The profession that never was
However much it hurts, I really do want to know what happened to the profession that never was. Not that long ago, the luminaries were writing, preaching, and chatting up a storm about this exciting new discipline, with its own unique knowledge base, that was going to change the world and take its rightful place among the elite of human service providers. Grand conferences at fancy hotels, national and regional associations springing up all over the place, new journals and academic programs — all promised to carry child and youth care into a new era of child-centred activity.
So what happened? How come today’s conferences give us catchy titles and about as much excitement as a dryer in a laundromat? Why do professional associations that once set out to challenge the world now limit their ambitions to dishing out those churchy little newsletters to those who can still afford to pay the fees? What about those rarely perused journals (you’re reading one now) struggling to find enough contributors and subscribers to keep their literary heads above water? And how about those exciting new academic programs, now churning out the tedious old academic formulas, albeit in bright new technological packages? Meanwhile, many of those who carried the child and youth care banner are still searching to find a place for themselves in a society where the unmet needs of kids are crying out from families, schools, and communities across the continent.
Sure, you can still find the party faithful in school classrooms working as teachers’ aides. Some stalwarts continue to cover the shifts in residential centres now reduced to institutional status by funding cutbacks and the professional arrogance of those who claimed to have a “better way.” And people calling themselves child and youth care workers still do the real work in group homes and community agencies for salaries that would be scoffed at by the real professionals.
Meanwhile, the old adage that our future rests with our children rings like a hollow and ironic cliché in a world where the nuclear family no longer stays intact long enough to provide even the most basic veneer of security; where supports for parents and children are being devastated by reactionary right-wing fundamentalism; where educational systems are more concerned with pumping up dying economics than attending to the developmental needs of young people; where those economics are targeting children as their pivotal consumers; and where adults, struggling with their own lost illusions, are calling upon judicial systems to create harsher punishments for children (even where youth crime is clearly diminishing). Why is it that child and youth care, with all its potential, has traded its former ideals for such a nebulous and lowly place in an established order that contributes more to the problems than the solutions? Sure, it’s had to face some stiff financial realities but, with the exception of free-wheeling physicians who still manage to tap into our desperate need for saviours, so has every other human service provider. What happened to the exhortation that this systems crisis actually offered new opportunities for child and youth care to come forward with its own unique solutions (remember all that “ancient-Chinese-proverb-say” stuff)? Sure, the other professions have closed ranks and thrown only the most unsavory tidbits to the unwashed Tribes of Trieschman (remember him?), but why would anybody choose to sit at the feet of such anachronistic masters in the first place?
From the most forgivable perspective, child and youth care, in all of its many guises and disguises, has simply failed to respond to the challenge. Less forgivable, however, is its squandering of opportunities to be with kids twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in a way that few other adults, professional or otherwise, have explored. Reprehensible is its diminishing of these opportunities by regarding the privilege of simply participating in the lives of young people as being in some way unprofessional — “baby-sitting,” some call it.
And, while we’re at it, let’s lay some of the responsibility at the feet of the so-called “educators” — particularly those who have lacked the courage to step into the unknown themselves, preferring to adopt agendas of other professions without ever having explored the unique and intimidating potentials of front-line child and youth care. To the degree that they have molded the practices and aspirations of their students, they have been significant contributors to the unfulfilled promises. Perhaps their greatest single blunder has been their own failure to understand that textbooks and theories are secondary to the raw experience of learning from kids, and that the techniques designed to fix children are completely at odds with the ability to simply be with them.
Many years ago I came to the conclusion that the primary task of the professional child and youth care worker was to try to understand the subjective world of the child, rather than impose upon them the abstract worlds of Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Jean Piaget and the like (e.g., Fewster, 1982, 1990). From this perspective the “new profession” was given a unique opportunity to bring forward the real stories of real children struggling to come to terms with the confusion of families, schools, social agencies, and communities. Had these stories ever been skillfully fleshed out and communicated to our increasingly harsh and bitter world, perhaps they would have reminded us of values far more general and profound that the lost moralities of so-called “basics” or “family values.” Perhaps they would have opened up new possibilities for a world founded upon something other than the delusions of power and economic prosperity. If nothing else, some children would have been heard at the most essential level of being, and at least one group of adults would have reached out beyond the clichéd “our future is our children.”
Even after all this time, I still become incensed when this perspective is dismissed as being “motherhood,” “naive,” or otherwise “unprofessional.” I continue to maintain that the commitment and the skills involved in coming to terms with the personal world of a child are so demanding that they far exceed the abilities of our current array of professional fixers, teachers, healers, and pill-pushers. I know from experience that the ability to offer validation of that world through empathy and accurate “mirroring” challenges even the most dedicated personal and professional resources.
But who will show us the way if not the kids themselves? Who will be there to challenge our arrogant belief that childhood is a diminished state —valuable only as a preparation for adulthood? Who will speak back to our theories and our concepts when we buckle the strait-jackets of science around the lives of those we claim to love? Who will be there to show us how the agenda or our own unmet needs lead us into the deceptions and manipulations that masquerade as “parenting,” “counselling,” “education,” and “treatment”? And, when we finally come to realize that we’ve been looking at ourselves, will we have the courage to look into the faces and listen to the voices of those who also ask for nothing more than to see and be seen?
So, is it still possible for this “profession” to step aside from the repetitive rituals and rise above the learned helplessness that currently hangs over the “front-line”? Of course it is. All we have to do is acknowledge that kids’ problems are also our problems; to begin to recognize such problems as gifts to be cherished rather than blemishes to be erased; to look into ourselves and come to know where we end and our younger partners begin; to see what “is” before rushing off to create illusions of what should be; to respond to the worlds of children and young people with sensitivity, respect, and humility; to step beyond the arrogance of adulthood to acknowledge and validate those worlds; to bring the experience of children and young people into the adult world, not in the form of role or power reversals, but as a means of re-learning what we have chosen to forget; to invite children and young people to join us as fellow human beings and participate as their growing maturity allows; to actually live as if we really believed that our children are our future.
Oh, for the love of Bruno Bettelheim, what kind of professional stance is this? Well, for me, it could be the missing part of the profession that never was. But, does it still have relevance for today’s version of child and youth care? Not really, unless we still hold on to some wild ambitions about changing the world.
Fewster, G. (1982). You, me and us. Journal of Child Care, 1(1), 4-7.
Fewster, G. (1990). Being in child care. New York: Haworth Press.
This feature: Fewster, G. The profession that never was. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 10(3), v-viii Editorial