by James A. Kenny, Ph.D.
Whatever happened to the old adage: “Experience is the best teacher”? Most would agree that is true. So why the heavy reliance on agency-run workshops or classes for foster parent training? Parenting can be learned and improved in several ways.
The most important qualification for a potential foster parent is life experience. Virgin parents come with a serious handicap, required to learn parenting skills “on the job” with difficult, neglected, and damaged children. Children in foster care are children in crisis. They deserve parents who have hands-on knowledge.
Meeting with other experienced parents is another practical way to learn parenting skills. Fellow foster parents who have “been there, done that” are more likely to be appropriately encouraging and/or sympathetic. Parents with practical know-how are often better teachers than college-trained neophytes. Many child welfare departments wisely offer CEU credits for foster parents getting together and supporting one another, offering respite care, sharing experiences, and providing one another with practical suggestions.
Another important source for foster parents can be the extended family. Many large families offer a treasury of advice and support. To paraphrase a wise pediatrician friend of ours, “One grandmother is worth five psychologists.”
Finally, we come to the more conventional way that parent training is offered. Classes and workshops can be excellent. It is very important to be aware of DCS policies on discipline, babysitting, and other important matters that may differ from normal parenting. In addition, a good trainer will focus on the wisdom already available in the class. Unfortunately, workshops can also be irrelevant, not necessarily addressing the immediate needs of the parents in attendance. Or worse, they can teach “proper” parenting from an abstract and ivory tower.
Foster parents are professional parents. They must be better at raising children than the ordinary parent for the simple reason that they are not given ordinary children. They have tough kids who because of prior abuse or neglect, may withdraw, misbehave, or have problems learning in school. For this reason, foster parents need and deserve the very best preparation and ongoing education that society can provide.