by Jo Ann Wentzel

We constantly hear so much bad news about kids we tend to forget that all kids do not engage in bad behavior. We dwell on the fact that often kids today are cruel, cold, and unfeeling. We know that does not describe them all.

Even tough kids, those street -wizened and hardened- by^life ones, usually have a softer side. Sometimes, we don't see this side. There are two reasons for that. Number one is that when kids are busy getting into trouble, they keep us fairly busy also. We are dealing with the results of their bad behavior. We are involved in finding appropriate consequences and developing ideas to prevent a rerun of the situation in the future. We really are not looking for their good points. The second reason is that tough kids hate to let anyone know they've got a softer side. For them to appear caring or gentle, especially in front of their peers, is not something they want to reveal. To be soft or caring makes them appear and feel vulnerable. So, it is easier to be angry, rebellious, and tough.

Recently, while doing an interview on a very unrelated subject, I was told a story. The folks I interviewed have a wild animal sanctuary, which will soon be opened to the public. Part of their advertising and educating the public involves taking baby lions, tigers, leopards, bears etc. to schools and nursing homes. It was during one of these sessions that a small miracle took place. It was an inner-city high school with lots of tough kids. The wildlife sanctuary staff was told to expect neither much response or orderly classroom. The kids may not pay attention or even acknowledge your presence, she was told. The teacher said that was their usual way. The lady was not worried; she saw the magic of these animals before.

The class was in awe and amazement at how close they could get to these wild animals. They could touch them, pet them, hold them, and feed them. One very large young man weighing about 260 and towering over this little lady at 6' plus, took a liking to one of the cats. When she needed someone to hold that one during a demonstration, she handed it to him. He held it like a baby; stroking its fur, and hugging it close, gently whispering to it. She let it remain with him for the rest of the class. The class was over and the regular teacher looked at her with amazement. He had never seen the class so well behaved or so interested in any topic before. Then he looked at the very large young man, still clinging to the cat. "Unbelievable," he whispered, nobody can reach that kid. Finally, it was time to take the animals home. The lady went to put the last cat in the traveling crate and he handed it over reluctantly. When he thanked her he had tears in his eyes saying he had always wanted a pet, and to be able to actually hold this wild animal was unbelievable. The gentle giant had shown his softer side.

I have seen girls with tattoos, wild clothes, and inappropriate sayings written across their hands, become the most caring of mother's when they had a baby. Older teens constantly in trouble with the law became compassionate helpers to elderly people. Another street teen, I knew well, spent a good part of his early adulthood caring for a child with severe emotional and learning disabilities. He showed a gentle, loving disposition most would not have guessed existed.

Our kids need to find their softer side. We need to assist them in its discovery. Give them opportunities to display it. When a person can relate to some other living thing, no matter what that is, it has benefits for both of them.

The attitudes and mean thoughts that precede violence are sometimes indulged in while attempting to look and act tough. They may not be the "real person," but what their peers expect of them. It is really difficult to show the caring part of your personality when you are trying to keep face in front of your "set." There is no way when your whole "I'm bad" act is the only way you can relate to the other girls to shift gears and suddenly get all lovey-dovey over anything. You must keep this part hid if you are going to be successful in your relationships with those your own age. Somehow we must help kids know this is an admirable quality, not a shortcoming to act with compassion.

Foster parents must create an atmosphere in their homes, which promotes these kind and gentle feelings. We must encourage kids of all kinds and both sexes to engage in activities which reveal their softer side in a safe environment. If they cannot express this part of their personality within their home, where will it happen?

Our male children have often grown up in a society that does not allow them to have a softer side. We want boys to be tough, strong, unemotional, not easily upset or hurt. Guess what? In many cases that is what we have, boys who cannot feel. Even girls have sometimes been raised to be afraid to let anyone see their emotional or caring side. This is stupid. If we want good kids who care about others, we need good parents who show love and compassion. We need people who are unafraid to be caring and loving. This means having a softer side. A hardened person cannot adequately express this feeling that all children need. Both boys and girls will be parents some day. Shouldn't this part of their personality be developed?

Foster parents are told to not show emotion when caring for kids, don't love them too much. I repeat this is wrong. We must teach love and caring along with discipline and rules. You can love without coddling. You can still be firm. The combination of plenty of love and discipline is the most successful one you will ever discover.

Parents learn about how to use tough love and sometimes this is a necessary tactic. Unfortunately, many parents never were loved as they should have been, so do not seem to know how to teach this or encourage kids in having a softer side. No matter what strategies you use for discipline, teaching and showing love must always be part of this.

Kids need to insolate themselves from the cruel world and some of the rotten blows it has dealt them. It is so much easier to do this when you treat everyone with roughness and dislike. When kids are allowed something to be "soft" about, behaviors often improve. Eventually it can carry over to their everyday life and more of their time is spent being a caring person.

Finding the right area for your child to develop and display his softer side takes some investigation. All kids are not born animal lovers. Many think flowers are a waste of time. How many teens do you know who will be moved by beautiful poetry? Probably not many. Sometimes, however, when they are exposed to the beauty of nature, they are moved. Most kids will be kind and loving to babies or little children. I've seen many who have a soft spot for the elderly. Compassion may only be brought out when they are confronted by folks with disabilities. Abuse victims are also often the key to discovering their soft side.

Whatever it takes, to help kids find that place or thing or person that they can feel kind toward, do it. The road may be difficult when you have a teen who thinks the tough persona is all-important. But, if you never give up in your quest, you will discover that one area, that particular thing that makes your hardened, street-wise kid turn to "mush." A soft kitten, a puppy licking their face, the beauty of a sunset or a wild meadow strew with flowers could be the key to opening up that hidden place. Anything that causes someone to feel deeply is a good start. A living thing that you can connect with and interact with are most successful, but anything that brings them closer to feeling and expressing love is welcome.

Foster parents; I know how busy you are already. You have too much work and too little hours, but find one more. Use this time to help your kids care for something. Help them love something and let you all discover their "softer side." And thanks for fostering.

Jo Ann Wentzel is Senior Editor of:   Parenting Today's Teen
Jo Ann Wentzel's Parent Consultation Services

Other articles on Foster Parent Community by Jo Ann Wentzel:

Biography of Jo Ann Wentzel

Between the years of 1966 and 1993, I brought children into life, into my foster home, into court, and into their own apartments. Mother of three, two natural children born to me and one foster kid who never left our family, grandmother to five, foster mom to over 75 kids, and mother, friend, guardian angel, or their worse nightmare, depending on which of the other hundreds of kids you ask.

A quarter of a century devoted to raising children, learning what issues concerned them, volunteering to help groups serving kids, and teaching others what little I know. Life Ready was our own business where we installed kids, who had no other choice, into their own apartment. My husband and I, as para-professionals, also were contracted by counties in Minnesota to supervise kids and work with families to help get foster kids back home. Before foster care, I was a licensed daycare provider and cared for all ages of children. During foster care, our specialty was teenaged boys and we had a group home where we served up to eight youth at a time. Street kids and gang members were among those we worked with and families ranged from traditional to what in the world. Our kids came from all over Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and North Dakota. Volunteer positions were held in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Minnesota.

I have held the position of Guardian-ad-Litem in Goodhue County, a paid not volunteer position. I trained to be a surrogate parent which enables you to sign I.E.Ps for children whose parents can't or won't. I have taken Mediator training for Minnesota court system. With my husband, I presented a seminar at the Minnesota Social Worker's Convention in Minneapolis, spoke at the Federal Medical Center( a prison), and gave several talks to school classrooms.

My book is about the experiences and adventures of a foster parent. It encourages creative parenting and offers useful methods and ideas for everyone raising kids. It features just a few of the many wonderful kids that lived with us.It tells how we ran our home of as many as eight teenaged foster kids at a time. It is written from the viewpoint of the expert, the one who does the job, the hands on provider- the foster parent.This book is currently looking for a publisher and will be available just as soon as we find one.



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