Relationships: Thoughts on their origin
and their power
Abstract: For all of us, relationships can only be understood as “lived-in” experiences. In this article, the author describes the development and the power of personal relationships from her own “lived-in” perspective.
I remember my excitement on first reading the practical description of relationship building and nurturing in Brendtro and Ness’s Re-educating Troubled Youth (1983). At that time in British Columbia’s social service realm, relationship was both the bane and the hallmark of child and youth care work. A popular criticism of the day was that youth workers were described as individuals who were forever “relating” to children and youth and that neither they nor anyone else could articulate this fuzzy, reportedly critical skill. While staunch supporters of the youth work approach held to the importance of relationship, those in government who held the purse strings became more and more demanding of an explanation of exactly what this mysterious function was! So I feel this article must open with a thanks to Larry Brendtro and Arlin Ness who legitimized the concept and in doing so, provided flesh to what I do believe is the pivotal leg of child and youth care.
Now that years have passed, and other professions are recognizing and/ or re-discovering the power of relationship,1 I must say that Brendtro and Ness provided a beginning to the concept of relationship — which may, in the end, be all one can do on paper when speaking of art rather than science. For relationship is in the realm of art. And art must be directly experienced to be truly understood. If I must describe it, some of the keys to relationship for me lie in the nuances of observation, empathy, trust and risk that are best understood in first hand experience. Since I cannot offer you this direct experience in an article, I offer you what I consider to be an appetizer — something to whet your appetite, to send you to your own kitchen to search out the full meal. The appetizer? Reminiscences and narratives of experiences. This article contains a hodge-podge of memories — of relationships that have stayed with me. They are not filed in any particular order in my brain but seem to creep out or jump out at the most opportune times — a word or image will set off the memory and with it some insight, that I knew long ago and had forgotten, and which proves equally applicable to whatever the current situation is.
People tell me that I relate well to others — apparently to a wide variety of folk. I would agree with this. Since this seems to come easily to me, I do wonder sometimes where it came from and how I might share this skill with others. So, here are some beginning thoughts:
What about the origins of relationships? Why do I relate to people the way I do?
“You get to sleep a long time when you’re dead, so... ”
In the culture to which I belong — say, middle-class English Canadian — there seems to be a stage of human development where young people find it natural to sleep through most of Saturday or Sunday, or just generally “sleep in.” My father’s reaction to this typified his overall attitude to parenting, which I would describe as the “just a thought” approach. In this case, where I seemed to him to be sleeping my life away, he said the above in passing one afternoon of a gorgeous summer day when I was just waking up. His words may have been too powerful, as I now have a partner who constantly is after me to rest a little, take it easy, sit still. And my typical thought in my head is “I’ll get to sleep a lot when I’m dead — so not now.”
Ah, but you might say, what kind of relationship existed that phrases here and there, neither pushy nor loud, would have such influence? A good question. Let me think of some of the ingredients that might provide the context of influence. Three come to mind immediately: I had a very strong attachment to my dad as can easily be seen in photos, in letters I wrote to him as a pre-schooler that were addressed to “Bill Boy” and signed “Pen Girl,” etc.; I was physically and personality wise a carbon copy of my dad, 2 and my dad generally walked his talk. You may wish to show cause and effect between these three factors. I think of it more as a delicately balanced mobile on which you keep adding parts so they are, in the end, inextricably interdependent in influence.
Mostly unconsciously, and until pressed to teach someone else “how to,” I seem to have used these same three fundamental elements and the general “just a thought” approach in building relationships in my work with children, youth, and families. For example, take the well known fact that we will be influenced by those with whom we strongly identify. An easy example for me is that being short offered me a quick connection with preschoolers, children in general and, interestingly enough, short teenage boys. I also happen to really like some of the silliness of little kids, so there was another inborn [?] connection. The Bill Boy/Pen Girl terminology that horrified some of my parents’ friends — since it showed disrespect in their eyes — was a very early lesson in valuing mutual respect. So, my world is actually filled with equality across age groups. As for walking my talk, this is a constant challenge. However, I have found that having the intention to do so — even as I catch myself or am caught not doing so — is apparent to those around me and, when asked, seems to translate into a description of me as genuine and/or integral. Finally, I find myself using and teaching what I calling “noticing” as a fundamental skill in influencing change in others. And, you see, I take no credit for these features that have served me well. Rather, I believe that I learned them early in my experience of my relationship with my dad.
“If you want a girl, that’s not a problem.”
This was what was said to my parents who wanted to adopt a little boy when I was about four. Everything was going along well in the adoption process until it was discovered that my dad was Protestant. I remember hearing a woman say we could have a girl but not the little boy my mother had taken such a liking to. I was ready to write the pope. Unfortunately, my mother talked me out of it. My relationship with organized religion? Well, I’ll leave you to guess if you have a spare moment.
Now, in this case, a person totally unknown to me had great influence on my development, not just in the area of religion but in terms of my sense of equity and fairness in general. I suppose I should thank that unknown woman for contributing to my strong commitment to equality. I must credit the foundation of my sense of respect and equality, however, to my mother. The following moment, one of many such, has stayed with me for well over forty years and, as do all of these moments, rises to the surface whenever I need it:
When I was 7 or so, I came home from school one day announcing that people who went to university were very important. Now, my dad had left school after grade 6 and my mom left before finishing high school, and with the exception of one uncle, no one in our family had gone beyond high school. My mother, who shared the “just noticing” parenting approach with my dad, looked at me and said in a very casual tone: “Penny, what would happen in your life if the university professor didn’t do his job for a month? And before you answer, think about this: what would happen if the man who picks up our garbage didn’t do his job for a month? Now, who is more important?”
I recall both Mark Krueger and Gerry Fewster speaking of teachable moments. I think my mother was a master of these! [No offense, Mark and Gerry — just want to give you a standard to work towards!] Looking back on this example: to be able to use the teachable moment, one had to both be genuinely interested in the growth/health of another and at the same time believe that humanity will choose good over evil, and so gently and respectfully challenge, not control, the person you are wanting to influence. Upon reflection, those are the ingredients I sense were my mother’s skills.
What about the power in relationship? Where does that come from?
To some extent, I have touched on this in the previous recollections. However, I offer you a few more stories — this time of more recent relationships.
“I suppose this is as serious as children starving in India.”
Now these words of wisdom were uttered by mon amour, Tim Louis, several years ago when I was installing a suite in the basement of our house. I had finished almost everything and was outside cutting the baseboards for the living room area; the sun was setting, it was starting to rain, and the tenant was due to arrive the next day. I was tired and ready for this work to be finished. To my horror, I discovered that I had cut all the comers the wrong way and the baseboards all joined together pointing outwards instead of inwards. The air was blue with my frustration at myself! After asking what was wrong, Tim started to laugh. I told him it wasn’t funny ... and he turned on his most serious expression and said in an earnest tone: “I suppose this is as serious as children starving in India.” This stopped me in my tracks as I said haughtily, “Of course not.” At which point he resumed his peals of laughter. At which point I said this was nothing to laugh about. At which point he resumed his serious face saying, “It must be as serious as the floods in .....” I only need to be hit with the same ping-pong ball seven or eight times in a row to see the obvious. Yes, after several exchanges, I was hit smack on my bloated self-centred perspective.
What kind of relationship can not only tolerate but incorporate a good poke to one’s core every so often? To probe the centre and move a person a little way along a road that is wider than themselves? Well, Tim Louis is the only person with whom I have ever been entirely myself. Somehow I know that in this relationship, all of me — admirable, silly, warts, irritations and all — are acknowledged. That “just me” is more than OK. In romantic relationships, we ascribe this to luck or magic, etc. What about the application of this powerful aspect of relationship to work with children, youth, and families?
While sometimes it does just happen, that is, a child/youth will take a particular liking to one staff person over others [in which case, I would argue, we should make use of this by having a system flexible enough to al low for individual matches], I also believe that this aspect of relationship-building is based on two concepts: trust and risk. I think of the trust part as descriptive, that is: trust is or is not present in a relationship. While some people talk of building trust, I have found that I have more control over setting the stage for trust to emerge. I would challenge you to ask yourself or someone else exactly what you could do so they would fully trust you. Inevitably, when I’ve done this, there is no one thing I can do that ensures that the person will trust me. However, what I can do is act from a position of personal risk taking, or as my grandmother might have phrased it, “act like a regular person” — be myself. In the work realm, this includes throwing aside unnecessary and condescending “professional” stances, believing and acting in ways that show I believe the person I’m working with has capacities, not just problems. I take the risk of being equal: knowing that I would be equally as vulnerable as the person I am with — if I were in their situation; knowing that while I have some skills that may be of help to that person, they have the intimate knowledge of themselves and their situation — so we both hold valuable parts of any solution. Putting myself out and out-there requires risk AND only I can decide if I will/will not risk. My experience has been that people trust individuals who strive to take this type of honest risk.
So, I followed him into the garbage can ...
Actually, this is a bit of an exaggeration. The truth is I kept asking the questions on the IQ test even while Michael was in the garbage can. Why was he in a garbage can? This was just one of his stop-offs in my office dur ing my early days as a psychologist. Michael was five and truly hyperactive. In those days, an IQ number had a lot of sway and many children and youth I saw who seemed bright to me were labelled as slow because someone had assessed them according to the book — that is, under very standardized conditions. Standardized conditions of course precluded continuing the testing as they jumped into the garbage can, and so there was often a note to the effect that the child was unmanageable, intellectual ability unknown as testing was not possible at this time, etc. Standardized conditions — what kind of relationship is that?
These early experiences in testing young children whose files so often described them as untestable gave me time after time to practice what came naturally to me: be where the other is — wherever that may be. Where did I learn this? Hmm ... I have to think here because this concept of being with the other person rather than inside myself has felt almost like some automatic pilot response on my part. However, that won’t do for an answer. So, let me think ... Well, perhaps I’ll return to an example from my mother again:
I was a picky eater — and a lover of Alice in Wonderland. So, my mother invented a series of dishes called “Humpty Dumpty [a poached egg] fell in ... [insert whatever food she wished to tempt me with].” She even went so far as to cue restaurant people to what a Humpty Dumpty was. So when I ordered my meal and my order was taken without the batting of an eye ... well, you can see how influential this was. Talk about an adult getting outside of themselves and setting up an environment in sync with a child’s. Again, she seems to have been a master/mistress of another fundamental concept in relationship building. So often, young people have told me that the workers who truly influenced them were the ones who took time to, from the young person’s point of view, put themselves out and who did so in a way that met the youth in their world.
Relationships and expectations
And then, he dropped his drawers and peed at everyone.
Yes, there was once a young man of about 15 who decided to get back at the staff of a residential centre. He waited until shift change, which was occurring outside as it was a nice summer day, and then in full view of all he dropped his drawers and peed to the wind. That is, until he realized that the paper delivery boy was behind him and an observer of all this. The young man ran after the paper boy assuring him that he wasn’t crazy. It was just, he explained, that they expected weird behaviour from you in this place. I was not alone in my horror of realizing that this expectation was part of the relationship between this young man and those who were trying to help him. A similar situation occurred for me as I was standing beside a tall 14-year-old when she suddenly asked me with concern how I was going to physically restrain her. After concluding that I could only do this if I ran and got a chair and she made sure to be within jumping distance so that I could hurl myself at her in the hopes of overpowering her physically, I couldn’t help but puzzle at what kind of relationship she felt she and I had: should I be concerned that she saw physical restraint as a likelihood of this relationship, or should I be more concerned that she felt I would not be able to carry out my part of the job, or should I be concerned that she felt I wouldn’t be able to keep her safe if she needed someone to do that by stopping her from hurting herself?
I offer you these recollections as contrasts with the other relationships I’ve described in this article. To me, the startling contrast is between relationships built on influence versus relationships where control plays a fundamental role. When I think of the contrast in these terms, I know which I feel more comfortable with, which might ultimately be more powerful. But then, maybe I prefer those built on influence because that is my personal background and because, being small physically, control was never a workable approach for me. The words “influence, control, manage, suggest” are more than just a list of words to me. They describe the essence of various approaches to relationship.
What does the magic look like?
I began this article by saying that the fundamentals of powerful relationships must inevitably be experienced rather than read about to be fully understood. And so, I will take the next little space to reference the most memorable power of relationship I’ve had the privilege to experience: the twinkle in Henry Maier’s eyes.
Perhaps a painting or a photo might give you some impression of this power. But only the spirit of the living person is experienced in the twinkle of an eye. This twinkle has a power in and of itself that moves out from Henry and focuses on you. This twinkle let me know that here was fun and sharing — not someone with a serious thought of being better than me. The challenge for all of us is to find our equivalent to Henry’s twinkle. And, of course, you can’t make a twinkle just because you wish it to be so. No, it will come only inasmuch as we are like Henry: genuinely out there, genuinely believing in others!
In closing, I will share with you one more relationship which has impacted on me over all these years. It is a relationship with a little girl who continues to be appealing to me in her directness, her lack of guile, and her insatiable curiosity. These are her powers that attract me. And I believed that if these were attractive to me, then if I sought to develop these powers, I might be able to attract others to me and so share with them whatever I can. Here are a few words from that little girl:
In another moment down [I] went... never considering how in the world [I] was to get out again ...Well ... after such a fall as this I shall think nothing of tumbling downstairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I am still trying to expand my curiosity of others and their worlds, to
pass over the little things and to remember what is really important.
These I believe are essentials in building relationship.
1 Most recently, I heard on the CBC that a curriculum for medical practitioners is being developed at the University of Western Ontario, focusing on ethical and interpersonal aspects of health care.
2 My mother tells of folks seeing her with my cousin and me and having people say of my cousin: “I see this is your little girl,” and of me, “Who is this one?” As for personality, both my dad and I used pouting with great effectiveness.
Brendtro, L.K. and Ness, A.E. (1983). Re-educating troubled youth: Environments for teaching and treatment. New York: Aldine.
Carroll, L. (1865/1948). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through
the Looking Glass. London and Glasgow: Collins, p. 14.
This feature: Parry, P. (1999). Relationships: Thoughts on their origin and their power. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 13, 2. pp. 9-15.