“I don’t know what to do. My sister has a car, and she takes me to work and then to community college to go to class. But she wants me to party with her all weekend, and I can’t do that. So yesterday she told me that if I didn’t party with her on the weekends, she would not take me to work or to my college classes. I don’t know what to do.”
“He is the only friend I had growing up. He fought for me in the neighborhood. He kept me safe. He showed up late last night, needed a place to stay, said he was running from the cops. He wouldn’t explain. He said it was nothing, but he had blood on his jacket. When I left for work this morning, he was asleep. What do I do if he’s still there when I get home tonight?”
As evidenced by these stories told to me, many young people, particularly those in foster care, have given up a lot in order to grow up, and the damage and hurt is immeasurable. As a consequence, the concept of giving up relationships — which are critical to survival — is so painful it is often avoided altogether. In survival environments, relationships help to keep you alive, so to give up relationships for a nebulous, poorly defined, never-quite-attained concept like “achievement” or “success” is almost impossible.
How then do we help youth think about trade-offs? I like some of the key points made by John C. Maxwell in his book “The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential,” especially Chapter 11, “The Law of Trade-Offs: You Have to Give Up to Grow Up.”
- The loss of a trade-off is experienced long before the gain.
- The higher you climb, the harder the trade-offs become. (“Each success only buys an admission ticket to a more difficult problem.”)
- We are never the same after a trade-off.
- Some trade-offs are not worth the price.
- Some of the trade-offs worth taking can be: giving up immediate gratification for personal growth, giving up a “fast life” for a “good life,” giving up security for significance, and giving up financial security for potential tomorrow.
I was sponsoring through graduate school a young, talented man who had grown up in the barrio of San Antonio. He had been beaten out of a gang and survived. He had graduated with a bachelor’s degree and taken a job with a politician in a youth-development grant activity. During that project, he found that the grant funds were being used to register voters for the politician — not the original purpose of the grant.
My friend turned the matter over to the district attorney, who happened to belong to the same political party as the politician. Nothing happened to the politician, but my friend was fired and then arrested on a trumped-up charge over data on an office computer. Luckily, he had a friend who was a lawyer who helped him stay out of jail.
In his first semester of graduate school, my friend called me and said, “I don’t know what to do. The FBI called me, and they want me to testify against this politician about his use of the grant money. I told the FBI I wouldn’t testify.”
I asked him why he would not testify. He said, “Because I don’t narc.”
I said, “Let’s talk about this. The FBI can force you to testify. They can subpoena you. They can take days out of your schedule for that. Who will pay for your lawyer? What will you do about your classes? Why would you protect a person who tried to destroy you for exposing something they were doing illegally?”
He said, “I just don’t narc.”
“But you turned it in to the D.A. last time. Why would you not follow through this time?” I asked.
“It’s a rule in the neighborhood,” he said.
“You are not in the neighborhood anymore,” I said. “This is your life. The choice is yours, but you have to decide, because the reality is this: If you don’t testify now and take immunity, your life could be disrupted for at least a year, maybe longer. I will find out what kind of immunity you need to ask for and get that guarantee in writing. Deal with this and move on. Your life is more important than this.”
In order to avoid legal ramifications and stay focused on graduate school, my friend had to change two relationships. Most significantly, to cooperate with the FBI, he had to change his relationship to his neighborhood and to the identity he forged there. A corollary effect, of course, was the change in his relationship to the politician, as this time justice was carried out.
When working with at-risk populations and discussing trade-offs, please remember:
- Be honest. Don’t sugarcoat the reality.
- Map the trade-off against their future story for their life.
- Identify the losses and the gains of the trade-off.
- Give them a choice. It is their life and their choice.
If we follow these guidelines, we’ll enable our students and clients to put relationships in perspective and make only those trade-offs that are best for them.
Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D., is the founder of aha! Process and an author, speaker, publisher and career educator. She is recognized internationally for “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” her foundational book and workshop.
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