CYC-Online 70 NOVEMBER 2004
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Letting go in love

Mark Smith

Every now and again the discussion threads on CYC-Net hit on some of the quintessential aspects of what this field is all about. The ongoing thread around the place of love in our professional lives is a case in point. I want to use this month’s column to add my tuppence-worth to the debate.

It seems to me that before we start to think about what we mean by love and the place it has in child and youth care, we first have to think about the meaning of care. Is care an instrumental, target and outcome focused task, or is at an affective and relational process? The dominant professional discourse, in the UK at any rate, veers towards the former view. Care is something that can be measured in the dimensions of a bedroom or the thickness of a home’s procedures manual. They've even set it down in nice clear standards for us, for God's sake. Love, through such a lens, is suspect; it’s something that, if we tolerate it at all within the professional domain, is a commodity to be measured out in coffee spoons. Too much love is deemed “unprofessional.” Of course, what is meant by “unprofessional” is left unexplored. It’s one of those “taken for granted” assumptions that permeate social work discourse.

Child and youth care seems to me to come from a different place. Care, within the social pedagogic tradition, is measured by the size of one’s heart. It’s something that comes from deep within one’s being, which drives us to reach out to the other. Such a feeling isn’t like loving chocolate or a good pint of beer, powerful and worthy though such cravings might be. What differentiates it from such physical desires is the metaphysical connection with another human being. It’s that metaphysical component that allows us to share in the joys, the hopes and the pain of the children and youth we work with.

The origins of that urge run deep. At one level, they might be understood through reference to attachment theory, which tells us that there are innate drives that draw human beings together in affectional bonds that endure over time. When we share the life space with youth, we become both the object and the subject of these attachments. At another level, I agree with Hans Skott-Myhre that there’s a political dimension to our love. It takes on some of our deeper hopes for humankind. It involves a philosophical concern for “the good life” and a burning desire that those we work with get a share in it. For this to happen requires that we side with them in railing against the oppressions and injustices of the systems that hold them back. Love is the fire in our belly for change. The instrumental, rational view of care on the other hand would have us work to iron out the cognitive distortions that lead the youth we work with to reject establishment norms and to lead them back into a normative fold.

Of course, there are boundary issues in any expression of love in a professional context. We shouldn’t enter into loving relationships with those we care for in the expectation that they will be reciprocated. But hope of a return in our investment perhaps isn’t love at all; it’s more narcissism. True love is self-less and requires that we give without hoping to receive. That love is unrequited doesn’t necessarily diminish it, as reflection back on our own teenage years might remind us.

However, although we shouldn’t go into any loving relationship with those in our care with any expectation of a return, one of the joys of the field is that we regularly do get something back. The warmth with which we are generally greeted when we meet youth we once worked with, and their memories of seemingly mundane ways in which we made an impression, speak of affectional bonds that endure over time.

I often wonder about the difficulty we have in accommodating the notion of love in our professional lives. I’m increasingly drawn to the conclusion that it’s about fear; fear of what others will think, fear that it’s not “professional”, fear perhaps of our shadow selves and that we might get too close. However, fear isn’t a reason not to put love at the heart of our relationships. It’s a reason to be up front about it and to consider it within a suitably ethical and reflective frame. Ricks and Bellefeulle (2003), citing Blum (1994) argue that ethics have to be constructed in relation to “self.” The ethical and moral involves, "getting oneself to attend to the reality of individual other persons ... while not allowing one’s own needs, biases, fantasies (conscious or unconscious) and desires regarding the other persons to get in the way of appreciating his or her own particular needs and situation."

Ethics according to such a formulation doesn’t deny the complex range of human emotions, including love, that can be present in care relationships but requires that workers are aware of these and can make informed moral decisions to foreground the needs of the person being cared for.

It seems as though we’re going for the easy way out though. we’re going for the rule book to tell us what is right and what is wrong in relationships. And invariably those who write the rule books will play it safe and tell us that love is a four letter word as far as child and youth care is concerned. However, the above authors warn that, "... codified rules of what to do in particular cases and cases of like kind, gets us off the hook of moral endeavor... Adherence to codified rules does not necessarily require self-awareness or accountability for taking a moral stance. It simply requires learning the rules and following them, whereupon we may fall prey to being lulled to sleep as we methodically attempt to capture similarities across cases and avoid the unique complexities of the situation at hand." (p.121).

We have to avoid being lulled to sleep by the intellectual flimsiness and the soullessness of those who would deny the place of love in the job. If it’s not “professional” then we perhaps need to rethink what professionalism is. We need to let go in love, knowing that true love is about putting the needs of the other first.


Ricks, F. and Bellefeuille, G. Knowing: The Critical Error of Ethics in Family Work, in Garfat . T. (ed.) (2003) A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families, New York: Haworth

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