Book Review: Raising Other People’s Children by Debbie Ausburn

I don’t write a lot of book reviews on my blog, but every now and then, a publisher will send me a new title and ask me to write a review. And here’s a secret: I only review the books I can recommend. I don’t want to give real estate here on my blog to something I don’t think is worth people’s time. So from the start, if you see a book reviewed here, you can assume I think it’s worth your time.

Now here’s another secret: for a few years now, I have planned to someday write a book entitled, “Raising Other People’s Children.” I wanted to wait until all of my children were adults and able to give consent to me writing about our family. The title is so apropos to foster parenting, so emblematic of the spirit of what it means to be a foster parent, that it is the perfect title for a book about foster parenting.

I know now that it was a really good idea, because earlier this year, someone beat me to it, and Raising Other People’s Children: What Foster Parenting Taught Me About Bringing Together a Blended Family (Hatherleigh Press, 2021) came out. In it, author Debbie Ausburn captures some fundamental insights about foster parenting (as well as step-parenting). “In my years of raising other people’s children, I have become convinced that popular culture has lied to us: an intact biological family is not an outdated stereotype, but a need embedded deep within each child,” she writes in chapter one. “We… must acknowledge the bedrock truth that, no matter how wonderful a parent we are, we are not and never will be a non-biological child’s first choice. Fortunately, being another person’s Plan B can be pretty wonderful if we give our children time and space to accept the relationship.” I could not agree more, and in my years of foster parenting and, subsequently, adoption, I’ve come to believe that accepting this truth and not taking it personally will make all the difference when it comes to building trust and effectively raising other people’s children.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear: this book focuses on foster parenting and step-parenting. While there are certainly some aspects of what she writes that are true for adoptive parents as well, adoptive parents are not her primary audience. (There are wonderful parenting books out there that help adoptive parents bond and build attachments, and I recommend several of them on my Recommended Resources page.)

That said, there is one thing Ausburn emphasizes right out of the gate that, as an adoptive parent, I can attest to, and it’s this: whether they are our kids because of foster care, remarriage, or adoption, our kids need to know that we understand that we are not the people who are supposed to be there. In fact, that is the title of chapter one, in which Ausburn astutely points out, “Children who have lost an intact family feel deep in their bones that this is not the way the world is supposed to be.” Indeed, some of the most poignant moments I have had with some of my children were when I articulated this very thing to them. My love for them is not enough to make up for the fact that they carry the primal wound of separation from their mother “deep in their bones.” I am so grateful that my children feel safe telling me they miss their mom. Over the years, I have come to see that it has nothing to do with me, and I have learned not to take it personally. As I tell my kids, “it makes perfect sense that you miss her. This is not how it’s supposed to be, and even though I love you with my whole heart, and I love being your mom, I’d give anything to spare you the pain you live with because you can’t be with her.” I am so glad this is the focus of the first chapter, because it’s something every person who is raising a child not born to them needs to absorb and accept.

Another topic any book on parenting other people’s children must devote some important pages to is the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on their children, and chapter two of this book does just that. In “Loss and Trauma Change Our Children,” Ausburn gives a concise explanation for what ACEs are and how they affect a child’s developing brain and capacity for emotional regulation and executive function. In fact, she shares a fantastic metaphor to explain this phenomenon: “Children’s difficulties in dealing with adverse experiences are a bit like a computer with a resource-intensive program running in the background. The program we are trying to work with on the screen will be slow, glitchy, and terribly annoying. Our children’s life experiences have a similar effect on them. Coping with their memories takes up much of their emotional energy. The process running in the background leaves them with few resources to deal with the more immediate problems of school and family chores. They tend to opt for the quickest and easiest way to make those problems go away so that they can continue working on the background program.” This is the best explanation for the effect of ACEs on a child I have ever heard (and I will be borrowing it a lot going forward). There is so much in this chapter that I wish I had known going in to foster parenting. This book will be a vital resource for anyone considering foster parenting for this chapter alone.

Chapters three, four, and five of Raising Other People’s Children continue to capture some of what I consider to be the most important things for foster parents to understand. In “Our Children Are Not Perpetual Victims,” Ausburn pulls no punches in recognizing the dangers of treating children as if they are permanently broken. “Our society actively rewards victimhood,” she writes. “From educational institutions to media, from movies to books to social media, contemporary culture encourages our children to explore the many ways in which our society has been unfair to to groups in which they may belong. One very harmful result is that our children start focusing on where they fit on the scale of victims. To use my foster daughter’s phrase, they start collecting ‘victim points.'” Ausburn does not deny or ignore the very real trauma her children have faced, writing, “We must be honest about how hard it will be for them to move past being victims,” but she emphasizes that, “Although we have to start with empathy, it is incredibly important that we do not stop there. As one experienced caseworker said during my foster care training, ‘Sometimes the best thing you can say to a traumatized child is, I am very sorry you went through all that, and you still have to do the dishes.‘” Walking this line as you parent a child with a history of trauma requires a supernatural dose of grace and truth, along with a good therapist and plenty of positive parenting tools. That said, helping our children grow past their identity as victims is one of the things our children need most from us.

But it’s not the only thing. In my experience as a foster parent, one of the most important lessons in this book comes from chapter four, “Commitment is Stronger Than Love.” Here, Ausburn peels back the curtain on what it’s really like to raise other people’s children, acknowledging something that I agree with but have not heard anyone else admit: “Children need love from us, but more important, they need our commitment. We need to rediscover an ethic of following our promises rather than our emotions.” From the moment a new child enters my home, they have my commitment long before they have my feelings of love and affection. Love and affection take time; commitment is a choice. “All children need to be loved, and some of them will want love from you. Some of them may not be easy to love, and others will be even harder to like. Even when we do love them, that alone will not be enough to help heal their emotional scars. More than anything else, they need to know that, even on days when you do not love (or even like) them, you will follow through on your commitment to them.”

I cannot agree with this more, and I am so glad someone had the courage to write about it. I would be lying if I said it is easy to love every child in the same way. I wish I could just turn on my love faucet on demand, but I cannot. Love takes time, affection takes time, and making up for the lost years of bonding with a baby is not always possible. Feeling affection for a child you barely know who is oppositional or defiant, raging, screaming, hitting, lying, hoarding, etc. is a tall order. However, we can choose commitment no matter what, and some days, that it the most we can offer.

Still, our commitments have boundaries, and Ausburn does a good job of recognizing those boundaries. “Unconditional commitment” is a loaded term, and not always wise (or possible). For example, if a child is a danger to himself or others, that child might be safer in an institution set up to handle their extreme behaviors. I once affirmed a heartbroken foster parent’s decision to end a placement after their child tried setting their house on fire by holding a throw pillow up to the gas stove and setting it ablaze. This was after they had taken multiple trips to the E.R. because of suicidal ideations. In that case, this new foster parent was not equipped to handled the extent of his foster child’s mental health needs. He did the right thing when he ended that placement, though he struggled with a tremendous weight of guilt for “breaking his commitment” to that child.

Indeed, the demands of raising other people’s children require a careful balance of commitment to others and commitment to our own mental health and well-being. I created The Flourishing Foster Parent in 2019 because I had spent a few years trying to figure out how to thrive and flourish personally despite the tremendous stress of foster parenting. I had learned that I am not able to give my children my best when I am running on fumes, constantly in a state of reactivity, and trying to dip from an empty cup. Identifying what it means to practice true self care (which involves a lot more than herbal tea, bubble baths, and a weekly yoga class, though I recommend all of those things be part of your self-care plan), Ausburn takes it much deeper, advocating for focusing on your core values, building a support network, asking for help, and developing emotional safeguards. These are all integral to staying anchored when your house feels like a ship being tossed at sea.

If there is any part of this book that is going to give someone in the world of trauma-informed parenting trouble, it will be in chapters six through eight. Here, Ausburn wades into some of the practical ins and outs of parenting children with a history of trauma, many of whom come into your home with their values, expectations, behaviors, and sense of morality already formed. This section of the book is where some people might take issue with her approach, which is part Love and Logic and part Positive Parenting Solutions. For people who are adherents of trauma-informed connected parenting, some of the suggestions Ausburn gives for handling certain situations will be problematic, such as her retelling of how she and her husband tried to reinforce the importance of trust when they discovered their son had been lying to them. For a child in foster care who has learned all the wrong things about trust, expecting them to understand what trust even is, let alone how to rebuild it through showing himself to be trustworthy, might be an insurmountable task. Indeed, there is a wide spectrum of opinion when it comes to the merits of using natural consequences, logical consequences, or any consequences at all to teach a child with a history of trauma. Ausburn definitely advocates for heavy use of natural or logical consequences (she even has a chapter entitled “Engineer Logical Consequences of a Child’s Decisions”), which might be problematic for some readers.

That said, I agree with her approach for children who have grown up in your home, have a healthy understanding of commitment and trust in you, and have been formed by your house rules, values, and expectations. I have said many times that I am a proponent and affiliate of Positive Parenting Solutions. I utilize natural and logical consequences heavily in my own home with my five children who are all adopted through foster care. However, for children who might be new to your home, who come with a full set of emotional and parental baggage, and/or who have bounced from household to household (and set of house rules/expectations to set of house rules/expectations), I would look to a book like Beyond Consequence, Logic and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children with Severe Behaviors (Heather T Forbes, B. Bryan Post). This book would be a corrective companion to some of the consequence-driven responses mentioned here for children who have not had an opportunity to learn what you expect from them, or to unlearn what has been instilled in them through their formative years regarding trust, safety, and survival.

That said, Ausburn hits it out of the ballpark in chapter eight of Raising Other People’s Children, when she explores the idea that “Resilience Requires Structure and Connection.” This is at the very heart of effectively parenting a child who comes into your home with a history of trauma, and she does a beautiful job of articulating how to empower and connect with a child through routines, responsibilities, and opportunities for decision-making. (For more on this, see my video Empowerment and Agency for Youth in Foster Care.) I cannot emphasize enough how important these aspects of home life—routines, responsibilities, and a decision-rich environment—are for building resilience in kids and helping them grow out of victimhood and into confident inter-dependence. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

Another area of life that any book on foster parenting must address is dynamics with a child’s family of origin, which Ausburn does in chapter nine, “Dealing With the People Who Are Supposed to Be There.” Again, she does not mince words or dance around the fact that it is very hard to watch a child pine for a parent who has effectively abandoned them. When you treasure a child born to another woman and have to sit back and watch that child’s heart break over and over when Mom does not show up for visits, or abruptly cuts a visit short, or shows up an hour and a half late for a two-hour scheduled visit, it is very hard to maintain a positive attitude toward her.

Still, we must try. Ausburn astutely differentiates between honoring a child’s love for their parents and equipping that child to “separate their problems from their parents’. When a biological parent does not follow through on promises… we have to help our children process the disappointment in a way that does not disparage the parent but makes clear that the situation is not the child’s responsibility.” This is a skill everyone raising another person’s child needs to hone.

In summary, I am really glad Debbie Ausburn wrote Raising Other People’s Children, and I have added it to my list of Must-Reads on my web site. In it, Ausburn shares her years-worth of wisdom for foster parents, and everyone considering entering into he world of foster parenting would do well to heed her insights. Her experiences echo my own, and I stand by everything she wrote (with the caveats already noted.) While foster parenting was not my Plan B—my husband and I always planned to foster and never planned to have biological children—I am certainly my children’s Plan B. Given the choice, their biological families would have been safe and stable, and they would have never been separated from their families of origin.

In an ideal world, I would not be my children’s mother.

But, as Ausburn says in her final chapter, “Plan B is not a consolation prize,” and “being someone else’s Plan B (can be) pretty wonderful.” I did not choose my children’s path, but, as I tell them often, I am committed to doing all I can to give them a beautiful life. I am their Plan B, for sure, but our Plan B life is filled with love, laughter, and opportunity. I can’t change what has happened, but I can do my best to shape what’s to come and ensure they have what they need to build a future filled with hope.

Raising Other People’s Children is a great resource for anyone seeking to do just that.

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