Christmas – foster carers – children?

Is Christmas just about presents?

Why does it seem to important to children?

Given that the festive season is upon us, and this year millions of Christmas presents will be  purchased, wrapped, exchanged and enjoyed, it may be  interesting to consider this question – what is it about the most celebrated religious festival opinion the world that is apparently so meaningful? Before this article continues, we need to acknowledge that Christmas, whilst it is the most widely celebrated religious festival in the world ( according to Unesco, 2011) clearly Christmas is a festival celebrated in countries with mainly Christian traditions or secular traditions heavily influenced by Christianity , or countries with eclectic approaches to festivals ( such as India and Japan.)

Not every family is marking Christmas as the birthday of Christ, or as a Christian festival, and indeed many people within the broader definitions of Christianity choose not to celebrate Christmas as a festival. But for those who do, what is it about Christmas that seems to have such significance for children ?  We can all acknowledge the usual aspects of Christmas as obvious – exchanging of gifts, expressing familial love, family traditions, and belief in commonly known myths like Santa Claus but myths which seem to bind us in our common humanity in ways which other myths do not. Ironic is the fact that within the looked-after children’s sector, it is widely known that many more children end up coming into care in the run up to the Christmas period, and many children at a time when most families are celebrating are themselves experiencing continuing abuse and family breakdown. The ways Christmas can be celebrated are as diverse as each of the children in foster care.

When incorporated into children’s fostering appropriately, Christmas celebrations can be utilised to bring children together, to create a sense of belonging and to foster a feeling of togetherness. The emphasis of Christmas celebrations into children’s foster placements  can be an enriching experience for children, their carers and foster families. If celebrated in a sensitive and circumstance-respectful manner, Christmas festivities can provide an occasion for children and young people  to express and explore their personal history of Christmas and other family occasions; they can experience different more normalised models of non-abusive family life , and they can develop respect for diverse experiences and beliefs as they are taught about familial practices which can be so abjectly different to their own.

Fostering a sense of belonging – Belonging

Children belong first and foremost to family groups,  a cultural community of interest, a geographical community and a  wider peer group. A need to Belong emphasises children’s co-dependence on others and the basis of relationships ( as emerging from core attachment theory ) in underling in a child’s sense of identity.  In early childhood and throughout the period of growing up, relationships with carers and other adults as well as significant relationships with children and young people are crucial to the development of a sense of belonging. Belonging is key to development, in that it influences and defines who children are and who they can aspire to become. Each child’s family has their own culture of celebration ( even if that is a cultural norm of no festival celebration, or a secular one linked with religious occasions.) which they bring with them into foster placement. What one child’s family may value or believe in may be very different to the another family, even if both are from the same culture, geographical place, ethnic group or and linguistic tradition. For example; Christmas will have different meanings for different children and young people, depending on their birth family values, childhood experiences, attachments and family beliefs.

Those statements can also be true about other celebrations and religious festivals or celebratory activities. It’s important not to make the assumption  that what is important to one particular family in their. Christmas traditions , hold the same level of importance or significance for another family with a child in foster care. Birth family beliefs and values may develop and change as an adult experiences new influences ( an adult realising that they themselves have a poor attachment and they do not wish to replicate that poor attachment on their own child in their parenting.)  Having an awareness of and understanding of the way that Christmas culture and Christmas cultural practices influence a birth  family’s values and core beliefs will enable Foster carers to include appropriate Christmas celebrations in a sensitive, inclusive and respectful manner which does not judge, overwhelm or disengage the child.

Cultural Competence

In writing this article, what lies at the heart of it is the idea of “cultural competence.” Essentially cultural competence, as a concept, gives us all the clue as to why celebrating Christmas in inclusive and sensitive ways can be so helpful to children and young people experiencing huge upheaval in their own family lives. Children respond to diversity of learning experience with openness – children and young people should be learning about the different range of different Christmas cultural traditions – for children and young people in care this could be as simple as learning that Christmas is a time of giving and sharing, or Christmas is a time of not experiencing abuse and arguments.

Foster carers who are culturally competent( in that they can see the need to celebrate Christmas respectfully as part of their own tradition and balancing this with the needs of the placed child sensitively) can  respect multiple layers of knowing, witnessing and living, celebrate the benefits of non-abusive cultural experience and have an ability to help children learn about different family experiences including their own. Cultural Competence is not about extinguishing  your own foster family  values, practices and beliefs, with the values, practices prescribed by an anaemic and bland non-religious idea, but rather it is about learning to respect the different cultural attitudes, beliefs and views of other families and cultural groups.  Children develop a strong sense of their own identity when they learn to interact in relation to other families models of  emotional functioning, empathy and respect’.

Therefore, the promotion of different and individual Christmas celebrations into foster placements  should not be about giving up individual family cultural celebrations but rather the opposite –  ensuring that children are given learning opportunities which support them in developing a respect for a  range of diverse family traditions, values and beliefs and a non-judgemental opportunity at making sense of their own family traditions at Christmas time, if this is a family tradition for them.

The essentials of  Cultural Competence are about learning to appreciate and respect similarities and difference – similarities in other people’s Christamas celebrations but also the subtle or less than  Subtle differences. This is very much consistent with the well known and widely promoted idea that  looked-after Children and young people  respond to diversity with respect – which is part of The English National Learning Training and Development a Standards for foster carers. One of the most important life skills that Foster carers can promote to fostered  children is the ability to respect difference.

To develop these skills successfully, fostered children need to be actively engaged in discussion and learning experiences , seeking out  information, ask incisive questions, gaining insight and understanding about tolerance and seeing respect in action and also and most importantly, gaining the opportunity to form their own opinions. Religious festivities and celebrations are an important part of a developing young person’s culture and Identity. Fostering is about developing children’s and young people’s resilience – core to doing this is developing a stronger sense of individual and family identity.  Christmas is such a strong component of family life, a well as other cultural traditions, that it’s significance cannot be ignored or underestimated.

During a recent conference, a foster carer remarked that she felt that a birth mother was damaging her child.  The birth mother’s own religious  beliefs meant that she didn’t not celebrate Christmas.  The foster carer felt that Christmas is such an important part of childhood that it was unfair to exclude a child from its celebration.  An interesting debate occurred In which a social worker sitting next to the foster carer pointed out that millions  of children around world do not celebrate Christmas, and it did not seem to hamper those millions  of children from developing appropriately.   Someone else on the table pointed to the possible negative impact of thrusting Christmas celebrations down a child’s throat as if they have to be celebrated, or that not to celebrate Christmas was unusual or odd.

One wonders if, applying the learning from the previous paragraphs, that the foster carer was maybe missing the significance of enabling the child to be included appropriately in her family’s Christmas traditions – but in a way which helped the child understand that lots of different families have varying types of traditions at Christmas, and that this was hers. Perhaps that could have been a valuable, inclusive and positive learning opportunity…one wonders how Christmas turned out in that foster family ?

Simply Fostering: 2014