Saying ‘yes’ and saying ‘no’
I’m in the living room with four of the adolescents in our program, and I’m mad. Gerry, who’s 14, is telling me that last night Jack (another child and youth care worker) told the group that they could stay up an hour later tonight to watch the movie. The other kids agree with Gerry — of course they do, what else would I expect?
I’ve checked the log book and there is no information recorded about this — I even tried to call Jack at home but there is no answer.
I also know that Jack has done this kind of thing before: leaving his shift without logging all the necessary information for whoever is coming on later. We’ve talked about it, and he agrees that it’s a problem. Last time he promised that he’d be more careful in the future, but here we are again.
You can see my problem. If I tell the kids “No” and Jack really did tell them it would be okay, then I’m going to have a battle on my hands here and I’m going to look like the “bad guy”. If Jack didn’t say it would be okay and I let them stay up, then I’ve been manipulated and look like a fool.
Not only that, but either way I’m going to have to deal with the team, and they are going to second-guess this one until the cows come home. I have to decide what to do in the next minute of so before this thing blows up.
I guess I’m also wrestling with the question of fairness and justice that is so important to these kids. I don’t want them to have another experience of not being able to trust adults in what they say. But I also don’t want them to have another experience of successfully manipulating to get what they want.
Ah yes. Been here! Done this! Was Gerry my own son Mark at the same age? And one of the other kids in the group my daughter Katie? Or was that Nigel and Lexie at the Barnardo’s unit in Edinburgh? Or Tye and the others in Birch Cottage at Maple Lane School in Washington state? Goodness knows, a variation on the same theme happened just last week at Weir House in Wellington, New Zealand with a group of university students. Ah yes! Been here and done this!
Damn it, Jack! Why don’t you follow through on the procedures around here? How many times do we have to go over this business of your following through with agreed policy? I don’t think you care at all about how your practice sets the rest of us up for hassles with kids whose life experiences we keep reconstructing right here in a service designed to help them. Next time I see you, I am going to give you a piece of my mind about what I think of this latest mess-up.
Ah, but Jack, I don’t know much about what you had to contend with during your shift either. What did you get left with when you came on shift and the others walked off the job? Were there things going down for you personally, or were there some sticky issues with one or two of the kids that you had to contend with and that none of us knows about? Not that I am going to let you off lightly, Jack, but I am willing to be open to the possibility that there is a good explanation for the situation you have left me in.
But, Jack, what happens if your culture and mine are different? Is it possible that I am defending personal and social values that are different from yours because of cultural differences? Not that I am into making excuses, mind, but OK, maybe I need to consider whether my views are reflected in the dominant cultural group in this place. If you were a New Zealander of Maori descent, my anger towards you may reflect my attempts to colonize you into thinking like I/we do. I know that you will have all the Maori kids coming to you with issues that they won’t bring to me or the rest of us white folk. If we were in Canada and you were of Aboriginal descent, Jack, it is likely that the same issues would be going on for you and I might be totally unaware of what these pressures might mean. OK, Jack, I will think about these matters, but I am still determined that we will have a chat about this situation you have placed me in.
Damn it. Is this me having to look at my own personal values about growing up in a family where rules were rules, and fairness meant that all five siblings were expected to live by the same groundrules? Why does this child and youth care work keep making me look at my own family and my own experiences of growing up, all in the course of trying to work out what is the right thing to do with kids in my care? Some of these things just don’t ever get written about in the books. Decisions on a knife edge, that is how I feel right now! That is the title of the book that has never been written!
OK, so I am angry at Jack for landing me in this situation. Or am I also angry at Gerry and these kids for putting me into this testing situation? Maybe I had better acknowledge the anger I feel towards myself for not asking enough questions at shift change time, rather than expecting that everything would be written down in the log book or that the responsibility for communication was one-way: from Jack to me!
So what do I do? The bottom line is that we are talking about an extra hour. What night of the week is it and is there a problem about these kids getting up tomorrow morning? What is the movie? Does it have any redeeming social value, or are we talking about some trashy re-run of Return to the Chainsaw Massacre? Is this about rules or about me being tested by these kids? Is this about consistency or about me looking for an easy way out of this awkward situation? All these questions and I am only seconds away from saving face, losing my cool, having a riot on my hands, or getting even with Jack for all the trouble he has caused me.
On balance, I will have to go with my best hunch and then check it out with Jack and the rest of the staff tomorrow. My first thought is the time. If we are talking an extra hour to catch the late, late show, then my answer is “No.” If we are talking an extra hour to catch the finish of the mid-evening movie, then I am open to considering it. If we are talking weekend as opposed to weekday, then I feel there is more room for flexibility. Weekday? Depends on whether Gerry and the other kids have been having trouble with school and getting ready for school on time. Trouble with school and getting ready for school? Maybe “No movie.” No trouble with school? Probably “Yes.” So what is the actual movie? Is it the Oscar-winning movie The Piano? Unfortunately, the answer is “No movie.” Too much sexuality for such a young group, even though there are superb panoramic shots of New Zealand scenery worth seeing over and over again. Some blood-and-guts third-rate semi-thriller? Then “No.” They could see that anytime, and we don’t need to make something special of that. If we are talking something like Philadelphia, or Shadowlands, or even Cool Runnings, then the answer will probably be “Yes,” because there is a social message in each of these movies that is worthy of taking the risk over.
However, the crunch will be how I deliver my decision because at the end of the day it will be my decision. As these teenagers grapple with their own sense of identity and look at adults to see whether they might model behaviour from these adults, I will need to have my reasons and be ready to share these with the group. If I say, “No, and that is final,” then I will have to deal with the moral outrage that goes with adults making all the decisions and not being accountable for those decisions. If my answer is “No,” I need to give my reasons, and I don’t think I can rely on the answer “Rules are rules” as a legitimate explanation. If I say “Yes,” then I need to say why and be accountable for that decision, both to the young people and to my colleagues tomorrow who will want to know why I changed the rules. So I will own my decision and I will make it proactively, not simply give in because I have been manipulated.
If the answer is “No, the extra hour will make it very late and you have been having trouble getting up and getting ready for school on time,” then so be it. I can acknowledge their disappointment but negotiate over another time and movie that they want to see in the next week or so, and for which they might show more readiness to stay up by putting effort into getting going earlier in the morning. If the answer is “Yes, but these are the conditions I will expect in terms of when the television goes off and when you are in your beds, etc.” or “Yes, and we will see how you manage the preparations for school, etc.,” then I still own my personal and professional authority as a youth care worker who will be accountable for that decision. Most importantly, I will join the group and watch the movie with them, thereby gaining the opportunity to check out whether it was the movie or the testing of me on the rules that was uppermost in their approach. Then, after everybody has gone to bed, I will write up the details of this incident in the log book and I will talk it over with Jack at our next earliest opportunity.
In the meantime, everyone get into their
pajamas and dressing gowns while Jenny and I make some popcorn. The
movie starts in fifteen minutes!
This feature: Fulcher, L.(1994) Situations in child and youth care: Saying 'yes' or saying 'no'. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 9, 1. pp.79-82.