Cultivate Honesty by Creating Felt Safety

Honesty is hard.

Both kids and adults struggle with this practice. We avoid conflict because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or make someone angry. We tell little white lies to get ourselves out of trouble. We say things we don’t really mean in order to look good in front of other people. We take credit for things that aren’t ours to claim. How’s that for a happy opening?

Our girls struggle with honesty just like many other kids. It isn’t necessarily just because they arrived in our family through foster care and adoption.

But one of the things we’ve learned in parenting them, is that more pressure or persistence on our part to find the truth can lead to the exact opposite behavior that we’re aiming to cultivate. While we want them to want to be honest because we’re a family and it’s healthy and it’s the way it should be, those reasons are not enough to convince a child whose come from a hard place to let their guard down and trust that things will be ok if they tell the truth.

And truth be told, forced honesty can be the worst. In our home, threatening consequences does little good and lots of bad. And while I was the kid who was afraid of what my parents would think if I lied to them, our girls are afraid of what we might do if they’re honest with us.

They’re afraid of what we might do even though we’ve tried to show them that we’re safe. 

We’ve been in seasons with our girls where lying seemed to be the biggest behavior we were dealing with, and honestly, we were TERRIBLE at dealing with it in a healthy way. I’m sure some of this comes down to our personalities, our own upbringings, and our high value on honesty.

Everything we did to combat lying seemed to fall flat, causing our girls (especially one of them) to pull back and go within herself. No matter how many times I’d say, “We know that’s not the truth. Just tell us what happened,” it seemed to have the exact opposite effect we were going for. She’d make up a different story or change a small detail. We’d inch by inch coax the whole story out of her, and sometimes by the end still not know if the story was fully true. While we wanted her full transparency, all she wanted was for us to stop asking her questions.

So, after much failure, tears on everyone’s part, and some research to understand what the heck was happening, we began to change our tactics.

Because our girls came from an environment in which they weren’t being taken care of well, they didn’t learn to trust their caregivers. And who could blame them? When needs aren’t being met by the one in charge of meeting needs, of course their brains develop coping mechanisms. They become self-sufficient and find strategies to get their own needs met, even if those methods are often unhealthy. They needed to depend on someone, so they learned to depend only on themselves.

So our invitation, as their parents, is to establish felt safety. The trick here, is that felt safety isn’t the same as safety. Caregivers may absolutely be certain that their kids are safe. The doors are locked. Everything is child-proof. There’s always food in the refrigerator, clothes to wear, and a warm bed at night. We don’t use corporal punishment of any kind. They won’t get hurt for telling the truth.

But our kids, whose body and brain knows all too well what it felt like to be unsafe, are easily sent back into survival mode – fight, flight or freeze.

So how do you know when your kid has gone into that mode when you’re trying to discover the truth in a situation? You start noticing your kids’ behavior changes. When she thinks she’s done something wrong, what does she tend to do? Does she start to clam up, hide in a corner, or lash out? 

And then, the real work begins. You regulate yourself. You remain calm and patient instead of trying to convince her that she should feel safe. You offer food or water to remind her that you’ll meet her needs. You notice that you’ve hit one of her buttons, that she no longer feels like you’re on the same team, and you find any way you can to show her that you are for her and with her. You go to her instead of calling her to come to you. You start with connection if at all possible.

And you pull her onto your lap, because you’ve learned through experience, that this is often the key.

You know she wants to push you away and to flee the situation when it starts feeling hard, but you resist asking another question about what happened and you just hold her. You remind her, through your actions and your words, that she’s precious, safe, and loved. And when she finally calms down enough, when her brain has reset a bit and she’s able to access her reasoning skills and get out of survival mode, you can start again, slowly and gently.

This is the hard work of creating felt safety.

This practice goes against almost everything that I want to do. I want to push. I want to convince. I want to use logic and reasoning to get her to be honest. But you know what? It NEVER works.

Even if I get her to finally break down and tell me what really happened, all I’ve done is wear her down and hurt our long-term relationship. I’ve shown her that I’m the boss, she needs to comply, and that’s just the way it will be.

So sometimes, on my good days, I stop. I let go of my expectations for her to just comply because she “should”, and I see that sweet girl sitting across from me. I notice her hiding within herself wishing she could come out. We sit together first, then talk calmly. She still struggles, and so do I. It’s difficult to break habits and learn new ways to handle ourselves.

But when we do, I can visibly see the difference in her. She leaves our conversation feeling relieved and settled. She often ends up singing just a few minutes later. I assume she sings because she feels lightness and freedom by being able to show up as her full self and be accepted and loved.

As our girls grow older, honesty is going to be even more important. Right now I can control a lot of what happens in our day-to-day life. I’m making some decisions for them about who they spend their time with and where they go. But soon enough, they’ll be doing more of those things on their own. Sure, I want to trust their decision-making skills, but most importantly, I want to be trusted by them. I want to be their safe place, not the ones they avoid when things are hard.

When something goes wrong, when they make a choice with consequences they didn’t anticipate, or when things they thought they could handle on their own get out of control, I don’t want their instinct to be, “I hope Mom and Dad don’t find out.” Instead, my prayer is that they’ll immediately think, “I really need to call Mom and Dad.”

10 Family Game Night Ideas

Game nights can be such a fun way to connect with our kids. Whether you enjoy cards, dice, strategy games, or cooperative play, games can bring us together, create fun memories, and lead to tons of teachable moments.

Now, some parents are just awesome at playing and pretend. My husband, Dustin, is like this. He’s silly & playful and joins our girls in whatever they’re doing. He’s a natural connector.

Obviously, this guy is the fun one.

Dustin and I find value in using a trauma-informed approach to our parenting, so we do our best to implement the three main strategies – empowering, connecting, and correcting – throughout our family culture.

In our early days of parenting, I found myself leaning into the empowering (meeting physical needs) and correcting (teaching/guiding) part of this process, while leaving out perhaps the most critical piece – building genuine connection in a way that disarmed fear and promoted attachment. 

I wanted to find a way to intentionally connect and play with our girls, so I started thinking about what I loved when I was growing up – playing softball, putting on plays, and LOTS of family games. Even into adulthood, when my family gathers, we play games for hours at a time.

After researching, I discovered several games that were age-appropriate and actually looked FUN for everyone. So we created a new routine – family game night!

Every Friday afternoon, Dustin and I would go together to pick-up the girls from school/daycare and we’d all head to a local coffee shop. We’d bring a couple of games, buy the girls a treat or a special drink, and enjoy an hour or two of quality time together. We’d laugh and play, and of course sometimes, have to redirect behavior.

With each roll of the dice, card drawn, or match made, we were growing closer as a family and establishing a tradition that we all began to cherish.

Now, a little over four years into our parenting journey, our life rhythms have changed a bit. During this last year, we decided to homeschool our girls to have more time with them, so we integrate games into our ongoing curriculum. We learn math, reading, and critical thinking skills, all while playing together. 

As our girls get older, I’m sure our rhythms will change again, but I hope our love for playing games together is a tradition of connection that can stay with us through all seasons of life.

So, the next time you’re looking for a way to connect with your kids, grab a snack, and try playing a game together. You can hit up a thrift store or borrow from a friend, or check out ten of our favorites below!

  • Quixx (Family dice game, good for developing basic addition skills)
  • Cat Crimes (Critical thinking game where you try to figure out which cat commited the crime; can be played as a team game for cooperative play.)
  • Pengoloo (A more interesting version of a memory game, good for younger kids ages 3-7).
  • Eye Found It (Cooperative game good for visual learners)
  • Cadoo (Active game for the whole family. Can be adapted for younger children.)
  • Topple Chrome (Hands on game, good for developing impulse control and patience)
  • Snappy Dressers (Fast-paced game with many versions of play, good for 7 and up)
  • Spot It (Fast-paced game with many versions of play, junior versions available)
  • Ok Play (Simple tile game making five in a row, requires a little strategy, good for 7 and up)
  • Splendor (Made for older kids and adults, but simple enough concept for younger elementary.)
  • Ticket to Ride – First Journey (Simple concept, but longer game play. Good for 6 and up)

Why I’m Learning to Talk to Strangers

Our girls are two of my best teachers. They see the world so differently than I do. They’re young, free, kind, and compassionate. They don’t always know what’s expected in situations, so they’re often unencumbered by social norms and pressures. 

Because of these things, our younger daughter, Kristin, talks to strangers. This is not just a once in a while thing. She actually seeks out conversation with people she does not know on a very regular basis.

Now, this probably sounds a little creepy, and at times it does make me nervous. I’m well aware that not everyone is safe, and some people don’t have good intentions. I want her to know the importance of safety and being with a grown up you can trust. But most of the time, she’s talking to strangers when we’re together, when she knows she’s safe, and when she wants to include someone.

Sometimes we’re at the grocery store in the checkout lane, and she just launches into a full conversation with the 17-year-old behind the register. Other times we’re getting out of our van in our driveway, and she runs out and immediately screams “hi” to someone walking past our house that she noticed as we pulled in. She chats with receptionists at appointments, patrons at the movie theater, and just about anyone she notices.

Sometimes, quite often actually, she chats with strangers at our weekly Sunday morning Breakfast Club. These are normally people who are experiencing homelessness, so our guests rotate regularly. Our guests are usually looking for a good meal. What they don’t know is that they’ll be welcomed with heartfelt conversation as well.

A typical morning at Breakfast Club

We arrive at 6am, and Kristin can’t wait to see her “best friends” a term she uses far too often for people she doesn’t know well. When she says, “best friend” she just means it’s someone that matters to her. It’s a sweet perspective and reminds me that we often just pass by the background players in our life. In coffee shops and restaurants, as we shop and as we work, it’s fairly common practice to just ignore one another.

But not my Kristin. She is a people-person. She sees the humanity in those around her and takes a genuine interest in them. She asks questions, sometimes about what they’re wearing, why they look sad, or who they’re with, and while Dustin and I are constantly trying to steer her inquisitive nature into appropriate social norms, we’ve decided we don’t want to crush it completely. 

Maybe it’s ok for her to go against the grain a little bit. Maybe it’s ok to ask how someone is doing and really wait for the answer. Maybe it’s ok if she shares a little bit of her own story with them. Maybe it’s better for all of us if we stop rushing past the other humans in our story, and we lean in a little bit for the connection that so many of us are craving.

My “Yes” List

I joined Jen Hatmaker’s Book Club which probably comes as no surprise to anyone in my life. She’s my favorite. She’s funny, honest, bold, and kind. She loves Jesus and people. She’s been leading me from afar for years through her writing and social media presence.

So when she says, “I’m starting a book club, and it’s x amount of dollars,” I say to myself, “Well, of course I’m in. Please take my money.”

The first book in our club was Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan. I’ve never read anything by Kelly Corrigan, though I’ve seen Jen recommend her books before. Honestly, I just have an ever-growing list of to-be-read books, and sometimes I need a little incentive to finish one before opening the next. Nothing like online accountability to keep me going.

I’m so glad I decided to jump in because I absolutely LOVED this book. Kelly is honest and raw. Her writing is relatable and easy to follow. I loved the short essay format for each chapter and all of the moments where I heard myself saying “me too”.

You’ll have to dig into the book to see what you think, but today I’m sharing a list I was inspired to write based on Kelly’s short chapter that she dedicates to her “Yes” List – things she’ll always say “yes” to in life.

Christina’s “Yes” List

  • Iced Coffee with French Vanilla NutPods
  • Potatoes
  • Reading by the any body of water
  • 90s music
  • Exercising as alone time
  • Rewatching Gilmore Girls
  • Sparkling water
  • Date Nights with Dustin
  • Buying cute notebooks to contain all of my lists
  • Reading aloud to my girls
  • Breaking tension with jokes
  • Game nights
  • Working from coffee shops
  • Schitt’s Creek
  • Inviting friends into our home

So, what’s on your “Yes” List?

“Maybe God is Like That Too” – A Reflection

 

We bought a new book for our daughter, Kaylynn, this year for Easter. I had seen one I knew I wanted to grab for our younger daughter, Kristin, and because keeping things as even as possible seems to be the best approach in our household, I obviously needed to find one for Kaylynn as well. I landed on one entitled, “Maybe God is Like That, Too” by Jennifer C. Grant.

The book begins with a boy who lives in the city having a conversation with his grandmother about God. The boy, having never “seen God”, is wondering what God is like.

The grandmother, in her wisdom, encourages the child to look throughout the city and notice the places that people are displaying God-like characteristics – the fruit of the spirit to be exact. Wherever there is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, she suggests, God is there too.

The boy goes on to spend his day on the lookout for God. He notices God in his classroom among the students, in his neighbor as he opens the door for someone, and in his own grandmother, as she faithfully washes the dishes that evening. God is evident in the spaces he’s experienced daily, and all he has to do is begin to notice.

It’s a simple message that has stuck with me over the last couple of weeks.

God is always moving and always at work, not just in the spaces that are bright and easily defined as beautiful, but also in the spaces that seem devoid of those things. God is inside the broken and bruised and tattered and torn realities that sometimes fill our daily lives. God still shows up right in the middle of those spaces with a presence and Spirit that is unmistakable.

If we’ve met in person or perhaps even online, it’s probably evident that I’m passionate about foster care. The system and the stories have impacted me in ways that I can never rid myself of, even if I would try. The pain and the brokenness and the injustice of it all are what first caught my attention. The loss and the longing and the not-quite-made-right-ness seemed exactly like the places that Jesus spent his time.

But it wasn’t only devastation and destruction that I saw in the system. I saw stories of hope and healing. I saw families being restored, light breaking in, and the Church engaging. These realities and endless possibilities captured my heart and my dreams. They have shaped the last 8 years of my life and have forever impacted my trajectory.

There’s a parable in the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. He says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”

This, to me, is foster care. A system full of overwhelming heartache, yet permeated with the aroma of God’s slow-working, Kingdom of Heaven.

And I’ve seen this happen in so many ways right in our own church. Through the overflowing donation bins in our lobby packed with diapers and wipes, so that families have one less thing to think about when welcoming a little one into their family on a moment’s notice. Through the desserts served and the smiles given to a room full of tired yet faithful case workers. Through the Christmas presents bought and wrapped for kids spending Christmas away from the mom and dad they’ve known.

Through the meals delivered to a family as they celebrate an adoption and welcome a five month old baby into their home all in the same week. Through the child care volunteers, who spend time with a room full of kiddos so that foster and adoptive parents can connect, decompress, and share. Through the older couple, now honorary grandma and grandpa, who takes two energetic boys out for one-on-one time, so an adoptive mom and dad can have a couple of hours of silence to sit and breathe.

Through the CASA volunteer from Peoria driving all the way to Carbondale, so she can check on her kiddos who are now placed there. Through the Genesis volunteers who welcome the tentative first-time student who’s never been to church and seems overwhelmed by all of the sights and sounds of a new environment.

Through the family that welcomes a teenager into their home, even before the system acknowledged that the need was truly there. Through the couple that says yes again, even though they said goodbye to the little boy they loved.

Like yeast permeating flour or a mustard seed moving mountains, these ordinary actions of ordinary people are slowly but surely reminding me and the world around us,

“Maybe God is Like That Too”.

She Leaves a Little Sparkle Wherever She Goes

Kristin Joy-

Today you’re 7! I can hardly believe it.

You’ve been with us almost half of your life now, and I’m not sure how we ever got along without you.

Your joy is infectious. Your compassion is authentic. You love babies and taking care of people, and I love watching the ways you make the world a better place just by being you. When I was looking for a gift bag to put your presents in, I couldn’t resist the one that said, “She leaves a little sparkle wherever she goes.” It’s just the absolute truth, my girl.

We celebrated with your favorite things this weekend – special treats, baby doll accessories, and a ballet leotard

so you can turn on that classical music you love and practice dancing for endless hours in the playroom.

And then, we got to the cake.

When we went to our friend’s first birthday party in May, you were enthralled by the smash cake experience immediately asking if you could do that on your birthday. Your eyes lit up as everyone cheered on our little toddler friend and laughed as he dug his hands into that cake.

And I wondered to myself, “Did you have a smash cake when you turned one? Did you try to blow out your candle and open presents with your little hands and light up the room with your beautiful smile?”

Oh how I wish I could have been there. I would have loved to see those early years, my girl.

So today, for the final part of your 7th birthday celebration, I made you a smash cake.

We sang you “Happy Birthday” and you blew out those candles, and then I told you to dive in. Your seven-year-old eyes lit up with pure joy, and just as you do with all parts of life, you enjoyed the moment to its fullest. You smashed your face into the cake and shovelled it into your mouth by the handful.

I am so happy to have shared that moment with you.

I’m learning that part of this parenting thing means doing whatever it takes to parent each of my girls in the unique ways that you each need. In doing that, I become more of the parent that I am meant to be, and you are able to grow and thrive and move ahead.

And today, Kristin Joy, I think our whole family grew a little bit closer by watching you smash that cake between your hands. Because even though this might not have been your first smash cake, it was your first smash cake with us, and we’re grateful we got to share the moment with you.

With all my love,

Mama

 

 

 

how the journey began

 

I remember the Facebook message she sent to a few ladies at our church.

My friend had been contacted by another state’s child welfare worker. Her husband’s relatives had hit some rough spots and our friends’ nieces had been removed from their home and were in need of a place to live. She and her husband were on the list of “kin” to call, a practice that is done in most situations when families can’t stay together due to abuse or neglect.

My friend – the beautiful, selfless, young woman, with two girls at home who were 2 and 3 – was asking this group of women via Facebook message – what should she do? Should they say yes and offer for the girls to come live with them? It looked like it would be a long-term placement leading to adoption, and this wasn’t something either of them were expecting, let alone planning for.

The group message went back and forth a little bit, as each of the women within the group offered our two cents about a situation none of us knew much about.

And even though we were uninformed, we loved our friend, and made sure she knew we’d support her in whatever ways we could.

When our friends made the decision to move forward with the process of welcoming the girls into their home and their family, our church was there to support them.

One Saturday afternoon while our friends were at a foster parent training class, we broke into their home, as any loving church family would do.

We brought in bunk beds, rearranged furniture, decorated walls, and made sure all of the girls would feel special in their home. We worked quickly, aiming to be done by the time our friends got back from their class. I’ll never forget their reaction when they came into their home. Tears and laughter and so many hugs. It still goes down as one of my absolute favorite days.

Our little church had found a practical way to come alongside this brave couple and their two (soon to be four) daughters. We didn’t know much about foster care or trauma, but we recognized the courage of our friends as they stepped into an unknown future for girls they’d never really known. That type of commitment and love made us all want to do something.

A few weeks passed, and they welcomed their nieces into their family. Now, a family of 6 with no relatives in the area for support, Dustin and I began to help out in little ways. We met them at the hospital one evening when their oldest girl had swallowed a penny. We babysat, so our friends could connect to a weekly small group and have date nights. I even got to attend “Grandparents’ Day” since their kindergartener didn’t have a grandparent in the area who could come.

Dustin and I were four years into our marriage at the time, and we hadn’t made any decisions on whether or not we’d have kids someday. We had been focused on graduate school, working a few part-time jobs, and just enjoying our twenties without the responsibilities that kids would certainly bring. But we had lots of experience around kids, and it felt pretty natural to offer help in this way.

It was a sweet season of our life, and when we decided to move back to Illinois just a couple of years later, saying goodbye to those precious girls was one of the hardest parts. They had become family.

When our friends said “yes” to their two nieces joining their family, I had absolutely no idea that the course of my life was being altered forever. But that is exactly what happened.

Their willingness to step into their girls’ story has forever impacted ours. The family we have built, the church we attend, the jobs that we love are ours, in part, because of the decision they made to open their hearts and home to two little girls who needed a forever family.

We watched their family walk a foreign road, and their living, breathing, demonstration of what it meant to love compelled us forward. Dustin and I could see a path in front of us that was different from anything we’d considered before. Their faithfulness will forever be a mile-marker in our foster care journey.

And once we began to dive deeper into understanding the foster care system as a whole, we simply could not look away.