The Importance of a Safe Space

Creating a Safe Space

The Kav L’Noar group had been meeting every week for months. By now, the 9th graders were comfortable with each other and with Guy, their Kav L’Noar mentor.  They all had a great rapport. It was very important to Guy that the boys felt that they were in a safe space, free to be themselves. He told his supervisor early on, “These kids spend all their time being made to feel that they are not ok, that there is something wrong with them. At the very least they should feel like there is someone who likes them just the way they are.”

Guy did such a good job conveying his affection for the students and general positivity that the boys thought of him as one of the gang. They would tease him about his haircut or clothes and interrupt him. Even though they knew that he often met with the school staff, the students even felt comfortable enough to complain to Guy about their teachers. Guy welcomed all of this, taking it as a sign of a real connection with him that could only help them make faster progress. The problem came when some of the boys started making lewd remarks that took things too far.

Sexual Banter, Crude Conversation in the group

“My older sister brought her friend over yesterday-” started Noam. “I was just busy doing my own thing and then I went into the kitchen and suddenly…” and he mimed a crude gesture. The other boys whooped and fell about laughing in response. Guy smiled awkwardly and changed the subject. Another time, Dan started talking about needing to get extra help from one of their female math teachers. The conversation started neutrally. But it soon descended into an inappropriate description of what he really wanted to say to her. Again, almost everybody cheered and again Guy didn’t want to shut it down too obviously.  Although, he did try to steer them away from the topic as fast as possible. But after Ze’ev told two off-color jokes in the same session Guy decided that it was time to seek guidance about how to handle it.

Creating a Safe Space for everyone in the group

“I know that this is what adolescent boys do,” Guy said to his supervisor. “But I don’t want them to think that I approve of these kinds of attitudes. It’s gross and it’s demeaning and it’s harmful. But I also don’t want to stamp it out when this is how they all really talk when we’re not listening.”

The supervisor nodded and asked a simple question. “Are you sure it’s really how they all talk? Does everybody in the group join in?” Guy paused and quickly reviewed the recent interactions in his mind. He shook his head. “Now that I think about it, Lior and Binyamin never do. They always look away or at the floor while all the others are falling off their chairs laughing.” “I’m not surprised,” said the supervisor. “You’ve always described Lior as super-sensitive, I’m sure these sorts of references make his skin crawl. And Binyamin is probably just too embarrassed to even think about joining in. You have just as much of a responsibility to make them feel that they are in safe space, and welcome in the group as you do to all the others.

Finding balance and taking responsibility

Guy nodded. “But how can I deal with it when I’m all red and embarrassed myself? It’s easier if I just start talking about something else and distract them.” The supervisor replied, “whether they’re joining in with it or not, all the boys are relying on you to lead the sessions. How would you feel about sharing how these conversations make you feel with the group? Whatever the subject, your group always has to balance the right to self-expression with the responsibility to protect others from getting hurt or offended, including you! This is no different. And that’s before we even think about what lies beneath all these jokes and comments.”

Are all feelings legitimate in the group?

It didn’t take long for Guy to get his chance to change his approach. Dan brought up the female math teacher again, telling everyone about the extra help she’d given him during a lunch break. Once again, he started referring to her in the most crass and indecent terms. But this time, in the midst of the hooting and whistling from around the room, Guy raised his hand to get their attention. “Dan, it seems like you are having a hard time dealing with the extra attention you’re getting from your teacher. I’d like us to be able to talk about it as a group and maybe we can help.”

Yoni was the first to chime in. “Imagine what she’d say if she was in the room right now. She’d never want to give you extra math help again!” Ze’ev immediately replied. “But she’s not here! Dan is just being honest about how he felt. All feelings are legitimate in our group.” Lior joined in. “All feelings are legitimate but we promised to treat each other with respect in this room. I feel like this is not a respectful way to talk.” Dan was annoyed at that and squared up. “Hey, I’m talking about a teacher here, I didn’t say anything disrespectful about you! What’s your problem?” “Pardon me for wanting to be a decent guy and not listen to someone talking about women like an animal”- said Lior angrily.

When to draw the line

Guy quickly stepped in. “Dan, you didn’t set out to offend anyone here but this is such a private area for everybody, and the issues that are coming up from this- boundaries, sexuality, shame- they’re complicated and very sensitive. As you can see, I’m also blushing.” Binyamin said quietly- “I feel like we all have to be extra careful not to make anyone feel uncomfortable when it comes to talking about intimacy and everything related- even when we’re just fooling around.” Everybody nodded.

The boys didn’t grow up overnight of course. If anyone accidentally said a double entendre, the group would laugh hysterically. There were still winks and snorts at the slightest opportunity to make a crude connection to something. But there was no more of the open vulgarity. The group had created a safe space for all and was learning when to draw the line.

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*All names and identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

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