This is the second of two parts. (See Part 1 here)
Abstract: This article presents a brief look at incorporating the act of loving into the professional helping relationship that is created in child and youth care practice. The differences between the act of caring and the meaning of loving are discussed. Through an exploration of the author’s relationship with a child, the dangers of loving “including the expectations of acceptance of the love being given, expectations on the child to feel love, using love as a reinforcer, and love leading to burnout “are discussed. A new way of loving in child and youth care practice that allows for the inclusion of loving in the helping relationship is explored and experienced by the author. Implications for incorporating love in child and youth care practice are discussed.
A new way of loving in Child and Youth Care
A new form of love. Yes, one that can be added to practice in child and youth care. Love that is not based on reciprocation, acceptance, or conditions. Love that will allow a boundary and not be lost as it is when given as a commodity. This is not to say that we as practitioners need to love everybody. In some – and maybe in most – cases, professional caring is all that we reach with the children we work with. There may not be enough time for love to be fully expressed, as contracts are limited or children are moved to a new home. A greater love, however, a more mature form of love, can exist in practice when we choose to include it, even in a brief moment of our connectedness with a child. The love of the potential that people have, the value of human life, and the curiosity of each individual’s subjective experience, brings child and youth care practitioners together. The kind of love we can offer in a healthy way for the children we work with and for ourselves as practitioners is a different form of exchange. This love does not attempt to compensate for love not received in the child's past, nor does it demand the child accept or give love in return. Such love can be considered a lower form characterized by neediness, chemistry, possession, or worship (Whitfield, 1985, as cited in Whitfield, 1989). Child and youth care practitioners can bring loving into practice through the briefcase they are already carrying to work. The briefcase they carry is their Self, and accessing love from this place can bring into practice the love that is characterized by freedom from expectation of return or acceptance. Whitfield (1989) also suggests a higher form of love that includes a different form of commitment, unconditional empathy and acceptance, and a peaceful way of being that allows the practitioner to include loving in their work with children.
As I moved away from my old way of defining love in my practice with the child I was working with, there came a sense of freedom within me. To be able to truly express the loving part of my Self to the child, regardless of his or her actions, allowed me to not only let go of any reaction or hurt that I would receive, but also to free myself to work with him more effectively. Feeling freedom out of loving without definition does not come without struggle and practice. At times I believed I could not be essentially human in working from this place with him. It was difficult to not fall back into the reciprocal way of loving or using my love as a commodity. In order to incorporate love, and thus experience freedom, I needed to find the loving place in my core Self and allow that to be expressed in the relationship. It is in that place, the core Self that we so often are challenged to bring into our practice, that loving without a definition exists. Loving, expressed from the Self, can be brought into child and youth care practice.
What an awesome task! So often I’ve heard from other child and youth care workers about their struggle to not take verbal abuse personally or not take acts of violence “to heart.” I do not wish to minimize the effects of ad verse behaviour on the practitioner, for I have myself experienced the exhaustion and depletion of energy at the end of a work day. The awareness of Self, and a boundary where the worker ends and the child begins, gives freedom to continue to express loving. If I held onto all the negative experiences I have had with the child, I would in a sense no longer be free to work, and the child would no longer be free to grow, for my perspective would be clouded with every action they have ever taken. To love in practice, then, is to also be free. Freedom allows the promotion of growth in the child and allows the work to continue.
The commitment I developed in the relationship with this child also changed as the kind of love I put into my practice shifted. I no longer have an “in it for the long haul” attitude, but am committed to the relationship we have created together. Commitment, then, is a dedication to the time we have, whether it is predetermined by an outside agency or set by the children themselves. It was important for me to shift in my way of being in relationship with this child from looking at “being there” come what may to demonstrating that I was there, present and available, in the here and now. I remembered my belief in the uncertainty of time that I may have with those around me. As I cross paths with others throughout my life journey, I have realized that I may have people in my life for years, or for days or even seconds. The commitment I had found through this different form of love meant that while time allows, I am present and there.
Unconditional acceptance and empathy
The unconditional acceptance and empathy aspect of love that can be part of child and youth care practice can be the most difficult to apply. Loving from the core Self has been challenging, albeit rewarding, in the freedom it has supplied. Commitment has also come swiftly for me, as I am able to see time as fleeting. Unconditional acceptance and empathy is an expression of the loving part of our Self that goes beyond an awareness and a commitment to the present. To unconditionally accept and show empathy to the children we work with is easy for the “likeables” (Perlman, 1979) who are attractive and appreciative of our efforts. It is also easy to fall into believing and using labels and negative perspectives fed to us by other professionals about the children we work with. To unconditionally accept means to face the “hard to reach,” who are all too “often hard to love” (Perlman, 1979). It is easy to find in my memory the faces of children to whom I have not been able to express love. I remember avoiding them due to their smell, their whining, or their “excessive” demands on my schedule. I realize now that my avoidance was certainly not unconditional acceptance. I did not demonstrate empathy, and therefore did not express love, and inevitably, did little to care. Yet this remains as potentially the most important part of loving that we, as child and youth care practitioners, can bring into practice. Our commitment and Self can be present, yet are infrequently obviously demonstrated or stated beyond showing up for work or meetings regularly or having a connection with a “likeable.” Unconditional acceptance and empathy, however, enter into every conversation, every look, and every interaction that we experience in our relationship with the child. It is an invitation from the child and youth care practitioner to the children to express their core Self. In the moments when it comes forward it is welcomed and accepted without condition. When the child I’m working with comes home from school after having a fight with another student, how I respond sends a message about how I accept him, how I understand his experience, and, essentially, how I am loving. Through looking at him, and inviting him to bring his Self forward without judgement, I am accepting him as an individual. My acceptance cannot be based on who threw the first punch; it is unconditional. As I ask about what feelings occurred for him during the incident, and express how difficult the experience must have been, I am demonstrating empathy, and therefore expressing love. Unconditional acceptance and empathy includes an openness to the way the children choose to express the loving part of their Self. Inviting the children to bring this loving forward, through their fears and constricting definitions, can create a connectedness in the relationship beyond caring to loving. This may sound simplistic, yet the energy and challenge in including this level of love has been my greatest struggle that requires all of the other aspects of love to be “working.” The integration of Self into practice and our ongoing commitment to the children, the field, the present, and humanity allow the demonstration of unconditional acceptance and empathy. If I am not open to the child's expression of Self, then the acceptance of the child is conditional. If I am not committed to the relationship I have with the children, then I will make little attempt at using empathy to understand their experience of the world. The energy, then, that it takes to go beyond caring to loving in child and youth care practice must not be minimized. In my beginnings of relationship with the child I work with, I described my use of love as an intervention. This “early” love was easy. I was fresh in the field and ready to give “love” to those that I believed were in need of it. As demonstrated, that early love over time did not continue to be useful. Yet, to only “care” about this child appeared to me to only fulfill my job description. At the time I did not fully understand the kind of love that can be seen as useful in practice. I had closed the loving part of my Self off through the layers of fears and definitions of love I had created. Through ongoing shifts and changes, the new and higher love appeared. It continues to challenge me in what it entails; yet from my experience if it is my choice to include the loving part of my Self in my practice with this child, I must prevail. “Even love must be worked at” (Perlman, 1979).
I have begun to see through my experiences with the child I am working with the kind of peaceful way of being Whitfield (1989) was referring to in the realm of higher love. The tension and stress that I initially felt in the early stages of my relationship with this child stemmed from my own state of confusion regarding how to move from caring to loving. The length of time and the intensive involvement with him seemed to push me forward, yet I was uncertain about where it was going. I believed caring to be the fulfillment of the job that was required of me in that position as a child and youth care worker. As I moved beyond caring, I did not have the experience and education to know where loving could take me, nor how to incorporate love in practice. I had layered the loving part of my Self with definitions and fears, and therefore was confused as to how to express love without expectation or condition. Thus I dabbled in the dangers of love for some time, and our relationship became stagnant. The frustration led to my burnout, for the love that I was attempting to apply in the relationship was not conducive to practice. Through my continued work with him, I have learned about the higher form of love in practice. The peace that is now present comes from knowing the freedom of loving within a boundary, being confident in my commitment to the present, and showing unconditional acceptance and empathy toward the Self that comes forward in the child. The peace is the result of loving as a way of being and allows me, as a practitioner, to be effective in my practice. Peace may not always be constant throughout all my experiences as a child and youth care worker in the past or in the relationships to come. I have often retreated to my early definitions of loving when my fears of losing my Self or loving too much are triggered. When I face a relationship that I find difficult to incorporate love into, the peace can come from reflecting on the work itself. Loving can be expressed as a way of being, beyond the “unlikeables” that we have difficulty facing, and beyond the constraints and pressures of the work we are presented with. Loving the potential that each individual has, including the potential that our ever-learning Self has, can bring peace. Loving the dance in the relationships I bring my Self to be a part of, and loving the new perspectives and learning that come from each moment with another human being, can also give me peace.
Implications for practice
I can see through my discussions with fellow child and youth care workers how controversial the topic of incorporating loving in our relationships in practice could be. The warnings would most definitely be sounded around boundaries, being in agency, and rescuing. My purpose is not to negate these dangers, and, as I have described, I have entered into dangerous forms of loving in practice that have hindered my effectiveness. I am also not implying that every child and youth care worker is required to love. Caring is what we are required to do in each relationship we help create with the children we work with. The act of caring is concrete, specific, and detailed and is part of the practice and title we share. Loving is reaching a new plateau in practice and is about how I bring my Self into the relationships I am involved in. If I choose to express the loving part of my Self, I need to reach beyond my fears and definitions of love. I need to be committed to the present, and show unconditional acceptance and empathy when the child's Self comes forward. Love is a process, a way of being, an expression that moves and shifts as I develop my style of practice. It challenges me and demands I consistently show a clean slate presence, without conditions, without grudges, and with an attempt to understand each individual’s subjective experience as they tell me their story. The expression of loving from the Self removes the barriers that may be present in respect to allotted time for service, or the actions of the child. The “enemies” of time or monetary constraints, agendas of the agency we are employed by, or even the “unlikeable” qualities of the child standing before us, all present us with a choice in how we bring our Self into practice. I’m reminded of an all too familiar precept that speaks to the expression of loving. “Love your enemies as you love yourself.” At our very core exists the essence of loving that can withstand the difficulties we may face in practice. Loving is a way of being, an expression of our Self that can be realized even in the face of the challenges of our work. It is without condition and offers the rewards of peace and freedom. Yet it is important to remember that we cannot bring what we do not have. We most likely need to start at the beginning in our expression of loving before we are able to face the child, the family, and the challenges in our work. Loving our Self.
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This feature: Ranahan, P. (2000). Reaching beyond caring to loving in child and youth care practice. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 13 (4), pp.55-65