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71 DECEMBER 2004
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How’s that for Emotional Literacy?

Mark Smith

There’s a great Scottish one-man play called “Jock.” It’s the story of an old soldier consigned to see out the remainder of his army career as curator of a military museum. The play involves “Jock,” the universal Scottish soldier reliving and re-telling Scotland's military history through the museum artefacts. The script also provides some telling insights into the Scottish psyche. One of these is around the use of language. Jock recounts how in Scotland, seemingly pejorative words become terms of endearment. He uses the example “bugger.”

On the surface it’s not the kind of label you’d want attached to you. But in a Scottish context it takes on a different meaning. “He’s a fly old bugger” evokes a particular respect, even a grudging admiration for the recipient of the accolade.

I was reminded of “Jock” and of this particular scene last week. Children in Scotland and Kibble Education and Care centre held a major conference, Men Can Care, to raise issues around the lack of males in the Child and Youth Care workforce. The conference was a big success. It was one of those events where you could feel that the inputs and the discussions were touching some pretty powerful emotions among those present. And there were a few of those moments when you could sense the lights going on for a number of individuals as they began to realise, or assert, that men can indeed care, but that a range of institutional impediments prevent them from doing so in properly authentic ways. Male foster carers for instance spoke of organisational policies which dictated that they were not allowed to change nappies. What kind of messages do such assumptions convey about men? They say pretty clearly that men as intimate carers are inherently unsafe. They also reinforce all sorts of gender stereotypes about the domestic and asexual roles of women.

The chair of the conference was the former head of the Equal Opportunities Commission in Scotland. In her summing up she spoke of how impressed she had been by the level of emotional literacy demonstrated in the course of the day, emotional literacy being a quality not always associated with men.

The concept of emotional literacy took on a slightly different turn as the evening wore on. Colin, a former colleague of mine was presenting one of the workshops, his first time to do so. As we all are in such situations, he wasn’t altogether sure how his presentation had gone. As the evening drew to a close he was in the toilet along with a group of the trainees from Kibble’s “men can care” project, an initiative to recruit and train men for Child and Youth Care work (written about previously on CYC-Net by Neil McMillan and myself). The men were talking excitedly about how much they had enjoyed the day when one of them turned to Colin and said, “You were pish, by the way, wee man."

Of course there are those po-faced individuals who would put such comments down to macho posturing and an inability to express emotions appropriately. They don’t get it. This was emotional literacy at its best. It made Colin's day. He knew at that moment that he had made an impact. And I went away reflecting that ideas such as emotional literacy, really need to be mediated through appropriate cultural and gender lenses.