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Being yourself

Kathy Mitchell

Kathy Mitchell, a child care worker and trainer for sixteen years, presently teaches at a suburban high school. We asked her to speak to new child care students.

If I look back over my own practice I can see what a drudge the work might easily have been. If we are going to work with children we have to dig deep within ourselves and discover the child within ourselves. We must also discover within ourselves what might be useful or stimulating to children. We are all different, and almost anything that 'hits' us will do. I scratch around on bookshelves and in libraries and find many things I can get excited about and make part of myself. For example, in a Life line course I found lots I could share, and interesting exercises I could do with the children.

Doing things together
I remember once offering to raise money for our home by putting on a candlelight theatre with the kids. Others told us it would never work and we weren't so sure ourselves but we all grew so much through the experience. I became engrossed in it, spent hours of my 'off-duty' time scrounging for good bits of writing and lovely music, and the children soon picked up my enthusiasm. But much more was to happen: youngsters discovered talents in themselves which they never knew they had; they discovered the joy of being involved in something that worked, of being applauded, of trying something new (we experimented with ultra-violet lights!). Everyone remembers it years later, the little ones, the teenagers, even those who thought they weren't much good at anything, but who, with great enjoyment, got to wait at the tables.

Growing beyond
Even the children who had personal problems or unhappinesses seemed to leave these behind while they got involved in the creativity. I believe that all new experiences help us to grow beyond something a hurdle, a hurt and even though children don't realise that they are growing, they find afterwards that they got a little bigger than the problems. Many child care workers find it hard to get started with activities like this. A good starting point is to ask yourself 'What is something that I am interested in or good at?' This is immediately something of yourself that you have to offer children.

Making it happen
Next, of course, is some structure. Where, when and how do we do things with kids? There must be some expectation in the home that things must happen for children. (Some places do not have this expectation, so nothing does happen.) Our administrators need to make time, space, resources available, so that somehow, in some planned way, things happen. Daily routine is often blamed for there being no time for other things. But things must happen in the routine too. I would have died of boredom if we hadn't made the routine times 'special'. Even in homework periods we could make time for a 'spellathon' or 'beat your own record' quiz. You don't have to look too far for special occasions. Everyone has one birthday every year, so we do the parties and play the party games. These become things which the children remember as important milestones. With older children a birthday is a good time to catch up on special experiences they will perhaps otherwise miss altogether. They are, for example, going to have to know about such things as taking someone out (or being taken out) for dinner so we would go out and eat snails or real pasta! So there was the conversation and the fun, and relationships moved into new stages ...

Often children are reluctant to meet new challenges. They are afraid of failing, of making a fool of themselves. (So are the child care workers we also don't know if a new idea will work.) But child care workers must risk engaging with children, and risk themselves in that engagement. Child care workers are responsible for generating the content and the interest and the opportunity for such encounters. When we consciously accumulate ideas, information and inspiration to enrich our own lives, our selves, we have something to offer. Kids will respond if we take the lead. They like to have a hook on which to hang their yearnings and fantasies and their growing. This sense of risk and adventure must be inside us, and I believe everyone is creative at the core. If it got lost for you somewhere along the way, you're going to have to dredge it out.

Young students
It is hard for young and school-leaver students. They might be expected to be adults when they are still working on their own adolescent things. It's a transition between being free and then suddenly being responsible for others. Also, child care can be quite a cloistered experience. It is easy to get locked into a duty schedule and an adult role, so there seems to be less time to go 'out' and bring new things 'in'. But I have seen many young people do magic work with kids in spite of this. I have some problems with the roles in which we cast child care workers; I am not sure we should always have to play parental roles. But we can't avoid some of the parental tasks, and I have always been challenged by having to make the most of things like cooking and sewing on buttons. But therein lies the creativity of child care it's not just the poetry and stuff; it's finding opportunity and meaning and joy in the mundane things and turning them into good human experiences. And isn't that exactly why the children come to us? These ordinary things didn't go well in their own families; we have to do something new with them.

Attitudes and practice are inseparable and yet often hard to link. Attitudes can be merely sentimental if they don't find expression in concrete practice. And practice can be cold if it is not tempered by positive attitudes. I remember our deciding once that a little kid needed more nurturing so we decided to give her a regular bubble bath for a while. But then this caused more mess in the bathroom, with wet towels around the place, so the bubble baths became a nuisance and this showed in our seeming less nurturing towards her. The attitude led to a good practice idea, but the good practice got spoiled because we didn't sustain the good attitude. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Where we learn
The child care literature is only partly on the child care and psychology shelves. The rest of it is in the lives we lead and the people we meet. The children we work with come from the real world and when they leave us they go back there. As child care workers, we will meet and work with people from the real world and we get to know about ordinary people from being with ordinary people. The children, in turn, will also get to know about the real world and about ordinary people through their relationships with us. That is the one thing we have to offer. And for each to do that, be yourself.