Learning from Elias
Elias was a young boy in the foster system, taken away from his mother and placed into three temporary foster homes before settling in, at the age of three, with his foster-to-adopt family. Mrs. Cook, Elias’ preschool teacher, met the foster family at Open House before school began. Elias entered the room with bright eyes. He’d never seen so many colors and shapes and puzzles and play areas all in one place. He went straight for the play kitchen without so much as an acknowledgement of Mrs. Cook. Despite Mrs. Cook’s attempts to introduce herself, Elias maintained full focus on the play kitchen, a behavior that didn’t seem too foreign to the seasoned teacher.
Elias’ foster parents seated themselves around the table with Elias’ teacher, eager to establish a strong parent/teacher relationship before the school year began. Background information on the boy was exchanged; the foster parents deeply yearned for the success of this new venture. Fostering Elias wasn’t easy, and they were nervous but optimistic about the school year. As the conference wrapped up, Elias’ foster mom stepped over to Elias and said with a smile, “All finished here for today. Time to pick up the toys!”
“You pick ‘em up, ho,” Elias retorted.
Mrs. Cook was taken aback. Elias is three, and Elias knows the word “ho.” Knows how to use it in a sentence, she thought. But what stunned her even more than the accurate use of “ho” was the foster mother’s reaction. She bent down, scooped up the plastic pots and pans, and returned them to the play kitchen. Elias, all the while, looked on with indifference. What kind of parent does that?! I would have busted that boy’s butt right there, Mrs. Cook thought, but thankfully didn’t say. After Elias was given the opportunity to watch his foster mother do his job, his foster father picked him up and they exited the room.
“Please pardon my son. I know that his behavior is unacceptable, but we are working on it.” Working on it how?! You just did absolutely nothing.“We know that you have class rules and expectations for behavior, but what we have found is that Elias responds best to affirmation and encouragement. Punishment seems to categorize us as another person in his life who uses abuse and mistreatment. Instead of opening old wounds, we choose to celebrate his good choices with love and more great options. For example, if he picks up his toys, which he obviously didn’t do today, he gets our cheers. Mrs. Cook, I know this may seem orthodox, but we would rather Elias be obedient not because he’s afraid of the consequences but because his obedience leads to growth and joy. It’s a process, and it’s really hard. But we believe in the system, and we hope you can help us along the way.”
As the foster mom departed, Mrs. Cook slipped back into the chair. We would rather Elias be obedient not because he’s afraid of the consequences but because his obedience leads to growth and joy.
At the end of the first month, Elias walked into the room, placed his lunch in the cubby, and proceeded to his seat. His foster dad bent down, looked him in the eye, and said, “That was great! I am so proud of you!! You’re going to have a great day.” He hugged Elias, gave him a wink, tossed his hair, and left him in Mrs. Cook’s care.
These foster parents got it well before the professional in the room.
Ho - that was all he knew. Some of our babies come to us with little to no concept of appropriate behavior because they have not seen appropriate behavior. Sadly, for many children, school can be one of the only places where order and respect exist.
Our natural response to misbehavior is discipline, but it’s not always the best approach. The Proverb “Spare the rod; spoil the child” is a teacher favorite. But discipline can potentially cause kids to associate school with fear and failure.
Being a teacher of faith means exercisi
ng consistency, love, and patience. What a taxing job it is to maintain a level of consistency, love, and patience to roomful of children each and every day. More taxing, I dare say, than we can manage wholly on our own. As teachers of faith, that must come only with constant prayer and dependence upon God’s strength.
And on a completely related note, God, too, would much rather us be obedient to Him out of a place of love and faith, not a place of fear. The more we listen and obey, the more our obedience leads to growth and joy.