Our secret male foster carer looks at how to keep teen boys under control, entertained and learning new skills.
Affinity, I discover, is pretty generous in their offer of pocket money – it’s suggested that we pay our charges a pound per year per week – so, for example, young Ian, 15, gets £15 a week, and John, 13, gets £13. They seem delighted by this arrangement – it’s fair and it’s substantial.
This arrangement always goes down very well with new arrivals – but it is only recently that I learnt why – other agencies, authorities and foster carers think £5 a week is quite enough for a teen.
I was a little peeved when I learnt this – after all, pocket money, like the £40 per month clothing allowance, comes out of the money paid to us coal-face workers by Affinity, and Affinity, of course, as an agency, gets paid to manage us, and paid pretty well. How come they are being so generous with our money?
I found myself secretly plotting to reduce the pocket money as new placements arrived.
But I didn’t. And why I didn’t happens to tell a story or two.
When John arrived, he literally beamed with delight when he heard he was getting £13 a week – he’d been a fiver boy in his previous placement – this new offering was nearly triple. I think it tipped the balance, moving him from being glum about being here to being delighted.
So, one point to Affinity’s plan grudgingly conceded – the amount of pocket-money helps make new arrivals happy from the get-go.
It also turns out to be an amount worth saving – a 15-year-old can save a tenner a week and still have enough for the occasional treat – so that after a month they can collect a lump sum of £40. That’s definitely good for encouraging saving and curtailing the teenage impulse for instant gratification.
But where the amount really comes into its own is when they don’t get it – when it’s held back to pay for something they’ve damaged.
I lent John a BMX bike which had come into my possession in curious circumstances. A previous placement – we’ll call him Bill – turned up at my home with a decent-quality BMX which, he claimed, a friend had given him. I tried to check with the friend, but he proved impossible to contact.
Then rumour reached me that Bill had, in fact, stolen the bike from someone’s front lawn. Bill denied this, of course, but seemed to have terrible trouble finding the correct number for the previous owner.
Clearly the bike wasn’t of much value to him because one day, in a row with a friend which involved Bill taking the front wheel off his friend’s brand new mountain bike and throwing it in a stream, and his friend responding in kind by launching Bill’s BMX into the same stream, Bill declared, according to witnesses, ‘ha ha! I don’t care, I stole it anyway,’ and left it there.
His friend retrieved his own front wheel but left Bill’s BMX deep in the stinking mire.
When I heard about this, I confronted Bill about it. He denied it was stolen, denied he had announced he had stolen it, but declared he couldn’t be bothered to get it out of the stream and didn’t want it anyway. A pack of lies, of course.
I decided the bike had to be returned to its rightful owner, so I waited until Bill had gone out, went down to the stream, and by practised use of a long billhook I keep for just such eventualities (yes, okay, I hoard tools on the off-chance that one day I might have a use for them), retrieved the bike, brought it home, jet-washed it down, sprayed it in WD-40 and locked it away.
Local enquiries aimed at finding the owner got nowhere, so I made a note of the serial number (usually on the pedal crankcase) and reported it missing to the police. It wasn’t claimed, so three weeks later it became my property.
Bill, a very naughty boy to put it mildly, left the placement soon after and within a couple of months John was in his place. He and I wheeled the BMX up to a local bicycle repair shop, and I paid for a full service. I then said, ‘okay John, you can borrow this bike. Look after it, because if you bend it you mend it – i.e., if you break anything, the repairs come out of your pocket money.’
John, as teenage boys will do, treated my property with the respect he thought it deserved, and within a week he’d worn out the rear tyre with dramatic sideways skids, popped it, and broken the left-hand brake lever.
No problem. I ordered replacement parts and stopped John’s pocket money until the parts were paid for. I then taught John how to change a tyre and replace a brake lever.
His pocket money came back on track. All sorts of lessons learnt.
He tried it on, of course – asking, ‘can I have my pocket money?’ and, after getting ‘No’ for an answer, trying, ‘okay, can I borrow some pocket money from future pocket money?’ But I’d been down that sad and worrisome road before. No, again was the answer.
But the thing is, this was all just and fair, and John could see it was just and fair. All this had been explained to him from the outset. ‘You get £13 a week. If you break something of mine, I will stop the money until you have paid for it. That’s the deal.’
John was learning quickly that £13 is, in fact, a lot of money not to have. The good news was that £13 x 4 = £52, which meant it only took a month to earn the money to fix the bike. The other good news was that going without treats made him a good deal more respectful of my property.
Now he takes much more care with the bike. Had it been his bike, some sort of gift, this would not have been the case – but because it’s mine, and he has to pay for repairs immediately, he has learnt to look after it.
There is a case, then, to offer foster children ‘big presents’ like bikes on loan in the first instance, with the item becoming their property when they have learnt to look after it.
This method relieved a lot of pressure on me. I don’t worry about boys breaking my stuff anymore – because they know they will pay for it. So Affinity’s pocket-money system has saved me both stress and, I reckon, money.
How would it have saved me money? Because I used to be green. I used to feel sorry for the boys. I had learnt from training that they destroyed stuff, or didn’t take care of it, because deep down they didn’t believe themselves worthy of having it. I’d pay for broken stuff without question – even if the stuff were mine.
That, I have learnt, was a mistake. I now maintain the same internal sympathy for the psychological damage they have suffered, while teaching them the value of money, and protecting myself from guilt and constant bills. The result of this pocket-money debit system is that they take more care of my stuff, and I have less stress.
And then John broke his iPhone – a gift from his father – nothing whatsoever to do with me. I had warned him, of course, as we all have warned our teenage boys and girls, to keep the iPhone in its cover. But, apparently, keeping an iPhone in its cover is as uncool as keeping your head in a helmet when you are out on a bike – teens, it seems, hate both phone covers and helmets with a seething passion.
They might leave your home with a helmet on and the phone in a cover, but once out of sight, these offensive accessories, these insults in their world of style and fashion, are stashed somewhere to be picked up before their return, if they remember – which ain’t often.
John had smashed the phone’s front plate and screen when it fell into the road after an accident. He came in looking very sorry for himself – it was like he’d lost his arm. ‘No matter,’ I said – ‘I know a place nearby that will repair it all for around £50.’
‘Oh great,’ he said, ‘can we go today?’
‘Have you got £50?’
‘Never mind, you will in a month or so.’
‘Why have I got to pay for it?’
‘Because you didn’t keep it in a cover as your dad and I suggested, and it’s your phone, mate. You bend it, you mend it. But hey, it is yours, so you don’t have to repair it. I can lend you a burner instead. You could ask your dad, of course…’
But he didn’t want to tell his dad that he had broken it while it was out of its cover. And, not wanting to be seen dead with a ten quid burner, he chose to forgo his pocket money and wait.
Money then, is a powerful lever in helping teen boys behave well. It is not the only lever. When young lads arrive at this placement, I sign them into my internet wi-fi via a booster with a code I never reveal. If their friends arrive and want access, they have to give me the phone, and their phone number (a rule for all the kids’ guests) and I enter the code, which their phone automatically conceals.
Boys in my care are required to deliver the wi-fi booster to my bedroom at the evening cut-off time – around midnight during the holidays. If they don’t, if they are more than a couple of minutes late, they lose the internet for the next day. If they are generally horrible, they can lose it for longer.
They tend to be late to deliver it to my room only once or twice. And the threat of loss of internet access does encourage them to behave better in a range of ways.
Sometimes, if the lad is the right sort of lad, I’ll give them the opportunity to earn more ‘pocket money’ with jobs around the house. It’s the nature of the place I live in that there is constant maintenance to be done, and I have large wooden floors that need regular sweeping and mopping – an arduous affair that involves lifting everything off the floor onto tables and shelves. I hate doing the job myself and am happy to pay the lads to do it.
I pay them £4 an hour – a good rate, they generally agree.
But to be honest, having boys work for you is a bit of a fag, and doesn’t often work. They tend to be somewhat idle and do like to look at their phone or disappear to the loo several times in an hour. I reduce their pay accordingly and that creates tension.
And the quality of their work is usually pretty appalling. While they may mop and sweep pretty well, they rarely do a thorough job. And as for painting – whatever The Karate Kid may suggest, it’s a rare boy that is worth the risk of arming with a paint pot and brush, even if you are working alongside. They tend to slop it on, create runs, splash it everywhere, and before long you have given yourself more work cleaning up the boy and surrounding ground than you had when you started the job.
Two boys on a job are worse than one boy – they muck around together, and heaven help you if a friend turns up and they ask if he can help – they’ll get nothing done and disappear as soon as you take your eye of them.
Which only goes to prove an old saying that was delivered to me by an adult mentor, when, as a young teen, I was being less than useful on a boat-repair job: ‘One boy is a boy,’ he said, ‘two boys are half-a-boy. Three boys are no boys at all’. I understand this now far better than I did all those decades ago.
However, teen boys are very good at chopping wood. Once you’ve trained them how to use a sawhorse, bow saw, axe and wedge safely, they crack on with a remorseless energy in pretty much all weathers – it’s just the right sort of warm work for a young lad. They take a visceral delight in cleaving a large log with a single blow – and, I discover, not just boys. Humans of all sexes and ages just love the atavistic purity of the act.
God knows what is going through their mind as they plunge the axe deep into a log, but it seems to do them good at a fundamental level. A word of advice – keep these tools locked away – they do love them, and you will find them ‘playing’ with them if they get the chance.
Such activities are great for bonding – a sort of father-son thing. They even listen to wise old aphorisms like ‘chopped wood makes you twice warm – first when you chop it and then when you burn it.’
They show especial joy in the fact that they are being warmed by wood that they chopped, and they show the woodpile to their friends with pride. If a mate comes by when they are wielding the axe, the inevitable question is ‘Can my friend help me?’ followed immediately by the inevitable answer ‘Not on your life’.
But they are happy with that, because I trust them and only them to chop the wood – their friends can be as jealous as they like. I’ve even heard my boys saying to their friends, as they sit in front of the roaring flames of the wood-burner – ‘chopped wood makes you twice warm – first when you chop it and then when you burn it.’
And, to their utter joy, they get paid for chopping the wood, at £4 an hour, which, admittedly, makes for expensive kindling, but is worth it to see their happiness.
So, to stretch a metaphor, if money is the root of all evil, money is the log of utter delight.
As for Affinity’s generous pocket-money policy? I now accept, it’s the way ahead. It gives me control, helps my young charges learn to budget, teaches them responsibility, and, I suggest, actually saves me money in the long run.