CYC-Online 108 FEBRUARY 2008
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In praise of upbringing

Mark Smith

Increasingly I’m attracted to the idea of “upbringing” to describe what we do in Child and Youth Care. It’s a term that has something of a history in Scotland. The Kilbrandon Committee into juvenile justice in 1964 from which evolved Scotland's Children's Hearings system, spoke of children's difficulties as emerging when the normal processes of upbringing had gone wrong. The Committee proposed, for these children, that the community put in place additional measures to support their upbringing.

Since Kilbrandon, the term “upbringing” hasn’t featured significantly in discussion of children and child care in Scotland. It does elsewhere and is central to social pedagogy, the European system of working with children and youth, to the extent that the German word for a pedagogue, erzieher, translates to upbringer. In the UK it is perhaps too closely associated with parenting and the association of caring for other people’s children with parenting can be frowned upon in social work discourse. The everyday grind of bringing children up was not deemed sufficiently “professional”.

Recently the idea that we might indeed “parent” other people’s children has been resurrected. Petrie at al (2006) identify the caring task as incorporating aspects of parenting. This is conceived of as “mind-mindedness” the capacity of carers to tune into and respond to their own and other peoples' “mental states and processes and how these govern behaviour” (2006 p.13). Ideas of entering into the kind of shared rhythm spoken about in the Child and Youth Care literature (Maier, 1979) come to mind. For those who might remain somewhat queasy with the idea of parenting other peoples' children an alternative might be to use the term and develop the concept of “upbringing”.

When you think about it “upbringing” is exactly what workers in residential child care do. It can be a grind; there is no magic bullet that can be targeted at children to take away the messy and frustrating bits about guiding them to adulthood. In that respect it is similar to parenting. It requires constant repetition of the same message, of being on children's backs, pestering them, setting limits, saying “No” to them when the occasion demands, sharing their stories and their hopes and fears. It is a model of social education requiring explanation, demonstration, correction and repetition. It involves keeping children in mind, not being able to walk away at the end of a shift and merely pick up where you left off the previous day. It is hard work, but it can’t be short-cutted through the application of the latest worksheet.

There is an important philosophical distinction contained within this point. An Aristotlean tradition considers that human beings develop through the patient acquisition of virtuous habits attained through education and training. The religious idea of “formation” is based around such principles. Another tradition associated more with the philosopher Kant asserts a notion of “rational” prescriptivism, that people behave and change through the appliance of rational processes and procedures. Many social work interventions proceed from this latter position, placing faith in abstract principles such as rights or protection or planned interventions through which to try and effect change.

One of the problems with placing too much faith in abstract notions of care is that it can become too easy to rationalise decisions to stop caring; “we have reached the end of the road with Johnny. We can no longer meet his needs and recommend that he be placed in a more specialist (invariably meaning more controlling) resource.” We can sometimes even convince ourselves that this specialist resource actually exists and does have a supply of magic bullets.

Upbringing is a normative approach to working with children. It eschews the individualistic, stigmatizing and pathologising effects of social work interventions drawn from increasingly correctional and blaming paradigms and locates children's growth and development within the everyday and universal ideas of care and education rather than treatment. It is broadly educational rather than directly therapeutic. Social problems are considered in ways that stress human maturation rather than individual pathology. It is a social model whereby the helping alliance involves workers “being with” clients as they live their lives rather than through more “expert” approaches. In social pedagogic models this involves workers utilizing hands, heart and head.

The move to professionalise residential child care, to take it beyond ideas of mere parenting or upbringing was pursued by hitching it to the wagon of casework models of social work. A result is that too many workers nowadays want to counsel children or subject them to the latest risk assessment tool or cognitive behavioural programme. Too few want to get involved in the nuts and bolts issues of ensuring that socks are changed or beds made; or if they do they see this as mere tending, not “real” social work. In reality, though, the real work of Child and Youth Care is done, not in the counselling session but in the everyday “being with” children, being involved in their “upbringing”.


Maier, H. (1979). The core of care: essential ingredients for the development of children at home and away from home. Child Care Quarterly, 8, (4), pp. 161-173.

Petrie, P., Boddy, J., Cameron, C., Wigfall, V. and Simon, A. (2006) Working with Children in Care: European Perspectives Midehead: Open University Press. 

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