Do nothing –
caring for foster children

by Ben Dennis


What does my wife hate the most about working at Kmart?

No, not the uniform – it’s those horrid children, shouting profanities as they chase each other down the aisle, knocking clothes off racks.

Actually, it’s not the children themselves that my wife despises, rather it’s their mothers. So enthralled are they by their shopping, so unconcerned with their children’s ruckus, that you would be convinced these women didn’t have any children at all.

The day we were accepted as foster carers, my wife vowed never to become one of those ineffectual mothers who shop at Kmart. She will strive for parenting perfection starting with the 11-year-old girl who was placed in our care.

Homework had to be done because bright minds lead to a brighter future.

The girl was given chores and expected to clean up after herself, because life is less complicated when you’re a responsible adult.

Her TV viewing was restricted, because correct time management gives you time for everything.

Despite all our good intentions, the girl shouted, “No!” She shouted that word a lot. She demolished our rules and boundaries like a toddler kicking sand castles.

My wife refused to give up on parenting this child. If she could just reach around the girl’s defiance, gently nudge her down the path of social decency, then all the battles fought will be worth it.

Except, how much defiance can one girl display? Must she oppose everything we say and do?

Thankfully, the girl’s caseworker recognised the absurdity of our parenting war. She arranged an appointment for us to visit Social Services in-house psychologist. 

Like a war correspondent for CNN, my wife described in graphic detail the battle we were engaged in with our foster child.

The psychologist’s advice was simple: do nothing.

Do what? How do I even respond to that? I couldn’t, but I’m grateful to my wife for at least managing to raise an eyebrow.

The psychologist explained her odd suggestion: don’t worry about homework, it’s unimportant. Let the dishes pile up in the sink; the child can do her chores when she is ready. Let her watch TV all day – it never hurt anyone. What is important is the removal of all conflict from our home.

Wait. So we are being told not to parent our foster child? Seriously?

What other reason is there to become a foster carer if not to raise a child as your own? I don’t care how professional the psychologist’s advice was, I chose to ignore it. So too did my wife as she declined an offer for a second appointment.

Long after the 11-year-old girl was returned to her mum, the conflict continued. It simply transferred over to the other tweens and teens placed in our care. Sure chores were done and homework was completed, but our victories came at a very high price as tears, tantrums and toppled chairs made living in our house unbearable.

Why do these children treat us like the enemy? Don’t they see how exhausting this is for us? How frustrating it is? It’s just not working. Maybe it’s time for another visit with a psychologist.

A different psychologist with the same advice: do nothing.

Except this time, my wife and I, we swallowed our parental devotion – okay, our pride in our parental devotion – and listened, really listened, as the psychologist explained the principles of do nothing.

Do not parent the child.

Better yet, avoid doing anything that could trigger conflict between you and the child. Conflict blocks the vital bonding process between carer and child. Having a child feel loved and safe and worthwhile is far more important than using parenting to sculpt a child into a respectable, responsible adult.

All this time, my wife and I had confused caring with parenting.

I think it’s time to correct that mistake.

We quit parenting our foster children, and they in turn had no reason to fight us. A soft gossamer calmness wrapped around our home life. It was bliss. It was what we needed.

“Do nothing” was a success – except for one major flaw … One day while my wife was shopping at Kmart, she noticed a staff member glaring at her – no, not at her, the foster children with her. Pressing pause on her shopping, my wife glanced over at the children in her care. They shouted profanities as they chased each other down the aisle, knocking clothes off racks.

The Kmart worker continued to glare, her scowl accusing my wife of being an ineffectual mother.

“Oh, you’ve got to be shitting me,” moaned my wife. Talk about the despiser becoming the despised.

When starting out as a foster carer, it’s easy to forget where these children have been. A carer can become so immersed in doing their very best, that they never stop to question why normal parenting only makes it worse.
These children have no concept of homework as they were either suspended from school, or never went to school.

House chores are trivial to these children who – prior to foster care – spent all their time and energy on devising survival strategies against their mentally unstable or emotionally volatile parents.

Some children watched TV all night, as Nickelodeon was their baby sitter when the parents weren’t home.

It’s hard to believe that all this abuse or neglect is perfectly normal to these children. The nightmare begins when they are removed from their homes, to be placed in a strange house with strangers. House rules are established, TV restrictions and a set bed time are enforced.

A foster child’s hyper survival instincts have been adapted to navigate through chaos. They have no concept of order. So when these children get fenced in by boundaries and house rules, their response is ferocious, a terrified animal trapped in a bear trap.

My wife and I had been so caught up in parenting foster children that we forgot to do what is most important – simply to care.

Now, whenever she is working at Kmart, my wife no longer frowns at the women who are oblivious to their children’s ruckus while they shop. Instead, she gives them a smile and can’t help but wonder if these ineffectual mothers may not be ineffectual at all.

Perhaps they are foster carers who were told to do nothing.


© Ben Dennis

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem