CYC-Online 8 SEPTEMBER 1999 / BACK
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For the unloved care worker

Harry L. Blackman

Does the child expect a child care worker in his life? Does it surprise you that you're unwanted? Because the child care worker is not seen as being a part of the natural order of a child's life, the worker is not entitled to any of the pre-conceived responses from the child which a parent or a peer might expect. The child care worker must, therefore, understand the roles which the child already perceives, and using this information and his skills, develop his role according to reasonable and professional expectations.

Harry L. Blackman, while Supervisor at Group Homes Lutheran Orphans & Old Folks Home, Toledo, Ohio, discussed some of the stresses acting upon the child in care, and the effect of these stresses on both the child and on the child care worker's efforts.

"Fantasy Family"
The “Fantasy family" is a phenomenon which occurs between the child and his mother in the first few minutes of their physical meeting and continues in spurts in the mind of the child, perhaps in anticipation of coming visits or in an attempt to escape from reality, by dreaming of living within the “fantasy family". The “fantasy family" is different for each individual. Basically, it consists of a caring and loving mother who has need for the child and protects the child. She is the child's “wonder mommy." The child sees himself as obedient and good. He does not get into trouble, is successful, and makes his mother proud. The mother sees the child as her baby who needs her nurture, love, experience, and attention. She also sees the child as someone who should give her a thankful response for the efforts and sacrifices that she has made and will make. Although the idea will be different for different individuals, the situation will follow a general pattern. It makes little difference that the child has been physically abused by the natural family or that he is mentally scarred by emotional disturbance, retardation, malnutrition, or lack of affection. It makes little difference that the mother is out of the picture for weeks, months, or even years at a time. It makes little difference that the child verbalizes his hatred for his mother or his mother's hatred for him. The “fantasy family" still exists for the child, and the personalities identified in that “fantasy family" are his natural parents as he perceives them. Although the “fantasy family" appears to fade as the child grows older, it still continues; it is just under a pile of reality. This affects both the child in care and the child care worker directly, since the child care worker is rarely perceived as a personality of this “fantasy family" and fights the battle of being a parent in the child's mind. Thus, the child care worker does 'not deserve' the devotion or responses the “fantasy family" is entitled to. When the child care worker must act as a disciplinarian, or has sacrificed to the nth degree, the child may remark how great and wonderful his parents are. It is important that the child care worker keep in context the fact that these great and wonderful people are the “fantasy family" who are nothing but good in the mind of the child. When the child and the mother do meet, the child care worker can readily see the syrupy exchanges “that usually lasts only a short time. The mother assumes her natural role of protector, a strong individual who supplies the child's nurturing needs; the child, in turn, takes on the image of the ideal child. The breakdown of this stage of the relationship is very rapid and the overprotective mother reverts to meeting her own needs. The child is no longer capable of playing the fantasy role. Mom hasn't lived up to expectations and the child hasn't lived up to expectations. Depending upon the level of disturbance and the weakness of the relationship, the child comes away from the visit drained, bored, upset, and almost always angry because he realizes that his mother will not be taking him with her. Reality has crept in, but has not destroyed the “fantasy family"; merely disorganized and repressed thoughts of it for a time.

Mary Hartman
The child's real world today is shaped by the stresses created by what I call the 'Mary Hartman' effect. Mary's life is patterned from fad after fad. Her speech is spattered with phrases from commercials. She is controlled by television, magazine ads, soap operas and other media-type fantasies. Mary Hartman, although a dramatization of the effect of commercialism and artificial living situations in entertainment, is, I believe, a good characterization of the phenomenon. The expectations of children today are far greater than those of children 10 or 15 years ago because they have been bombarded with a media fantasy world. The child expects jets, money, sailboats and world vacations. He expects family drama and at the same time an ideal family. And, because the child's goals are way out of reach, he tends not to grasp for them. Many of the children who do attempt to reach for goals find that the traditional work-for-a-living ethic isn't working, and they resort to other ways of attaining the goal.

Peer pressure
What about peer pressure? This is an area that has been talked to death. Every child care worker is aware of it. It is the effect that one child or group of children have on another child. It can be a positive effect or a negative effect as far as the child care worker is concerned. Peer pressure can be the very destructive element that helps construct antisocial views. Children may have rejected the traditional values of the communities we live in, usually as a result of conflicting value systems among parents, child care workers, peers, and school systems. Often peer pressure amounts to a fantasy perception of what the child believes are his peers' expectations of him. The perceptions are manifested by the anxiety of rejection by peers.

The Child Care Worker
So who is the child care worker “and with what feelings is he contending? The child care worker is the individual in the child's life who is like the elf in a story book. While the child sleeps and is unaware, the worker is meeting his nurturing needs, coping with the problems, raising the child, and teaching the child how to operate in the real world. At the same time, the child care worker earns the parents' jealousy because right now he is managing the child's life better than the parent can. He earns the child's hostility because of the conflict he represents as a competitive figure with the “fantasy family" -- the child's immediate needs for the child care worker are infinitely more apparent than the need for the natural parent. The child care worker hasn't grown up within the Mary Hartman stresses as the child has. He sees the child striving for fantasy goals. Knowing how difficult it has been just to attain his own level of success, the child care worker has a responsibility to meet even the fantasy needs of the child, and yet may be completely rejected by the child. He becomes aware that the more he does for some children, the more he gets hurt personally. The worker must realize that as a professional there are skills he can perfect to make his work more effective and less painful to himself and to the children and the families he serves. Because he is so vital to the children and families he serves, he knows he cannot give up. The child care worker is not a peer and should not attempt to compete in the role of a peer. He is a professional who must have more influence on the child's direction and growth than the other stresses have.

The stresses
There are many other stresses and strains that can act upon the child in care. In a diagram one could show the child in the middle, with the fantasy family, the Mary Hartman effect, the peers, and the child care worker all pulling in different directions. Philosophically, you can talk about who is right. Pragmatically, it doesn't matter. It is the child care worker's responsibility to be right. So who wins? Well, unless something has changed, no one wins. In fact, this atmosphere all too often destroys the child, the family, and the child care worker.

One approach might be to cut some of the strings. Then the stresses are in your favor -- or are they? The chances are that you are only delaying the inevitable. Another approach might be to pull harder, fight harder and stronger than the peers, than the Mary Hartman effect, and the fantasy family effect. To do this you may use harsher discipline, more conferences, more devotion, and more rewards. This may work for a while, but what happens when you come to face the ultimate problem of child care workers -- burning out? And what happens when that strong figure of the child care worker is gone from the child's life? Is the child strong enough to manage all of these pressures by himself? Are there enough adults or time to devote to each child to accomplish that kind of success?

The following topics for group discussion may help you to deal with the stresses you and the children face.

  1. Help the children you work with to identify their perceptions of the ideal family. This will give you clues to the “fantasy family".

  2. Hold short group sessions which are designed to recognize how each of you help each other. In these sessions, everyone toots his own horn. Each member tells how he sees his role in helping others, and what he or she has actually done for the others in the house. Here is the opportunity to receive recognition from the children and separate your actions from the “fantasy family". This will reduce the anxiety surrounding your competitive role, and will make children aware of the expectation that they should help and care for each other.

The skill of group leadership is one way to draw the stresses of the peer group, the 'fantasy family', and the Mary Hartman effect into the directions you feel are most helpful. Too often the child care worker expects treatment to be imposed on the child by psychiatrist, psychologist and social worker. Your influence and skills are more powerful than any outside treatment could reasonably expect to be.

And stay stimulated and informed yourself. Keep reading. Contact your professional Child Care Workers' Association for training workshop dates, resource materials, and reading lists.

This feature: Reprinted with permission from Child Care Work in Focus.

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