CYC-Online 59 DECEMBER 2003
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from the soapbox

Let us be self-serving! Reframing our vocabulary

Karen vanderVen

Hope this title got your attention! Be self-serving? Isn’t this against everything we stand for and believe in?

As the years go by, I often compare the value system that governed thinking and practice when I began and the way it is now. I have always been concerned with this because child and youth work does seem to be a field that can be governed on occasion by stereotyped thinking that distorts reality and acts to its detriment.

However, the recent postmodern movement helps us to view some of our most embedded notions that shape thinking and practice and encourages us to “deconstruct” them so we can see how they are products of the culture and times in which they are used. Postmodernism helps us recognize that these notions are not absolute in their correctness “or incorrectness “but rather serve as lenses that people us to construct their perspectives.

Three terms that deserve to be deconstructed in my opinion are, among others, “objectivity”, “rescue fantasy” and “self-serving”.

Let’s take “objectivity” first. This seems to have been around the longest. When I first entered the field practitioners were cautioned to be “objective”: to observe in a way that kept their own orientation and opinions out and to be “objective” in how one related to a client, even a child.

Being neutral, being distant, was more important than warmth, flexibility and being authentic. In one of my early jobs, some children liked to hold my hand as we walked back from my activity workshop to their living unit. I heard that I had been severely criticized for “being familiar with a client”. Luckily a knowledgeable co-worker intervened to explain that hand holding was not inappropriate for young children. One also had to be careful about letting one’s self and individuality shine through. Certainly any kind of self-revelation was verboten. If we had difficulties or challenges in our childhoods or personal lives, we had to be careful to keep them hidden. Nowadays, mercifully, it is recognized that if we faced a particular problem, we can be more sensitive and understanding to youth who have the same experience. It is much better to admit the past into our consciousness and working models than to deny and suppress it. The important thing is that we have sufficient insight so that our handling of the past problem does not make one intrusive or controlling with those one is working with now.

The next notion is that of the “rescue fantasy”. When I first heard this term used in reference to certain child and youth workers, it was pejorative. It was bad to have a “rescue fantasy” since this implied that one would be too driven by a personal agenda rather than of what might be best for the children. I countered with the proposal that if we don’t have some kind of “rescue fantasy”, then why are we investing so much care, energy, and time into what can be exhausting, frustrating and challenging work ? It is our inner self-concept where we might have something to offer children and youth and that could be valuable to them and that drives us to try to improve conditions for them. So why deny it? Perhaps the best thing is for us to make our “rescue fantasies” apparent. What would we each like to see happen for children and youth that we can work to bring about, both individually and together.

Finally, let’s look at the term “self-serving”. What could rankle more than to be accused of being “self-serving” in a field of which altruism and self-sacrifice might be seen as the hallmarks? Recently there was a comment that a certain group within the broadly drawn field of child and youth work was “self-serving”. This stereotype admittedly got my hackles up because it makes legitimate human motivations and interests seem suspect in somewhat the same way that there is a “suspect” aura around the term “rescue fantasy”. Taking a postmodern stance, I'll try to “deconstruct” it and then reframe its meaning so that we perhaps can view it differently.

Post-modern adult development theory espouses the idea that an essential human task is to make meaning of our life’s experience and to undertake work that is personally meaningful to us. So, of course, we do something that is gratifying to us and gives us a sense of personal accomplishment. Everybody in any occupation that is governed by personal interest and choice does this. Sometimes actions that may appear to be “self-serving” actually strengthen us or make us more powerful or effective so that we can actually better serve others. The crux is, of course, that the “self-serving” aspect does not harm children and youth, and it doesn’t have to. If for example we take a job with youth so that we can steal the money from the kitty that provides special money for them, well, maybe that is self-serving. But if we work hard to help our youth raise money in a productive activity because we did this in our own childhood – and the activity is successful – this could also be seen self-serving, because it was personally meaningful and we were pleased with the results.

It’s better then to admit that whatever we do is not objective, that it reflects a rescue fantasy and can be self-serving than to pretend we are all so pure that we do things that are totally devoid of personal meaning to us and totally detached from our past experiences including our childhoods.

So that we can avoid these pejorative labels. And speaking of our own childhoods, they do come into play. I think that we chose this work because of childhood experiences we had that make us sensitive to the issues and challenges that children encounter and give us the energy to confront them. Why pretend otherwise ?

When we are energized by visions of using ourselves to better things for others, it is that feeling that we have made a difference with what we have worked hard to do – driven by those old childhood motivations – that creates personal meaning for us and makes us feel meaningful. If this is self-serving then, so be it.

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