The buck stops here:
Observations on the child care food chain
What I struggle with, said the child care worker, is that my job is to see that the children behave properly and I don't think that I'm really very good at that.
At the time this was said to me, I kept my big mouth shut, but I came away wondering about the impact such an expectation must have on someone working on line with troubled and difficult young people. Of course this is not the child care worker's job! To make a child care worker responsible for the 'good behaviour' of a child is to misunderstand entirely the point of child and youth care work. It was, surely, the organisation as a whole, the team as a whole, which agreed to admit the child to the programme, and no one in that team can shirk their share of the responsibility for the work which must be undertaken with that child. And the whole point of our work, surely, is for all of us to work towards the point where young people take responsibility for their own behaviour not that we make them behave the way we want them to.
Only one winner
"Seeing that the children behave" is usually just a case of stopping them doing what they're doing. This only gets adults and kids head to head in win-lose conflicts with the child care worker caught in the crunch between the expectations of the child and the expectations of the organisation. The only possible outcome of this is that there will be one winner the organisation or the child.
Child care work, rather, is about understanding the areas of a youngster's life in which he or she is not coping adequately, and then working together with the child towards better functioning. We usually succeed in this when we are alongside the child and facing the same way as the child not when we are eyeball to eyeball and frankly in the youngster's way. When we are alongside we can better see what the child sees, and therefore better understand what the team can do to help. And it takes a whole team to work this out to ask the right questions, to be brave in listening to our own answers, to share out the tasks which come out of this process, to test out with honesty the child's progress and then either to move forward or try again.
At this time in our world we really need to get our priorities right and pick the right tasks on which to spend the limited resources we have left. Are we seriously concerned about whether the children will be able to function adequately in their world when they leave us or are we content to set up some child care worker out in the unit with the job to see that the children behave properly?
The wider ecology
Of course, the organisation and its managers are not really at the top of the food chain. In the past months, when I have taken up issues like the one above with managers in children's programmes, I have heard equally confused characterisations of their work.
"What I struggle with," these managers might say, "is that my job is to see that the organisation survives financially and I don't think that I'm really very good at that."
Point taken. At the real top of the food chain, of course, are our society at large, our state, our government departments, all of whom who express their own expectations of us. So, just as we may have our child care staff doing something other than child care work, so our child care managers are often simply not managing child care. They are out there fund raising and begging and PRO-ing, making sure that the organisation survives and that our child care service looks good, with too little time left over for the real needs of the children and their families those who are really at the bottom of the food chain.