Terms of endearment
Pumla Mncayi and Brian Gannon
A Child Care Worker by any other name ... Pumla Mncayi and Brian Gannon reflect on the names the kids call us
Even before we start a conversation with children, we get a clue as to how they see us and what they expect from us — from what they call us.
Listening to some of the children's forms of address over the past week, we have heard the following: Miss, My sister, Meneer, Ma, O'Lady, Palie, Mam'Lady, Tannie, Nqununu (Head), "Soshi" (short for social worker), Mam' Njokweni (honouring the surname), Boss, Sisi, Bhuti, Sir, Mr Krause, Piet. The names children use to address us often indicate the role they expect from us in their lives. One child may be very formal, for example, introducing us to his friend as "Mrs Seymour, my social worker", while another may come along and slap us on the back shouting "Hi, L.S!"
In child and youth care we are careful not to assume roles which don't belong to us. When we are working at restoring and building the relationship between a child and his mother, we should never confuse this by playing a "mother" role to the child ourselves. On the other hand, where a child has no mother, might it not be a kindness to be one for such a youngster? The point is, we should at least think about the names and roles which the children give us.
Many young people will "use" us in a way that makes up for what they are missing or needing — an authority figure (to rely on, to rebel against), a friend (for company, to test), a teacher (to compete with, to learn from), a counsellor (to listen, to help). Perhaps this is a legitimate way to define our work? It does not mean that we stop "being ourselves"; but it might help us to figure out what we should be doing. As deprived youngsters fill in the missing pieces of their lives, we are expected to help in different ways as we make progress and/or as they grow up. At an early stage we may be providing them with shelter and security; later we may be teaching them skills; eventually we may be helping them to independence. This is the same sequence that parents go through with their own children — only for us the sequence is often compressed into a shorter time.
Perhaps this is a legitimate way to define our work? It does not mean that we stop "being ourselves"; but it might help us to figure out what we should be doing.
So how do you respond when a child calls you "Ou Pelli" or "Pops" or "Joan" or "My bro"'? We may need to be sure that we retain the initiative as an adult in our programme, or that we are not being manipulated, but beyond that it's up to us to see how creative we can be.
Can you act in the moment and make the most of whatever approach a youngster offers?
Can you let go your dignity and your own conception of your role, and translate the kid's expectations which are wrapped up in the name he or she calls you?
Can you be flexible enough to try some new way of relating to a child who seems to want something different from you?
... and, if you learn anything interesting from this idea, let us know!