What is Milieu Therapy?
To you who are a newcomer to the Children’s Village, welcome! This welcome comes from the adults in the village, not from the children. For most of our children you are a very suspect person. From them you will meet with open scorn and concealed suspicion. This greeting will probably meet you: “Who are you, you old bitch?” Or, “Who is that bloody bastard?”
And that is the way it is. You are an old bitch or a bloody bastard. These children have their reasons for saying so, for that is the experience they have had of adults, and you are an adult. In the Children’s Village we have only emotionally disturbed children, who have suffered in their earlier surroundings, due to the treatment they had from adults. That is why they came here. The Children’s Village is not the place for normal children but, as it is called in official language, a home for neurotic and emotionally disturbed children.
That the children have suffered does not mean that they all have had a poor, overcrowded home, that they have had drunkards as fathers and negligent mothers. There are also children in the village coming from socially acceptable homes, but in all cases their emotional life has been disturbed because they have not received the security which they need. This is not said as an accusation against parents or others who have taken care, Reprinted with permission of the author in personal communication to the editors...,of them. It is not always so easy to have to do with children, not even when they are one’s own.
There are no evil children
There is a “true story,” psychologically true, about Mr. Average Swede. On his way home from a drinking party one beautiful spring night he passes a park in Stockholm where the cherry trees are in full bloom. Mr. Swede’s heart is filled with joy and emotion in the presence of the Beauty of Nature. He grasps a lovely spray of blossoms exclaiming: “Are you blooming. . .” and then becoming embarrassed by his own emotions, he continues the sentence as a true Swede: “Are you blooming, you bloody cherry tree?” Remember that story sometime when you meet a child in the village who greets you: “Hello, you old bitch!”
You will have to understand from the beginning that expressions of sympathy and desire for contact in the Children’s Village may take unusual forms both in words and actions. “I like you, will you be my friend?” might very well be expressed by curses and a blow in your stomach. The question is if this method of expression is not often a guarantee for the genuineness of the emotion.
Anyway, you will have to understand that it does not do to dismiss these children as evil or foul-mouthed. The first commandment in the Children’s Village thus reads: “There are no evil children.”
In the Children’s Village you will find not only aggressive, noisy, and destructive children, but also shy, anxious children. These I do not need to say much about. You will like them in any case. But the longer you stay here the more clearly you will see the truth in our basic principle: that the difference between an abandoned, weeping boy and an impertinent, swearing blackguard is only on the surface.
Are the children allowed to do as they like? Do we not bother about the children swearing? Do we think it is desirable that they let off steam by swearing, fighting, stealing, and breaking windows? Should children be – allowed to do as they like?
No, and again no!
Let me once and for all underline this sentence: In the Children’s Village the children are not allowed to do as they like. I know that it will not help much to say this, because for the next thousand years of the existence of the Village it will be the popular opinion, anyway outside the Village, that in it there is a crazy doctor and other blue-eyed idiots who believe that children must do as they want if they are to be happy.
The thing is that the children simply do not know what they want. Typical for neurotic children is that they are dominated by conflicting impulses, both to do and not to do a single act. This rule might apply to all of us, because the real motive behind our behavior in important matters is very often determined by subconscious factors hidden from ourselves. That this deep truth is concealed from so many of us is due mainly to our well-developed ability to rationalize, to find a motive after the act has been done. What really determines our behavior is often emotion and not reason. Because the children do not know what they want, or both want and do not want a thing, it is clear that they often get into a serious dilemma if we let them continue. They will develop guilt feelings for what they have done, and try to get away from these feelings by continuing their behavior; and then the vicious circle is completed. To let off steam in a psychological sense does not mean to act in a way that was earlier forbidden. The emotion that follows the act is psychologically the main point. If that emotion is fear, the child’s condition will be worse if he “acts out.” The theory that children shall be allowed to do what they want is a simplification to the point of absurdity. As a popular notion it is crazy. It has never been postulated by any of the prophets of so-called “free education.” It has been invented by the slanderers of the Children’s Village, and we decline it with thanks!
The Chinaman’s fatal mistake
We might learn something from this story. It illustrates a rule discovered in other institutions where an attempt has been made to treat neurotic children according to psychoanalytic principles. The rule says that passivity fro adults is wrong, because the children experience this passivity as apathy and lack of interest in them. Everybody knows that the most infernal method of making people helplessly enraged is to keep cool, calm, and collected when they swear and rave. In Sweden it is known as the “wife-tormenting method.”
No laissez-faire system
No saint’s halo
No martyr halo either
We do not expect thanks from the children. You win nothing demanding gratitude. Should gratitude be of any value it must come spontaneously, and not be forced. As I said before, these children as a rule have no reason to feel gratitude toward adults, considering the way we have arranged conditions in our society for them.
No detailed advice
There is no patent advice for every particular situation. Children are so unlike. One child rejects food for one motive and another does it for quite another reason. It would then be wrong to treat them both according to the same prescription. It is the same with the window breaker and the child who is cruel to animals, the thief, or any of the other types we welcome to the Children’s Villlage.
You will be forced to try to understand every child and his particular problems before you can handle him correctly. That is not learned in one day, and it is not meant to be. You must, however, grasp from the beginning that it is necessary to know a great deal about a child’s earlier life to be able to understand him. Then you will see the truth in the French proverb: to understand is to forgive.
It is intended that you shall gain this knowledge about the children as individuals by attending the evening conferences and house and school meetings which are held regularly each day or every other day. There you will have a chance to discuss what you should have done when Tom did so and so or Bill behaved in some other way. Such questions can possibly be answered or at least discussed.
Learn to know yourself
You will also find that there are certain children you cannot stand and others you will love very much. Observe that your colleagues feel sympathy or antipathy for quite other children. Even this is connected with impulses and needs within ourselves. By observing your own reactions and contemplating them you increase your self-knowledge and acquire living psychological knowledge beyond books and gray theories.
Many small emotional waves may become a great storm. There is usually a delay, an incubation period of a few months, before the symptoms appear. Then you will get one of two variants, an extrovert or an introvert type.
Those who get the introvert form will say something like this: I will not do, I am not fit for this sort of work. Tiredness and sleeplessness and attacks of weeping are among the symptoms.
Those who get the extrovert form will say something like this: The ideas of the Children’s Village and this foolish doctor are mad, it cannot go on like this. There must be some order. No human being can stand this.
In the first case, the criticism and agitation are directed against one’s own ego, in the second case one’s feeling of insufficiency is projected onto the surroundings.
This is not of course the basis of all criticism of oneself and the ideas of the Children’s Village. There are good reasons for criticizing both yourself and the Village; but you must find your way to a realistic criticism, not a feigned criticism.
For obvious reasons the treatment of debutant sickness will not be dealt with here. It calls for individual sessions with someone either within or outside the village who understands psychotherapeutic methods.
What I want to say is that one shall not immediately condemn either oneself or the Village as inadequate. That is why I mention the illness. It is an occupational disease in the Village and similar institutions.
To feel lice on your own skin
This is what happens. One comes to the village, has read a little about modern child psychology, listened to lectures, participated in study groups, and so on. That is all very well. But there is one important lesson remaining. You wake up one morning feeling bad. Your head aches, you are tired, want to cry. The discomfort is creeping under your skin. The children are rowdy. You do something which is contrary to everything you have read in your books or heard at lectures. You lose your temper, scold a child or grumble at everything, burst into tears, or do something which you later consider absolutely wrong. In the evening or the next day, perhaps a moment later, comes the morbid paleness of reflection.
This experience is precious. Then one knows something more and something very important on how a mother and father of a problem child may feel, or his teachers or someone else who lives in daily close contact with such children. For everyone who will be working in social guidance clinics, visiting homes as a social worker, and so on, it is necessary to know how it feels for those one tries to advise. All this is well-meant advice on showing more patience or more tenderness and affection toward the children seems rather meaningless and even cynical if one cannot at the same time give the mother or father or teacher strength to follow the advice.
One might add that nobody really knows what enuresis means who has not had to make the bed of a bed wetter, or what encopresis is who has not had the job of washing soiled pants. Anyway, one learns to understand the mothers better.
Do not scold the mothers
Our good neighbor, the director of the Hammagarden reformatory school, once played “red Indians and Whites” with his boys. In the course of the game the boys captured their director, bound him to a tree, and danced their war dances around him. Next week the rumor went around that at Hammargarden the director ties the boys to the trees in the forest and whips them. The director’s comments on this rumor was the only correct one: “Well we have our job and our salary so that this sort of thing may be said about us.”
Do not, then, take it as a personal insult, and become bitter, when unjust accusations are directed at you by the relatives of the children or others. There is a good rule for answering complaints on the telephone. In simple language: let people bark until they have finished. In psychological terminology: let them discharge their emotions. One shall not contradict, not discuss, just keep silent and take it.
[This chapter will be concluded next month]