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De-programming kids

Kiaras Gharabaghi

I need to vent. As an academic, I no longer have a team to vent to and with; I don’t get supervision where I could unload my latest frustrations, and it might be deemed ‘unprofessional’ if I start venting to my students. Thankfully I have you, the CYC Net reader and participant, and I trust that we are now close enough in our connection(s) for me to be able to vent, and for you to provide me with the ears (or eyes) to place my venting somewhere meaningful. If I am overestimating our connection, please feel free to click to another article; Mark Smith always has some interesting news from the UK.

So here it goes. Let’s start with a question: why do we make kids live in programs? I can understand why kids may have to move into a group home, or live with some other kids, or be cared for by child and youth workers. But that’s not what we tell them when we ‘admit a child to a program’. We tell them that they will be living in a program, and that the program has a structure, some routines, and a whole bunch of rules and expectations. Sometimes the program is based on points and level systems (don’t get me started on that one…), and other times it might be based on a particular approach to using the therapeutic milieu; but ultimately, we ‘admit the child to the program’, whatever form that might take.

How would you like to live in a program? Judging from the Matrix trilogy, living in a program has its down sides. For one thing, programs don’t understand you; they manage you. You are not part of the program code, the input into day to day experiences and happenings. The program is established independently of you, and so, to be blunt, you don’t really matter. In fact, I have never come across a program that asks the question: ‘given this child, what should I be like’? But I have seen lots of programs that state indignantly: ‘this child does not fit me [the program]’!

It is not entirely clear to me how we ended up using the term ‘program’ so easily and so uncritically. If we think about some other associations of the term, we might think of computers, of the military, of raising pets, of television programs or of the program guide. In the context of computers, programs are developed to function exactly the same way every time they are used. I know that when I hit ‘Control B’ the text I write will be bolded, every time without exception. When the computer starts acting up, or doing things that are outside of its program, I know it is time to run the virus program, which will hunt down and then kill any deviation from what is expected. If the virus program can’t fix the problem, I will throw out this computer and buy another one. Hmm, surely this is not what we are thinking when we associate kids with programs.

In the military, there are all kinds of programs as well. In fact, we sometimes think of soldiers as requiring good programming in order to be able to deal with the enormous stress that might face them in battle. Best not to think too much when facing the barrel of someone else’s gun; just follow the program, pull the trigger and save yourself. Nope, that doesn’t sound much like child and youth care either.

The family pet, our beloved friend. Training programs for pets seem to be rather popular these days. In fact, at a very early age (three months or so), we can take our pets to the training program where, with simple mono-syllable commands they learn to sit, stay, roll over and bark for our grotesque enjoyment. While this might well describe point and level systems in residential care programs (complete with treat for rolling over particularly well), it certainly doesn’t describe child and youth care practice. Seems just a little inhumane, doesn’t it? Good thing pets aren’t humans; we don’t yet have a term for ‘in-petane’ (unless you count ‘cruel’).

Perhaps when we admit children to programs, we associate the term with TV programming; this is sounding better. TV programming involves a menu of choices, new episodes every week, and a wide range of characters and story lines. Hey, that’s just like the kids we work with; of course, there is the matter of TV programs being fictional (except, of course, Reality TV, which is not fictional but other-worldly), and the kids we work with are real. But on the positive side, when it comes to TV programming, if we don’t like the program we can just switch the channel. Perhaps this explains the sad and ridiculous patterns of placement break downs for children and youth in care. Somebody clearly is hogging the remote.

Well, it seems to me that none of the typical associations we make for the term ‘program’ really work all that well for a context where children’s lives are at stake. So why do we use this term? I have some theories about that:

  1. The term ‘program’ really refers to the operating logic of staff, who are imprisoned by the program’s insatiable appetite for junk food such as ‘consistency’, ‘structure’, ‘safety’ and the like;

  2. Programs provide us with an object of blame when things don’t go well, as in ‘the child just couldn’t handle the program’;

  3. Programs allow us to pick and choose kids as in ‘this one fits the program’ but ‘that one doesn’t’;

  4. Since we use terms such as structure and routine, we need to use the term ‘program’ in order to be able to define the other terms. Just try to define any one of these three terms without using the other two in the definition;

  5. It is much too difficult to care for kids; it is much easier to care for a program (hence the discussions about consistency, safety, accountability, structure, etc.).

Am I sounding a little critical, perhaps even cynical about it all? You are probably right, I should be toning this down a little. Thankfully you are allowing me this safe space to vent, and so I don’t feel the need to be ‘nice’ about it. But it has occurred to me that a little challenge might be fun. So here is something for you to consider. If you work in a residential program or a school program or some other kind of program where the rules, expectations, goals, routines, structure and basically everyone’s way of being alive are predetermined, do this: next week, go to work and for just one week, shut down the program; make no references to pre-existing rules or expectations, have no plan for activities for the entire week, and don’t follow any of the commands of program logic. Just be with kids. Structure and routine are great, but they are even greater when they come from kids rather than from the program. Rules are great too, but they ‘rule’ (excuse the pun) when they are formulated with the specific humanity of each child in mind, rather than the needs or desires of the program as their foundation. And predictability, stability and calmness certainly promote safety, emotional and physical, but I wonder whether all of this can be achieved without determining the children’s live ahead of time, without sculpting their experiences moment to moment with the precision of externally informed program logarithms. Consequences, rewards, discipline and hey, even punishment, have their rightful place in caring for children and youth, but I suspect these will be much more meaningful when they are derived from the relational context of human beings rather than from pages 4 to 12 of the program manual.

Of course, as a child and youth care practitioner, you know all of this. Relational work is what you do, every day. You know that each child is unique and special and wonderful and amazing. And you know that you couldn’t possibly treat every child the same, or have the same expectations of every child all the time because the program says so. Right? Well that’s great, than this challenge will be easy for you.

All is ask is that you spend one week being with children while the program is shut down. Let me know how it goes…

And thanks for letting me vent.