Plan an “ice breaker” or two for the first day .
We — two brothers, a sister, and I arrived at our foster home two weeks before Halloween. On the trip up from the orphanage the social worker stopped to refresh us with a glass of cider. When we expressed interest in them, she bought each of us our choice of Halloween masks, what we then called “false faces,” and a large pumpkin. Because we were anxious and shy, we asked if we could wear the masks into the house to frighten our new foster parents. Somehow, without any planning at all, they and we were suddenly playing a game of hide and seek with the masks in which, when they found us, we would ask, “Who am I?” and our new foster parents had to name us. If they got our name right, we had to remove our masks. If they did not, we could continue to wear our masks and hide again. But that was the last unplanned activity during the first weeks of adjustment to our new home.
Our foster mother had arranged for a boy my age to play with me and my brothers. He and his father arrived with two large boxes of toys and games which entertained us until supper time during which the four of us all talked at once (the rule in the orphanage was silence at meals) and ate vigorously. After supper, during our first family project, we carved a pumpkin on the kitchen table. We delighted in digging our hands into the squishy center of the pumpkin to remove the pulp and offered lots of advice to our new foster father as he carved the pumpkin. After we had all bathed (four at once in a large tub!) and put on new pajamas, our foster father placed and lighted a candle in the pumpkin which he carried to the hall outside our bedroom. For the first few weeks the four of us slept together on beds in a single room after which Janey, the youngest at age four, was moved to her own bedroom adjacent to that of our new foster parents.
Introduce the children to their new environment through an “Orientation Week.”
Our first week was carefully planned. The morning after our arrival, a Saturday, my new mother walked me up to a grocery store to shop for my first ever birthday dinner the following Monday. Then we all walked to our new school where we met the art teacher and the principal and toured the school and borrowed books from the library.
During the rest of our orientation week our after school activities included a stroll through the campus of the university a few blocks from our house, a visit to the tree nursery where we would develop a large vegetable garden, a tour of the church we would attend, our first physicals by the family physician, and a visit to the apple farm owned by friends of the family, where we gathered apples and black walnuts. On our second Saturday we all marched up to the main street of town to buy new clothes and shoes and had our first haircuts in a real barber shop. These were institutions and activities that would be important in our lives.
Introduce the children to the rules, schedules and routines of their new household and culture during the first week.
Our day began that first week and ever after in the kitchen with a spoonful of cod liver oil washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice, a luxury our foster mother considered important for recovering our health. We were given napkins and our own napkin rings, a novelty for us, and taught how to use them. We were introduced to the schedules and routines of our foster home. Meal times, bed times, daily bath times, and when not in school, nap times, were fixed. Each day had its own rhythm. Monday, for example, was laundry day. Tuesday was cleaning day. We spent Sunday mornings in church. Predictable schedules and routines are an important means of restoring physical health and fostering emotional security of wounded children and will contribute to your own mental health.
Involve the children early in clearly defined household chores.
Introduce the children to household chores during the first month. Every four days was our day. On that day we were responsible for setting and clearing the table for the evening meal and, assisted by mom or dad, doing the evening dishes. We made our own beds daily and picked up our rooms. We took part in lawn care and major cleaning projects, usually family affairs on Saturdays.
Organize some fun family activities during the first weeks.
In addition to trips to an apple orchard and a tree farm, we enjoyed trips to two state parks in the area during the first weeks where we were allowed to run free through the fields and woods, a joy not permitted in the tightly regimented orphanage from which we had come. In today’s world there are many other possibilities for family outings. What is important is that everyone participate, that the children truly enjoy the activity, and especially if they are boys, that the activity be vigorously physical. Provide suitable athletic equipment for the children at once and locate a park or place nearby where they can use it. Wear them out if you can! More generally, keep them busy, challenged, and fully occupied whenever possible in creative activities.
Involve your extended family and friends.
If you have one within reach, involve your extended family in your fostering project. As our adoptive mother became in her language and her actions our mother the afternoon we arrived, so did our extended family accept us at once and over time would wrap their arms around the four of us. We were made to feel we were a part of the clan. Involve also your close friends and your communities, religious or otherwise, in the nurture of the children. No child can have too many adults interested in his or her welfare.
The children will probably arrive with personal treasures. Mine were a green fountain pen given to me by my biological father the last time I saw him at age five, and a photo of my much loved maternal grandparents.
Help them protect their treasures. They will like you for that. Treasures are an important element in letting go of the past.
Document the first weeks.
Keep your camera ready and try to spend a few moments in your now very busy lives documenting those first days. They pass quickly and will not come again. My mother kept a journal during our first ten days together, which is why I can write about our own transition in such detail.
Expect the first months to be exciting and exhausting. As the Luchs put it in a letter to family and friends, “The first month was a bit rough on the old folks and we presume even rougher on the children.” But a year later Mom wrote, again to family and friends, “Well, we come to the end of the happiest year of our lives! We never realized how much we were missing until we had the children.”