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99 APRIL 2007
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from the soapbox

Good fishin', Daniel! For better and worse the world is your child care laboratory

Karen vanderVen

One of the most exciting things about child and youth work is that every day there is an opportunity to keep current by simply observing as one is out and about. You see things that warm you and tell you all’s right with the world, you see things that remind you that perhaps part of the field is to be part of the collective adult responsibility for guiding children and youth if they are acting unsafely, and you see things that remind you of the challenges of parenting and how they are met, both positively and negatively.

Recently on a Florida beach, shuffling on up, my head down looking for seashells, I heard voices and looked up. A towhead boy, about 6, stood in the surfline with a fishing pole.

"You got one!" a man, apparently his father, explained from nearby. A girl around ten, also was watching.

"Reel it in!" Daniel's (his real name) little hand whirled and soon he lifted the pole with a small silvery fish flapping in the air. Daniel held it up proudly but with an air of “What do I do next". His father glided over in a few steps, gently took the pole, and said, “Good fishin' Daniel! He’s a good one! Need to put him back so he’ll grow a bit more". Father deftly grasped the fish and removed the hook, with Daniel watching so he’d begin to learn how to do it himself. The fish slipped out of his grasp and landed in a little tide pool. “I'll get it," exclaimed Big Sister who retrieved the fish, carefully handed it to the father who in turn placed it in the water.

Nobody noticed me as I looked up from my fixation on the sand to take in this wonderful example of family interaction – the warm and supportive father who knew just how to encourage and coach his son, how to teach him the skills and sportsmanship of fishing and how to involve the other children in the family ... Good fishin', Daniel“ and lucky Daniel.

It’s amazing how many opportunities one has to test one’s observational skills and sharpen one’s thinking about the field just by stepping outside. In the neighborhood, in airports, on streets, in restrooms, in supermarkets. We all know that any supermarket is a microcosm of parental interactions with small children. You see wonderful examples of family caring and interaction. You are most likely just to take these in, be warmed by them, think about them, and continue about your business.

Sadly, you see discomfiting things. These interestingly are more likely to invoke some action on the random observer’s part. One time on a vacation trip I observed a truly abusive situation, used my proximity to show the individual that someone was observing, and actually reported it to the local authorities although I have no idea what was done. Other times I’ve stuck my nose out and made a comment where a parent has been publicly abrupt and punitive. Sometimes the comment supports the parent “"It’s really hard waiting with three children in an airport – will the plane ever board?" and that has defused the situation. Sometimes I smile at the child as if I’m enjoying him or her. There are always the babies in arms or carrier you can make giggle by making little faces at them and that gives their parents a little break as well. It’s easy to do a little something to make things a bit easier on the parents – switch seats in an airplane so all can be together, or let them ahead in line.

There is often talk in the field about how all adults need to serve as caring and authoritative figures where ever they are and wherever children are. So one encounters incidents of mischievous behavior. If it’s unsafe I intervene and interestingly the kids are often really surprised. I’ve seen teenagers throwing stones at streetlights – and importuned them to stop. They did, at least as long as I was in sight. If kids threw snowballs at my car or someone else’s within my purview – and this has happened more than once – I stopped the car and looking stern, reminded them how unsafe this was – and that there are lots of places they could throw them without endangerment. What if someone lost control of the car? I asked them. One time while I was driving in the city a small group had dragged a huge old mattress out in the middle of the street and, laughing, left it right in front of my oncoming vehicle. I stopped right there (luckily there was nobody behind me), called out to them as they were walking away to get the mattress back to the side “fast “and made a show of getting out my cellphone to make a call. With a few gestures in my direction – they had to save face – they tugged the mattress back and we all continued on our way.

What’s the “Soapbox" point of all this? Simply that children, youth and families are everywhere we go – of course! – and that as we observe them, we can really have a window to “what’s going on" with them in the world. Sometimes we can just enjoy those interactions that are snapshots of positive development taking place, and sometimes we need to take action, as part of our adult responsibility to remind children and youth that we are around to help keep them and others safe and acknowledge to parents that while their job is hard their children are precious to us all.

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