The dialectic of family care: Familial and institutional dimensions seven-day care in a residential treatment setting
ABSTRACT: The author, using ethnographic methods, studied a weekend residential program for disturbed pre-adolescent boys. He discovered a paradoxical situation: the program existed both as a close-knit “clan” fostering familial values and as a highly routinized unit promoting institutional values. Children were not confused by this uniquely complex social system but responded according to their needs: children without families viewed the program as “family” but those with families viewed the program as an institution. However, children undergoing family transitions had unsettled feelings about the program. Workers responded to the program’s dialectic by constant attention to children’s changing needs rather than by adopting one rigid outlook.
As a project for an introductory course in qualitative research methods at Harvard Graduate School of Education, I conducted an ethnographic study of the Weekend Program at Walker Home and School in Needham, Massachusetts, in the fall semester of 1987. I observed and interviewed students and child care staff to determine their understanding of the nature of the unique micro social system in which they lived and worked. I discovered that certain paradoxical features seem to lie at the heart of the Weekend Program, features which Weekenders must constantly negotiate. In this report I describe some of the complex realities that children and adults face trying to be a quasi-family within an institutional setting. These realities should interest all who are involved in residential child care. I also detail my research methods which I believe include tools which are particularly powerful in examining the therapeutic milieu in any child and youth care setting. A list of references pertaining to this methodology follow this article.
The Walker Weekend Program
For the past twenty-six years Walker Home and School in Needham, Massachusetts, has provided treatment services for emotionally disturbed children in the Greater Boston area. Currently, Walker has a student population of fifty-four boys age five to fourteen years old who have been placed there by public agencies because of failure to cope successfully with life in public school and/or home. The student body falls into three distinct groups: day students, five day residents and weekend students. The last group, about a third of the school, are those who spend at least some of their weekends on campus.
Walker School, like most residential treatment programs for children and youth in the United States, has increasingly emphasized maximum family involvement as a cornerstone of treatment philosophy. Whenever possible resident students spend weekends in families while family members are encouraged to spend time on the campus through the week. One unintended effect of this shift in philosophy has been to create a distinct subset to residential students in care on weekends which, in turn, quite distinctly separates the weekend residential program from the “regular” Walker program.
The amount of time Weekenders spend at Walker on Friday through Sunday varies greatly; some are there for only a few hours while others are there for the duration of the weekend. Some boys are in the Weekend Program for only one or two weekends, whereas others have spent over four years as full-timers. Despite this wide range in the individual’s use of the program, the one common factor for all these boys is the fact that their families cannot care for them full-time. Acute crisis at home, a boy’s physical threats, or a judge’s care-and-protection order can all result in a boy becoming a Weekender. In some cases these boys have no family to go to because of death or desertion.
These boys are cared for by staff consisting of a married couple (John and Linda) who have worked at Walker for about seven years, Kate who has been a child care worker for over four years and Dan, a new child care worker. There are also two overnight workers, weekend cooks, a weekend social worker and various visiting supervisors and friends, including Lucy, John and Linda’s fourteen-year-old daughter.
Data for this study were collected through a combination of observation of the Weekend Program and open-ended interviews with children and child care workers. Observations involved concentrated note-taking describing as fully as possible what was happening in the milieu on the occasions of my visits. Immediately after each observation I typed up these notes with as much detail as I could recall. All interviews were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim. Three two-hour observations and six interviews produced altogether 115 pages of single-spaced field notes and transcripts. Other documents (program and philosophy statements written by the weekend staff) totalling thirty pages were also included in the data base.
My intimate knowledge of the setting and the actors
helped immensely in the gathering of data. However, I was concerned
about the extent to which my position within the agency and my personal
relationships colored the situations in which I collected my materials.
I did not find any overt signs of such contamination. Corroboration of
my findings by the weekend staffers in a final group interview indicated
that I did achieve a level of acceptable objectivity in data collection.
Half way through my data collection I read through all my notes and transcripts. As I read I tried to think of categories for dividing data. The result was a list of eighteen codes which I applied to my data by marking all my notes and transcripts.
What stood out in this coding process was the preoccupation of all participants with “family”: biological families, adoptive families, John and Linda and Lucy as a family, the Weekend Program as a family and Walker as a family. In documents, interviews and spontaneous speech in the field, “family” came up over and over. By the same token, I observed and heard much that seemed antithetical to “family.” I termed these data indicators of “institution” (a term adults used).
From this perspective, it was relatively easy to divide data into “profamilial” and “pro-institutional” bins. However, quite interestingly, I discovered that much data fell into both categories simultaneously. For example, my observation of a residence living room included “pro-familial” data, like attractive posters on the wall which kids might have selected and comfortable modem furniture typical for an American middle-class home, and “pro-institutional” data, like an olive drab bureau in the middle of the living room and many bedrooms opening into a common space like a college dormitory. The closer I looked the more evidence I discovered for a family-institution dialectic.
Although I felt confident that my data supported such an analysis, I had three problems. First, I did not know to what degree the terms of this paradox arose from my subjective response to the data. Would the analysis make sense to participants or could they explain data in alternative ways? Secondly, since my experience of the Weekend Program was so limited, I wondered whether there might be other dimensions of the program which would negate my analysis or dilute its importance. Finally, how was I to explain differences in individual boys’ response to the Weekend Program? Some viewed the Weekenders as a family, others as a more institutional group.
I wrote up my ideas in a memo and checked it out with the child care staff in a group interview. As a result I wound up with three distinct sources for confirming/disconfirming conclusions: (1) the observed behavior of all participants; (2) the oral testimony of students and (3) the oral and written testimony of adults. When I piled up my coded data relating to my main hypothesis — that the Weekend Program is both institution and family — I found that I had confirming evidence from all three types of sources. Thus I felt that my analysis had passed some sort of validity check. In the section that follows, all findings I report are supported by corroborating data from at least two types of sources and two individual data sources within each source type.
The central dilemma of the Walker Weekend Program is how to create a family life within an institution. The adults clearly see that it is their responsibility, and the children’s right, to live their lives on the weekends in a “relaxed way” which is “intimate” where adults and children “care about each other in a real way.” Yet because of many complicating “institutional” factors, some of which are inherent in the Weekend Program itself and some which the individual children bring with them into the weekend, a fully realized family life is impossible in the Weekend Program. Moreover, despite Weekenders’ yearnings for a familial life, all realize there are dangers involved in making the Weekend Program “a real family.” Institutional factors actually act as a welcome buffer against this eventuality.
In this section I attempt to describe some of the factors which promote a familial life and those which promote an institutional life within the Weekend Program. I also consider how these factors are part of a dialectic which pulls each boy in polar directions as he copes with his current life and prepares for his future beyond the program. Furthermore, I try to explain the ways in which boys, with the help of adults, negotiate this dialectic to develop a synthesis which provides both succor and growth. My analysis, however, must begin with some definitions.
“Family” and “institution”: Definitions
The Walker Weekend attempts to simulate the real world weekends of families in an intermediate but analogous fashion. (Walker Weekend Philosophy).
What the philosophy says and what you observed is actually the thin line we walk all the time between familial, kind of emotional stability and contractual, working, institutional kind of relationships. (John, co-director).
I didn’t like (the Weekend Program). I don’t trust (the staff) at all. They haven’t earned their trust with me yet, just like I haven’t earned my trust with them.... My mom trusts me at home. (Shawn, student).
They used to be a family to me. They treat me like a family.... Not like my family. My father. Too mean. (Maurice, student).
When Weekenders talked about families, either their own or how the Weekend Program was like a family, they almost always spoke in positive terms about certain feelings, activities or values. One frequently mentioned familial feeling was that of solidarity: “we’re always together; we never split up”; “we do things together like brothers”; “a sense of emotional solidarity”. Other feelings adults and children associated with families were “nurturance,” being treated “good” and “fun.”
Three boys spoke about families in terms of freedom: doing what you want, being by yourself if you want, deciding when to go to bed or what to watch on TV. Others talked about activities: baking cookies together, going to church, saying grace, going to the Teen Center in town. Both boys and adults brought up values like manners and politeness, kindness, not tattling, and trust.
Clearly many of these views of “family” are paragons which few families could live up to, especially not the boys’ troubled natural families or even the Weekend Program itself. Yet all boys, even Shawn who was the one boy who painted a negative picture of the program, ascribed some of these attributes to the weekend milieu. In a real sense, everyone concurred, to varying degrees, that the Weekend Program did succeed in being “family.”
An element common to all these views of family was a sense that people respected each other and themselves, not as a chore but in a natural waypeople “cared” about each other. It is interesting that the word “love” was never used by any participants although certain respondents seemed on the verge of using it, as when one adult said, “We care about them in a real way, not in an institutional way.” Despite the significant omission of “love” clearly something like love, i.e., deeply felt, unconditional, positive regard, lies at the heart of Weekenders’ concept of “family.”
When speaking of elements opposite to “family” adults used the term “institution” which for them referred to “contractual, working” relationships and efforts. Children did not use the same term but they did refer to feelings, activities and values which were non-family, i.e., either conditions they viewed as alien to their own families or some ideal of family life.
Confusion and disempowerment were themes in speaking of “non-family”: “they moved me to the Cottage and I didn’t even know why”; “sometimes I see a kid and wonder why he’s here”; “I don’t know why and I don’t ask cause they’ll say none of your business”. Boys also spoke of structure, discipline and rules as things not encountered in their families but only at Walker. Shawn was anxious to be at home with his family rather than the Weekend Program because at Walker he felt a lack of trust and that adults “yelled at him a lot” whereas at home he felt he was trusted and free.
Both adults and children sensed that in the Weekend Program certain things happened because there were rules and regulations to be obeyed, not because people liked things that way. They sensed the presence of “obligation” and “emotional distance” in certain aspects of the program which contrasted to the “real caring” which characterized a more familial life. These aspects I (and adult Weekenders) refer to as “institutional.”
From these definitions, “family” and “institution” can be contrasted in several ways: real care versus contractual obligations, solidarity versus distance, familiarity versus disorientation, warmth versus coolness. Although no respondents used these actual words, two terms seem to best capture the motivations which are the engines of families and institutions: love versus impersonal duty.
Three dimensions of the family/institution
The Weekend Program is full of surprises. In collecting data, just when I sensed a conclusion, something would come out of the blue to contradict my theory. A calm informal event might be followed by a tense time around a highly formal routine. A loud confrontation between a child and an adult may happen in one part of the dining room while somewhere else in the room an adult might be patting a boy’s shoulder and calling him “bid buddy.” I felt that if I filmed the entire Weekend Program for one weekend, from start to finish, including all participants, I could easily create two entirely different films from the raw footage. In one film, we would see the Weekend Program as an all-American middle class family enjoying its leisure time. In the other
movie, we would see an emotionally charged but smoothly running institution with rules and routines firmly in place.
In the following analysis, I present three dimensions of the family/institution dialectic: space, time and relationship. My intent is not to definitively show the elements of the dialectic, but to indicate its effects on all participants. By looking at these three elements we can see how ubiquitous and inescapable the family/institution issue is within the environment of the weekend. This is a tension all participants must negotiate constantly.
Everyone was in the House doing their routines. I was in the shower, when the (fire) alarm went off. I had to put a towel over myself and we went outside (to wait by the flagpole). (Maurice).
My brother says he wishes he could be here (at Walker) because he likes nature a lot. (Shawn, student).
When I first came to Walker I was repulsed by the gym. All those bars and everything.... If kids are in good shape they can play in the gym (without supervision) ....It’s part of our whole little neighborhood concept. (John).
The Weekend Program takes place on the Walker campus, an appealing set of five buildings on a huge lawn surrounded by woods and the marshes of the Charles River. The two residences were originally family homes and in many ways they still look like private homes, especially from the outside: a large Victorian house and a small farm cottage. Yet indoors it is clear these are dormitories. Bedrooms predominate. Pieces of institutional furniture are scattered among modern white oak chairs and sofas. There are fire alarm boxes and fire exit signs. Posters spell out schedules or “boys on restrictions.”
The dining room in the school building is where the Weekenders eat all their meals. There is a red tile floor, poured concrete walls, bulletin boards with posters and “Honor Roll.” The tables have metal legs and formica tops. The chairs are molded yellow plastic. Here everyone sits to eat the food which is prepared in the adjacent big school kitchen by the cook. Much of the furniture, the stark mess hall, the dormitory aspects of the residences, the signs all say: “This is a school, solidly, durably constructed. We obey the rules here.”
At the other end of the spectrum, I have observed a
group of five boys with John and Linda huddled around the TV set on a
Saturday morning, chatting and looking at the paper. The space was warm
and intimate. Adults and several boys also mentioned the spaciousness of
the weekend: being able to ride bikes in areas off limits during the
week, groups of boys able to go off
by themselves to talk, the chance to do exploring and hiking. The space of the Weekend Program paradoxically promotes regulation, efficiency and orderliness while it permits intimacy, solitude and freedom. Participants can decide how to use the space, but none can ignore the intrinsic contradictions.
I’m always telling him that kids are not always in the TV room watching lots of television. At home kids aren’t always nagging their parents to do this. And last week ...he was in his room listening to the radio, playing with his toys. This is what kids do on Sunday morning, just hang out. (Kate, child care worker).
(I like being at home) because then I can watch cable at home and watch certain movies. Also I can spend more time with my mother. We play games. Sometimes we watch the VCR. (Tim, student).
Now Tim is watching wrestling and Mike and Linda continue to read the newspaper. Two parallel conversations go on... Tim tells Linda, You know the muscles down here are called dominoes. There is competition for Linda’s attention; there is no Tim-Mike conversation. (field notes).
Weekenders talk about two types of time: structured and unstructured. Structured time is formal in the sense that the adults have a plan for what is to happen during a particular period. Three boys mentioned “structure” as a non-family element of the Weekend Program, i.e., their natural families are unstructured, while Walker is structured.
Thus at first glance, structured time appears to be an institutional element of the Weekend Program, and to a large degree this is true. Yet the situation is more complex; certain structures actually promote a familial feeling. I call the distinction between institutional and familial structures routines and rituals. The former category includes such things as lining up to go to meals, showering and dressing as an organized group activity, group meetings like the ones adults have with kids each Friday afternoon and bedtimes as set by adults according to a system. However, Mike, Jimmy and Maurice each talked about structured times which they explicitly related to “being like a family,” structures I call rituals: going to church, saying grace before meals, trips for shopping, group hikes and nature experiences. Routines, by and large, are consistent with weekday structures and are clearly institutional because they are tied to the organizational need of larger than family-size groups of children. Defining a structure as a ritual, however, seems to be more dependent on the framework of the participant Mike might see a meal blessing as familial while another boy might see, it as a routine. Whatever the case, Weekenders structure large parts of their time with a mixture of routine and ritual.
All Weekenders view non-structured time as pro-familial. “When kids go home on weekends, they don’t have all their time structured for them,” as one adult put it. Boys mentioned chances to be alone, exploring nature with friends, playing games they want, riding bikes in areas off limits during the week and “hanging out” as welcome unstructured times. Adults talked about the premium they place on unstructured time, in fact, their view is that they value it more than the students do. “We tell them to go over there by themselves and talk. Have their own meeting. We say, ‘Be kids. Hang out’!” as Linda explained. Everyone (except Shawn) saw the Weekend Program as the place within the Walker community where unstructured time was most likely to occur.
All boys experience both routines and rituals. Boys might be outdoors playing freely, then Linda calls them to lunch. Outside the school building they line up and march into the building, stopping to wash their hands first. Seated at assigned seats at the table, the boys bow their heads and say grace. Then dinner is served. This pattern repeats itself throughout each weekend. It both reminds the boys they are at a school with rules and they are a special, close-knit group, a “clan.”
That’s one of the institutional conflicts. Our home is here in Needham but on occasion you run into that kind of conflict. If you take them into your (own) home are they going to feel odd? What are they going to say happened when you took them into your home? (John).
’Cause when I say ‘Why didn’t you go home?’ they say, that’s none of your business. (Tim, student).
When Kane met Dick they hugged each other, then argued over some point, then ran after each other in a game of tag. (field notes).
In what way did they seem like brothers? (Interviewer) In every way. (Maurice).
Watching Weekenders interact, I frequently saw and heard instances of intimacy: use of pet names and terms of endearment, hugs, pats. The reaching out usually came from adults but I never saw a child pull away from or react negatively to such signs of affection. I observed a few instances of boys being affectionate with each other: hugs, playing little games like hide-and-seek to be friendly, using nicknames, making sure to say good-bye. Jimmy, Mike and Maurice all felt that weekend peers are more than just good friends: they are “like brothers.”
Nonetheless, all Weekenders keep a certain distance from each other. Although John and Linda have their own home only a few miles from campus, only one Weekender, an alumnus who had been in their program for over four years, has ever been inside it. Likewise, weekend staff seldom, if ever, visit the boys’ own homes or even their residences during the week. The intimacy of the weekend stays within the bounds of Friday to Monday.
Boys varied in the degree of closeness they preferred. Kate and Linda told me stories of boys who did not want to be kissed or who changed their minds from kissing to non-kissing (and vice versa) with passage of time in the program. Some boys, like Shawn and Tim, stated explicitly that the best times in the weekend were when they were alone. Jimmy, Mike and Maurice, however, liked the solidarity of spirit in group times best.
Relationships between individuals in the Weekend Program range from formal to cool to intimate and warm. There relationships are always in flux. The boy who ignores adults one weekend, may, several months later, be snuggled up to Kate while watching TV. There is not way to relate as a Weekender.
Negotiating the dialectic
They tell you how they want you to bond. (Kate).
It’s the chemistry of the relationship. (John).
The World of the Weekend Program is a complex, self-contradictory reality. The physical and social environment is consciously formulated to produce a familial feeling where intimacy, informality, freedom and closeness are forever present. Simultaneously, Weekenders experience a program set on the grounds of a school, built around rules and routines, where a certain formal distance is maintained between all participants. The extent to which children experience the program as either family or institution varies with each individual. Everyone participates in the Weekend Program differently.
Why do children react to the program so differently? Why did Shawn see the weekend as a repressive institution while Maurice viewed it as a better family than his own? It seems these differences in outlook had to do with boys’ life positions. When I interviewed Shawn he was leaving the program to be with his family; he had been in the program only two months. He had not had the time to bond with individuals within the program, plus he was eager to be home again. The Weekend Program thus represented little more than an obstacle toward his return home.
For Maurice, the Weekend Program had been home for over three years. The courts did not allow him to visit his natural mother’s residence and he seldom saw her; indeed, he was full of rage against her. The weekends at Walker offered stability and intimacy for Maurice while the legal system worked slowly to free him for adoption. By the time this process was complete and Maurice was free to find a new family, he was comfortable with his “family” at Walker. Separation from the Weekend Program and attachment to a new family was painful.
Tim, on the other hand, saw his natural family regularly. The Weekend Program was where he spent parts of his weekends and it was a fun, safe place to be. However, at times Tim could not go home because of his behavior there, in which case the Weekend Program became an unwelcome competitor with his family.
For Jimmy and Mike, the Weekend Program was their family while they waited for a “real” family. They saw the program as an opportunity to practice familial life so they would be ready when they did leave for a family.
In other words, boys responded to the family/institution dialectic according to their personal needs. If the program represented a threat to their attachment to their own family, boys tended to view the weekend as an institutional organization. If boys had no family or felt their own families were failing them, they were more likely to see the program as a familial unit. The dialectic of the weekend program could mean different things to different children.
If children responded to the dialectic according to their needs, how they did adults negotiate this complicated set of views? How were they to respond to all these radically different outlooks? The adult staff admitted it was a complicated business, so complex they could not describe it fully. Yet the key to success they agreed was paying attention to each child, picking up his signals about intimacy and distance. They realized that each boy experiences the program differently. Staff do not force one way of being.
Still the dialectic of family versus institution makes the Weekend Program so complicated that the chief wonder is that the program works at all. Yet all involved know “simplifying” the program would present major problems. Being more of an institution would be to deprive boys of the “right” to a familial life. Becoming a “real family” in a real home, where child care workers became mom and dad, would be too threatening for children who are working to go home again or for those who have to separate and attach to new families. Maurice, so unhappy being in a new home, certainly would have had even more trouble if John and Linda had ever truly become his interim parents.
The Weekend Program represents different things to different children. For a few, it is yet another institutional setting, in a long string of settings, which keeps them from being home. For others it is an idealized family, a warm circle of kin. There are elements within the program that support both views simultaneously. Boys respond to the elements of the program which meet their needs. It a boy “needs” to see the weekend at Walker as an institution because it competes with his natural family, he will notice the disciplinary system, the rules, the distance he feels from adults. If another child “needs” a family because he has none, the program becomes a solid, caring network of brothers and parent figures. The adults are monitoring constantly the children’s views, sensing when they move in either direction on the institutional familial spectrum. This work is extremely complicated and requires tremendous sensitivity and insight on the part of the staff who at times need to put aside their personal feelings in order to respond to a particular child’s needs. It would seem tempting for the child care workers to “simplify” the program by becoming more narrowly institutional or familial; keeping this dialectic alive makes the situation complex. Yet the adults know that complexity, with many options, saves the program from becoming too intense in one way or the other. The Weekenders have decided to live with the “truth” of paradox rather than the “lie” of an artificial simplicity.
Becker, H. (1970). Sociological Work: Method and Substance. Transaction Books.
Bogdan, R. and Biklin, S. (1982). Qualitative Research for Education: An Introduction to Theory and Methods. Allyn & Bacon.
Glaser, Barney and Strauss and Anslem (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Chicago: Aldine Press.
McCall, G. and Simmons, J. (1969). Issues in Participant Observation: A Text and Reader. New York: Random House.
Murphy, R. (1971). The Dialectics of Social Life: Alarms and Excursions in Anthropological Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
Spindler, G. (1982) (Ed.). Doing the Ethnography of Schooling. New York: Holt, Rhinehart & Winston.
Wax, R. (1971). Doing Fieldwork: Warnings and Advices. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
This feature: Latus, T. (1989). The dialectic of care: Familial and institutional dimensions seven-day care in a residential treatment setting. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 4, 2. pp. 59-71.