“Be safe!”, “make good choices!” and “watch for cars!” are all common phrases most of us have heard growing up on our way out the door to play with friends. They are phrases we heard, and now we probably say to our kids or grandkids and then our kids will say it to their kids. We say them out of love and a genuine care for the person we are speaking to, but what does “be safe” and “make good choices” really mean? Most of the time, when those phrases are heard, it tends to lean toward the physical understanding of being safe and making good choices.
However, we have come to realize that kids need to have the opportunity to feel 'safe' in multiple different ways. At Lower Lights we try create an atmosphere which encompasses them all, where kids can come in and feel safe physically, emotionally, and mentally. Most of the time, the building is not where the kids feel the safest, but it’s the people inside the building that make the kids feel safe.
For some of the kids we serve, there isn’t a place where they feel safe enough to be vulnerable about their feelings, mistakes they’ve made or thoughts they have. They tend to put on a mask for the world to show they are “tough enough” to not care about getting hurt or the consequences of their actions. For some, these are defense mechanisms to cope with tough home or school environments.
For one child, Luke*, the Bright Lights Kids office is a place he feels safest. About half way through the 2018-19 school year, his tutor had to leave due to personal reasons. Since he no longer had a tutor, he sat in the office every week. At first it was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about his day, why he didn’t have homework or why he had a bad attitude.
After about two weeks, I decided to just let him sit for a little while, and try talking to him later. It turned out that that is exactly what he needed. He used those thirty minutes, if not forty-five, to unwind from the day. After that time, he was an open book. He was laughing and volunteered any information I asked for; he just needed to decompress.
Luke has stepped in the Bright Lights Kids office multiple times to talk about some hard things he has been going through at home and at school. He has begun to open up and step into what vulnerability looks like. There was an incident during Bright Lights Kids Summer Camp where he had gotten in trouble and was sent to the office. Luke and I have built a good relationship and he said he would talk to me. I walked into the office, sat down and asked “is this a talking time or a listening time?” he replied with “a talking time” and proceeded to tell his side of the story. It turns out he got in trouble because he made the choice to cuss out one of the other employees – one of the people who has watched and helped him grow. After listening and talking for a little bit, and really getting to the root cause of the mini volcanic eruption, it was determined that Luke felt the expectations of other adults were different than the expectations I had for him. He didn’t quite understand, but the expectations were not any different, they were just approached differently. Luke explained “well, they expect me to be a leader and the big kid and to always be doing the right thing!” I replied with “you know I expect the same, right?” He said “yes, but it’s different! It’s different because you expect me to be a leader but aren’t mad when I’m not. You expect me to be better because you know I am, but you don’t get mad when I screw it up sometimes. And when I get mad you actually listen to my whole story and hear me before telling me I was wrong or that I need to just stop and get over it.” All of that was being said in a heightened state because he was very frustrated, but it was impossible to not hear and see the boy’s heart.
It’s when we don’t just assume we know the reason for the behavior, and when we spend time listening and forming a space for the children to feel heard that relationships become stronger and the children can feel safe to be vulnerable and grow.
The last child I’m going to tell you about is fifteen year old Ben*, who has been in the Bright Lights Kids program for six years. He is a great kid and definitely does not “fit in” here in Franklinton. Recently, Ben’s world came crashing down due to a family crisis. His grandmother was sitting in the Bright Lights Kids office talking to both me and Mary (the program director) about the situation. Ben’s grandmother received multiple calls from Ben as we were talking. I finally said to her “Tell him I’m coming to get him and to be ready in ten minutes.”
I showed up at the house and as Ben got in the car he was crying. Again I asked “talking time or not?” He replied with “it doesn’t matter” as tears were running down his face. We talked as friends, and I was able to speak truth into his life reminding him that he is fifteen and the crisis is not his fault, and although it’s tough to go through, it’s not a burden he has to take upon himself. I tried to give him a fresh perspective “It’s not your responsibility to fix it and it’s not your job to control what happens next.” We enjoyed some ice cream and fries (because that’s the best combination for a sad heart) and sat by the Scioto River. We people- watched, talked about life and the “what ifs” in the world. We returned back, chatted on my porch and played iant Jenga for a while and laughed until it was time for Ben to go to Wednesday night church.
I’ve consciously tried very hard to create not only a safe place for the kids in Bright Lights Kids and the neighborhood, but to be a safe place. When tough things happen in the kids’ lives, I’m usually the first call. When really great things happen, such as passing the sixth grade when you didn’t think you would, or passing summer school with all A’s when you’ve been told you’ll fail, Mary and I are the first to know. We’ve both been able to become safe people for the kids and we continue to love them and meet them exactly where they are.
And while “be safe” and “make good choices’ are still common phrases to hear around Bright Lights Kids, here they hold weight and develop in ways that make all the difference.
By Alex Mazzocco
Bright Light Kids Program Coordinator
*Name’s changed for anonymity