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from the soapbox

’Tis the season for giving ... of yourself

 Karen VanderVen

"Never let the staff know what you like because they’ll make you earn it".

"But then what can we take away ?"

Recently colleagues have reported to me that they heard these statements above — the first one from a youth, and the second from a staff member in a residential setting. Perhaps they knew that these would send me leaping up my Soapbox again on the "same old, same old". The ubiquitous use of point and level systems in residential and group care and specifically the theme of deprivation which they imply. And so indeed I’m on my Soapbox again.

My immediate response was, "What are people thinking when they use these practices? What are people (who are quite kind and decent and who have chosen careers with children) thinking when they feel that children and youth have to "earn" everything — especially anything that is pleasurable ? Why are people who feel that they care for children and youth saying "But then what can we take away?" Sadly this was not the first time I heard this. I was giving a workshop on activity programming and suggesting as usual that an engaging, relationship building structured activity program replace the point and level driven milieux that seem to be so much the norm, when one participant indeed intoned, "But then what can we take away ?"

With the upcoming holiday season, perhaps I ‘d like to challenge the belief systems of those who feel that every ‘transgression’ must have a ‘consequence’ and encourage them to reframe how they view these situations and how they handle them.

The other day a comment from a TV program got my attention. It was the motivational speaker Wayne Dyer saying, "When you change the way you look, you change what you see" .

Makes sense — let’s use the season of giving to change the way we view children and youth — see them as having the potential to grow with the care, giving, relationships, and activities that we can offer. Let’s try to show them our warmth and to give them hope for the future.

We can bear in mind that as the holidays approach, troubled children and youth may indeed be more troublesome. Unhappy memories can be evoked, longings and anxieties brought to the fore. A temptation again to administer ‘consequences’ , to ‘take away’, and once having discovered what a child or youth likes, to "take it away" in case s/he hasn’t "earned" it. Perhaps we can resolve this season to make a special effort to give children and youth something they like — because it gives them some joy in what might not be such a pleasant life and gives them hope. When things are getting tense, and behavior is deteriorating, acknowledge this and then... don’t "take away" an activity — rather give one! Make it one that you enjoy too.

Point and level systems give a symbolic "meta-message" of " I just want you to be compliant" . "I don’t really care about you". Change that unspoken meta-message to: "Sure, I don’t like what you are doing now. But I care enough about you to want to make life more pleasant for you without a condition every time. So I’m going to give you a break — and give of myself." Actually say something like, "Let’s take a walk together". Or "go shoot a basketball". Or "make some cocoa in the kitchen" . Or "Hey – maybe it’s time for you to learn to knit! I just happen to have my needles here". Or, "Ya know – we haven’t thought about our unit decorations yet. What do you think we can make?"

There’s a paradox involved. I’ve seen it work many times. We do the opposite of what rationality tells us — and actually get the result we want. An example: I once had a teacher in a class who insisted that if children were "off task" during he morning, that they should have the "consequence" of not going out for recess. I challenged him — amidst his protests. When the children are inattentive, I suggested, acknowledge to them that they are restless, encourage them to get back to work, and remind them that recess is coming soon! When I saw him the next month, he smiled and said, "It worked!" The children tried harder to concentrate before recess and really worked hard after it, he said. My comment was that he got the children and himself on the same side, and thus they wanted to please him by making an effort to stay with their work.

So my holiday Soapbox message is that this is a good time for you to give (not "take away" from) children and youth a pleasant surprise: Yourself, your flexibility, and the perhaps unexpected message that they don’t have to "earn" these.

From the Soapbox,