The other day I described my visit to a juvenile hall in Austin and spoke about visiting the kids. Reaching them is tough work – as anyone who works with this population will attest – but the strategy which guides me is often from around two metaphors: M&M’s and ponytails.
Incarcerated kids are hard on the outside. They move about with cold looks on their faces, often in single file line, frequently trying to make sure that they do not shows signs of “weakness” to fellow inmates.
Smiling warmly, making kind, compassionate eye contact… that’s usually not their thing. Thus, they are hard on the outside.
But being kids, they are also soft in the center. Beyond that shell is a gooey middle. 14 year olds might like to think they are 30 year olds but they are not and often, it’s my experience that, like an M&M candy, kids in juvenile hall are hard on the outside but soft in the middle. (BTW, I don’t think this is an original analogy. I think I heard it applied somewhere else and adapted it along my own journey. Not sure – just want to be honest about that.)
And emotionally getting to these kids is like getting through the tangled ponytail of a 4 year old girl. If you just set out with a brush and start to pull, she’s gonna fight you and moan and complain and eventually win out. Ripping through the mess is fight waiting to be lost with this crowd. You have to move slowly, earn trust that you’re not going to hurt them (as they have been hurt before) and you have to go at the pace of the knotted ponytail… not on any schedule you hope to impose.
But ponytail knots often follow a pattern. First they are hard and seem impossible to work through and then, with slow, patient, gentle, thoughtful effort, you start to make a little progress and soon enough, you’ve earned the trust of the ponytail’s owner and you recognize that you’ve actually made headway.
And then, if you have any No More Tangles solution you can spray in, often this will be the thing that will lead to a genuine breakthrough.
But getting through the ponytail knots of 4 year olds is much simpler than getting through the emotional knots of incarcerated kids.
And if you can put their crimes aside (trust me, a VERY hard thing to do in a heck of a lot of cases) what you will find is often a kid who had so many emotional knots before they committed the crime that sent them to do time that you realize we nee more resources, more time, and probably most of all, a safe space where they can re-enter society.
Cause once they get out, even if thir ponytail knots were combed through, if they go right back into the environment in which they were, they will often end up right back behind bars.
M&M’s and ponytail knots: easy to talk about, much more challenging to really solve.