Having foster children in our home taught us a great deal about what they need most. Ours ranged from age 9 to 17. First were two 15-year-old girls from different families. Next came a 17-year-old boy who was kicked out of his home, and last was our 9-year-old Navajo son. Each child taught us lessons on love and caring we never imagined would come our way. We never felt ready for the duty, but somehow we did it. For their sakes. They did not come to us through the usual foster care system. They just seem to happen into our lives, and we couldn’t turn them away. We’re not using their real names to protect their privacy. Here’s what we discovered they each needed.

1. They desperately need to have boundaries.

Our first two, Julie and Cheryl, came to us from a juvenile halfway house. They were there because their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t handle their disobedient behavior. The funds for the program had run out, and the authorities were looking for temporary homes for these teenagers. Because one of them was a member of our faith, they called us and asked if we could take her and another girl in for a few months. We had three young children and weren’t sure how it would work, but we felt a desire to help them. Oh, my, were our eyes opened!

We could tell that these girls had gotten away with all sorts of mayhem during their young years. They may have had rules in their homes growing up, but they certainly didn’t know how to live them. Or perhaps it was that their parents just didn’t know how to enforce them. Either way, they were dead set on doing what they darn well pleased. That was not going to fly at our house.

My husband and I sat them down and lovingly, yet firmly, explained what was expected of them. One of the rules was that they were to attend their classes and come straight home after school every day. If they didn’t, we would go find them and they would be punished. Grounded. They weren’t there but a couple of weeks when Julie decided she didn’t like that rule, so she ran off with a boy to his house for what we found out was a heavy dose of hanky panky. When we found her we brought her home and firmly restated the rule. She was now grounded from any activity with friends for two weeks. She could be at school and home, and that was all. Period. She whined, but she obeyed.

A few weeks later, the other girl, Cheryl, skipped school and ran off with a friend but had come home on time. The school called and let us know she had not been in any of her classes that day. When she came home we confronted her and restated the rule. She was grounded, just as Julie had been. She looked at my husband and said, “You’re the meanest dad in the world!” There was almost a smile in her voice when she said it. Now here’s the interesting part: When a friend called her the next day to invite her somewhere she loudly said, “I can’t go. I’m grounded.” Then, turning her head away from the phone, she smiled and shouted, “Isn’t that right, Daddy?”

We could see this teenage child was testing us to see if we loved her enough to ground her. She, in fact, was bragging to her friend about it. They were hungry for discipline. They were hungry for parental love. After several months, they moved on. We hope they will always remember that we loved them enough to give them the discipline they needed.

2. They desperately need to learn about God.

Can you even imagine being kicked out of your own home during your senior year of high school? This is supposed to be an exciting and happy time as you prepare for college and other opportunities. Not for our son, David. We learned at church, from a school counselor, that his mother was in a mental institution and his father had remarried. The new wife did not want to deal with a teenager, so it was him or her. The father chose her. The boy had nowhere to go. He had grown up in a state clear across the country, so he hitched rides to his old stomping grounds and found a friend he’d palled around with during those years. The friend’s parents were having their own problems and couldn’t take him in. So David lived in his friend’s car and attended school with him. Finishing school mattered to him.

When we heard about the boy not having a home, we volunteered to have him come and live with us. We couldn’t bear the idea of his not having anywhere to sleep or call home. We fixed up a small room for him. By then we had four young children of our own. It was crowded, but he seemed to fit in. At first he was suspicious of our kindness. He even asked us, “Why are you doing this for me?” We assured him it was because we cared and simply wanted to help him.

He enjoyed our children and felt welcomed by them and us. It was our custom to attend church every Sunday. We said, “In our family we go to church. And for now you’re a member of our family, so we want you to go to church with us.” He agreed to go. It appeared he had not attended church much. He sat and watched everything and everyone. After the meetings he would ask us questions. We told him he was a child of God and that God loved him. He wanted to know more. We taught him how to pray. He seemed to enjoy this spiritual journey.

As it turned out, he became an active member of our church. He said he felt peace there. That was many years ago. To this day he is still an active member, attending church with his wife and family. Knowing about God gave this boy an anchor to hold on to.

3. They desperately need to feel loved.

Our daughter Jill didn’t actually live with us full-time. She had lived with relatives of ours in another state. At that time she was pregnant and unwed. After the baby was born and adopted, she wanted to move back closer to where she grew up. Our relatives asked us if we would look after her. We agreed and invited her into our home often. Many times a week she would just come and hang out with our family. She asked us for counsel. She wept at the loss of her child, even though she felt she had done the right thing in finding a loving home for him. Many evenings I held her in my arms as she cried. She said, “No one will want to marry me. I’m no good.” We comforted her and reassured her that she was of infinite worth to God and to us. We continually expressed our love for her. She gradually began to believe it.

In due time Jill met a wonderful young man and fell in love. When he proposed, the hard part for her was telling him about having had a baby. We assured her that if he was the man for her, and if he truly loved her, he would accept the news and would still want to marry her. Fortunately, he was that kind of man. They have been happily married over 20 years now and have six children. She learned that she had worth and that people in her life genuinely loved her.

4. They desperately need to know they have the possibility of a bright future.

Our youngest son came to us when he was just nine years old. I wrote in detail about him in another article. So I won’t go into as much detail except to make the point of a child’s need to know there is the possibility of a bright future for them. He came from a sad situation. His father was drunk much of the time, as were many of the other men in his family. Shortly before he came to live with us, his father had been killed in a bar brawl. This young boy’s future looked hopeless.

When this little boy came into our home, we wasted no time in teaching him that there was a better way to live. That he could make choices that could bring about a happy future for him. He quietly listened. He watched and seemed eager to learn. We taught him about the importance of getting a good education. We showed him that marriage can be happy and fulfilling when people take care of each other, that drinking, getting drunk and hurting others never leads to happiness. We taught him that being sober is a safe way to live. We taught him so many things but had no idea how much of it sunk in until later.

After a few years with us, he returned to live with his mother. When he was grown we got a call from him one day. He identified who he was, then said, “I just wanted you to know I turned out good.” He had graduated from a trade school. Later he married a lovely woman, and they have five children. He has kept in touch with us since then. He has a happy marriage and a good job. He believed us when we told him there was a bright future out there for him if he lived for it. And that’s exactly what he did.

Having these foster children in our home wasn’t always rosy. There were some pretty difficult times. But what we learned was that as long as we stuck with these four things that every child desperately needs, they seemed to find their way.