I have a lot of kids. Although many of them aren’t permanently mine. Like any flashy, overproduced Ameritrash game, foster parenting has it’s ups and downs. On one hand, we’ve lived with, laughed with, loved and helped a lot of different children over the years. On the other, it means the majority of them don’t stay in our lives as long as we’d like. The most common question people ask is, “How do you do it?” My usual retort is that it keeps me off the streets and out of trouble. Or, since I basically act like a child, myself, I quip that that inquiry is better posed to my wife who keeps us all organized, or to God who gives me the strength.
While both are certainly true, I’ve honestly come to realize that those rejoinders are quick deflections because I’m not an open person and don’t like to talk much about myself. Obviously large families can be hectic, disheveled, stressful and claustrophobic. But all families of any type and size create their own strains. Some are universal. Some are unique, but for the most part none are greater or less than someone else’s. That’s just life. While everyone has different philosophies about how to live and cope with and manage their family’s dynamics, we’ve always been proponents of routine and structure. Even the smallest details – such as here is the spot where all school bags go every evening after homework is completed – do more than just practically manage chaos. They also help to build a familiar and comforting home environment that many kids who come into our care need after knowing mainly neglect and abuse.
That’s not to say we’re military martinets when it comes to schedule. Flexibility is important. Overbearing structure isn’t necessarily emotionally or mentally healthy without a venting valve. It’s also possible to stress out about maintaining your rigid structure which was meant to reduce stress in the first place! Life is unpredictable. So, “How do I do it?” Well, a litany of dad jokes helps. But mainly it’s about finding the balance between “a place for everything, and everything in its place” and “carpe diem.” I guess I don’t really do extremes.
That’s why gaming is important to me. Board games are one constant in our often revolving and hectic lives. No matter what’s going on or who is in our house, the games are there. And in a weird way they’re also an analogy for our family’s life. They are designed activities with rules, structure and goals. But it’s not like we have specified time slots for playing games. We play when we want or whenever we have time. Maybe we decide to do something else, like be outside or watch a movie. Board games provide a routine in our lives, but offer flexibility.
So for me, this hobby is inextricably intertwined with my kids. With a couple of rare exceptions and my annual Origins trip, that’s who I game with. All the time. I don’t have a peer gaming group or regular gaming friends. That’s just simply my gamer identity. Indeed, I’ve written before about how my kids were a catalyst in my return to cardboard.
To be sure, I’m into board games for many of the same reasons and benefits as any other gamer, which I want to instill in and pass on to kids. It’s a safe and economical way to spend leisure time, anywhere and in any weather. They’re casual, but also intellectual. They can be relaxing, but also fulfill that internal competitive nature we all have as human beings. We can “push the limits” and satisfy our seemingly instinctive desires to solve puzzles, examine mysteries and overcome challenges. We’re also social creatures and board games are accessible, inclusive and pressure-free no matter a player’s background and social or demographic standing. And they’re fun mental exercises that get us off our electronic devices which are inexorably taking our lives hostage like Skynet.
Like most parents that foist their hobby upon their children, I do so with good intentions (always making sure to not force it down their throats). For all the reasons above, it’s an ideal way to nurture the connections with them. But more than all of that, board games have come to serve a steadier purpose in our family. While I may have originally re-entered the hobby thanks to my own kids, over the years it has evolved to mean even more as a foster father.
You may not be surprised to know that sometimes things don’t go as planned for our family. One weekend last spring, a girl once in our care needed a place to stay. Foster children that leave our home have mixed stories when returning to theirs. Sadly her’s has not been a happy one. So our ordinary routine was upended by a late night trip into town, packing and unpacking and serving arbiter between a young woman and her parents. Well, my wife actually plays the counselor role. Not professionally, but she has a knack for it. Even though things still may not work out the way we think they should.
We didn’t know how long she’d be with us, nor how things would turn out. In the midst of all that uncertainty we played a game that weekend. It was just like when she lived with us, again. We relaxed, talked and laughed together. Gaming has become a haven, an escape. It’s not to sweep any troubles under the rug, because they’re still there when you put the box back on the shelf. But it’s a coping force of normalization for kids that come into our care. Obviously they need more than just what a game provides, but what it does offer cannot be overstated. You see, the reason I love and play games is because they are a simple, fun and practical way to nurture a safe and healthy relationship with all the kids I love, showing them that they are accepted, safe and worthy of attention. Even…actually no…especially in the midst of life’s tumult.