As a social worker, you learn a lot about your clients. (Or participants, patients, frenemies…whatever we’re calling them this week.) You know about their childhood, their family history, their medical conditions, their friends, religion, favorite TV shows, and, quite often, more about their sexual practices than you care to.
What do they know about you? If Pee-Wee’s Playhouse social work school taught me correctly, nothing.
Well, not quite nothing. They get to know your name, and whether or not you’re licensed. Everything else, they have to pick up for themselves. How old do you look? Are you wearing a wedding ring? If you’ve hit the jackpot and actually have an office, are there pictures of your children?
When they inevitibly ask for more information, you are to give them a careful, smug knowing smile, and ask, “What meaning does that have for you?”
Then duck as they try to punch you. Because damn, is that ever obnoxious.
Some information, you don’t want to give up. I’m on board with that. Do I want to give my volatile clients with anger management issues my home address, along with a schedule indicating the hours that I’ll be there alone? Probably not. (Not again, anyway.) But it’s natural for people to have questions.
Often, people are getting at something with these questions. “Do you have children?” is probably the best example. I look young. Clients know that I went to graduate school, and assume that I didn’t start early in terms of popping out babies.
Because of this, “Do you have kids?” frequently comes out as, “You don’t have kids, do you? How can you tell me how to raise mine?”
How, you ask? I have a Master’s in social work. I’ve studied child development. Not having one’s own children doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have experience with children. Also, one of us is court-mandated to receive parent training, and it isn’t me. Having children doesn’t make you a parenting expert. I bought a skateboard when I was 13. It’s still in my dad’s garage. Does this mean I can compete in the X-Games?
Some people have other motives. When I was interning, and doing home visits with senior citizens, they always wanted to know about me. Not to be nosy (well, to be nosy a little bit) but because they were in their late 80s and I reminded them of their grandkids. They wanted to impart their words of wisdom.
“You’re what, 24? Don’t get married too soon. You finish college. Men hold you back.”
“Buy a house as soon as you can. I’ve been paying rent on this apartment for 40 years, I should own the building.”
“You know, you’re pretty sexy, you should try wearing skirts more.”
OK, that last one was weird.
A lot of people also just want to make conversation. They’re self-conscious constantly talking about themselves, and they ask about me to be polite. Asking whether or not I live in the Bronx might not indicate that they think we’re from different worlds, it might just be them asking if I have a long commute ahead.
I’ve heard plenty of workers try to relate to their clients, particularly with, “Oh, I have kids, I know how it is.” There certainly are shared experiences that can bring us a deeper understanding of what a client is going through. But is parenting, or marriage, or living in a certain borough, really a universal experience? There are so many variables involved in this life that it’s impossible to truly match what someone else is going through.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to training. The X-Games await.