“OK, I’ve got one for you…” said one of the half dozen boys standing around me, smiling mischievously. “Go ahead, then!” I laughed. “What if the U.S. decided to go to war with Mexico? What would you do?” he said. All of the other boys got very quiet, intent with curiosity, waiting for my response.
I had moved to Mexico and been working with children’s homes for a little over a year. So many of my relationships with these amazing kids were beginning to blossom into connections of trust and vulnerability. One whole year, and I was still sticking around. It was that simple fact that now undertowed the seemingly strange line of questioning from my favorite group of teenagers.
I answered, “Well, I don’t think it will ever happen. But, if the U.S. ever went to war with Mexico, it wouldn’t change anything! This is my home now, with you.”
They all laughed, obviously pleased. I could tell, though, the conversation was far from over. They had that classic teenager look in their eyes, that said, “We’re going to trap you and beat you at this new game we’ve invented, one way or another.”
They began again, “What if the U.S. military invaded Mexico? Would you leave?” “I would stay…” I answered.
They tried one last time. “What if you came to the shelter one day, and we were being held at gunpoint? If they grabbed you and asked you, ‘Are you American, or are you with these kids?’ Would you die with us?”
Questions of loyalty come up all the time when working with children from broken homes. They are many, and they are varied. Sometimes, they appear obviously, like this “gunpoint” example—a high-stakes connection test. Other times, your kids may be testing you, and it appears they only want to test your patience! Whether obvious or subtle, these are critical moments that will either boost or discourage the child’s trust in you and your relationship together. Being able to recognize when these moments are taking place, and act purposefully, is an important aspect in orphan care.
So with that said, here are a few examples of “Connection Tests” that we have seen over the years, and how to respond in a positive, affirming way.
Test #1:“How long will you be here?”
If you, like me, are a staff member that entered an already well-established orphanage, the kids will naturally have a lot of questions about your intentions. Sometimes those questions are incredibly obvious, like this one: “How long will you be here?” Of course, the reality behind the question has implications for your long-term relationship. The question really is, “Will you stay with me?” “Can I trust you?” and, “Should I prepare myself for you to leave me?”
Best Response: Honesty
Giving your children sincere predictability is always best, especially when it comes to relationships. If your position is long-term and permanent, say so! If you are a volunteer and do not know how long your stay will be, find a positive way to express that. “I won’t be here forever, but we’re going to have so much fun while I am, and you will always be in my heart!” If you know the date of your departure, even better! “I am leaving in four months. I will be so sad! So let’s enjoy all of our time together.” Your honesty, even if the answer isn’t what the child is hoping for, will increase their trust in you for however long you stay.
Test #2: Repetition
My wife and I met at a children’s home, both working as caregivers. When we got married, it was important to us that the kids be there, so we invited them all (30 or so kids!) with beautiful, personal invitations. And for the next four months, we were asked thousands of times, “Am I invited to your wedding?” Sometimes, a child would ask three or four times in a row! And everytime, we would say the same, “Of course you are invited! Didn’t you get your invitation?” It was never enough. Up until the day of, they asked over and over.
Best Response: Patience
It boils down to insecurity over excitement. This repetition happens when the child feels there is something precious at stake, and genuinely longs to feel secure that the moment or relationship won’t be ripped away at the last minute. Your job is to reinforce, reinforce, reinforce. It requires patience on your end, never showing exasperation, but always demonstrating kind consistency—a consistency they have probably never experienced until now.
Test #3: “Will you hold this for me?”
The subtle tests are always so interesting to me. You can recognize them in the day to day. Pay very close attention, and ask yourself ‘why’ your child is doing what they do. A pattern I began to notice among my kids was this gem—“Can you please hold this for me?” This usually comes before they leave to play, but will occasionally take place for no reason at all. They will hand you some trinket, maybe of value to them, maybe not! But the test takes place when they come back, “Do you still have the thing I gave you?”
Best Response: Be a Refuge
When you know that the request is really, “Can I please trust you,” you can tailor your response to answer perfectly. I love to exaggerate these moments. The question is significant, so make your response just as significant.
You can begin by commenting on the importance of the object—“Wow, this bracelet is beautiful!” or, “Did you make this paper airplane yourself?!” Then, show them exactly where you plan to keep it safe. “It’s going to be right here in my pocket until you get back. No, no one else will touch it, I promise.” Recognize that, whether the child knows they are doing this or not, they are testing to see if you are a safe place. Take it seriously!
Test #4: “Help, I’ve Fallen!”
I love this one. I once had a child couple this test with the “repetition” test, and he would purposefully fall down in front of me over, and over, and over. Every time, he would cry to me, “Help, I’m hurt!” As an adult, it would be easy to write this off. The child is just faking an injury to get my attention—how annoying! But don’t do it. These moments, just like every other subtle test we spot, have deep implications and carry an important message to our children.
Best Response: Be a Healer and Redirect
Careful redirection is important when a child is faking pain, crying, highlighting negative experiences, etc. It’s true. But not before you answer the question they’re asking, “Can I trust you to heal me?” Scoop them up, brush off their fake wounds, and remind them that they are so brave. In this way, you demonstrate that, should a real emergency ever occur, you are prepared to be a good, solid healer and comforter.
Then you can redirect. Find a better game. You’ve answered the question and you can get back to the activity at hand.
Our kids are testing us everyday. When it comes to tests of connectivity and questions of trust or loyalty, it’s important that we stop, take these moments seriously, and answer the best we can. We are the adults, and it is our job to assess what the implications are behind the strange behaviors of a child in pain. A good response will create a bond of security and begin or continue the journey of healing.
What connection tests have you experienced? Comment below to share your stories with us!
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