“If you were going to give your children a suitcase full of attributes and skills they will need to lead a healthy life, what would you include?” asked the researcher at the start of the workshop. After having shared his personal history, he posed that challenging question. He gave us 5 minutes to individually respond by writing our thoughts on a piece of paper. He asked us to think about the question in terms of our children, children in our families, our children’s friends, and even our children’s friends’ friends. I have not given birth to any children, but I did not struggle to bring to mind the children in my life that I love. We then shared our responses with our table, and then the larger room.
I do a great deal of work with drug and alcohol abuse prevention. Both my personal and professional story are deeply connected to that issue. This question was delivered at meeting focused on drug prevention policy. The meeting was lead by scholars committed to preventing drug and alcohol abuse.
Starting the day with such a personal question immediately brought the people in the room together thinking about the heart of our work. As we discussed our answers, it was clear people wanted the same things for all children. People wanted children to be cared for and loved. To be resilient and strong. To be loving, compassionate, and connected. To make healthy choices, and feel safe and secure. As we were talking about our answers, I could not help but wonder if many of us were at that table out of a desire to give children the suitcases we never had. After we had answered the question, the researcher let us know he has lead this exercise across countries and continents, and the answers are always the same.
The next part of the exercise was to think about a suitcase of attributes and skills that we hope our children are able to avoid and leave behind, the “heavy” things that might keep them from being healthy and happy. This was a harder question to answer. Words like doubt, cynicism, anger, addiction, illness, perfection, apathy, anxiety, depression, and regret entered the conversation. What if children could grow up without all that stuff? What would a life without all that look like? I sat there thinking how wonderful it would be to simply put all negative thought and action into a suitcase and banish it from my vocabulary and universe.
Those questions haunted me throughout the day. As we learned about prevention research and best practice, I kept coming back to the intersection of my story with my work. By framing the question in his own story, the researcher provided me just enough room to think about my personal and professional motivations. Do I do what I do because of who I am and where I have been? What does my positive suitcase from childhood contain? What negative things do I still carry? What still moves within me seeking resolution and peace? What are the sources of my strength and how can I build upon and fortify them with fierce intensity?
Ultimately, we all have suitcases from childhood. We gather suitcases and leave suitcases behind during the seasons of our lives. Today, how can we make the suitcases of all children include all the love they will surely need to navigate life?