking this rule while attempting to ask one of my children not to do so. It’s not so important that this rule is followed, it’s more of a politeness issue, but there are some rules where it is difficult to enforce and perform everyday tasks in front of your children.
The main behaviour which is almost impossible to lead by example with is Talking To Strangers.
We do it every day, from the person at the checkout at the supermarket, to a waitress at a restaurant, a person in the street saying ‘good morning’ to a locum doctor. Strangers form part of our social interaction every single day.
As almost every parent will say, children learn by copying. They see you talking to strangers, so why can’t they? This is where the hypocrisy comes in, we can do it, they can’t. Why? Because we are grown ups and they aren’t. We are able to make a judgement over whether someone is safe to talk to, they probably aren’t. But, with some children, especially ones who have been taken into care or adopted, it can go further than this.
Many children have an automatic response of going shy around people they don’t know. This is a very healthy sign of them being well-attached to their caregiver. They look to you to make sure the situation is safe and follow your example. Give them 5 minutes and provided you have reacted positively to the person the children talk to and interact with them like they’ve known them forever.
The problem comes when a child does not have that attachment to a caregiver, they have no one that they can trust, no one to look to for guidance on the people around them. So, as a consequence, they attempt to make that decision themselves. They don’t have the experience to know that just because someone is nice to you it doesn’t mean they have your best interests at heart, and children tend to be trusting, so ultimately they tend to make the wrong decision when it matters most.
Children in care, and those in the early stages of adoption, tend not to have that attachment. They may even have encountered so many people in their lives, passed from person to person, never really having had a person to parent them, to keep them safe, that they just think any adult will do. Having no stranger awareness is dangerous. Not because every stranger is a bad person, quite the opposite for the most part, but because it means they will happily wander off with anyone who holds out their hand, or gives the slightest bit of positive attention. Something that the children may be lacking and crave.
So, what can we do? We have to instill an artificial wariness of strangers, to have a chat with the children before any situation where there will be people they don’t know present, to remind them that they shouldn’t talk to strangers unless we say it is ok. Keep them close and basically have eyes on them at all times. It’s stressful but, until they form a proper attachment to us (and perhaps even after that), necessary.
Eventually that wariness becomes second nature, and they look to us for guidance, reacting as we react. This can be a very long slog though.
Of course, for adopted children, there is another hypocrisy. They are told they shouldn’t interact with strangers. Then some strangers come along and they are told – “here are your Mummy & Daddy* you’re going to go and live with them soon.” (*replace parental titles as appropriate). They end up coming home to live with you after having known you just over a week. Not exactly helping to reinforce their wariness of strangers!
So, again, what can we do? Here is where the foster carer’s job becomes so important. As you’ll know from my previous posts, prospective adopters have to provide various ‘welcome’ material, such as photo albums, voice recordings, videos, teddy bears etc, to be presented to the children prior to them meeting you. This helps to reduce your classification from “stranger” to “person who I know a little bit” before they even meet you. This should get presented along with appropriate encouragement and positive messages to the children by their foster carer. Someone who has spent time building their trust as much as possible. It’s not an easy task, but the positive messages from someone the children trust is vitally important to help them start to form an attachment with their new parents.
Strangers are not by default a danger, strangers took our children into their foster family and cared for them, strangers then adopted our children and we became “Dad & Daddy”, we are all strangers until we are not.
We can only do our best to reinforce our children’s awareness of dangers around them, hoping that they eventually start to follow our lead naturally until they get enough life experience to make the decision properly themselves. Until then though we do our best to build an artificial response to strangers that doesn’t default to “they are nice, I’ll go with them”. We will continue to give talks to our children about who they should and shouldn’t talk to, and we will continue to do our best to keep them safe without hiding them from real life.