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Caring for and caring about

Mark Smith

If the terminology we use is anything to go by, then “care” should have a central place in what we are all about. It’s the common denominator in whatever we call ourselves professionally: Child and Youth Care, residential child care or social care. But how often do we stop to think what care might mean? I’ve been reading some of Nel Noddings' work recently and she has some thought-provoking takes on care. Moreover, having been a schoolteacher for over 20 years and also raising ten children of her own, she’s a woman who knows a thing or two about care. She went on to become professor of education at Stanford and later at Columbia universities. One of the attractive aspects of Noddings' work is that she writes in the kind of no-nonsense, common-sense way that seems to befit someone who’s reared ten children.

Noddings makes what is a fairly obvious but also fairly profound distinction between “caring for” and “caring about” which I find helpful in making sense of how we think about care and about how care has developed professionally. It also casts some light on the difference between care workers and social workers. “Caring for” is what Child and Youth Care workers generally do. They work at the level of the face-to-face encounter with kids: they engage in the physical aspects of care such as personal hygiene and the use of restraint; they soak up the intensity of kids' emotions and get involved in the messy bits around intimacy and boundaries. There is an inevitable rawness and unpredictability about “caring for”. However, when it works, kids can, in Noddings' terms, “glow and grow.”

“Caring about” puts more distance between ourselves and the objects of our care. It’s what we do when we take a stance on an issue or when we give to charity; we do not provide care directly but we have a general predisposition to see that kids are cared for. “Caring for” and “caring about” are linked; our capacity to care about derives from our experience of being cared for. “Caring about” is essential if “caring for” is to amount to more than continually sticking plasters on social problems; it is implicated in the sense of social justice that motivates us to challenge the social circumstances faced by the kids we work with.

However, “caring about” isn’t enough on its own. Professing to care about can get us off the hook of caring for; we can make our point, hand over our fiver and walk away. As Noddings says, caring about can involve a certain benign neglect; it is empty if it does not result in caring relations. In respect of residential child care, I’d go further and suggest that merely “caring about” can in fact get in the way of “caring for”. When we are only concerned to “care about” kids we can construct them as abstractions, romanticise them as ideal types and say all sorts of hoorah things about them. We don’t need to confront them in the rawness of the face-to-face encounter; we can profess to like kids while failing to acknowledge their unlikeable sides. And when we fail to acknowledge or understand just how difficult and unlikeable kids can be at times, we can be rather too quick to judge those who do “care for” them.

The way that social welfare has become professionalized tends to privilege “caring about”. Those who “care about” have considerably more status that those who “care for"; social workers have far more clout than residential care workers. Yet ironically, it is social workers who are vested with expertise in care, an area many of them have never worked in directly. So they come up with nice clean-cut proposals for how things should be done, a paint by numbers version of caring. As a former colleague used to say, they want to change the engine oil without getting their hands dirty. We see a similar dynamic in the way that major charities have changed their focus in recent years, away from direct care provision towards advocacy. They seek to limit their liability to care for by professing a far more restricted and soulless ambition to protect, which increasingly inhibits carers' ability to care.

We've got all this the wrong way round. Of course we need to “care about” and assert a worldview that speaks of our hopes for kids. But “caring about” only achieves proper meaning and proper perspective when we are prepared to get our hands dirty in the task of “caring for”.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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