| The International
Child and Youth
The care in child and youth work begins with a connection made between the child and the care giver. That connection can happen in the most unlikely of moments; while watching TV silently, laughing together as a ball is once more tossed onto a roof-top, or being present to a child in his moment of pain and anger. It can take time and a lot of patience to form these connections with youth. Often youth in care have experienced some kind of rejection, abuse, or neglect, and trusting a stranger is completely outside of their comfort zone. This would be true for anyone! The connections that youth workers make, in a tumultuous time in the youth's lives, become the basis for the relationships that are built.
The nature of these relationships between children and care givers is complex and varied. It is surprising then that the language we use to describe it lacks in variety and creativity. Allow me to explain. When I stepped into my role as youth care worker I became immediately aware of a new language flowing about me. Phrases such as, "she's become completely institutionalized," or "he's a classic example of a parentified youth," are common in a child and youth care facility. There is a vocabulary, partially borrowed from disciplines such as psychology and counseling, that we use to describe the work we do and the youth that we work with, or serve.
Actions are described as "behaviours" and behaviours are often classified as "appropriate" or "inappropriate." However, there is no mutually objective viewpoint between care givers and youth, from which to understand the language that care givers use. What does someone hear when they are told, "what you just did was completely inappropriate"? The tone that is used might give away the fact that the speaker thought the action was bad or negative, but beyond that the sentence may have little meaning. Why was the action not appropriate in that place and with those people? What does the word "appropriate" mean to the youth being spoken to? A language with which to speak of youth care practice has developed but it is the vocabulary of youth workers and not of the youth. Like it or not, the language of child and youth care has spilled out of the office into actual practice and translates often as confusing and possibly even meaningless. Chris Gudgeon in his article "Politics and the language of Child Care" asserts that:
Using language repetitively and not searching for precise words to describe youth care and the youth themselves reflects a lack of self-awareness and is also contradictory to the youth care approach that many of us are versed in. Characteristics of a child and youth care approach include, "engagement and connection as a foundation, individuality of approach, and attention to, and use of, rhythmicity." (Garfat and McElwee 15) When the language that we as child and youth workers use cannot be experienced as a natural part of the rhythm of a youth's day, our language has failed. The impact of living in an artificial environment such as a residential youth centre or home, may perhaps be minimized by striving to relate to youth using everyday language.
Jack Phelan, who writes about the use of language in child and youth care, states:
There are many reasons to keep our language simple when entering into interactions and interventions with young people. There is already a significant difference in power between youth in care and child and youth workers. Youth in care often have little control in their own lives, whereas youth workers have had the privilege of choosing an occupation and are working with youth because they want to be. The power difference between youth and youth workers is magnified when youth workers speak "over the heads" of the youth.
Multi-culturalism also plays a role. Care givers and youth may come from very different backgrounds, already laying the foundation for misunderstandings and misinterpretations. How often do we ensure that we have truly understood what a young person has said or done? Likewise, how often are we sure that what we have said and done has been interpreted correctly?
In a meeting place on the Weagamow Lake Reserve in Ontario this anonymous note was once found: "I believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant." (Ross iv) As care givers it is the responsibility of youth workers to find a way to come alongside youth despite every kind of difference in culture, and background. Listening and the use of language are powerful tools with which to do this.
Personally I want to bite my tongue every time a catch phrase such as "they behaved appropriately" or "it was a natural consequence" flies out of my mouth. I notice a glazed look on the face of the youth I am speaking with and I realize that again I have been insensitive and used language that the youth does not relate to. I imagine a needs based intervention plan for me from the perspective of a young person might look something like this:
Chris Gudgeon leaves us with some pointers on how to revive our flagging child and youth care language. Among them are:
It is our involvement in the everyday events of youth that sets child and youth care apart from other human services, and our language ought to reflect that immersion by being sincere, precise and accessible.
Male Unit, Reigh Allen Centre, HomeBridge Youth Society
Garfat, Thom, and Niall McElwee. Developing Effective Interventions with Families: An Eircan Perspective. Cape Town: Pretext Publishers, 2004.
Gudgeon, Chris. "Politics and the language of Child Care." Journal of Child and Youth Care. (1991): 20 Jan. 2006 <http://www.cyc-net.org/cyc-online/cycol-0304-politics.html>.
Phelan, Jack. "Notes on using Plain Language in Child and Youth Care Work." CYC-ONLINE Issue 34. Nov. 2001. 25 Jan. 2006 <http://www.cyc-net.org//cyc-online/cycol-1101-phelan.html>.
Ross, Rupert. Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality. Canada: Reed Books, 1992.