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CYC-Online 13 FEBRUARY 2000
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"Our hands are tied"

Brian Gannon

As corporal punishment becomes outlawed in so many parts of the world, many who work in the education and Child and Youth Care fields have had to unlearn some of their methods of managing children. Some complain that “they have taken away corporal punishment and given us nothing in its place"; others say “our hands are tied!" What are the alternatives to punishment?

1. Punishment is not the only thing we do; it is the tiniest part of work with children. If punishment was all that we do, then we would indeed have had our hands tied. But if we have a wide repertoire of skills to work with young people, losing one option should not be a big deal.

2. Punishment itself is appropriate to a very limited number of child management situations. Punishment is an externally imposed correction, while young people should increasingly be growing their own internal controls. By the time youngsters finish school or move out on their own, we should have assisted their development to the point where they need hardly any external control. Of course, the developmental time-tables of difficult and troubled youngsters will be disrupted, but external punishment only confirms their failure to manage themselves – teaching them self-management builds inner strengths and responsibility.

3. Punishment is an adversarial rather than a co-operative style of interacting with children. So-called “problem" children and young people in care already experience their world as hostile, rejecting and punitive. Short on normality in their domestic and community environments, short on role models, on information, on acknowledgement, acceptance and affection, their behaviour is often clumsy, ineffective, destructive, manipulative or self-serving. Our job is not simplistically to take on the roles of rejecting and punishing these behaviours (this has done enough damage) but to try something new in teaching youngsters better skills in supporting and trustworthy surroundings. If we continue to punish children instead of teaching and building, we push them away rather than draw them in. They continue to get the message that they are no-good, inadequate and rejected.

4. The only real method we have to manage difficult and anxious children is influence. Everyone passes the point where we can tell them what to do. They eventually get too big for us – or wise to us. The more hostile and disapproving we are, the less they want to listen to us anyway. The only way we get to influence people is to spend time with them, to do things together, to talk, to share. Kids will come to know us, to trust us, to like being with us, and thus to learn from us – or they won't. If they stick around, we will have the opportunity to influence them.

5. The relationship is not your best influence tool – it is your only tool. Difficult and troubled young people are not easily going to like you. If you are a teacher or a Child and Youth Care worker, chances are that you are in any event different from them, and therefore not naturally comfortable or attractive. But if you need to get to influence them (to offer them human experiences which are different, to confound their belief in a hostile world, to convince them of their safety and physical security, to show them that they can be accepted) you have to get alongside them, to show them that you are interested in them, that you have time and place for them, that you like them. (If your work is with kids and in fact you don't like kids and don't like being with them and have nothing to offer them – then this is not for you and you're seriously in the wrong job!)

6. We have to make opportunities to build role-free relationships. As a normal adult you are not normally going to hang with strange kids. Probably the only real benefit of residential work is that the daily time-table does provide opportunities for us legitimately to be in the same room with youngsters. If we all work in this place, apart from the formal activities or schoolwork or counselling, we can at least meet together “just as people “when we have tea or lunch together, or meet together in other extra-curricular ways. The small social interactions which are cemented together when we can say “Do you want sugar in your tea" or “I'm also not too good at cabbage" are the foundation stones of relationships – the relationships through which we encounter the youngsters (just as people, out of our roles, for their own sakes and ours) and through which we can influence them. If we don't meet them like this, we remain forever out of each others' reach and sphere of influence.

7. We use these relationships to redefine each others' perceptions and experience. When, as an adult, I behave in an attentive, considerate and protective way with young people in care, I call into question their belief that the world is hostile and that nobody cares. When I respond rationally and helpfully, I challenge their belief that others will listen only if they shout or do something wrong. When we are present, rational and considerate (as against too busy, judgmental and controlling) we actually get to meet these kids! We hear their stories, the significant things in their lives, what makes them tick “and so our attitudes and beliefs change too. And we only get to influence each other when our encounter moves onwards to the stage of interest, engagement, understanding – which is relationship.

8. Punishment, it is argued, at least gives instant results. Relationship gives better results. Punishment is usually only good at temporarily stopping some behaviour – until more insistent and desperate behaviour develops. Quality interactions actually move people to different positions within a relationship which reduces the likelihood of destructive or oppositional behaviour. For example, an included child behaves and speaks from a different position from that of a rejected child. A respected child has something different to say from that of a humiliated child. A youngster for whom at least some needs are being met will be in a different space from the kid who is having none of his needs met. These are all better ways in which we can instantly change behaviour.

9. As the adults and the professionals who hold the initiative for helping and healing. we can choose where to pitch the ball. Of course young people's challenging behaviour makes us feel threatened and angry. But if we respond to this with rejection, insult, threat, attack or punishment, then (a) we confirm their view of a hostile world, and (b) we delay our own start with the helping and building work which is our job. On the other hand, if we respond to kids with listening, attempts to understand, engagement, finding alternatives, offers of help, requests, humour, etc., then we are all operating within a different style “and we will have already begun the process of knowing, relationship building and influence.

10. If you feel that the end of corporal punishment has left you with “your hands tied", be reassured that all you have lost is an outdated and unhelpful weapon. You still have the other 99% of your personal, human, adult, caring, hospitable, generous, sensible, understanding and accepting skills, beliefs and abilities which brought you into this work in the first place. Use them.

* * *

So what can we do? People often challenge me by asking: “So what would you do when a kid does this or that?"

Well, I don't think that I always have to respond to a youngster's behaviour with some clever counter-move – rather like a game of chess. I don't have to defend my honour if he swears at me or retaliate instantly if he challenges my adult authority. I already know he does these things, and that's probably why he is in the program. What I do want to do is understand why he chooses behaviours like these (which, of course, may or may not be appropriate, depending on his life circumstances) and decide how serious they really are. What I don't want to do is scare him into hiding what may be symptoms of a possible problem that really needs attention. If we can get to this stage where we don't have to hit out and punish whenever a youngster does something “wrong", we can start building the list of things we can do – which will be too long to fit into the rest of this page, but we can begin, and maybe readers would like to add ideas of their own for our work with troubled kids ...

We can –

... and then we can –

Hear yourself saying –

... always remembering to use those I-messages we learned in our training, avoiding the accusation and blame that creeps into the “you-messages".

What ideas do you have? Let's make this list longer.

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