I had to leave a training activity because I was starting to cry. I don't believe that anyone noticed except the person who was sitting next to me. I told him, "This isn't safe." He offered to speak to the instructors for me, but I declined. I left the room, shed a few tears in the bathroom and then got myself together and returned.
We were reading about critical race theory and culturally responsive teaching.1 The articles described how educators could shift their thinking about minorities and underrepresented groups from a deficit approach to an asset approach. Instead of looking for bad things within a community, we could look for all of the good things that supported, nurtured and uplifted a group of people. Every community has its own unique strengths. Educators were encouraged to conduct a form of ethnographic study to learn about the strengths of the different communities of their students. The articles contained noble ideas.
Then suddenly, we were told that we needed to complete a community asset assessment for our own childhood. This may sound like a fine activity to you, and if it does, I'm glad that you had a childhood that you feel comfortable sharing. Not everyone had safe experiences as a child and not everyone trusts others enough to know that they will not be judged for circumstances that were beyond their control. Being asked to complete this activity was not an appropriate task for me. I didn't participate and faced mild disapproval from one of the instructors. Although the disapproval was disheartening, it was insignificant in comparison to the distress I would have felt had I completed the activity.
We often assume that everyone has happy lives that they want to share. We assume that people feel safe with others and willing to disclose personal information. As clinicians, it is common to establish rapport through questions about preferred activities, favorite things, family members, etc. Not all of our questions are safe for children. Not all children feel comfortable answering questions that come from a place of privilege that assumes everyone has only positive experiences.
There are many resources about working with children experiencing hardships. Here are a few minor changes in asking questions that I have adopted:
- Allow students to opt out: "It's okay to pass."
- Give a choice: "Would you like to share about X, or share something else? You can choose."
- Use the word "family" instead of the word "parents."
- Ask if a child celebrates a holiday, instead of assuming that they do. (Even a birthday.)
- Introduce activities around objects before people, e.g., describe a location before the participants.
- Use known shared topics, such as school.
We can think about how we expect a child to respond whenever we ask a personal question. If our expectations for responses are always positive, we may be seeing the question from our own place of safety and assumed values. Imagine a negative response to the question and a description of unpleasant or traumatic events. We can reframe personal questions and recognize that these types of questions are not innocent.