Relationships we build with children and youth
The heart of our work is the relationship we have with young people — together with our understanding of the relationship: where it is heading and how it is helping
"Do you know what I would really like?" asked
Nerina, grinning into her child care worker Margaret's face. "I would
like a boy friend who treats me like a lady! He wouldn't have to be cute
or even rich — just treat me like a lady."
Margaret replied: "You know the saying — 'Nice work if you can get it'." They both laughed.
* * *
Margaret thought back. It was only seven or eight months earlier that Nerina had arrived in her group, a mixture of anger and uncertainty, in all sorts of trouble, and keeping all of the staff strictly at arms length. The director had warned the child and youth care workers at the time: "Our relationship with Nerina right now is pretty scratchy — but don't accept that it will stay like that. Our job is to move the relationship along. With her family in the state it is, we're all she has, and we don't have much time."
Most of our relationships with new kids are like those between teachers and new pupils in a school. We size each other up and tread warily for a while. The teacher sees a pupil in terms of academic potential and performance and in terms of attitude and behavior in class; the pupil sees the teacher as staff. But we who work with children in child and youth care settings cannot be satisfied with just a staff-child relationship. We are having to catch up with more than school work and we are preparing the child for more than school leaving. We are often having to make up for years of lost or troubled experience with parents and adults and neighbors — and we are preparing the child for life.
From staff to adults
So Margaret's and Nerina's director is right. We may start off with a staff-pupil relationship, which is based very much on roles and authority and external control. This formal period in the relationship is nevertheless extremely useful. Within the structure of the program, we at least get to spend time with Nerina — we work together at tasks, spend time in activity and recreation groups, eat together — where normally we might not easily have come into contact with her at all.
But Nerina will have to manage relationships not only with authority figures, but also with people at a more mutual and co-operative level. So in the life space we facilitate (help, encourage, promote) all of her interpersonal relationships, not only with her peers, but also between her and ourselves. We must consciously move from being staff members towards being part of a wider circle of adults whom she doesn't otherwise have in her life. So (as in all families) we move beyond parental authority and discipline to being just "other people" — people with ideas, skills, feelings and hurts. Nerina has probably lived in very difficult circumstances at home, perhaps with absent parents, with poverty, with alcoholism, with violence. Now, as close people in her life, we have the opportunity to fill out her personal picture of what adults and people are: so we become role-models, with whom she can practice being a person-with-others.
If our relationship with Nerina sticks at the staff-pupil level, it is our responsibility to find ways of moving it forward. If, after some months, we find ourselves complaining that she is "disobedient" or "defiant" or "unmanageable" then we are certainly stuck at the staff-pupil relationship.
From adults to friends
It is one thing for Nerina to get a fuller picture of people from her role-models. It is much harder for her to build her self-confidence and trust as she tries out her own roles — inevitably failing and trying again. We are seldom much good in institutions at allowing young people to build a capacity for intimacy, an essential element of her late adolescent and young adult relationships. With its qualities of self-disclosure, trust, sharing and confidentiality, this capacity is only achieved through deeper levels of understanding, acceptance and sympathy as she experiments in her attempts to succeed in her many life tasks — things she will get from a true friend who cares about her, no matter what she does.
In short, we do not want Nerina to grow up with an unconfident nature and a need forever to defend herself and her feelings. Just as we had to move from a teacher-pupil relationship to the adult-child relationship, so we must also move to the friend-friend relationship — or at least satisfy ourselves that she can build such a relationship with somebody. On our staff team it is often necessary to ask: "Who among us likes this young person, thinks highly of her, would be able to offer these deeper relationships?" Anyone who says "I can," or "I would like to do that," is a vital staff resource for this child.
Nerina probably didn't have a secure authority relationship at her own home — a sort of teacher-pupil relationship through which she learned basic discipline as a young child. She probably also didn't have reliable and consistent adult-child relationships from which she could gain reasonable pictures of people and roles. Most of all, she very likely did not have the accepting and supportive relationship of a true friend.
We as child and youth care workers must be able to offer all of these relationships — and more important, we must understand when it is necessary for us to move on from one to another.