CYC-Online 64 MAY 2004
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Ode to joy

Louise McArter reflects on how our attitudes and practices can take the joy out of adult/child relationships. Fixing children is the common agenda but perhaps Child and Youth Care practitioners can reverse this trend. Is there anything more potent in enhancing the quality of life? To enhance the ability of youth to help peers and themselves, the author proposes specific training in mature social decision making to help youth overcome immature moral development and egocentric thinking.

In order to say anything about Child and Youth Care, it is necessary at some point to discuss Relationship. In this article about my experience as a Child and Youth Care practicum student, I am going to discuss what I consider to be a vital ingredient in the establishment of a positive relationship. That is JOY. I have rarely found the word joy in an adult context. It seems to be reserved for children. Poets write about the joyful cries of children at play, and when adults let their hair down and start to enjoy themselves they are often accused of behaving like big kids. So what is so childish about joy? And if children are allowed to be joyful, when must they stop? Is the joy in us crowded out as we grow older by all the other things we have to do, have to learn, or have to “be"? Joy is put off until the weekend, an annual vacation or retirement to waterfront property, and other words replace joy such as “achievement" and “success." Joy is too flippant, not a serious enough word to describe the accomplishments that bring us “happiness." So as we grow older, happiness becomes more serious, and pure joy is reserved for the children.

Yet when I think about the connections I have made with children, I experience a definite feeling of joy, even at my great age. It comes at that magic moment when the energetic connection is made, when a child trusts enough to allow me through a barrier. It is easy to recognize with very young children who have not yet shielded their vulnerable feelings behind protective coats of armour. The children's joyful eye contact after taking their first unaided steps, or experiencing a particularly wonderful ice-cream, are relationship-building moments, more significant and meaningful than the ability to walk or to taste. With older children, jaded by the enormities of life, the open joyful expression may not occur, but a more subtle communication will be there that conveys that same experience of joy. It is a feeling of acceptance, a shared knowing that we enjoy each other’s company and that I validate their thoughts and feelings. They know that they are safe with me, and I know that I will keep them safe while we are together. The joy is the glue of the relationship comfortably holding together all the elements of trust, safety, self-validation, recognition of boundaries, and acceptance.

Merely spending time with children is not sufficient to build the sort of trusting relationship that can help through the unjoyful aspects of life. Adults such as teachers, parents, counsellors, and even therapists can spend countless hours with children trying to “sort out" the various problems without ever sharing the joyful times. The adults categorize and label the children, and the children become more and more muddled about what makes a grown-up tick. I have found that when I dismiss all the adult agendas and expectations, let my hair down, and relive the joys of childhood, I can truly be with the children. Being allowed by children to share their joy is the closest I have come to understanding their subjective experience. There is even an aspect of joy in the relationship when being with a child means also sharing their sorrows.

For the most part, children are reasonably problem-free despite their diminishing joy as their lives progress. However, for some, life’s hard knocks cause problems. It is not with the securely attached, “normally" developing (even joyful) children that a Child and Youth Care practitioner is asked to work. There is always something about the child that has to be changed or be “fixed" according to someone else’s agenda. This is where “working" in the field of Child and Youth Care conflicts with the philosophy that Child and Youth Care practitioners do not “fix" children, but help them, through relationship, to understand themselves and make their own choices. If those choices are not in harmony with the someone else’s “agenda", the child may be written off as a hopeless case or passed on to another agency, the practitioner may be dismissed, or Child and Youth Care practice considered useless.

It is the agenda of the agencies that I find most frustrating. I accept that there has to be some sort of accountability and measurements of “success" to justify either policy or funding. Some agencies recognize the importance of relationship-building as a necessary precursor for any kind of intervention, and this is where Child and Youth Care has a chance to shine. In other agencies there are opportunities for a Child and Youth Care worker to establish relationship to a greater or lesser degree while working on the agenda of the agency. This is where a Child and Youth Care worker can be alert to capture the moment and look for an opportunity to make that vital relationship-building connection.

During my third-year practicum I connected with a little boy in the school system and experienced a great deal of joy in our relationship. I did, however, feel that more inclusion of his family would have been beneficial. It was with this aspect in mind that I entered my fourth-year practicum with an agency that is involved with family work. I looked forward to building relationships with all the family members, using my training and experience to learn about and observe family patterns and hopefully to mirror the family well enough for them to recognize where each of them fit into the muddle of their lives. I truly believe that Child and Youth Care work can effectively be accomplished in this setting. By helping each family member understand how he or she contributes to the harmony and disharmony of the family, each one can choose to take responsibility for their own changes. This is the work I envisioned. I was prepared for a challenge, I was prepared for some surprises, but I was not prepared for the agency’s agenda.

The agenda of this agency (as I see it) is to fix the family. Initially, family members may discuss how they would like their lives to be, and what they would like to see happening. These goals are discussed and strategies suggested with all members' input taken into consideration. All “well and dandy" so far? Well, no, not really. “Work" has begun with this family without any relationship between “worker" and family at all. Rules are quickly established to modify unwanted behaviours (usually those of the child), and the unwanted behaviours of the parents are considered strategies that have not worked. With rules come the necessary enforcement and consequences for rule breaking (imposed on the child). With strategies come reminders of what has not worked in the past and suggestions for a different approach. No enforcement and no consequences. For the parents I see this as possibly helpful. For the child I see this as a lesson in “who is biggest wins."

As a Child and Youth Care practicum student, I found I was in a difficult position. On one hand I was looking for opportunities to build a relationship (primarily with the child, but within the family context), to establish enough trust for sharing of feelings with the power differential softened by establishing mutual boundaries. On the other hand I had to be one of the authoritarian rule enforcers, restrictive, judgemental, and domineering. There is no joy in a power-differentiated, domineering relationship. In fact, the glue of that type of relationship is resentment.

Although my initial feeling about this particular program was to scrap the whole thing and start again, my thoughts have shifted a little. I believe there is great scope for Child and Youth Care work with this agency, and maybe my initial criticism was due to my limited experience in this type of work. I was also disappointed that I saw only limited moments where I could try to connect with the child, and I felt hampered by having to impose rules and consequences. Within the family with which I was placed, I believed that the modification of the child's behaviour was the only “work" being done. My attempts at connecting with the child were often frustrated by the dynamics of the family or the child's resentment because he was “suffering" a consequence for some inappropriate behaviour. However, after three months of working with the family, I am beginning to feel that I am more accepted by the child and that there are more and more opportunities to build on our relationship.

Setting boundaries has been a key factor for me with this child. He is a child that can be extremely invasive and demanding. For example, when I arrived at the house one day, I had not even taken off my coat before he was asking me to play his favorite board game with him. He was demanding that I say “yes" before I had checked in with his mother or my supervisor.

When I discovered that he had not yet finished his homework, I said that I would play with him after his work had been done. He lost his temper and told me that if I had not listened to “them" he could have been playing his game now and that it was all my fault that he had to do his homework. Although initially I saw this as detrimental to relationship-building, I can see that by setting a boundary I had made a connection with the child. He learned that I would not be manipulated. This was not an isolated incident, and over the months I believe that by maintaining my boundaries, I have established an environment within which a positive relationship is developing.

I am aware that work with families in this agency program often continues for much longer than the prescribed three months before the family believes that improvements have been made. I suspect that this particular family will continue in the program for several more months. I can only hope that the next practitioner that will be working with this family can establish a positive relationship with this child that will include more joy.

Joy of relationship
Again I return to the necessity of building a relationship with all the ingredients glued together with joy as a foundation for Child and Youth Care. Relationships that are glued together by resentment, even if they have a modicum of “success," are hard work and no fun. Just as there would be no joy working with a tyrannical chef despite his delicious meals, there is no joy in work that harbours resentment. My cookbook is called The Joy of Cooking, not The Joy of Eating. For me the “success" of working with a child or family is the ongoing building of a joyful relationship. In my fourth-year practicum I have had many more challenges that I expected with building relationships. I have had to search for the moment and not be deterred by situations that I believed at first to be non-productive.

An appreciation
Three of the above contributors received their degrees in Child and Youth Care at the Spring Convocation 2000 and the fourth will complete within the year. Although they all followed the same curriculum of study, they are by no means cast in the same mold. As their reflections demonstrate, they each bring their own unique qualities, challenges, and aspirations to this strangely diverse profession. Throughout their years of study, they were co-creators of a very special educational process, and those who had the privilege to serve as their teachers were the beneficiaries of all that they brought to the party. Now, as they move on to become engaged in a wide variety of other projects, it is encouraging to know that they will continue to bring themselves fully into their personal and professional relationships. We wish them well.

This feature: McArter, L. (2000). Ode to joy. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol.14 No.1 pp 45-48

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