THE AUTHOR REPLIES
The Aftermath of “Three Profoundly Stupid Ideas”
A couple of months ago, I wrote a column about ideas in residential care and titled it “Three Profoundly Stupid Ideas”. Since then, I learned at least four things:
1. There is at least one amazing residential group care program in the UK, described beautifully by Heather in her response to my piece;
2. While it is true that “good titles don’t mask a lack of substance”, it is also true that making the argument that good titles don’t mask a lack of substance is not very substantive;
3. Few people want to talk about ideas; most people want to talk about punishment and its merits or lack thereof;
4. I really like Gord.
On the one hand, I am always happy to initiate debate and discussion; I think this is inherently a good thing, although I do note that much of what was discussed in the aftermath of my piece really has nothing to do with what I was trying to convey (which means that I did not convey it very well). So let me try and clarify a few things.
Just to be clear, my piece was not at all incomplete as Heather suggests in her response. I intended to cite problems and offer no solutions. As I have suggested before in another column, I like problems much more so than solutions; the former feed the imagination, while the latter impose particular ways of thinking. I also haven’t worked in particularly bad residential programs; quite to the contrary, I really enjoyed every one of the programs, and I particularly enjoyed the child and youth care practitioners who worked alongside me. But these are relatively trivial matters, so let’s get down to business.
I believe that consequences and punishment and all manner of reactive responses to kids are just fine. Should kids get grounded when they do something wrong? Sure. Should privileges be withdrawn? Go for it. Should consequences for bad behavior at school transfer to the group home? Hey, knock yourself out. I would go a step further: do you like behavior contracts? Write as many of them as possible. Do you have a love affair with EBTs (or any other acronym): don’t be shy and dish them out. Feel better if you punish a kid after their return from AWOL? Punish, I say, punish. Have I done all of these things? Absolutely!! And that’s why I think that all of these things are profoundly stupid.
If kids in group homes were rats in fish tanks, the consistent imposition of punishment would be very effective. But it turns out that kids in group homes are not rats in fish tanks, partly because fish tanks large enough to house kids would be very expensive, but perhaps also because, well, kids aren’t rats. And yet I think we sometimes treat kids as rats; the idea of consequences and rewards is to train kids to respond to particular stimuli in particular ways. Let’s face it, the declared purpose of punishment is to accomplish one thing and one thing only: “don’t do this again”. In fact, kids who remain unresponsive to this purpose are promptly assessed as having a ‘disruptive behavior disorder’. The purpose of rewards is, of course, pretty much the same thing: “please, keep doing this”. And kids who are highly responsive to this purpose are celebrated as successes, and the more of those we can produce the more we start to talk about an evidence base for the effectiveness of this approach.
You can feel absolutely free to use behavior contracts, send kids to bed early and punish them after they return from AWOL; in fact, you can do all manner of profoundly stupid things, as long as you don’t start believing that any of that stuff matters. Let me recommend an experiment (although this is not entirely ethical): when a young person makes a mistake, punish him or her but do so in an unbearably supportive, super nice, gentle, loving, nurturing way and record what happens. Then the next time the same young person makes the same mistake, reward him or her with ice cream, but shove the ice cream in front of the young person rudely and aggressively and mumble something ugly under your breath and then record what happens. Now compare the outcomes.
Here is my hypothesis: 99% of the time the young person will be unhappy but accept the outcome (ie: follow through on the consequence or eat the ice cream). How is that possible? How can punishment and reward for the same mistake have the same outcome? Well, it’s really quite simple: the young person isn’t responding to what you do but how you do it in the context of who you are and who s/he is at that moment, and, if you have known the young person for some time, also in the context of the relationship that has evolved.
Frank Delano’s response to my piece included an example about a young person getting into trouble at school because of some difficult circumstances in his life. Frank argues that it is not useful to welcome this young person home with additional consequences. Someone responded to Frank suggesting that this was preposterous, because after all, all kids get into trouble at home if they misbehave at school. It’s just the way of the world, and if we don’t teach kids the ways of the world, how will they ever learn? Well, I have to side with Frank on this one for a couple of reasons. First, because I agree that consequences at home will serve no purpose. Second, because I really dislike the ‘real world argument’; last time I checked, the world of the kids living in group homes is about as real as it gets. Try living in it; most of us wouldn’t last a day. In the ‘real’ world, you can do all kinds of things and suffer no consequences because you are not likely to be subject to the level of supervision (George Orwell’s 1984 has been lived by kids in group homes well before 1984 and still is being lived today) that our kids experience 24/7. Charles Sharpe didn’t read my piece, but he responded to Frank and others by simply pointing out that ‘things that feel punitive are not therapeutic’ (I am paraphrasing very loosely); ok, Charles, you have demonstrated once again that you are much nicer than me, but right you are!
I will push Frank’s argument a little bit; while I would prefer not to consequence the kid from his example, I also don’t think it is a problem if someone else did consequence him. Frankly (oops), I don’t think it matters at all whether the kid is consequenced or punished. What matters is how the young person experiences the response of his or her care givers. So, if you need a consequence to start the conversation, go ahead; but if you are comfortable to start the conversation without the consequence, then that’s just as well. What kids really need (and sometimes want) when things go wrong (whether it is about behavior or trauma or anything else that could possibly go wrong) is you.
This brings me to the point I was trying to make with my piece in the first place. Child and youth care practice is not about punishments or rewards, programs or routines, structure or discipline, or even recreational activities and adventure (sorry Karen V.); especially when things go wrong, child and youth care practice is about you and the young person. I refer to behavior contracts, EBTs and punishing a return from AWOL as profoundly stupid because these actions have come to take the place of you. And I think that in a profession (or craft, trade, quasi profession, practice, endeavor, calling, etc.) that is all about being together, rendering yourself irrelevant by attributing the well being and future success of young persons to the clerical task of contract writing or the punitive task of imposing punishment is profoundly stupid.
Ernie Hilton reacted to my piece I think because of the word ‘stupid’; reasonably, he asked what we might say about our approaches of today in twenty years from now. In a way, I get Ernie’s point. It is easy to dismiss approaches from the past that we are better equipped to critique today. On the other hand, I don’t think that the profession has evolved in quite such linear fashion. If I think about our emphasis on relationship, on respect, believing in the goodness of young people, incorporating love and nurture, engagement, conversation, being present and so on, I find myself more drawn to the writing of people who came long before the practices I now criticize became embedded in residential care. Janus Korczak, Jane Addams, and much later the likes of Trieschman, Redl and even Bettleheim were pretty clear that being with kids is far more important than doing things to kids; for well over thirty years, Krueger, Fewster, Phelan, Garfat, Brendtro and so many others have consistently warned against technocratic, behavior-focused, social engineering approaches to child and youth care practice. Others, like Lorraine Fox have warned against trying to make kids compliant; Karen Vanderven has argued passionately against using point and level systems; Laura Steckley pushes us to reflect on our notion of boundaries; Mark Smith has repeatedly called for greater love in our relationships with kids. Jack Phelan has been raging against control-based approaches to managing kids in just about every column he has written for CYC Net in the past two years. The message, in other words, has been consistent, strong and is being carried forth by quite a large number of people who have been part of this field for a very long time: learn to be with a young person. And if we read Thom’s stories about his carpenter or Mark’s story about ‘breaking tiles’ carefully, we can make out the message beneath as well: being with others requires us to bring ourselves to the scene. We just can’t do that if we rely on contracts, consequences or other forms of external controls. In fact, all of these things take us away from the scene; they render us invisible, blocked out by an ominous piece of paper, by the half hour the young person has to spend in his bedroom for what s/he will undoubtedly deem an insignificant incident, or by the punitive greeting we extent to the young person upon returning home.
That’s why I really like Gord. His comment in his posting on the discussion board was this: “I think that in most cases the "consequence" should be sitting down with a staff and processing what happened and how the young person could handle the situation more effectively the next time. Isn't that what child and youth counseling is supposed to be all about?” I assure you, Gord, that this is indeed what child and youth care practice is all about (minus the jargon: ‘processing’, ‘counseling’ and it may not require ‘sitting down’). I might have phrased it differently and focused less on talking and more on being (in the sense of co-occupying a physical and metaphysical space). But basically you have captured what I think is sure to avoid stupid ideas: it is always possible to be kind.