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CYC-Online Issue 8 SEPTEMBER 1999 / BACK
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Do-it-yourself definitions of child care work

Brian Gannon

Most of those attending a recent Orientation Workshop were relatively new to the field – yet after a short few weeks in the job they were getting a good idea of the nature of child care work. Small working groups were asked to build definitions of child care work in not more than ten words. Brian Gannon reports on some of their efforts.


Child care is ... (here come the ten words) giving hope and healing to troubled children through caring relationships.

This is a definition which describes the work alongside the methods we use. I liked the order of the words: first 'hope' and then 'healing' for this implies that from their first day in the special environment we have built for them, youngsters can begin to trust once more, to begin again to have some expectations of their world. They are 'healed' usually, not through some treatment applied to them but by finding consistency, reliability and worth in their day-to-day lives, As the caring relationship first engenders this new-found hope, so it goes on to allow the exposure and exploration of the hurt.

Child care is ... finding the roots of emotional/physical hurt and understanding them.

This definition reflects the important psychological principle that often it is enough just to know and understand our problems for us to be able to live comfortably with them – we don't always have to solve the problems. One of the most destructive of all emotions from which the children suffer is anxiety – a pervasive feeling of dread without us knowing exactly what it is we dread. If you are sneaking up on someone's house at night, you will suffer strong anxiety, because you are pretty sure that something is going happen, but you are not sure what Only when a light snaps on or a dog barks, does your anxiety give way to rational fear which you can then deal with (by fight or flight). Children in care have often been walking through minefields, dreading the worst but never quite knowing what will go wrong – could it be the violence, the rejection, the abuse, the separation, the loss... ? Within trusting relationships with caregivers, children find the courage and the opportunity to confront these horrors, to turn the light on them – to find the roots of the hurt and understand them.

Child care is ... seeing to the physical, emotional, educational, medical and spiritual needs.

Here we have a strong reminder that our work is far more than feeding and clothing and clean and tidy rooms. Physical care is the foundation of child care work, because it re-establishes confidence in people and places: At least I am regularly fed and kept safe and warm here. But that physical care can be cold charity when it doesn't move on to the other areas of the child's life and development. We are reminded of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, in that once the physical and safety needs are taken care of we need to move on to the other human needs for belonging, for self-esteem ... The worst 'institutional' care was the daily preoccupation with cleanliness and tidiness, giving little scope for the rest of children's needs.

In child care we .., guide, understand, care, teach; it's hard, challenging, rewarding and fun.

That's certainly what child care workers do and what they get out of their work. Guiding is an affirming thing for young people: it is the provision of signposts to encourage them to start living their own lives again. Understanding is, of course, much more than “there, there, I understand". It is the serious work of thinking and theorising so that we grasp fully the child's condition and circumstances – and so that we can build a reasoned plan for him or her. We never underestimate the value of care, the reliable human concern which reassures children that they matter. But lastly in this definition is teaching, which is probably one of the most important yet least developed skills in our profession. School teachers, for example, work to a carefully prepared curriculum, which outlines all that has to be taught, taking care not to leave anything important out. They also work according to specific methods with proven effectiveness. Child care workers work in a less formal 'classroom', namely the daily 'living space' of the children, but within those daily routines and activities we also need our curriculum, our methods and our media, our exercises and tests, as we teach the children life skills.

Child care is ... the opportunity to lead children to satisfactory, mature, adult life.

Some good ideas here. I like the word 'opportunity', for our limited time with the children is just that, a chance (a second chance, a last chance?) to make good something which has gone wrong, or to make up for something which has been lost or damaged. Whatever, it is an opportunity not to be missed. Leading children provides an interesting image – of being a little ahead of them in life's journey, of being 'one step ahead of them', and of at least knowing where we are all headed! (There is a lovely native American tradition according to which the adult, while leading children, remains nevertheless acutely aware of how the children are managing. When he sees a child struggling, the adult sits down, mops his brow and admits that the way is hard. The child is saved any loss of face or sense of failure – and is even given the opportunity to help and encourage the adult.) The best part of this definition is again that it remembers the destination: we lead children to satisfactory (it does not have to be perfect, just OK), mature (hopefully they will have grown to their best potential), adult life. If we ever forget that we are building adults rather than just controlling children, just think that in fifteen years time an adult might walk in your door to tell you how he or she experienced your child care work.

Child care is ... being role-models and respecting children's rights to choose for themselves.

One of the most serious deprivations suffered by children in care is the lack of mature, fully-functioning adult role-models. Children separated from their families at early ages or for long periods simply have not experienced the complex daily interactions between men and women and parents and children which give them full-colour three-dimensional pictures of what people are and what they become. In troubled families the adult role-models are often anxious, inadequate, preoccupied, hostile or depressed people struggling with poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, illness or failure. Their ways of dealing with problems, for example, are often by denial, by violence or some other inappropriate response. Certainly a major need of children in care is for consistent, reasonable, secure and healthy-functioning adults – which can give them a more helpful pattern for building their own identities.

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