“I have completed my course, and worked through all the student practice labs, but soon after starting my first real job in child and youth care I feel abandoned and ineffective. The children don’t listen to me ...”
Newly qualified child and youth care workers are
often very close in age to the young people they work with, and are
also, by definition, less experienced workers. Because of this we find
it harder to establish our roles with children, especially authority
roles, while the older and more experienced care workers are at a more “parental" age which carries a natural authority.
I hear the words “the children don’t listen to me ... “ Let’s explore some of the possible meanings of this observation:
1. The children don’t listen to me “as in – the children don’t do what I ask them."
When we practise child and youth care work in a group or a residential setting, we often get to do a few custodial tasks “seeing that kids get to bed on time, get to meals, stay clean, etc. Don’t be surprised when children don’t listen to you in matters like that. Every parent will tell you that to get one child clean and off to bed is a truly heroic job for the toughest of adults. They will also tell you that to get two children clean and off to bed is ten times as hard! In your job you may have to look after eight children. I have known some poor souls who cared for fifty.
(I wonder how good it is for newly-qualified child and youth care workers to be placed in authority roles where young people are expected to “listen to me". The more experienced staff would do better to retain this responsibility while younger staff are growing into such roles.)
2. The children don’t listen to me “as in – the children prefer to listen to other people."
If you are new to the program where you work, it is likely that the kids will be mistrustful. Often betrayed in the past, even by supposedly close family and friends, they will be cautious about sharing their personal “stuff" with relative strangers. Sadly, many of the care workers they came to trust with their personal issues have now left the field and the youngsters find it harder and harder to trust new people. Often the children and youth in programs like ours will prefer to listen to their peer group whom they see as “all in the same boat". Just as often they will not want to listen to anyone at all. In fact, one of your main jobs is to be with kids in such a way that they can begin once again to trust others. (At the same time, it cannot be good practice for a new staff member to come suddenly into contact with children and youth for the first time only when they qualify. Most people would first have gained some experience of work with young people “camps, youth clubs, sports teams, etc. “so that they had a feel for the work before starting any formal training.)
3. The children don’t listen to me “as in – the children aren’t interested in what I say."
This can be true, in that someone from a reasonable home who has completed a university or college course may be too “different" to be interesting. Kids have to “identify" with people in order to value their opinions “and I’m not sure which really comes first. In fact, probably for most of us the youngsters do come to trust us tentatively when we prove worthy of their trust, and they are then drawn by our values and opinions “and can then identify with us after all. Only then will they “listen" to us, in the sense that they may be influenced by what we have to offer. (There is a maturity and generosity expected of child and youth care workers whereby they are not dependent on children's acceptance or approval of them. It is our freedom “to be who we are" that allows us to transcend the differences between us, rather than try to minimise them. David Wills, author of A Place like Home and Throw away thy Rod wrote that “In order to live with maladjusted children you have to be the kind of person who can live without them ... You have to be a whole, complete person, entirely sufficient unto yourself. Because if you cannot do without them, you are dependent on them. If you are dependent on them, you and they have reversed roles “to the ultimate damnation of both of you.")
4. The fourth possible meaning turns everything said so far on its head. The children don’t listen to me “as in – the children don’t experience me as someone who listens to them!"
Maybe all the listening we need has to start with us. For there to be any listening, it is our job to establish the reciprocal nature of our relationship “one in which we show our interest, have time for them, get to understand how they feel and all that they want to say. Are we listening to the kids? If we are listening, what are they telling us?
Here is a ten-minute exercise for you, which may change forever the way you interact with young people: Look at the kids you are working with, think of the road they have travelled in their lives so far, and suggest twenty things which they could be saying to us, the adults who care for them and work with them. Write these things down. Ponder them. Then ask yourself: “If I really listened and heard these messages from the kids, how would I want to respond? What messages would I want to send to the children?"
You will find that your answers are rather bigger than “Clean your room", “Stop making all that noise" “or even “Listen to me!" You will find yourself starting again from the beginning, building a foundation for all that needs to be said between you and the children in this time you have together. You will pass from the superficial to the real. You might find yourself touching the holy grail of child and youth care work, that sense of awe and respect and calling which motivated you to come into this field in the first place.
It is only then that your training, your theory and your practice labs really connect with the reality of the children you work with in your program. One has to have the formal training, but one also has to be “bitten by the bug" of child and youth care work “and it probably doesn’t matter in what order these two experiences occur.
The great music teacher Nadia Boulanger said: “Nothing great is ever achieved without passion; and nothing excellent by passion alone."