On making a house a home
By a second year child and youth care student
The task of providing "real experiences of good care, comfort and control" is made complex by group living.
We must find a way of "living, not just existing", a way of giving the children these basic things so that they "feel given and not provided". The difficulty is that, though in theory we are providing a base for these children for a short while, in reality they may be with us for longer, and we cannot offer "a place in which one marks time". Development goes on.
To create a home environment on a domestic scale while "living in a noisy fishbowl" is extremely difficult. The large numbers, the lack of funds, the ugly buildings of the larger institutions, all militate against this. But there are ways and means. It needs imagination, energy and motivation. A can of paint and a vase of bright flowers can work wonders to change the atmosphere. The physical surroundings do affect the mood in general, so the child care worker should look at communal space as she would her own living space at home, and add those little touches that turn any dreary room into a home. A clean, warm, cheerful room with table set and hot lunch waiting for the children when they get back from school, a little bunch of flowers for the girl who is feeling down, being available for and aware of each individual, checking and showing an interest in arrangements to ensure a successful outing or home visit, taking time for window-shopping, walks in the neighbourhood — all things a normal family would do with its members without thinking.
Whenever possible, blanket rules and "absolute time-tables" must be avoided so that we can cater for individual needs and differences, minimising the apathy which a monotonous routine sets up. Ideally the group home should fulfil most of the needs of normal family life. For one thing the home is part of the neighbourhood, the ages and sexes of the children approximate the normal family situation where age-appropriate behaviour is seen as natural and sex role identification easier. Here too the simple tasks like shopping for the kitchen and the joy of preparing and cooking the family meal can be shared by all and individual tastes and fancies catered for. In the institution a simple hotplate can do wonders in creating a warm feeling — flapjacks on a rainy afternoon or popcorn to fill those ever-hollow tummies. For children who have on the whole been neglected and rejected, food becomes an important means of care.
Since learning to make choices is one of the chief steps in gaining personal independence, it is vital for the children to participate in setting up the structure necessary for the smooth functioning of the home. They must help decide on house rules, consequences, chores. In the household running one can encourage different roles which meet individual strengths and weaknesses. Joe is best with the vacuum cleaner while Sally loves setting the table. They must also share in decision making when it comes to things like choosing a new decor for communal spaces or rearranging the furniture. So many useful skills for their adult life are learned in this informal manner.
Personal space must be separate from communal space. We all have a need for privacy and the child coming into care can feel very exposed and vulnerable in this potentially public environment. We must take great care to ensure privacy of person and possessions. Keys and lock-up facilities should be available. One of the problems in institutions is trying to teach a child respect for his/her property and that of others. For this to develop healthily one needs a sense of ownership and pride in one's personal space. However, we must guard against the assumption that all children want a room of their own — for some this may be seen as punishment rather than a privilege. So a quiet corner somewhere may be preferable for some. In his/her room the child should have some freedom of choice as to pictures and ornaments to express his/her individuality. Clothing too, where possible, should be a matter of individual choice. Here the child care worker can assist in showing the children how to use imagination with second-hand clothing — a sewing machine is an essential at any time.
The normal family provides lots of informal
education, e.g. in the use of tools and appliances, how to fix a broken
plug or window pane, in the practical use of the everyday world, e.g.
how to send a parcel or telegram, the encouragement of hobbies, all the
little things we take for granted in our own homes but which a deprived
child may never have been exposed to. Our job then must be to
personalise and enrich the environment for our caring work, to recreate
that priceless commodity they have temporarily lost — a home.
Beedel, C, Residential Life with Children
Pringle, M.K., The Needs of Children