When I was about 10 years old, my neighbors hired me to feed their cats while they were on vacation. One day, when I went to unlock the door to their house, the key wouldn’t turn. So I tried to force it. I turned the key so hard it broke in the lock.
My father, who is French, had an expression he used in my childhood moments of impatience: “Forcer, c’est casser.” It translates to “To force is to break.”
To force is to break. Forcing may be something you feel compelled to do, but it rarely gets you the outcome you want. It’s a notion that holds true for so much more than keys and doors.
A couple of months ago, Prevent Child Abuse Arizona convened some partners to do a ‘system walk-through’ of the child protection system to inform the work of our Best for Babies initiative. Using a hypothetical example, we outlined what happens to a family from when they get reported to the hotline, all the way through the decision to reunify a child – or to sever parental rights.
The experience taught me a lot about the baffling complexity of the system, and reaffirmed how crucial it is to prevent child maltreatment and keep families safely together so we can avoid the need for the child protection system.
It was also a humbling experience. At one point in the conversation, it came up that there are standards of practice for certain junctures in a case, but these practices aren’t always followed, due to a number of reasons, including time and capacity. When they aren’t followed, it affects the outcomes of cases, which, to put it in human terms, are the real lives of children and families in our state.
When I learned this, I was indignant.
My first thought was: How can we make people follow the standards? How can we make them follow the rules? In other words, how could we force people to change?
I started to express my outrage aloud. Our meeting facilitator caught me mid-tirade. “You know,” she said gently, “We can try to make people do things through stricter rules or oversight, but that’s not going to make them want to change, or change the way they think. The way to get them to change is to build a relationship with them and get where we want to go together.”
I was grateful for her reframe. Because what she was saying was something I know to be true: to force is to break.
It’s okay to feel outrage. It’s born of a place of valuing justice. It’s okay to want to make people change, especially when you see them causing harm.
But much like trying to force parents to change isn’t the best way to guide them to nurture their kids, forcing the people working in a system to change may not be the most sustainable way to make the change we want actually happen.
It’s all a parallel process. We know this.
To get anything done, it takes the slow, trust-building work of forming relationships. And you can’t force trust. To force is to break. It is through relationships that people can decide to change, and become intrinsically motivated to do so. It’s how we can learn about the person and meet them where they are, and work with what they have. It is through that understanding that we can be creative, resourceful, and human.
Because in this work, here’s another thing I know to be true: We all want safe children in resilient families. We may have differing views of what that looks like exactly, or how to get there, but as long as we share that ultimate vision, we can work on it together.
And try as we might, forcing won’t get us we want. Forcer, c’est casser.