Fat, ugly bastard
It’s back to school, and for me that means facing a large number of students and ‘teaching’ them about boundaries, an early lesson in the Professional Issues course I teach at Ryerson University in Toronto. I have been teaching this lesson for quite a while, and so it would be easy to enter my classroom next week and teach this subject matter through the usual routine, the usual lenses, and the usual perspectives. After all, we have benefited a great deal from the both wonderfully simple and enormously complex material offered by the likes of Fewster, Krueger, Garfat, Fulcher and so many others.
But something is different this year, and I find myself more reflective and pensive about this particular topic. I just don’t feel like reviewing the debates about touch versus no touch, self disclosure versus stringent ‘professionalism’, and all the ins and outs of policies and procedures. Maybe it’s because I have been reading about Garfat’s ideas about ‘relational’ work; maybe it’s because I have been reading Harry Potter with my seven year old son, and it turns out that the Harry Potter series is very much about the issues confronting child and youth workers every day; or maybe it’s because some of the child and youth workers I admire most have always violated any and all preconceived notions of what might constitute ‘good boundaries’ that I am just not sure any more what it is we are talking about.
Regardless of the cause, my recent wave of reflection resulted in some memories coming back to life, and in particular, the memory about how I first learned about ‘boundaries’ in a child and youth care setting.
I entered this field like many did twenty, thirty or more years ago – with absolutely no understanding of what I was about to encounter. My first job was in a group home, and amongst the ten boys and girls living there was one who had been labeled ‘difficult to engage’. He didn’t say much, usually avoided contact with the staff wherever possible, and frequently set off on his own, without permission, getting into a whole bunch of trouble in the community. Early into the job, I asked my supervisor what I should do. Specifically, I wanted to know how I could guide him to a healthier lifestyle, something I knew very little about back then myself. Her advice was that I should approach him and give him some pointers based on my personal experiences. ‘Remember’, she said, ‘kids respond best when they think you can relate to them, when they know who they are dealing with, and when you are being honest and sincere with them’.
Equipped with this guidance, I went in search of my lost boy. This was going to be easy, I thought to myself. After all, I knew a thing or two about getting into trouble, and if all I had to do was to let him know how to get out of trouble…, well, not a problem.
I figured that the biggest challenge was going to be to get him to listen long enough to hear my sure-fire advice. So I offered him not one cigarette but a whole pack (they were very cheap back then and only rumored to be bad for you). And then, relying on my personal experiences (which really is not that different from evidence-based practice), I rattled off what he needed to know:
If you are going to shoplift, don’t linger. Go in and get out;
Sustain at least one injury in every fight. This will lessen the consequences later on;
Don’t tell lies. Embellish the truth instead – same effect but more dignity;
If you are buying drugs at an arcade, tell the seller you are being followed, and then pretend to be $5 short. This almost always results in a $5 discount quickly;
Be nice to your mother. You’ll need her one day, and at any rate, she deserves it;
And finally, when talking with a police officer, do not call him a fat, ugly bastard, even if you think it’s true. This almost always makes things worse!
I knew I had made an impact based on the stunned expression on his face. He muttered something which I took to be his way of saying thank you, and, with full confidence that I had figured out the intricacies of child and youth work rather early into my career, I walked off, in search of the next youth I could set straight. I was somewhat surprised that this was deemed good practice; for some reason I had assumed that the messages we were to give to kids were to be somewhat more wholesome and laundered through the value system of productive adults. On the other hand, I was very pleased that in fact, the job was to help the youngsters stay out of trouble, and certainly my advice would do just that. Why should this poor boy suffer through the same tough lessons I had learned? No wonder none of the other staff could engage this guy. They were busy lecturing him on the ‘right way to be’, and they always talked to him like he was some sort of disease; they kept their distance (safe space, they called it, measured by the length of one arm); they never talked about themselves, as if they had perfect decision-making skills from birth to adulthood (beware of self-disclosure, they said); and when they didn’t know what to say or do, they made vague references to policies and rules and program expectations.
I remember asking one of the senior staff on my very first shift why she spent so much time in the office, away from the kids. ‘Well’, she said, ‘it is very important to have good boundaries when working with these kids; we are not their friends or their parents’. Now, this might have answered my question if it wasn’t for my deeply entrenched German logic process, which quickly formulated the question in my head: ‘what does sitting in the office have to do with boundaries??’ Sadly I was not yet advanced enough in my English language skills to think of the more commonly used word describing bovine excrement, otherwise I would certainly have thrown it at her.
Over the years I have learned that child and youth workers are often very good at coming up with concepts that in theory make a lot of sense, but in practice provide the cover for inaction and complacency. I worry that ‘boundaries’ is one of those concepts. I have heard child and youth workers use this concept as the rationale for allowing kids to self-destruct, avoiding engagement with kids, lying to kids about their own experiences in life, and having ‘relationships’ with kid that are ‘relational’ only inasmuch as the imposition of ‘staff power’ connects with the exploitation of ‘child vulnerability’.
This brings me back to ‘teaching’ the topic of boundaries to child and youth care students. What exactly should I be teaching them? Whose boundaries should form the basis of my lesson? Is there anything at all that can be said about boundaries that holds true beyond the specificity of each and every relationship or relational engagement between two persons?
Of course, some of these questions can be at least partially resolved by teaching boundaries as one organic element of the exploration of Self – I think that’s what Fewster might advise me to do. But even the Self is highly differentiated and difficult to capture. I don’t know why I have some friends who I have known for only a short time, and I feel safe and comfortable greeting them with a hug; and I have other friends, who I have known for a long time, and all I can comfortably muster is a distant ‘hi’. In fact, I can say with conviction that I apply a different set of boundaries, physical and emotional, to virtually every relationship I have. I do recognize that the socio-cultural context in which my relationships exist might have a role to play here, but I also know that it is not the dominant role.
I am currently contemplating Thom Garfat’s (a very huggable guy) latest offering on the meaning of ‘relational’. I think I like the idea that relationships are constituted through the relational dynamics within that space in which the presence of two people overlaps, not physically but metaphorically. In this way, relational engagement becomes a process in which every relationship is constituted from within that space to the outside, rather than from the outside (meaning through the medium of pre-determined rules about things like boundaries) to the core. But I am not done reflecting on this; after all, there is a very fine line between complex reflection and the production of bovine excrement.
Not long after I had given my advice to my now favourite kid in the group home, he got busted for shoplifting and was given a rather harsh treatment in court. Apparently he had run into a store at full speed, toppled over a display by accident, grabbed some gum, and tried to run out. When he was caught, he fought back and sustained a black eye, even though the security guy who caught him was a tiny man. It turned out that he had a rather large stash of drugs on him, which he had purchased at the nearby arcade at an incredible discount. And when the cop arrived to arrest him, he called him a fat ugly idiot.
‘Why did you do that’? I asked, somewhat horrified.
‘Because you told me not to call him a fat, ugly BASTARD!’
This story, by the way, unfolded ALMOST like I have told it, and I feel very good about that!