MOMENTS WITH YOUTH
“No Farting in My Van”
Late last month I attended a child and youth care conference, Child and Youth Care in Action (love that title) at the University of Victoria, their first conference for graduates of their child and youth care program, community partners, and others interested in learning about some of the latest developments and approaches in the field. It was an excellent event and learning experience (as are all the conferences at the University of Victoria) with inaugural keynotes in the names of Henry Maier, and Jerry Beker, who I enjoyed seeing and talking with again. Like he did for many others in the field, Jerry helped me get my work published and has served as a mentor over the years. Henry Maier as most of us know died in 2004.
When I wasn’t at the conference, I was with my friend Gerry Fewster. He has a beautiful home in Cowichan Bay, about 25 miles north of the city. We joked and "talked smart" as we usually do. We both see being in the moment and/or point of interaction as key to child and youth care. If we can get this right we believe everything else will follow as we try to create moments of connection, discovery, and empowerment. You have to show up and be there first, in other words, before you can get anything to work.
Many of the workshops at the conference seemed to support this point of view. For example, I attended a workshop by Hans and Kathleen Skott-Myhre, Radical Youth Work: Love and Community in which they used post-Marxist concepts as a foundation for their discussion. During the workshop they said many intriguing things that got me thinking, none more than their use of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as examples of revolutionaries — Diego, working from the outside to create change, and Frida from the inside out. And very interesting definitions of love and community that these two career "direct line" workers offered, based on their experience and reading of philosophy and a number of other literatures.
Earlier Doug Magnuson and I had written critical responses to Hans’ challenging article in the Child and Youth Care Forum. As he and Kathleen spoke, I wished we had had a chance to speak and get to know each other beforehand because it was obvious that we shared many similar views. I really liked their definitions of love and community, and their emphasis on youth as agents of their own change.
When the discussion shifted to rules, they seemed to be saying much of what I had tried to say in my workshop titled, Hesitation, Motion, Stillness, Space, Place, Light and Dark and other themes in Child and Youth Care. Their feelings, like mine I think, were that in programs where people are self-aware and comfortable and confident in their personal authority, few rules are needed because youth, even the most difficult ones, respond to these people with a sense of wanting to develop their own awareness and inner sense of boundaries. Youth respond, in other words, to the sincere, genuine, secure sense of the other Self because this other self makes them feel safe, and open to exploring their own built-in inner controls and feelings.
Anyway, as we were discussing this one youth worker, a middle-aged man I had talked to earlier after my workshop, a seemingly very experienced and competent street worker (I wish I remembered his name) said, "I don’t care what you say, one rule I have is no farting in my van."
We all laughed, of course, but his point was well taken. In child and youth care we need to know our own personal boundaries, as well as have some super-ordinate rules, not many, just a few to let the kids know that certain things simply are not permissible for anyone, like doing drugs or hurting others. Then within this context of everyone pitching in around the big rules, situations can be handled as they arise in our interpersonal relationships.
Karen VanderVen and others have written extensively how point systems and handbooks of rules have gotten in the way of creative, and more fulfilling interaction in child and youth care, and there does indeed seem to be a movement afoot to get back to personal relationships and developmental activities as the foundation for creating safe, invigorating, discovery filled, change-oriented programs for children and youth.
A central challenge in this movement I believe is finding the right balance of rules and personal authority and doing it according to the developmental needs of the child and youth care staff members who need time to develop the confidence, knowledge, skill, and intuition that many of us more experienced workers developed over time. In the meantime we have to continually work at being aware of our own boundaries and decide which are the few rules do we absolutely need to reinforce consistently. "No farting in my van" might be one that others find useful.*