Children's Voice May/June 2006

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The Secret Power of Ignorance

By Michael Piraino

I don't know why, as adults, we think we know everything. Maybe we just automatically subscribe to the theory that as we get older, we get wiser. What I think actually happens is we become more jaded and we mistake that for knowledge. I think we all agree that age does not teach us. Experience does. That's why some of my most powerful learning experiences have come from folks far younger than me, but wise beyond their years.

It occurred to me early in my career of advocating for foster children that I needed to find a path to communication with them. This path led me to accepting my own ignorance. I'd like to introduce you to the moment I embraced that ignorance, and the impact it's had on me and thousands of foster children for the past 25 years.

I could barely contain my anticipation. My wife and I were at the airport, in an area specially set aside for parents and their young children, waiting to greet our newly adopted infant son.

Despite my nervousness and expectation, I couldn't help but notice a little boy somberly absorbed in squeezing blobs of play clay. After a few minutes, I sat on the ground next to him. He looked at me. I asked what he was playing with. He studied me for a beat and then said, "Play-Doh."

"Play-Doh? You eat that, right?" I asked.

A smile lit up the boy's face. "No, you don't," he corrected me. "You play with it. You make things with it!" And for the next several minutes, my little friend cleverly demonstrated how to make squiggly ropes and lopsided balls. Then the plane arrived. Families were reunited. The little boy walked off hand-in-hand with his parents. And tears filled my eyes as I held my son.

Of all the memories of that life-changing day, the little boy playing with Play-Doh is one of the most vivid. I believe it's because I chose to step out of my immediate situation--crowded as it was with strong emotions and thoughts about the future--to let a child show me what was most important to him in that moment. He took utter joy in being the expert, letting an ignorant adult into his world.

One of the most important things I have learned through my 25 years as an advocate for foster children is that I need to be ignorant. And I encourage court-appointed special advocate and guardian ad litem volunteers to do the same thing.

Becoming ignorant means setting aside preconceived notions. Others may call this idea "being present." Regardless of what it's called, the goal is to let everything you think you know about a given situation drop away. In so doing, you are able to get to the child's level, to understand a child's world as she sees it. And your being at her level offers the child a chance to reveal the important feelings and thoughts that are crowding her world.

Being on the child's level creates the space to hear crucial things--like from the street kid who said he wanted to go to college "just like a normal person," the youngster who told his volunteer he waited all of his life for the day she walked with him on a beach, or the Native American teen who described his vision quest as the time he "came alive" to the world.

I wish solving kids' problems was as easy as squishing Play-Doh with them. It's not. But suspending what you think you know lets the child usher you into his or her world. That kind of presence not only changes the life of a child, it changes yours, too.

As we think about the more than 500,000 children who are in the foster care system, and ways we can help them, I encourage you to embrace your ignorance. Learn from the child who hasn't been given a fare shake at life. You know if you get through to him you can make a difference in his life--but first, give him a chance to make a difference in yours.

That's the power of being ignorant.

Michael Piraino is CEO of the National CASA Association, Seattle, Washington.

"Other Voices" provides leaders and experts from national organizations that share CWLA's commitment to the well-being of children, youth, and families a forum to share their views and ideas on cross-cutting issues.



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