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By JILLIAN SMITH
Rantoul Press columnist
Still learning a lot about each other, I took my 10-year-old foster son, Carlos, grocery shopping one afternoon.
In my BC days (before children), I had always believed kids under the age of 13 should not be allowed in grocery stores, let alone behind a shopping cart. But I couldn’t leave him home alone and decided to chance it.
My belief proved correct.
Carlos looked up at me with those beautiful dark flashing brown eyes and long black eyelashes and nicely asked if he could “drive” the cart for me. I took a deep breath, and before I gave him a nod of approval, he grabbed the cart and raced off down the aisle, terrorizing all who stepped in his path.
Several minutes after his disappearance he came to a screeching halt behind me and loudly said, “You probably don’t allow me to say the word s---, huh?”
I looked at him and said, “You’re right. That is an unacceptable word in our home,”
In a split second he replied, “Well, can I say “shoot” instead?” I told him shoot would be acceptable.
Excited, he then said loudly, “Well, you should see that old shoot head over there in the next aisle!”
His remark caught me entirely off guard, and I have to admit I thought it was a little funny, although the people around me didn’t seem to have the same sense of humor. It was one of those times when you just knew what other people were thinking of you as a parent.
Trying not to show any emotion whatsoever, I looked down at his little beaming face and eyes sparkling with mischief, giving him yet another exasperated look. To this very day this event is replayed in my mind every time I enter a grocery store.
My husband, Hal, Carlos and I went on our first outing on the Fourth of July. Carlos acted out from the time he got up until the time he went to bed. It was difficult not to take his negative behavior personally, especially since he directed all his anger toward me.
Unfortunately, Hal was never within hearing distance. Then, when Hal wasn’t looking, Carlos would shoot me daggers with his eyes and made horrible, intimidating little faces.
I told Carlos I did not appreciate his behavior (a line I learned in training), and he shouted, “But I didn’t do nothing wrong!”
This line was to be his trademark, one I heard several times every single day for the next four and one-half years. However, I did manage to get him to change “nothin’” to “anything” for a brief time, and considered it a personal victory.
I took Hal aside and told him what Carlos was doing, but since Hal never saw him do anything to me, it was hard for him to intervene.
“He’s just a little kid, Jill. What do you think he’s going to do to you?”
By this time I was sure this troubled little child could think of something very creative to do to me, but I kept my mouth shut.
I found myself in an impossible situation and wished we had just stayed home. I tried to keep in mind holidays can be triggers for children in foster care because that’s when family members are usually home and drinking and drug use is considered a “holiday activity” in many families. Unfortunately, children are the ones who suffer the most abuse and neglect on holidays, and many carry the scars with them the rest of their lives.
Learning to not always show my emotions and to not take things personally were two of the hardest lessons I had to learn to survive and be a good parent.
Side note: It would be 25 years later (2011), on the Fourth of July weekend that Carlos and I would come full circle. We even went to grocery store together, and he wanted me to “drive the cart.” But, that is another story for another time.
Jillian Smith of Mahomet writes a periodic column for the Rantoul Press. Smith has a B.A. in human services and more than 30 years’ experience working with abused children and educating parents. Her manuscript “21 Schools” is based on her daily journal and updates from her five foster children, spanning 25 years. All names and locations have been changed.