CYC-Online 28 MAY 2001
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care workers

Do ... or drown!

Karen VanderVen learns a personal lesson for all child care workers

A well-known finding from research on women's and men's adult development is that men have been more assertive and proactive in careers, knowing “how to play a winning game" in work, because, as boys they were more likely than girls to be active in physical activities, especially team sports.

Indeed, sports for people of all ages are a way of developing discipline, engaging in relationships, solving problems – and they serve as a metaphor for the lessons of life.

Are there messages in the world of sports – now happily more open to people of both sexes and of all ages – that might advance our work in child and youth care? I would say yes.

The challenge
The brochure said “Bahamas reef scuba diving trip ... Step off the boat into crystal-clear shell-filled water." As a life-long seashell collector, I could not resist this. I had to go. There was just one obstacle: the scuba diving certification which requires completion of a challenging knowledge and skill-training course.

I blithely signed up for a scuba course and immediately met my nemesis: the requirement to be able to swim under water for 75 feet. “I will never be able to do it – I could just as easily swim 75 miles," I joked unhappily. But with images in brochure in my head, I set out to try.

I practiced holding my breath on land, tutored by helpful friends who were singers or who, for some other reason, had practiced the fine art of breath-holding. I walked along the street carrying heavy bags while holding my breath and evading curious stares – until I got to my arbitrary goal of the next telephone pole. Then I practised under water, trying each time to go a bit further, to hold my breath a bit longer, but coming up far short, wheezing like a whale with whooping cough.

"You can do it!"
My first several tries to pass the test were unsuccessful. “You can do it, Karen," insisted Larry Cohen, an excellent athlete and classmate (and, incidentally the brother of child and youth care work’s own George Cohen). “And try swimming on your side rather than using the breast stroke." The instructor said, “When you think you have to come up, do five more strokes. You can always do that." So I went back and practiced these methods.

One night at class I said to myself “Do or drown". I went under, started down the pool, and after doing five more strokes two and a half times, came up – at the other end!

It had been a long time since I felt such a sense of achievement – I worked for this.

As we seek to advance child and youth care work, then what do sports encounters like this – small incident as it was – suggest? Reflecting on the scuba experience the following life lessons can be learned:

Sense of mastery from meeting a challenge. The under-water test was something truly difficult for me that did not come overnight. Applying this to the youth with whom we work brought home once again the fundamental premise that we get true self-esteem not from attending a brief group session with someone telling us we are special, but rather from actual achievement or something that we had to work hard for. We need to make sure that our youth encounter experiences have these ingredients in them, in contrast to the all-too-frequent dreary, unchallenging milieux in which the major activity is the scratch of the pen on the point chart.

Initiative and goal-directedness. The having of something identifiable to work towards, and to take the initiative to set such a goal, is a compelling driver and motivator. Once again we are reminded of the engergising effect – for ourselves and those with whom we work – of deciding to “go" for something we want and then going after it. And we probably already have learned – if we don’t set our own agenda, we’ll be part of someone else's!

If one approach doesn’t work, don’t give up – look for another. Part of being able to reach a goal, either with an individual youth or group, or in the field as a whole is to be able to see where an alternative approach may be possible and to look for it “perhaps under advice from others. I never dreamed that one could swim faster underwater on one’s side until Larry suggested it.

Persistence. This is the quality whose power I think we so often forget, despite the numerous inspirational books that say if you keep trying, you are quite likely to get what you want. I think that this is so important in our work today in child care. As we define our goals, we will persist in striving for them, and ultimately reach them! As we do this we can remember that we are serving as role models of this process for children and youth as well.

Curiosity. Curiosity, to me, is a key to advancing and enriching our work. What else is out there that is new and different, that we haven’t thought about and that can open new vistas and connections? Those deep reefs had to be explored. What are the “hidden reefs" of our field that we can seek?

Mentors. From the literature on women's career development we know that career effectiveness is facilitated by mentors “supportive persons who pass on knowledge and tips on getting ahead. Without the mentors in my diving adventure – who were of both sexes – the breath coaches, and Larry, there would have been no diving. It is important for all of us as we seek to advance the field that we both actively seek mentors, and serve as mentors to others. Thus, life’s lessons that we all learn, and which somehow our field is all about, empower all of us.

Acknowledgements: Journal of Child & Youth Care

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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