Sometimes in my small groups for kids at the shelter, we read a couple pages from a book about family violence. Then we talk about the issues on these pages. Recently, a character in the story asked, "Mom and Dad fight so much. Is it my fault?"
"What do you think?" I asked a group of six kids aged 6-11. "If the grownups in your house fight, is it your fault?" One kid shrugged. Two said "NO!" The rest stared at me or the floor.
I asked the kids who said "NO!" why parents fighting isn't their fault. One said, "Because it's their fight" and the other said, "Because I didn't do anything wrong." I agreed with them, but other kids didn't look convinced. "Okay," I said, "What if you fight with a friend. Is that your mom's fault?"
A couple more kids shook their heads "No," and I agreed and explained why.
Then I asked, "What should you do if your parents fight?" More than one child said, "Stay out of it," showing they had heard the message in the shelter Safety groups.
"Not me. I tell them to stop!" one child blurted. "Do they?" I asked. He nodded. "Sometimes." "So it's your job to help grownups do the right thing?" I asked. He nodded again and I smiled. "Oh, I get it. You're a social worker or a priest or a psychiatrist, right?"
He laughed and said, "No!" The other kids laughed with him and jeered at the idea that he was a counselor. After more discussion, most of the group seemed to understand that parents had to work out their own problems and if they couldn't, or things got out control, kids should hide, ask a neighbor for help, or call 911.
One child pursed her lips, looked angry, and refused to share her feelings.
She is one of the ones I worry most about. She's afraid to talk, maybe even afraid to believe parents should take care of her, not vice versa. She understands fault lines and they all point to her.
I hope she'll keep coming to group because most of the other kids have been where she is now. Though they are still confused at times, they believe or want to believe the competing ideas about family life, love, and responsibility that I suggest.
I want her to listen to the other kids. They can teach her a lot about confusion, ambivalence, and fear. And about courage.
That's what they've taught me.