Foster Care Musical Chairs

When you stop to think about it, musical chairs is a curious activity for entertaining children.
In case you don’t remember—or never played it at a friend’s birthday party—a group of chairs, numbering one fewer than the number of players, is arranged in a circle, seats facing out. As the music starts, the children walk around the circle, often jockeying to keep as close as possible to a chair. When the music stops, everyone rushes to grab a seat. If two children land on the same chair, only one can ultimately claim it; the loser might be physically weaker, or less tenacious, or more polite, or more timid. For whatever reason, a child without a seat is removed from the game along with one chair, thereby insuring that when the music begins and then again stops, one more child will be eliminated from the game. Eventually, one child is left with the sole remaining chair.

One does wonder for whom, exactly, this game is supposed to be fun.
Is it fun for the child, sitting alone on the only available chair? Is it fun for the children who weren’t quick or clever or strong enough to stay in the game? (We might imagine that those eliminated early began to play among themselves, perhaps enticing others to “lose” in order to join in less anxiety-provoking activities.) Nicholas Kristof writes about trying to introduce musical chairs to a group of Japanese school children at his son’s birthday party (NYT March 21, 2011).
“Disaster. The children, especially the girls were traumatized by having to push aside others to gain a seat for themselves.”  The children at that party changed the game into one of collaboration and cooperation. No doubt something that those among us with a competitive streak wouldn’t even classify as a game.

Unfortunately, as Kristof points out Americans can be pushy. “We sometimes treat life, and budget negotiations, as a contest in which the weakest (such as children) are to be gleefully pushed aside when the music stops.” When the music finally stops at the end of current fiscal negotiations at the federal, state, and local levels, we are likely to find that, foster children are among those most profoundly affected by budgetary musical chairs. They may find that, not only their chairs have been eliminated, but that there are fewer seats for those charged with their care. Budget cuts often mean that the seats once occupied by foster parents, caseworkers, and supervisors are eliminated. When these people lose their jobs, who will care for the 500,000 children in foster care?

By Toni Heineman