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ISSUE 62 MARCH 2004 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

the words we use

Politics and the language of Child Care

Chris Gudgeon

Abstract: George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language suggests that subtle political pressures cut into the effectiveness of the English language. His ideas apply to child care, where small "p" politics deflect any tendency towards clear thought. The result of these pressures: the language of child care suffers from stale imagery and imprecision. We see models and theories as "fact," rather than metaphor; arguments are presented because they sound "right" and not because they make sense. Fortunately, with Orwell’s direction, there are some simple guidelines we can follow to discover a path towards clear thought.

I used to work at a residential psychiatric centre. One day, Debbie called me aside. She had been a child care worker at the centre for fifteen years. Her eyebrows were furrowed and she scowled somewhat; I knew right away there were grave matters to discuss. “We have to do something about Heather,” she said. Heather was ten years old.

“What’s the matter with her?”

“I don’t like the way she’s carrying on with Andrew.” Her voice grew strained when she mentioned the name of a twelve-year-old boy, a new arrival on the unit.

“What’s wrong with Heather and Andrew?”

“She’s ... fixated on him.”

I ran my hand through my hair, as my brain scanned its Psychology 100 memory bank. Fixated?

“You mean she has a crush on him?”

I could see Debbie struggle for a moment, trying to transpose the word “crush” into the clinical setting.

“Yes,” she said finally. “She’s fixated on him.”

George Orwell, remembered best as author of Animal Farm and 1984, was a sturdy defender of the English language. His concern was not that people live by the rules of Standard English, but that people learn to use the language effectively, to control words rather than be controlled by them. In his essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell is concerned with "language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or perverting thought." He perceived a decline in the effectiveness of our language, a decline with political causes and implications. Not the partisan politics of our “democratic system,” but the more incessant general tendency of humans to polarize thought: What I believe is right; if you don’t agree with me, you are wrong. In such a dependant field as child care — we rarely hold the purse strings — the firepower of everyday politics overwhelms. A single word, “crush” instead of “fixation,” has immeasurable implications. Look through any child care text or journal. Words like “empowerment,” “treatment,” “teamwork,” or “professionalism” litter the pages. Do these words sustain meaning, or are they political convenience, used because they imply a “correct” way of thinking?

I suspect the latter. We in child care — and we’re probably not alone among “human scientists” — have lost our ability to use English effectively. Drunk on cliché and dogmatic metaphor, with an unquenchable need to please, we have lost the capacity for clear thought.

Small “p” politics
Recently I applied for a frontline job at an agency. The interview went well. I was asked the usual questions about my philosophy and given a sample case to discuss. Then, one of the interviewers said that the agency followed a family systems model, and asked if I was familiar with it. I was familiar with the theory, I said, but I did not attach any particular value to it. “It’s a very useful perspective,” I added. I sensed a change in the interviewer’s attitude towards me. “But it’s only useful like any other theory: as a guide. I try not to let it govern my interaction with children or their families.” Of course, things went downhill from there.

In child care, or any social organization I suspect, language is power, or, to be truthful, jargon is perceived as power. How often have you heard that child care, to develop as a profession, must have its own language? When we give in to this belief the result is small “p” political: it becomes more important that we say the “right” thing than it is that we make sense. In the interview, I would have fared better if I simply said that I understood and practiced the family systems model. That would have been smart politics. The problem is that models or theories are words, sets of images that allow us a perspective. They can only be “believed” on a simple level, where we separate the world into “good versus bad” or “pro-choice versus pro-life”. At this level we tend to become emotionally attached to metaphors; they are our personal blueprint for making sense of an otherwise senseless experience. The danger is that we limit our capacity for clear thought when we accept metaphors as fact; when we become emotionally attached to our language, our word-tools become our masters.

Stale imagery and a lack of precision
Orwell identifies two qualities of muddled thinking: “The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.” For starters, let me reiterate the point of the last paragraph: theory is metaphor. Child care is doubly damned, for the “stale image” that taxes us is largely imposed by our absentee landlords: psychiatry, psychology and sociology. The stalest of the stale is also the most pernicious: the imagery of the medical and behavioral, or learning, models. This imagery is decorative, like cuff buttons on a dinner jacket, yet serves no meaningful purpose; what Orwell calls “ready-made phrases designed to save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague.” Let me stress: I am criticizing neither the people working within these models nor the technology they developed. I do say that the imagery which flows from these models has carried us away. Rather than striving for a fresh appreciation of a unique child in their unique circumstances — to think clearly — we fall back on a set of ready-made phrases which imply, but do not sustain, meaning.
The concepts “medical model” and “behavioral treatment” are in fact only metaphors, linguistic tools we use in order to create a perspective. When we say “this girl is exhibiting mental illness we mean “one way to help appreciate this girl’s behavior is if I think of it as like a disease which affects her mental functioning much in the same way a virus may affect our physical functioning.”

When I speak of the medical model, I refer to any term which evokes an image of physical health or illness: “therapy,” “treatment,” “therapeutic milieu,” “clinical issue” are used most often, along with such diagnostic terms as “paranoid,” “neurotic,” and the vapid “motionally disturbed." The problem with these terms is that as soon as we apply them to a person’s life situation, we restrict our appreciation of that situation. When we ask “that kind of treatment does this boy need?” we have moved to a simple level: illness versus health. The child becomes “patient” who needs to be “cured"; you become “therapist” who needs to provide “treatment.” It’s handy, because a ready-made meaning is provided; but it’s a dangerous illusion to believe that disconnected, imposed activity is systematically “good” for all children. It does not allow for clear thinking.

While the medical model is cure orientated metaphor, behavioral-learning is cause orientated: key phrases include “conditioned response,” “modelling, reward,” “maladaptive behavior,” “goals.” Again, the imagery carries an implied meaning, the absurdly simple notion of the child or family as “student" and the adult worker as “teacher.”

By habit in child care, we paste together medical and behavioral imagery. We speak of “behavioral therapy” and “treatment goals” and other like phrases which lead us further away from clear thought. It’s mixed metaphor; we’re saying in effect, that a child’s perplexing activity is “learned illness,” and the sense we make of it is cryptic at best. For Orwell, such mixed metaphor is the emblem of political thought.

The purpose of metaphor, he says, is to create a visual image: “When these images clash. . . it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the object he is naming; in other words, he is not really thinking.”

Confabulated metaphor is not the only block to clear though in child care. Our language is marred with cliches, scientific sounding phrases and jargon. We talk of “ego,” “relationships," “socialization,” “group dynamics,” “psyche," “family systems” as if they were a familiar object, a favorite sweater. But they are overused to the point that meaning is gone. Table I is a lighthearted look at imprecision in the language of child care, but the point is not lost: under subtle political pressure, the pressure to say the “right thing", words become shadows.

Table 1: Child Care Translated

What We Say

"I need to do some networking."

"I hear what you’re saying."
  
"I felt natural consequences were in order"
     
"I felt a little reality therapy wouldn’t hurt."
   
"I think the kids have settled down now."
   
"My skill is crisis intervention."
  
"That child is highly manipulative."

"I need to appreciate the small-group dynamics."
 
"Don’t worry, I’m a professional." 

"I follow a psychodynamic model."

"I follow a family systems model."

"I acknowledge the need for maximization in the treatment resource program with respect to children in their environment..."

"I’m into confrontation."

"We need to encourage the risk-taking. "

"We need to enhance this girl’s self-concept."

 "I’m having networking difficulties."
What We Mean

 "I want to call my friend."
 
 "You are wrong."

"I lost my temper."

 "I lost my temper."

 "I lost my temper, but I’m calm now."

 "I like to interfere."

 "That child is smarter than me."

"I don’t know what the problem is."

 "Don’t worry, I’ll try not to be late again."
 
"I think the kid hates his parents."

"I think the kid hates his parents, and who can blame him?"

"Oh my god I’m overloading, someone get me a drink!"



 "I like to argue."

"…but don’t tell the social worker."

 "I’ll take her shopping."

"My phone-answering isn’t working properly."

Recovering clear thought
Orwell asserts that “the decadence of our language is probably curable.” The antidote is “conscious action.” For those of us in child care, it’s a matter of taking, or finding, time to question the meaning of the things we write and say, and of recognizing the political pressures we face without being overwhelmed by them. The following guidelines, borrowed from Orwell, are simple suggestions to move each of us further along the road to clear thought.

  • Avoid the stale imagery of the medical and behavioral, or learning, models.

  • If you do use this, or any imagery, remember it is metaphor not fact. Just as numbers can be a tool for expressing physical events, language is a tool for expressing human events. Don’t let the tool be your master.

  • Avoid words that need lots of words to explain them: search for the precise term.

  • Don’t mix metaphors.

  • Strive to appreciate your interactions with children and their families in simple terms that make sense to you, not ones that sound like they make sense to other "professionals".

  • Try to think about the words you use. Avoid scientific words and jargon, and think twice about any word more than two syllables long. Orwell cautions: "Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech you are used to seeing in print."

  • Swear to never again use words joined by a slash such as "he/she" or "child/ youth/family." If your intent is to avoid sexism, construct your sentences around the neutral pronouns that abound in English (you, they, us, we). It is always possible to build a sentence around such neutral pronouns. If your intent is to save time or space, do not do so at the cost of clear thinking. A good rule of thumb is to avoid phrases in your writing that you wouldn’t use in everyday conversation.


Reference note
George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language appears in numerous anthologies and in other books on writing in general. For my essay, page references seem unnecessary: Orwell’s piece is widely available, and a quick read. Anyone concerned with the accuracy of the quotes from Orwell should read his essay; any concerned with a breach of APA style should reread mine.


This feature: Chris Gudgeon. (1991) Politics and the language of Child Care. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol.5 No.1 pp 27-32