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95 DECEMBER 2006
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What is Milieu Therapy? – 2

Gustaf Jonsson

This the conclusion of Part I of this feature which appeared in the November 2006 edition of CYC-Online. View Part I.

When lightning strikes
It sometimes happens that lightning strikes. Houses may be set on fire, animals be burned to death, all kinds of accidents may occur. It is very unfortunate, and we certainly try to avoid the lightning as far as it is possible. But nobody is personally angry with the lightning. It is an impersonal, elemental force.

Within human nature there are forces which one cannot always control. Now and then outbreaks of this type will occur in the houses of the Children's Village. It must be so. It takes a long time to heal wounds brought about in the children throughout many years. So during this period there will have to be explosive storms now and then.

The well-trained member of the staff knows this and acquires the ability to forget and go on. It is no use collecting reproaches against the children for later use. You will be worse off, the children recharging for new explosions. Forget it and go on.

Physical punishment is forbidden
One thing is so obvious that it really does not need to be mentioned. That is that one shall use no kind of physical punishment. It is formally forbidden by the Social Board in all children's homes in Sweden, but more important is that physical punishment is, and always will be, a wrong method of bringing up children. As physical punishment we naturally include boxing the ears, pulling hair, and so on. The greatest disadvantage of this method is that one gets the children against oneself, and creates a wrong atmosphere around oneself.

Climate therapy
The most important task for the staff in the Children's Village is just to create the right atmosphere within the institution. We consider that the atmosphere which surrounds the children is the main factor in helping them. To this atmosphere belong first and foremost tolerance and understanding of the children. This sounds maybe a little vague and general, so I will try to illustrate it with a few practical everyday examples.

The road to the children's heart is through the belly
A kindness which is to have any value has to be shown through action, and not only in words. This goes for children even more than for adults. All children will become attached to those persons who look after their daily needs. Those who buy their clothes, tie their shoe laces, wash their faces, and so on. And those who cook their food.

There are also deep-rooted psychological explanations for the fact that everything concerned with food and drink means a great deal to children. (In psychological language it is called satisfaction of basic oral needs.)

For the neurotic child, food certainly plays an even more important role than for other children. I do mention especially this about food because I know that psychologically oriented people sometimes acquire a scornful and mocking attitude to everything connected with food, clothing, and material matters generally. This contempt for what the children eat and wear has no foundation in modern psychology. On the contrary, old-fashioned, honorable, and respectable care of children and deep psychology are in agreement here.

To care for the children
Children are very receptive to the atmosphere in their surroundings. In the usual home, with usual sensible parents, the children comprehend that one cares for them, feels anxious about them, is fond of them, etc. This we also try to realize in the houses in the Children's Village.

In practice this means that one “wonders.” One wonders where the children are just now, if they have enough clothes on, so that they may not catch cold. One wonders if somebody will be meeting them at the bus station when they go home on a week end, and so on. All these small signs of interest together build a fund of security in the children's daily life. One of the tasks of the house parents in the Children's Village is to try to build up this secure background. The material care works hand in hand with the mental care.

Frontiers which should not be there
In old-fashioned institutions, both for children and adults, there was an invisible frontier. On one side were the interns, on the other the staff. It was obvious from the clothing which side of the frontier a person belonged. The interns had blue-striped cotton clothes, the staff wore buttons on their coats.

Many of the children who come to the Children's Village carry this frontier within them. Adults belong to the enemy side. The enemy is overwhelming and cannot be openly defeated. Instead one has to outwit him.

If these children are to become socially well adapted, as we say, two alternative methods may be chosen. One can keep strictly to discipline and orderliness, and make the child yield and follow prescriptions. This method leads unquestionably to more order and method within the institution and will make the work easier for the staff. It may certainly also give results with the children in the form of punctuality, work, hygiene, and so on. But the question is, what will happen in the long run? Do the results persist? This method may often prove to be a “Dobeln” medicine, curing today, but making things seven times worse tomorrow.

The Children's Village therefore rejects this method. We try to concentrate directly on the emotional situation within the child. We want them to get rid of the feeling of an enemy frontier between adults and children. Many people agree with all this in principle and in theory. In practice, however, there is likely to be disagreement. So let us go back to everyday life again.

Smoking forbidden? Let us choose an example which usually gives offense. Most of the boys coming to the Children's Village are smokers. We have a full set of habitual smokers, cigarette-stump suckers, specialists in deep inhalation, and so on. We certainly want to check their smoking. But by what method? We believe that prohibition is not the way. Then they would smoke on the sly. The staff would have a full-time job supervising, and what would we do when a sinner was caught? We try to counteract tobacco smoking not through sign boards and prohibitions, nor by punishment. We test our way along positive lands, for instance, by letting the Village Parliament (elected representatives among children and staff) or the Village Assembly (everyone in the Village who can walk and talk) discuss and establish rules for smoking, etc.

Washing ears and brushing teeth. Obviously we want the children to learn hygienic habits also, like washing themselves and brushing their teeth. And we have nothing against good table manners. But if we want the children to acquire good habits, we must get them to wash their hands and brush their teeth without hate and defiance in their hearts. In other words, one cannot attack the child with hygienic arguments. Then one may meet with a repulse. This may involve not only table manners and tooth brushing but may also mean a persistence of the basic oppositional attitude which brought the child to us.

Anatomically it may sound crazy, but if we want the children to brush their teeth and wash their ears, we will have to go via their hearts. Not before they approve of their house parents will tooth brushing and ear washing be of lasting value.

About hens and other things
In every good poultry yard there is a pecking law. Every hen knows precisely which hens she can peck at and which she must avoid. Every good military regiment has an order of precedence. Each man knows who is of higher rank, who shall command and who will have to obey. In the Children's Village there is no order of precedence. This is because an order of precedence very often turns into a pecking law. Lowest on the scale will be the children, pecked at by everybody.

Direct your criticism upward, willingly to the Medical Superintendent or some other central figure in the Village. The ability to bark at the chief we consider belonging to the more useful of human virtues. We prefer the hedgehogs with their thorns pointing upward and the soft surface downward, rather than the scrubbing brush, smooth on top and with its spines pointing down.

To belong together
On festive occasions, annual celebrations, etc., speeches are often made on Solidarity and the Common Good. At the Children's Village we are not very interested in serious speeches on these occasions. Solidarity we want in everyday language. One such everyday expression is to “tell the others.” The teacher tells the house parents when a boy has a day off from school. The house parents tell the teacher when a child is ill and cannot come to school. Those who enter a house to put something straight with a child ought to tell the house parents in passing what it is about. The students tell the house parents when they take a child to town or to a cinema. We all break this rule of telling the others sometimes. But that is no reason for rejecting it.

In addition, one shall respect other people’s jobs. You should not arrange to meet a child at mealtimes. You should not go out for a walk with him when he should be at school. The house parents should send their children to school on time. From evening entertainment the children should be sent home when it is bedtime.

The small tricks of coexistence
“Those who have for years had to deal with mentally sensitive people, children or adults, have gradually learned small tricks to reduce friction between themselves and the environment. Most of them depend on one’s own personality, but some of them can be taught to others. Let me take a few example to be used in case of need in the Children's Village.

An angry neighbor enters. He has had something stolen, and starts complaining as soon as he comes in the door. You rise, offer him your hand: “May I introduce myself ... please come in and sit down.” In 90 per cent of the cases you will succeed in having your neighbor introducing himself, and afterward the atmosphere will be far more comfortable for you. That Swede has not been born who does not feel solemn just after an introduction. That is at least one good thing with our Swedish solemnity and conventionalism. To greet people and give your name is a good custom which we commend to all newcomers. But the important thing is not to “introduce oneself to the boss;” it is more important that you introduce yourself to people who have nothing to do with the employment of staff (as maids in the staff dining room, the cleaners, and all the others whom you will meet on your job). We have found it most practical to do without greeting ceremonies, titles and surnames, etc. But sometimes even such things may have a certain psychological effect, as when occasional visitors come to the houses. Usually the doctor or someone else accompanies the people who want to have a look at us. It is then of some significance that the house parents consider themselves hosts, and show visitors around in their house. The idea with this is not to make a good impression on the visitors, but for the children in the cottage it will feel more like their own home if the house parents or the children themselves say “hello,” and “please come inside.” If possible, one shall also ask the children if one can have a look at their rooms. It seems more like an institution if the Medical Superintendent shows visitors around than if the house parents act as host.

There is another good, old trick for winning the hearts of the parents when they ring or visit. When the old King Oscar II traveled around in Sweden opening railway stations and bridges, he took with him his Master of the Royal Household, who noted down in a book the small conversations which His Majesty had with private people. Next time the King came to the place he looked in his book and could say: “Well my dear Mr. Johansson, how is Stella’s backache now?” From then on the people “there spoke with admiration of their popular monarch who was able to remember that the stationmaster’s wife was called Stella and that she suffered from lumbago, although it was many years ago he had visited the station.

In the same way as the late Oscar II, a house father and mother can ask the parents when they ring if little sister still has her bad cold or if they had a nice time during their holiday in Tomelilla with Aunt Mary.

Morning spirits and bicycle thefts
In the Village we have many children who steal. They steal money, bicycles, and so on. Why? The question may seem simple. It is obvious that everyone wants money and bicycles. If you ask the children directly, you will receive such a rational motivation. They have learned to answer sensibly from their countless interviews with the police or other people in authority. The first time the answer was perhaps less learned and more primitive: “Why did you steal the bike?” “I don’t know.” You ought to understand the deep wisdom and honesty contained in this “I don’t know.” Indeed, we know much less than we realize about the motives of our own actions. I have said this before, but it needs repeating. It is very important, especially concerning children who steal. That they are not ruled by their reason may be deduced from the fact that the children steal and steal and steal without gaining anything, beyond all reason.

But why do our children steal? Obviously for many different reasons. Every theft, like every other human action, is a result of many different factors. But there is one essential thing. Deeply rooted and frequent stealing is connected with emotional conflicts within the children. The stealing has an emotional background and is not the result of rational considerations. We all know how we feel when we wake up “on the wrong side.” We feel bad and do not know why. But we show it by closing the door unnecessarily hard, kicking small stones on the pavement, bumping into people on the tram. Why? One has not rationally decided to do so in order to give vent to one’s bad temper. No, it just happens with the door and the stones and the elbows. If someone asked why we do so, we would consider the question silly and answer: “I don’t know” – like the bicycle thief.

He too is under pressure from an inner emotional mood. He knows very well that one shall not steal, just as we all know of our own bad-tempered mornings that one shall not slam doors or push in the trams. But it seems to make things easier for us to do it although it is wrong or perhaps, more correctly, just because of that. And perhaps it is just because the cycle thief has been told so many times that theft is a sin that he cannot keep his fingers off the bicycle.

It is silly to think that we can extract any deep truth by asking the children why they steal. And it is of no advantage for their treatment to hold long discussions with the children. If we want to find the basic motive behind this stealing; we must concentrate on their emotional condition. Chronic stealing and chronic asociality both spring from an emotional background. The primary motives are subconscious. Those must be brought out into the light if the thief is to be cured.

Punishment does not pay
Since we see the problem of children stealing in this way, it is obvious that we do not believe that anything is to be gained by punishment. On the contrary, by punishing children we risk losing their confidence and preserving the inner defiance against all adults “the frontier which I said should not exist.

That does not mean that there will be no consequences at all when the children do something wrong. Even if the thief escapes the negative moral judgment, he will have to take the social consequences: most simply by returning the stolen goods to the owner, who will have to be satisfied and grateful for that.

The older children may sometimes be in a position to pay back the full value of the stolen or damaged goods. Often this is impossible, especially for the younger children. Compensation will then be more symbolic. The children then repay a small part of what they have stolen or damaged.

By and large, we have found that this system with economic compensation but without moral condemnation functions well, especially as it does not leave the children feeling bitter.

Beware of thieves
Many of us living in the Village have been robbed by our friends. At first one is irritated, perhaps angry. Later one gets used to it and learns to leave one’s valuables in the safe in the office instead of in one’s room or pockets. This is a little troublesome, but it is worth it. For many this has been a dearly bought experience, in a literal sense. Here I offer it to the newcomer free.

The children are especially inclined to steal from newcomers, not only because all newcomers are so easily taken in. It is rather that the children feel insecure and anxious in the presence of new faces. It is as if they want to see if the new friendship will stand the strain of a theft. Often they are disappointed because some of the staff have left the Village, and take their revenge on those taking their place. That is why it is especially at the beginning of your stay that you risk being robbed by your friends.

One keeps silent in the Children's Village
Every newcomer will have to sign a promise of secrecy. This you must keep, and keep near to your heart, figuratively speaking. All social workers must keep this promise in mind so that it acts as an automatic barrier. Mention no names when telling relatives and friends about the Village. Remember that in a bus and elsewhere, the mention of the Children's Village causes people to cock up their ears. One thing you will have to go through. If you are at a party, sitting quietly round a tea table or at a dull dinner, and someone asks what you are doing now, and you answer, “the Children's Village,” your fate is sealed for the evening. You will be surrounded not only by sharp ears, but inquisitive tongues and skeptical eyes. You will have to fight for your life the rest of the evening. In this, your hour of visitation, we count an your loyalty. Remember the rule from all really good restaurants: if you like it, tell others; if there is something you do not like, tell us. We are used to criticism, and are prepared to meet an attack but preferably from the front.

This feature: Reprinted with permission from Whittaker, J., & Treishman, A. (1972) Children away from home. Aldine.