ISSUE 7 AUGUST 1999 BACK

CASEBOOK

Parallel lines never connect

Gregory March was walking home from school with his mind miles away. Now 16 years old, he found his head filled with a whole lot of new thoughts which challenged, excited and troubled him. Until now he had seen his world as a series of events, a parade of people who came and went, all of which you had to somehow get by and survive. He had been in care since he was seven, and had become pretty 'street smart' as far as the 'system' is concerned. He stayed now at Willowmead Children's Home, in a cottage looked after by two child care workers, Mrs Graves and a younger care assistant, Tony Benedict. Gregory wasn't a particularly 'difficult' kid, though a little reserved. He had simply worked out the percentages when it came to trusting the people and circumstances of his life, and his behaviour reflected this in its caution and 'correctness'.

During the school holidays his care workers had agreed to his spending two weeks with the family of Raymond Hunter, one of his school friends, and here he had been confronted, probably for the first time, by his own fixed, negative impressions of families, mothers and fathers ...

Gregory had no real memory of his own family. His father had left his mother before he was even born, and the nature of his mother's work had left him to be looked after by a blurred succession of ad hoc friends, neighbours, nannies and day care workers. There had been no 'bad experiences' as such, that is if the whole period of his childhood couldn't be called a bad experience by virtue of its emptiness, its rootlessness, and the eventual (and still unexplained) disappearance of mother. So his life had been one of short horizons: somebody was there most of the time, there were meals, there was somewhere to sleep, there were clothes, there were people coming and going, at least for today ...

Permission to risk
On his way home he thought back to an occasion during the holiday with the Hunters when he and Raymond had arrived home through the kitchen door one afternoon after a movie. Raymond's mother was prodding the french fries cooking on the stove, and as they came in she lifted two from the pan, sprinkled some salt on them and handed them to the boys. "What do you think?" she asked. Gregory had been anxious to be polite, but before he could reply Raymond said in mock disparagement "Not bad, not bad, though I've tasted better." Mrs Hunter then turned to him: "And you, Gregory?" There was a look in her eye, a whole new look for Gregory, which ... how could he put it? ... which somehow gave him permission to risk a similar answer. "Yeah! I'll go along with Raymond," he grinned. "But keep trying “you'll get it right!" They all laughed. For some reason this picture stayed with him, the warmth, the spontaneity, the kindliness of it, and he almost shuddered with pleasure thinking about it now. It seemed to him to be the spirit in which he would like to live with other people, maybe how he would be with his own children.

Then there had been the time the two of them were mowing the Hunters' lawn and the petrol mower had stopped dead. When they had taken the motor to pieces, Raymond's dad happened to join them in garage and Gregory looked on in fascination as the two grunted and argued together over the mysteries of an unwilling internal combustion engine. After thirty minutes father and son, hands and faces covered in grease, stood with their arms around each others' shoulders, beaming down at the healthy splutter of the restored machine.

Walking home now, Gregory savoured these entirely new images of adults and young people, sought out the words he might use to preserve and recall the feelings they evoked, juggled around his older conceptions of fathers and sons, of authority and relationships, working out how all this might fit into his own life ...

With a shock he realised he was already at the door of his cottage at Willowmead. And as he walked in, there was Tony Benedict standing in front of him. "You're in trouble again, Gregory March. Mrs Graves is after you because you forgot to put your linen in the laundry this morning, and also because you left that coffee mug and plate by your bed again. She says she's had enough of you, and you're to clean all of the landing as a punishment “and before you come down for tea." All the warmth and exhilaration of his interrupted reflections “the discoveries, the yearnings “vanished in this cold dash of reality. As he slowly climbed the stairs, were those tears of incomprehension in his eyes, of frustration, of resignation ... of defeat?

Evaluation

  1. This could be a common sad story of muddled priorities, of bad timing and spoiled opportunities. Because you and I have been reading the story up to the point where Tony Benedict steps in, we know that Gregory has been doing some important and hard work during his walk home. It is the kind of work which we child care workers often long for youngsters to do: to get serious and reflect on their lives and their futures. If we go back to our child development textbooks, we may also recognise that it was the real work of adolescence, this work of clarifying identity and role. Who exactly am I? Where do I fit in?
  2. Do we, as child care workers, get too hooked into expectations of satisfactory performance from the kids we look after? Do we judge their progress (and, by implication, our own) only by the visible signs of conformity, tidiness, cleanliness and order? Saying this once, I was immediately challenged by a listener who asked: "So you advocate chaos and disobedience?" My questioner wanted me to say "No, of course not!" but I had to give the answer: "Yes if there is much more important stuff we should be doing at the time." One youngster complained to me once: "You seem to expect us always to be at some kind of finishing post. Isn't it OK for us to be on the way to the finishing post sometimes?" So right.
  3. Is there enough room in our conception of child care work for us to give credit for children just being who they are? Put another way, can we enjoy just being with them, or do we have to be always doing something to get results? Is it always we who must direct and lead or could we sometimes listen and watch to see where the youngsters themselves are leading “perhaps somewhere we have never been before “where we might learn something new or even have our own preconceptions challenged? How could we ever really know what issues are important to the children if we don't spend time just listening?
    And worse: how awful it would be for us to realise that we have spent all of the limited and precious time we have to be with these kids “on entirely parallel and separate tracks!

*     *     *

This story had a happy ending. Tony Benedict was not really a hard and unthinking idiot. That afternoon he had simply been doing his job, and like most child care workers he did not have the time to do all that he would have wanted to do that day. What did happen was that later that night he went to Gregory's room and knocked on the door. "I could see you had stuff on your mind when you came home today. Sorry to interrupt like that with all that routine. Mind if I come in for a while?" They sat for a few minutes, and then Gregory began to tell Tony some of his thoughts of that afternoon. Two hours later, having said hardly a word, Tony left with a whole new understanding and appreciation of Gregory March. More to the point, Gregory had himself enjoyed in this moment something of that feeling he had envied between his friend Raymond and his father in their garage: he felt that he had spent a while just being with someone who respected him, who was interested in him “and who listened. His newly sketched images of himself and other people were confirmed for him, and he went to sleep that night encouraged in his own discoveries and more positive self-definitions.

'Being there' for the kids
 

This month's 'Casebook' touches briefly on the realm of phenomenological approaches to child care work, through which we seek to be present with others, without any preconceptions and theoretical biases of our own which may prevent us from seeing whatever the youth may be bringing into the encounter. Here are some extracts from writings in similar vein.

Who's teaching whom?
It often seems that the way I can best be of assistance to a child is to stop trying to teach him anything, and instead focus on being fully open to learning whatever he has to teach me. When I am trusting enough to allow such an encounter to occur, I frequently find myself surprised at the depth of understanding a child has. I realise again that he has the answers he needs now within him, and has only been waiting for the opportunity to let himself become aware of what he knows. The confidence and appreciation that begin to emerge in his face are such fine gifts for the little trust it took for me to listen to him! (Child Care Work in Focus)

Dependent cripples
As child care workers, we can guide and teach those in our care many things, but if we fail to teach them to trust themselves, then we have crippled them. We have helped to make them dependent on people and structures outside themselves which ask that they sacrifice their own integrity and growth in order to fit into someone else's image of who they ought to be. (Child Care Work in Focus)

Talk or interview
Let us distinguish between talk and interview. The former is spontaneous, flowing, emergent and essentially part of the everyday, while the latter is work, goal-directed, purposeful and intentional. An interview can rarely be done without preconceptions, but talk, in contrast, is simply the pre-reflective, natural way of being present and available, ready for whatever emerges from oneself or the other: ready to initiate, to join, to respond, to just be there. During such moments, I do not care what the other will say; I care only that he or she says. I don't care what the other has decided or chosen; but only that he or she has decided or chosen. (Mike Baizerman)

Problems for whom?
What if somehow it is true that the children we work with really have no problems; that what may appear to be problems are only a different way to look at what they have to teach us ... their gift to the world? What would be the impact if the majority of our effort went towards discovering new ways to appreciate and deepen our gratitude for each child for who he or she is now? How would it be to have a job where your primary responsibility is to enjoy the life you share with those in your care and with whom you work? (Child Care Work in Focus)

Being there
Troubled children have been psychologically and/or physically abandoned throughout their lives and their greatest fear is that they will be abandoned again. To trust and grow, they need dependable and predictable connections “caregivers who they can count on, who are on hand to talk when they are ready, to support them when they are motivated to learn, to encourage them to try again when they fail, and to also be there when they are neither ready, motivated nor interested in a helping hand. Thus, coming into the field requires a commitment to being there with an understanding of the time it takes for troubled children to begin to trust adults. (Mark Krueger)

On stereotypes
With time and with increased interaction between workers and youths in contexts which allowed the latters' individuality to emerge, workers' preconceptions about each youth were supplemented by information unique to the individual. As personal information about youth burgeoned, they became increasingly distinct. The knowledge about each was no longer contained within the parameters of the form (stereotype). Hence they became individuals. (Trevor Harrison)

Material quoted from Child Care Work in Focus is the copyright of the Academy of Child and Youth care Practice

This feature: Gannon, B. (1992). A Child Care Worker’s casebook: Parallel Lines Never Meet in The Child Care Worker, 10, 4, 1992. pp. 7-8. 

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