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121 MARCH 2009
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practice

Losing a friend, making friends with oneself

Laura Steckley

We had to put the old girl down a fortnight ago. My beloved, sweet old feline friend, Shaw. Iím missin' her something awful.

The out-of-hours vet was a lovely young man. He was gentle and patient in helping us arrive at what was probably the only possible decision we could make, despite the likelihood that his supper was getting cold and his favourite television programme was being broadcast without him.

She went so quickly after the injection; Iím told it sometimes takes as long as 15 minutes. Iím not sure it took 15 seconds. I think she was ready; after almost eighteen happy years, her time had come. I wasnĖt, though. I donít think I ever would have been.

As circumstances would have it, the next day I had a session scheduled with my MSc in Advanced Residential Child Care students on ďseparation and loss in residential child care. I dragged myself into work, feeling raw and bloated from tears spent with still more on the way. I was scattered and unfocused in my preparations,

As I climbed the stairs on my way to the classroom, I wondered whether I should say something about what had happened the night before. I was worried about being self-indulgent and making excuses; at the same time, some of the teachers Iíve enjoyed most have often shared details of their own life and experiences in a way that has facilitated my learning. I ended up deciding to mention it, but for another reason entirely: I couldnít imagine my students not picking up on the fact that something was wrong, or at the very least, that I wasnít myself. I was worried about how that might further erode the quality of the session, as well as the quality of the relational environment that we collectively create when we meet. In the final analysis I donít think I probably could have concealed it, given how transparent I felt (and probably was). Iím not the most self-contained person either, even in the best of circumstances. So, I briefly told them of the events of the night before, and proceeded with a lack-lustre lecture, followed by discussion and exercises. They were kind and concerned, though Iím not sure how they experienced or made sense of the disclosure.

We often talk about the importance of role modelling for young people in residential child care. For those of us in indirect practice, defined as ďfacilitating the quality of care delivered by othersĒ (VanderVen, 2006, p. 241), there is an important parallel. How we as managers, educators and consultants are with our staff, students and clients can have a significant influence on how they are with young people. In one sense, it is a form of role modelling.

Good role modelling might seem easy in theory and difficult in practice. I would contend, however, that itís sometimes tricky even in theory. The notion of personal congruence is a good example. Important components of personal congruence include behaving consistently with our deeply held values and beliefs, and having a consistency between our body language, facial expression, affect, words and deeds. People who are personally congruent convey authenticity, engendering a sense of credibility and trustworthiness.

And, for most of us working with children and young people, one of our most deeply held beliefs can be summed up in the, albeit jargoned, phrase unconditional positive regard. Put another way, we believe we should care about and desire the well-being of all of the young people with whom we work, regardless of their behaviour. There are times for most practitioners, however, when their feeling in the moment cannot honestly be characterised as positive regard at all. So how does one behave in a personally congruent, authentic manner and convey unconditional positive regard when, truth be told, she actually feels like shaking the young person (or staff, student or client) ďor worse?

So I guess that brings me back to the original question I had in climbing those stairs. Just as young people need to see how adults cope and respond when theyíre not at their best, practitioners need to observe how their mentors, managers and teachers do the same. Hiding can convey a lack of authenticity; it also bypasses an opportunity for learning. On the other side of the coin, being child-centred or student-centred means putting aside our own issues and focusing on the needs of others. Iíve definitely worked with some folks who struggled to do this; conversations which I felt needed to be focused primarily on the young person became, uncomfortably, all about a member of staff. Putting our own needs first manifests in more subtle, even unnoticed ways as well, often related to issues of control or the need to be needed or liked. Truth be told, there have been times when Iíve reflected back on a conversation and wondered how much of it has been truly child-centred and how much was more about my own needs. The same can be said of some of my teaching. Itís easy to rationalise and difficult to see oneself in a fully clear and honest way. Itís particularly difficult when one is fearful, angry, sad or otherwise vulnerable.

This may be a rationalisation, but I donít think the line between child-centred (or student-centred) and self-centred is clear cut. Certainly there are times when meeting a young person's needs also meets our own; these times donít have a dividing line and yet can be quite clear. There are other times when a young person's needs are beyond our collective or individual capacity to meet. On occasion, a seemingly self-motivated act can fulfil a young person's need in an unexpected or disarming way.

When we do get it wrong, what does this mean exactly? If there were a clear line, how much on the wrong side of it would we need to be to be condemned as wrong or having bad practice? One person's perception of self-centred may be experienced as child-centred by anotherĖif both are even attuned to those subtle dimensions of an exchange. Conversely, would someone even need to experience an exchange as self-centred for it to be so? Okay, this is heading towards trees falling in forests, but given the impoverishment of child-centredness in many young peopleís pasts, and sadly, presents, itís a relevant question.

I guess where this leads us, if youíre still with me, is beyond an inclination towards valorisation or condemnation to a more nuanced and uncertain place of aspiring. A friend of mine speaks of the metaphor used in his former place of work, that of an archetypal adult who epitomises understanding, fairness, sensitivity and tolerance. By working together, striving towards this archetypal adult and consistently challenging each other when they practice in a way that is incongruent with this ideal, they can collectively create a community which comes much closer to providing these qualities than any individual can.

I think such an approach can enable staff to make meaning of their practice in a way that promotes rigorous self-searching, interpersonal candour and organisational congruence. Because even minor transgressions are identified and openly discussed, the ability to gently and consistently work with oneís own stuff in a gradient rather than black and white way becomes more possible. This involves making friends with oneís own undesired parts; rather than try to extinguish them, one can accept and, paradoxically, better manage how they inevitably manifest in practice. Rather than a pressure to always get it right, the focus can be more about mopping up after oneself when one doesnít quite conduct oneself in an ideal way. When missing the mark is no longer reserved for big deals, honestly addressing a more self-centred decision, for instance, is no big deal. What a good environment to help young people (and staff, for that matter) learn to be friendly and gentle with themselves, while simultaneously being honest and responsible towards one another. I donít know if they achieved such an ideal-sounding environment, but these seemingly contradictory elements of aspiring towards an unreachable ideal, while gently accepting and actively taking responsibility for oneís efforts in the process, seem necessary in making such a place possible.

This also may offer some sort of answer to my unanswered question above. How can we be authentic, congruent and child-centred when weíre angry, fearful, sad or otherwise vulnerable? Iím becoming convinced that when we cultivate an honest and friendly orientation towards ourselves, including all of those ugly and messy bits, we are more able to maintain a genuine friendliness towards others in the face of their ugly and messy bits. Not in a forced or false way, not in a perfect way, but in a messy, real way (at least until we develop complete enlightenment!).

Maybe this is why Iím missing my Shaw so much, as she was such a consistently friendly, accepting soul. Maybe sheís now reached cat nirvana. Hereís hoping.


Reference
VanderVen, K. D. (2006). Patterns of career development in Child and Youth Care. In L. C. Fulcher and F. Ainsworth (Eds.), Group care practice with children and young people revisited. (pp. 231-257). New York. The Haworth Press.

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