ISSUE 104 SEPTEMBER 2007 CONTENTS HOME PAGE
Soft hearts and hard hats
I remember in earlier days in our field there was often a sharp difference of opinion between care workers who were called the “hard hats” and others known as the “soft hearts”. The former were the no-nonsense types who believed that the kids must shape up and must be taught to face the realities of life — or else; the latter recognised that the kids had had a rough time and needed to experience warmth and acceptance. Of course, each believed that their outlook should be central to the philosophy of the whole program.
The trouble with polarities of this sort is that both sides are right, but that by nailing one’s colours to one mast or the other serves only to perpetuate conflict — to the cost of the children and youth who were often unnecessarily yanked from one side or the other — in order for the point to be made.
Child and youth care work is much more complex than this simplistic dichotomy. I wrote once in a primer for new workers:
This particular piece of writing had nothing to do with the immature argument described above. I think we had all long outgrown it by this time. It was about newcomers’ understandable tendency to over-simplify what seemed at the time to be needed by the kids (though secretly it did address a difference in philosophy often prescribed by administrators and funders!)
What this over-simplification (and imposed philosophy) had lost sight of was the very unwelcome fact that every child or youth in a program (whether it was for six, sixty or six hundred kids) was different in terms of their developmental course and status, and that a recipe for one could never be a recipe for all.
In short, for these six youngsters there is no such unitary problem called “stealing”, and still less is there such a thing as a common cure for their stealing. Here we are looking at a confusion of ages, histories, capacities, values, needs, goals, developmental stages, supports, etc., of which the child and youth care worker has to make sense — on a child by child basis.
Our interventions therefore will probably be very different from each other. Yes, there may be a need for comforting, which will please our soft-hearted collegues; and yes, there may be a need for the tough response, which will please the hard-hatted. But in between those two extremes, there will be the whole gamut of child and youth care approaches, starting with engaging with the youngster, learning, listening, explaining, reassuring, questioning, planning, teaching, stimulating, broadening, testing, challenging ... all in the context of coming to know each other and doing things together, so that new growth may take place — whether of trust, acceptance, knowledge, abilities and strengths, insight, altruism, maturity ... you know all the rest.
Ultimately we reach a stage where we have, as well as we can, ensured that young people’s needs (not just wants) have been met (by us, by others, by experience) and there is a reasonable chance that they and the world will get on better with each other. Maybe this will have taken deep and circuitous personal journeyings; maybe it will have taken no more than a rational milieu and a few extra supports in their ecology. Whichever, for the child and youth care worker there will have been much hypothesising, planning, consulting, trying out, wrong turns.
For this reason one can never run a children’s home, a group care residence, a treatment center or a rehab program like a boarding school where one law applies equally to every child. This is the heart of the meaning of “clinical” — which refers to the individual youngster in his or her individual circumstances.
And for this reason, looking back on it now, the simplistic dichotomy of “hard hats and soft hearts” seems silly.