care workers

What to say when first meeting a person each day

Henry W. Maier

A number of years ago Eric Berne published a small and catchy paperback entitled What Do You Say After You Say Hello? The Psychology of Human Destiny (Grove Press 1972). I would like to “do one better” by inventing an account of what to say when meeting a young care recipient. Being mindful about such repeated occurrences is especially pertinent for those in dependent care work because their first meeting of the day may set up a sequence of meaningful daylong encounters.

These encounters are relevant because each care receiver is most likely struggling with his or her sense of identity. Identity formation is anchored in the way individuals perceive themselves in the eyes of the central figures in their lives. It is important that the worker address each child by name, a name that distinguishes the youngster as a distinct separate person.

By way of linkage, the care person may want to go back to the previous day’s encounters, saying for instance, “It’s good to see you again. You–ve been on my mind because we agreed yesterday to get tickets for this weekend's county fair.” Or at some point a little later the care worker might say, “Yesterday we had a difficult time and you challenged me for being too harsh. I have been thinking about it and decided I should not have shouted at you.” Additionally, the worker may refer to some other interpersonal stresses, indicating that in the intervening interval the youngster has been very much on the worker’s mind. This refresher about the existence of a continuous presence in the worker’s thoughts naturally enhances linkages even when the two are apart. The worker might also introduce a memory of a successful event from their previous times together. It is not advisable to refer to things remaining undone.

Playful interaction between worker and child is often a good way to form a beginning connection. The child may spontaneously say, “I don’t like what’s for lunch “green beans.” The worker could playfully respond, “Better than bread pudding by any means!” The kid enters in jovially “I only like brown beans”. To which the worker responds with a grin “Oh my ass, that will produce a lot of gas!” Both then exchange a handshake or hearty laugh. Such a verbal exchange might be accentuated by a high five or an embrace. It is remarkable that the challenge of a hug or a high five brings luster to their first exchange of the day.

I am still excited about a scene that I witnessed at a correctional facility for teenagers in Kansas City. As the boys and girls were expected to return from a morning of sitting in difficult and sometimes boring school classes, the workers dispersed themselves on the front steps of the center, preparing to individually welcome the youngsters” return. The kids were greeted with enthusiasm, the workers” showing their pleasure in the kids having conquered their daily battles of learning. What a supportive atmosphere was created. No workers were hiding in the staff office trying to postpone their encounter with the kids! In too many institutions the staff room is sought out by workers for writing reports or bestowing level points, acting like behavior bookkeepers.

If we were to review our interventions with the kids, we would recognize the importance of personal interludes of physical contact. They lend validity to finding each other and enriching those close relationships.

Rigidity or relaxation
Presently our work is hampered by our futile efforts to imitate boot camp standards. Many human relationships are fostered by light, personal togetherness far removed from such a rigid atmosphere. In fact we as adults, as much as the kids, strive for freedom and less controlled life experiences.

Our care receivers are helped if they can learn from the many shortcuts and fun events that we look forward to in our daily lives. For instance, contrary to current standards, years ago I used my toothpaste for providing an extra shine to my shoes and searched out many shortcuts in the daily routine, episodes which would be censored by boot camp regulations. I am sure that the youngsters would love to hear about such things, to discover how human you are by sharing with them the times you might have bypassed controls now considered essential for daily life. More can be learned when the residents hear of your creativity when you were a growing and alert youngster. I still chuckle with pride about the time that I as a worker, set the clock back in our barracks in order to save a few hours of extra sleep time! Incorporating shortcuts for control and order is a learning accomplishment in one’s development. We can readily reinforce what care providers do with the youngsters rather than echoing the daily order or delivering verbal censure.

In everyday life persons find each other because of spontaneous, fruitful contact, creating for each other a mutual atmosphere of respect. As mentioned earlier, in order to have the child feel welcome and a person in their own right, the care staff needs to be encouraged to use his or her name in their first daily meeting. There are undoubtedly many other forms of interaction which convey to the dependent care receivers that they are at the center of the worker’s concern. We can convey that life is full of excitement in which the child has a vital part to play. Most important in our work is that the care receivers discover the workers” pleasure in joyfully being with them.

This feature: Maier, H.W. (2003). What to say when first meeting a person each day. Relational Child & Youth Care Practice, Vol.16 No.3 pp 40-41

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