When, for the love of Freud, are child care workers going to stop playing at psychotherapy and concentrate on their primary task of understanding kids? Surely, they are not going to follow blindly in the footsteps of other professionals already committed to the pathological cause and stand ready to defend the faith while waiting for the next staggering clinical breakthrough to occur. They must know by now that, even in the most favourable circumstances, the direct effects of psychotherapy are distinctly equivocal. If so, they can’t really believe that these sophisticated models of “clinical intervention” will dramatically affect the life of a confused, angry and alienated youngster who, if given a choice, would want no part in the deal.

On the contrary, it appears that child care workers are, in many cases contributors to the deception. Everyday you find them cajoling and coercing their way through the battleground waiting for the divine intervention where the spirit of Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis or Alfred Adler emerges from the ethereal regions to change the course of events and make each person whole. Desperately they hang on, hoping to get this magical moment before the kid discovers the trick and turns the whole thing into a game of cat and mouse. More often than not, however, the discouraged child care worker ends up as a very inadequate B. F. Skinner struggling to control the unwilling subject without the benefit of appropriate reinforcement schedules. This provides discriminative stimuli for calling in the “experts”. Both child and worker now become a clinical case responsible together for validating a theory that neither fully understands. If they fail in this mission both are regarded as being equally guilty.

It’s not very impressive, however, to build a professional identity around the simple ability to relate to kids. Understanding how a particular child sees himself or the world around him is not likely to impress the neighbours or command respect within the professional community. On the other hand, we are all impressed by the professional who can conceptualize the child as a steaming bundle of conflicting ego and libido motives or as a developing organism struggling to conform with Piagetan stage theory. Knowing that a particular child admires Buck Rogers, fears Jimmy Bloggs, worries about his father’s drinking and looks forward to summer camp may be of passing interest; information gained in the act of becoming "empathic". An extension of this belief is the view that relationships, formed in this way, are mere instruments to be used in the process of something called therapy. Nothing could be more degrading to the child care worker as a professional, or the child as a human being. Both are caught in the act of being manipulated by forces outside their understanding and control. If this is to be the essence of the professional child care relationship, then the future is, indeed, bleak. The essential problem is attitudinal and change will only occur when such nonsense is confronted directly.

Most people have little difficulty in accepting the idea that relationships make us what we are. They shape our behaviours and enable us to develop a concept of self. They generate our sense of values from which we make appraisals of who we are and what we do. They are fundamentally the world in which we live. They move with us from experience to experience whether we find ourselves among friends, among strangers or completely alone. They are not convenient vehicles to be used in a process of coercion disguised by a veil of altruism. As the nutrients of growth and development they are based upon mutual understanding and respect and not upon grandiose theoretical notions. There is a crucial distinction between knowing someone and knowing “about” them. The point to be made is that the child care relationship should not be regarded as some adjunct to a process called therapy.., the problems are interactional and change that occurs through an involved relationship has reciprocal effects on both parties.

Should the above comments appear trite or saturated in naive humanistic polemics, let it be recognized that no branch of the helping professions has actually incorporated such values in practice. Even the humanistic schools of psychology, psychiatry and social work have managed to avoid this kind of commitment by devising new models of intervention that effectively protect the practitioner from the risks inherent in such interactional processes. Many practitioners and theoreticians have continued to argue that relationship-based approaches reflect only good intentions that can never be operationalized and developed into purposeful activity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The human relationship provides the most powerful of all potential influences.

In the developmental relationship, the pressures and demands must be equally distributed unless, of course, the object of the exercise is to re-create “Jonestown” by forcing influence in only one direction. The involved child care worker doesn’t have to be reminded of such demands and pressures since they are part of everyday experience. How tempting it is to escape from the painful and chaotic world of the child in order to follow a planned program of behaviour modification or implement a strategy of cognitive restructuring devised by someone else. Such “techniques” do, of course, have their place but they remain secondary to the task of helping a child to understand himself and the world in which he lives. This he must learn through others; people who care about his ability to understand, to make choices and about the kind of person he sees whenever he looks at himself. No neat model of psychotherapy will ever do all of these things. Such learning can only occur effectively through conscious and concerned human involvement.

All of this is not to suggest that the child care worker should ignore the models and strategies developed by allied professional groups in order to understand the child. At the very least, the competent practitioner should be in a position to critically evaluate such ideas, particularly as they apply to a specific child. Where such approaches are directly employed, the knowledge and experience of other professionals must, of course, be acknowledged and respected. Nor is it implied that the professional child care worker should accept only a general orientation, devoid of theory and lacking in conceptual design. Once the relationship has been established as the primary focus of interest, the unique challenge of child care becomes immediately apparent. The practitioner who seeks to truly understand the nature of relationships enters a world of intimidating complexity. For the ambitious worker, there is a whole range of theory awaiting examination that deals directly with interactional issues. Very few of these ideas have, as yet, been incorporated into professional practice. Before stepping into this arena, however, the practitioner who intends to use the self as the critical professional tool must be prepared to acknowledge that he or she is not simply analyzing others. The worker’s personal examination of self is of equal importance. Without doubt, the task is demanding and exacting but the potential payoffs are enormous.


Fewster, G. (1982) You, me and us. Journal of Child Care. Vol.1 No.1 pp. 71-73