27-Letter Words and Making Big Problems Smaller

When I was a kid I had a fascination with big words.   In order to find the biggest words, you sometimes have to look in strange places.  I eventually discovered that the shampoo bottle was a great source of big words. In fact, most shampoo brands had an ingredient that was particularly noteworthy:  methylchloroisothiazolinone which, by the way, comes in at a whopping 27 letters.

Before we go further, let’s just get the obvious out of the way:  Yes, maybe I was a little bit of a weird kid. Now where were we…

When you are 9-years-old, it feels like an accomplishment going out into the everyday world without the aid of a dictionary and unearthing a 27-letter word.  I mean, seriously, that’s bigger than the alphabet.

Just for fun, I did a quick google search (not available to me when I was 9) for other impressively long words.  Here are a few:

  • Antidisestablishmentarianism (28 letters)
  • floccinaucinihilipilification (29 letters)
  • Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (45 letters)

One interesting thing to note about all of these big words: While they are somewhat impressive, they aren’t generally very useful day-to-day.

Most of them stay tucked away in the dictionary and only get pulled out when someone googles “what is the longest word in the dictionary”.  Even the one I found as a kid is on most shampoo bottles, but no one really knows what it means nor uses it in any kind of meaningful discourse.  (By the way, if you care, methylchloroisothiazolinone is an antibacterial and antifungal agent used in cosmetic products.)

There are lots of things in the world that have the quality of being impressive but not particularly useful.  This is also true of the numbers we use in foster care advocacy.  In our desire to help people understand that we have a really big problem, we share the biggest numbers we can find (438,000 kids in foster care with over 100,000 waiting to be adopted).  While these are frighteningly big numbers, and may be useful to a point, for most audiences they are not particularly compelling.

The world is full of problems that feel too big for us to solve.  We hear these kinds of large stats all the time about a myriad of social ills but seldom do we think, “I think I can help solve that problem.”

What if, in foster care, we began to share the smallest numbers we could find rather than the biggest?   

After all, the number of children waiting in the foster care system for adoption in your county is a solvable problem when compared with the number of churches.    The number of foster families needed in your county for every child to have an ideal placement is a solvable problem.

When you arm yourself with these smaller numbers, it completely changes the conversations you have with church leaders in your community.  Now, when you are trying to persuade someone to take action, simple math is on your side.

“Pastor, there are 62 children waiting for adoption in our county.  How many of them do you feel our congregation could realistically provide homes for?”   

Whatever number they give you (even if it’s just one or two), multiplied by the number of churches in your county is very likely to be way more than enough for the waiting kids in your county.

So, what are some of the smaller useful numbers you should be looking for?

  1. The number of children in foster care in your county.
  2. The number of children in your county waiting to be adopted.
  3. The number of foster, adoptive, and kinship families in your church needing wrap-around support

Take any one of these smaller numbers and then make it your mission to rally others to solve that problem.  Not only is it possible, it’s probably easier than pronouncing 27-letter words.

This post originally appeared in our Foster Roster e-newsletter which is delivered each Friday. We keep it short and sweet and fill it with practical articles, videos, blog posts and other tools for leaders like you working to help kids and families in foster care.  To sign up, go to http://bit.ly/1rwn6eO.