March 10, 2022


One Trusted Adult: How to Build Strong Connections & Healthy Boundaries with Young People. By Brooklyn Raney. Circle Talk Publishing. $19.95.

     Here is a book with a strong, important message that boils down to: “We need to tell young people about the benefits of looking for adults, outside of their parents, they can depend on and learn from. We also need to teach them how to establish relationships with such adults.”

     Here too is a book that almost does not get to deliver that important message – because it begins in such a lazy, shoddy, bend-over-backwards-to-be-politically-correct way. More important than any advice herein, so important that Brooklyn Raney presents it before ever stating her thesis or even starting to make any well-considered point, is that she inform readers that “I am a cisgender, heterosexual, white woman in my mid-thirties living in New Hampshire after growing up in Canada. I am married to a man, and I have one adopted son, who[m] you will hear plenty about in this book.”

     Oh, please. The ridiculousness of this sort of “look at me and judge me by externals” presentation is patently obvious through a simple re-reading of the book’s central message. Is Raney saying that words to adolescents on “the benefits of looking for adults, outside of their parents, they can depend on and learn from” are contextual based on who is saying them? If Raney were not white, would the assertion be wrong? Would it be worse? Would it be better? Would it mean something different? Would it be less important? More important? This kind of thinking is nonsense. Furthermore, having chosen to discuss her son, Raney compounds the inadequacy of her book’s opening by starting the first chapter with the kind of dramatic-sounding incident that generally draws readers in and establishes real credibility (not the ugly, phony, gender-and-race-based type) – an incident involving, yes, her son. And then she immediately refuses to say what was going on! In other words, she sets up something valuable, interesting and engaging for readers, then promptly pulls the rug out from under them. Ugh.

     Anyone with a sufficiently strong interest in the topic of this book to get past these initial missteps will, eventually, get to the core of what Raney has to say – and that is where the value will be found. As a matter of fact, it is only toward the end of the book that Raney presents an anecdote that would have much better served her purpose at the book’s beginning – one about her own experience connecting, as a teenager, with a much older person on whom she realized she would be able to count if the need ever arose. The story even contains some of Raney’s best writing, when she says she, then age 15, managed to get up the courage to speak to this person: “I am not sure what breakfast full of bravery I had that morning.” If this whole book had been written that way, its usefulness and readability would have been far clearer.

     Nevertheless, Raney’s book is useful, and its foundational message is important. She sprinkles the book with information from her own life and her son’s (all of it better than that first inclusion of something about her child). One “aha” moment, for instance, involves her son’s meltdown about not getting mail – it turned out that he never sent mail and didn’t even think of doing so. After a talk with Raney, he sent a number of letters and got some in return. Raney generalizes: “I can’t guarantee that if you put kindness, love, respect, and fairness out into the world you will get it all back. But I can almost guarantee that if you don’t, you won’t.” This is part of a well-thought-through discussion of natural consequences, one of multiple complex topics that Raney handles, for the most part, sensibly and attentively.

     The book is divided into three sections called “Building Trust,” “Establishing Boundaries,” and “Creating Culture,” the first two of which are primarily descriptive and the third primarily prescriptive. The first sections are, as a whole, more valuable, dealing with the importance of trusted adults, ways to become one, how to embrace trusted-adult responsibilities, and how to bring those responsibilities into organizations – specifically, educational ones. Some of Raney’s ideas are simplistic, but she gets the basics right, including the crucial importance of boundary-setting to prevent a trusted adult from ever becoming an exploitative adult. This material leads into the third part of the book, where matters tend to be weaker. Here, for example, she talks about a student in her reading class who became upset and “shot me the middle finger” – a gesture that Raney was not supposed to see, but did. Raney realized that a consequence was needed but that she “could not play savior in this situation,” so she found a different trusted adult to deal with the student. So far, so good. But then Raney simply says that this other person “advised her [the student] in a magical way – without shame or blame – and full of action.” What this “magic” was – surely a matter germane to what Raney is discussing – is never revealed, and this lack of specificity makes it hard to tell how to implement some of the more-prescriptive elements of One Trusted Adult.

     The book is also lacking in one crucial element that, in its own right, matters as much as anything it includes, if not more. The question is how a young person finds a trusted adult without having to rely on a “breakfast full of bravery.” Many, many, many young people simply do not have a trusted adult in their lives – at least someone they recognize as a trusted adult. Raney writes her book entirely from the perspective of someone who considers herself a trusted adult and wants to show other adults, especially educators, how they too can earn and develop young people’s trust. But there is very little here about how young people who are flailing about developmentally and emotionally can locate and reach out to adults who will help them without taking advantage of their youth and naïveté. As far as it goes, once it gets past its wholly inadequate initial posturing, One Trusted Adult offers useful guidance for well-meaning adults who genuinely want to help young people with whom they interact. It is not, however, a book for those young people themselves – and a great many of them desperately need one.

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