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On hanging-out (and hanging-in)

Ah. A catchy title. Well, it was just to entice you to read this little missive about what I think are very important elements of good child and youth care practice. Now that I've got your attention, I better get to work. So, first to 'hanging-out'.

When I first started in this field, I was sent out on to the floor to interact with a small group of adolescents who were sitting around the dining room table doing what appeared to my untrained eye to be nothing important. Was I wrong! Years later I learned that they were doing what adolescents did best they were 'hanging out'. Now, even more years later, I realize that this is a skill we lose as we get older. We tend to get 'task orientated' and think that we always have to be doing something with a specific and concrete objective, in order for our time to be used valuably. So, instead of 'hanging-out' we all think we have to be 'doing something' writing a report, conducting an activity or intervening in some specific and defined way with a specific outcome in mind. Somehow 'hanging-out' doesn't seem to fit into a definition of the valuable use of our time. But how wrong we are or maybe I should just say, 'how wrong I was'.

Hanging-out is one of the most important and sometimes most difficult of youth care activities. Important, because it is one of the ways in which we connect with youth, enter in to a shared realm of experiencing with them, and let them know that we can be there, just be there, with them. Difficult, because we have come to a point in our cultural definition of things where 'hanging-out' is seen as a waste of time. Can you imagine the following exchange between a youth care worker and her supervisor?

Supervisor: Mary, I was watching you out the window this past half hour, and I noticed you were just sitting at the picnic table with the kids. You didn't seem to be doing anything.

Mary: You're right. We weren't doing anything in particular. We were just hanging out.

Supervisor: Well, don't you think it is important to have the youth doing something?

Mary: Yes. And they were doing something. They were hanging out. So, I decided to join them.

Supervisor:  ...

Well, you can imagine the rest of the conversation as Mary tries to convince the supervisor that 'hanging-out' is a valid activity. And it is.

When we just hang-out with kids a thousand opportunities arise, such as the opportunity:

Hard work
Now Mary was aware of all this, but her supervisor wasn't. From the supervisor's perspective she was just 'hanging-out' doing nothing, and he thought there were better things she could be doing with her time. The other thing that Mary knew was that 'hanging-out' was hard work.

First, of course, she had to integrate herself into the group, so that she was a genuine part of it, albeit with a different role, so that she wasn't just an outsider looking in or a non-participant. She had to become a part of the group. She had to do so while still maintaining her responsibilities as a youth care worker. This meant that she had to maintain her values, support her own beliefs and not sacrifice her role as a helper, while at the same time managing to be non-intrusive in the group. A delicate balancing act, indeed! She also had to be present engaged and engaging; attentive and responsive, without being an overt therapeutic presence. She had to be 'doing with' the young people, not 'doing to' them, while still maintaining appropriate boundaries.. While attending to this she had also to ensure that she remained aware of each of the youths' individual plans, the flow of the day and what needed to come next, the responsibility she held to help facilitate each youth's growth and to facilitate appropriate direction to whatever discussions they engaged in. She also, of course, had to monitor the tone of the group, the state and energy of each individual and keep in mind that there were other youth in the program who weren't part of this group. She had to keep a part of herself attentive to other activities within the program. Finally, she was also noticing opportunities, as discussed above.

And all the while, of course, she was just hanging-out, being there with the youth. All sounds pretty important to me. And hard to do. Go ahead, give it a try. But maybe you had better prepare your supervisor first.

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Well, that took so long, we'll talk about 'hanging-in' next time.

September  1999