Would you let a group of 15-year-olds say the “f-word” in front of you? Reference drug use? Compare gun preferences? Where would you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable, and how would you handle breaches of that line?
In the Hands of Wonder program for young people on probation, some for very serious crimes, defining the boundaries of appropriate speech is a constant issue. If staff interject whenever a teen swears, brings up illegal activities, references sex, or talks about something else usually considered inappropriate, we would never get to bigger issues like justice, accountability, self-image, and community. Letting certain things slide is necessary to build rapport. How can we ask the teens to make themselves vulnerable to us if we constantly police what they say about their lives?
The other reason I am more permissive in this environment than I might be in another context is that it feels wrong to ask these kids to sanitize their lives so they’re more palatable. I don’t really understand what it’s like to be a young person for whom violence is a part of daily life, so in some ways I don’t feel qualified to decide what these teens are allowed to say about it. However, we want to make Hands of Wonder a positive environment that encourages participants to avoid breaking the law in the future, so we certainly have some boundaries. I pay close attention to tone when deciding whether to step in. Is the teen speaking factually about a fight, or giving a glorified play-by-play? Are they describing an instance of substance use or celebrating it?
Even though it’s important to pick your battles, sometimes it’s also important to nip a conversation in the bud before it escalates. Typically I try to steer away from a questionable topic by changing the subject, starting a group activity or game, or pulling one of the speakers away for a specific task. This approach ends the inappropriate conversation smoothly. Occasionally, however, someone will make a problematic comment that needs to be directly addressed. Not doing so would communicate tacit approval. It can be difficult to determine whether to call someone out or in, i.e. whether to admonish someone for saying something they know is harmful or to take a gentler, more educational angle. Sometimes, I don’t interject right away because I’m hoping a conversation will end on its own, so by the time I do shut it down it comes from a place of anger and is thus less effective.
The art of picking your battles is not easy. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing a disservice to the teens I work with by not stepping in more. Maybe it would be better to be strict about what kind of comments are allowable, so they can get more experience censoring their words to fit the context. And I want to be clear about what activities are and are not acceptable. In the end, though, I err on the side of letting the teens be themselves so we can have a more heartfelt and genuine discussion about the things that matter.