ISSUE 104 SEPTEMBER 2007 CONTENTS HOME PAGE
MARK SMITH FROM SCOTLAND
As the holiday season draws to a close for another year I share some reflections from my own summer break in France. When you’re involved in child and youth care you rarely switch off entirely. Much of what you see and experience is filtered through a child and youth care lens.
We were in France for Bastille Day, 14th July. This is the French National Holiday to celebrate the 1789 storming of Paris’s notorious prison and a symbolic assertion of the ideals of the French Revolution. The small town we were staying in celebrated Bastille Day with open-air concerts and a spectacular fireworks display. There must have been around 10000 people congregating along the beach and the boardwalk, a majority of whom seemed to be teenagers. There were tents selling beer, wine and cider. Others had brought their own drink. Yet there was no mess. Empty bottles and cups were all placed in bins.
The mood was a festival one. Yet, despite all this drink, no-one was drunk. Nor was there any police presence to speak of. My wife and myself were chatting, imagining what a similar event would be like in Scotland. Sadly, there would be an edge to it. Teenagers would be drunk, loud, and aggressive and the streets strewn with empty and broken bottles. There would be a conspicuous and active police presence.
We asked my 14-year-old daughter why French kids managed to handle drink so much better than their Scottish counterparts. ‘Because they can,’ she replied, meaning that French kids were allowed to drink, there was no fuss made of it — it was just part and parcel of everyday life. Everywhere we ate my daughter was offered wine or cider with her meal.
I also read a wonderful novel on holiday, the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It’s a story of two boys from very different backgrounds growing up together in Afghanistan and of their subsequent life paths. One particular phrase, used in the context of the Taliban takeover, got me thinking; it was something to the effect that Afghans hate rules but love tradition.
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The above reflections have some link, in my own mind at least. They point to very different ways of dealing with things. On the one hand we can go down a regulatory route and believe that we can bring about desired behaviours through an increasing array of proscription and legislation. Or we can place a faith in culture and the patient acquisition of good habits.
Of course, as soon as you set out to regulate behaviours you generate a resistance. When you normalize behaviours there is nothing to resist. A couple of examples spring to mind. I used to work for a teaching order, the De La Salle Brothers. I remember reading a biography of Brother Finbar, one of the iconic figures within the Order. About 100 years ago Finbar took over as Head of an approved school in England. The school was plagued by indiscipline. Absconding had been a particular problem. Staff, at their wits ends, had tried just about everything to put a stop to this, including bolting down windows. One of the first things Finbar did on becoming Head was to remove all the window locks. Very quickly absconding became a thing of the past.
More recently, only this past week in fact, a report into youth crime in Scotland concluded that despite major investment in a whole series of initiatives, youth crime had not reduced and that the numbers of kids labeled persistent young offenders had actually increased. I can’t help but reflect that much of the reason for this lies in the fact that the initiatives stem from a belief that all you have to do to change behaviours is to legislate and that this will be more effective if it is couched in the language of correction and compulsion. Of course behaviour is far more complex and contrary than this — the language of compulsion is likely to elicit two fingers from any young offender worth their salt.
A similar dynamic is evident in child and youth care. There is an important philosophical point contained within this reflection. It is this. Do we place our faith in abstract rules or in embedded cultural traditions, which give a powerful message of ‘this is how we do things around here’? Anyone who’s been around for any length of time will realize that you can’t manage behaviours through the rule-book, no matter how systematic and precise many staff would want that rule-book to be. Appropriate behaviour requires the establishment of healthy cultures of care. The development of appropriate cultures is a diffuse and long-term task, and one that requires rather more creativity and toleration than is apparent in current political (and very often professional) thinking.