The major-general sniffed and twitched his bristly moustache. Looking a bit redder in the face than usual, he declared: “Well I say that what these juveniles need more than anything else is to learn respect!”
The rest of us looked at each other looked at each other rather despairingly. Here was the same old George, whom we called “the major-general” because he always seemed to adopt such a hard-bitten, almost military, approach to the work. We rarely felt that we shared much with him in our monthly meetings, but he nevertheless came along month by month regularly as clockwork.
There was nothing like an association for Child and Youth Care workers in our town, and we had built up this small informal group of people who worked in the various children's programs. There were three or four children's homes, a “teen center”, a shelter, the largish boys' village to which “difficult” adolescents tended to be sent (the major-general's place), and other odd foster care cottages and such like. I suppose the best that could be said of us is that we commiserated with each other each month, talking about the stresses and strains of group care and work with kids over a cup of tea. (I know that sounds a little negative.)
One good thing we did was to go round the group asking what were the current tasks and challenges in our various programs and how we were meeting them. We often learned helpful ideas from these “real life” situations – or perhaps we learned “what not to do”!
This month we had done some very useful talking around “transitions”. Year-end was approaching, and we all had “comings and goings” to deal with. New children were coming in, others were leaving programs, and there was the usual crop of kids moving out of the system to start work or after-school studies. As we shared ideas, the gloomy theme of “too little, too late” constantly raised its head. “If only we had started with all that last year,” someone wailed. “Rather three years ago!” another added.
"From Day One!” declared the major-general. We turned towards him (confirming his military seniority!)
"Remember what I was saying about learning respect?” he asked. We groaned inwardly. It seemed that we were in for another of his sermons on discipline. We nodded, more (strangely enough) out of respect than with encouragement!
He continued – and I must confess that for ten minutes he held us spellbound.
“Talking of starting sooner rather than later on important tasks, we had a similar discussion on this subject in our place a few years back. We realised that our youngsters often had a rather greater “kiss and make up” task with society, so we had more teaching to do. It seemed to us that the greater part of this socialisation process was learning respect.”
“But the “curriculum” for teaching respect,” he went on, “is experiential rather than just learning about respect. It begins with youngsters being respected and feeling respected. But how could we achieve this with our somewhat ordered and formal program and larger numbers? We needed, somehow, to convey respect towards individuals within our structures and routines.”
We glanced at each other. This was a quality of thought we didn't expect from the major-general. He went on.
“We had heard stories of successful places, and we tried to adapt some of their ideas. One idea, for example: our dorm block was a fairly large and institutional building, so we looked for some positives. So, firstly, when a new kid arrives, we explain: “Our dorm has a long central passageway with rooms facing westwards into the campus so that on that side you can see the comings and goings, the recreation spaces like gym and pool, staff offices so you can see who’s in and who’s out; and then on the other side it has rooms facing eastwards so you can see the countryside, the mountains and the sunrise. Which would you prefer?” We give them that choice when they come “and you'll be surprised how many choose eastwards and how many choose westwards! And how they value the courtesy of being asked.”
“Then we tell them that the kitchen sends early-morning urns of coffee and tea up to the landings every day. “Which would you prefer, tea or coffee?” And we take their choices seriously. These things are no problem to our staff. We have the rooms, we make the tea and coffee anyway. It’s just done in a way which conveys respect.”
“We have lots of seemingly unimportant “traditions” like that. And others. For example, the welcoming staff member who asks them about these choices goes on: “For the coming weeks I will personally be your key worker. If you need anything, if you need to ask anything, or have any problem, feel free to come and see me. Then, when you have come to know who’s who on the staff of the place, you may ask that any adult you feel comfortable with is made your key worker. I won’t mind. The staff won’t mind. Of course you can’t chop and change all the time, but we all understand that it’s good to have someone around whom you know and trust “–
I don’t mind admitting that, in spite of all that we had thought of the major-general, every one of us at that meeting was secretly examining in our minds our own routines and our modi operandi for their “fit” with this thinking. He was quick to add that in no way was all this was meant to be over-indulgent. The boys were still fully accountable for their normal developmental tasks like study, games, environment, etc., and staff were fully aware of when teaching and encouragement were necessary before mere compliance could be expected.
From that day on I held a different view of the major-general and his “put your money where your mouth is” philosophy. So did several of us. We were left with practical examples of how our own philosophies (often existing in theory more than in practice, and often somewhere in our heads more than in our day-to-day actions) could be applied transparently and honestly in things like routines!