Valentijn was hand-in-hand with the aid and Romeo in the crook of her arm. The aid had just driven the boys from the shelter, where they had spent three weeks. Chubby Romeo was ten months old at the time and well adjusted. It was two-year old Valentijn who had been impacted the most significantly. This was the third time Valentijn had been removed from his home. He was affectionate but fragile and without boundaries.
As the Department of Childcare Services Specialist filled out the transfer paperwork to make our foster care official, Valentijn sat on my lap and pulled out the decorative pine cones from the bowl on the table and chucked them on the ground, one by one.
Not knowing what it looked like to love and discipline him well, I sat there, semi-stunned, and let him disassemble my wife’s handiwork. From that first moment, I knew parenting these two would prove to be a much different task than raising our two biological children.
Our first nights with the boys were a disaster. Accustomed to the environment of the shelter, Valentijn wanted the lights on and woke up often through the night. Learning how to put Valentijn to bed over the next months provided a crash course in how to care well. Here are four lessons Valentijn taught me as I put him to bed:
1) It’s not about me. With my own children, when I put them down I would hold them and stroke their hair when I put them to bed. While Valentijn is usually very affectionate, for some reason he doesn’t like it when I stroke his hair when I put him down to sleep. When he pushed my hand away at first it irritated me. But over time I learned to catch myself and that response. Putting Valentijn to sleep was about him, not about me. If that bothered him, I needed to respect that. So it is with how we care for others. There are times where we care for others in a way that we think is meaningful, but the gesture goes unnoticed or even is shut down. We can’t be offended. Our care is about them, not about us.
2) Be true to your word. With our biological children, we had a pretty regimented bedtime routine, but it wasn’t regimented down to the number of books we read or songs we sang. One of Valentijn’s very favorite things is to sing “Jesus songs” before he goes to bed. But if I didn’t tell Valentijn the exact number of songs we would sing and then be true to my word, he thought he had control of the situation and would beg, and then throw tantrums. I realized that it wasn’t loving to him to tell him I would sing him four Jesus songs and then sing five, because then he thought he could get six and then next night he thought begging would get him more as well. So too do we need to be clear in our care for others. What we commit to do we need to follow through on, but we are finite in ability to give care and we need to be clear with that as well. It is Jesus who ultimately provides care and comfort, not us. As Peter reminds us, we cast our anxieties on him, because he cares for us.
3) Sit down. Because of his background, Valentijn couldn’t adjust to a toddler bed as quickly as other children and so he stayed in a crib until he was three. It was easier for me to sing standing up and then bend over to kiss Valentijn goodnight, but in that posture he sensed an impatience and that I wasn’t really all-there with him and so when I stood up too soon or didn’t sit down fast enough, I would hear Valentijn’s voice cut through the song, “Sit down, daddy.” What in my body language, my non-verbal signals, is telling the person I’m caring for that I’m not really all here? Where is my cell phone? Where are my thoughts? When we care well we are fully present.
4) You can never hug too much. After I finished singing to Valentijn, we would hug and kiss no less than three times each. He craved the assurance of a hug from mommy and daddy. One of the unfortunate results of the abuse of physical touch by some is that professional environments have become more and more disconnected from touch. As a pastor, it can be awkward to know what the appropriate boundary is. But the boundary cannot be that we withdraw touch completely from people. Whether it is holding the hand of someone in hospice, or putting your hand on the shoulder or someone needing prayer, or appropriately hugging someone weeping over a loss in their life, touch is important.
I’m grateful for Valentijn in all of his sweetness and disruption for teaching me how to care better. May our churches be places of deep and meaningful care.
Photo credit: Bastien Jaillot/Unsplash