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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Remembering Fritz Redl

Thom Garfat

In his writings spanning some fifty years, Dr Redl addressed concerns which were then, and are still today, in the very forefront of our professional consciousness. He addresses issues which are at the centre of the care and treatment of troubled youth, and because of this, even his early works are of great value to us today.

Like all good teachers, Dr Redl teaches from his self and his personal experience. In sharing with us the experiences that led him to his understanding of the care and treatment of troubled children, he is a model for the Child and Youth Care worker. He is serious and analytical, he is understanding and compassionate, he is a researcher into human experience: in his writings we find him teaching with intelligence, wit, and delightful humour.

Listen to what he had to say, for example, about our knowledge and understanding of how to work with troubled children:

" ... all questions pertaining to techniques like punishment and rewards, praise or criticism, permission or verbot, indulgence or authority, encouragement or scolding, and the whole gamut of problems around the setting of limits, and what to do if they are trespassed, are still a 'no-man's land' in which everybody can believe what he wants to, quite similar to the state of affairs in which our concept of body health, eating habits, etc. were about 100 years ago." (1951).

Those words were written in his book Children Who Hate, which was first published in 1951. They could easily have been written yesterday. They probably could be written tomorrow.

In his own delightfully humorous way, Dr Redl supports us in our desire to learn, and encourages us to pursue greater understanding and knowledge in our work: "It doesn't do to continue in our ignorance much longer, for, in the long run, collective ignorance never pays." (1952).

In his expansive and broad-ranging writings, Dr Redl teaches us, among other things: about love and affection in the treatment process; about the environment within which treatment occurs; about friendships with influence; about what is therapeutic; and with caring, he teaches us about ourselves.

About love and affection
Anyone who knows the works of Fritz Redl immediately comes to know him as a man who believes very profoundly in the importance of love and affection in the treatment relationship. While in our daily work we often recognise this ourselves, we are sometimes caught in the conflict which arises when the children 'misbehave'. Too frequently, in our human fashion, we reach out to punish the children, through the withdrawal of that love and affection. Or we wonder whether or not we should withdraw our caring feelings from those children who misbehave. Here is a quote from Dr Redl on this subject:

"The children must get plenty of love and affection whether they deserve it or not: they must be assured of the basic quota of happy, recreational experiences whether they seem to have it coming or not. In short, love and affection, as well as the granting of gratifying life situations, cannot be made the bargaining tools of educational or even therapeutic motivation, but must be kept tax-free as minimal parts of the youngsters' diet, irrespective of the problems of deservedness" (1952).

About the environment
Dr Redl is best known for his writings in residential treatment. His words on the psychological environment which forms the context for the therapeutic interaction, are applicable regardless of the environment in which the interaction occurs. Whether you live with children, work with them daily, see them in their educational environment, or spend an hour a week with them, Dr Redl's words have equal value.

On caring environments:

"We must be as careful with respect to our psychological 'atmosphere' as medical science has learned to be with the biotic atmosphere in which certain of its operations are to be carried out ... No attempts at influencing behaviour pathology can be successful if, at the same time, every part of the environment is not kept scrupulously 'clean' from the point of view of psychological hygiene" (1951).

Friendship with influence
In the context of a psychologically clean environment within which there is sufficient love and affection, Dr Redl recognises that the relationships between the educateur and the troubled child have a special 'quality'. In this relationship, he asks us to remember our purpose. Listen, again, to a quote from Children Who Hate:

"From a human value angle, there is something nearly romantic to some of those 'friendships' which otherwise hateful youngsters occasionally offer to adults who are decent and fair to them. For the person who is seriously engaged in an effort to rehabilitate and really alter the basic philosophy of a child engaged in a delinquent behaviour, it is important to remember that while we need their friendship, we want to be sure that we do not remain ‘friends without influence’" (1951).

What is therapeutic?
In thinking about the treatment of troubled children from this intense interpersonal perspective, we must eventually address ourselves directly to the question of what exactly is "therapeutic". What do we mean by this word, which we seem to use so easily? Do we mean:

"Therapeutic", meaning don't put poison in their soup?
"Therapeutic", meaning you still have to feed them?
"Therapeutic", meaning developmental-phase appropriateness and cultural background awareness?
"Therapeutic", meaning clinically elastic?
"Therapeutic", meaning encompassing fringe-area treatment goals?
"Therapeutic", meaning the milieu and I? or
"Therapeutic", meaning in terms of re-education for life?" (1966).

Surely these are ideas which, while they may have been raised so long ago, address issues which concern us today and will continue to concern us in the future Those quotes could have come from last month's edition of the Journal of Child Care.

In his numerous writings over the years, Dr Redl has addressed the core issues which we encounter in child care. Time does not permit us to look at them all. However, as an illustration of the breadth of his writings, the following are offered:

" ... we want to know how people can survive with such children. By this we mean the question of just what needs to be done in order to tone down some of their surface behaviour at times, a task which becomes important even before more deep-seated therapy of their 'real problem' can be attempted" (1951).

"When confronted with a youngster about whom everybody is by now desperate, for many people and organisations already have tried their hand with no success, it is eagerly suggested that 'a psychiatrist should see the child'. It is quite flattering to psychiatry, by the way, that the educators themselves and even lay people have picked up the same chant. What started out like a propaganda slogan for a new scientific field has become an outcry for help by those in despair" (1951).

As professionals, we are horrified when we hear stories of the emotional, psychological, or physical abuse of children in the hands of those who claim to be our colleagues. As long ago as in 1951, Dr Redl clearly stated that "complete protection from traumatic handling by any personnel associated with the treatment home must be guaranteed".
In one of those moments when the person stands clearly through the writing, Fritz Redl, in conjunction with his colleagues, states:

"We are against the application of physical punishment in any form whatsoever under any circumstances. Even for the normal child, we reject the idea that physical pain will 'teach' the youngster, that the entrance to the character of a child leads through the epidermis of the hind quarters, or that physical pain will solve things by giving the child the chance to pay for his sins and thus end his guilt feelings" (1952).

About ourselves
Finally, Dr Redl does not forget that in the end, the children leave us. They go on into their own future. And sometimes, after they have left, in the years to come, we hear that they have not succeeded or that they fall into greater difficulty. Too frequently in those situations we are likely to condemn ourselves for our 'failure'. Dr Redl suggests that sometimes we judge ourselves to quickly and too harshly. To our somewhat fragile self-esteem, he offers the following:

"If somebody fixes up a kid after a skiing accident and then somebody else comes and hits him with a sledge hammer, nobody insinuates that the previous doctor probably did a poor job ... I find us constantly bothered out of our wits, and sometimes discouraged about our clinical 'know-how', if somebody reminds us that one of our patients or clients didn't seem to hold up so well after several years had lapsed, without much concern about the question of just what really 'did it' to begin with, what the situation was really like that renewed the trauma, or whether or not the problem did lie after all in complete recovery" (1966).

It is typical of Dr Redl, that he recognises our human tendency to judge ourselves too quickly, and too harshly. It is also typical of him, that he cares enough about us, to ask us to be more cautious with ourselves.

Dr Fritz Redl is clearly a man whose words have had, and will continue to have, great influence upon the development of the field of Child and Youth Care. Those which I have just quoted are but brief examples of what he has to say, being but a brief passage of his enormous shadow.

* * *
I once before had the opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Fritz Redl, and in doing so I chose to write a poem for him. On reflection, it seems to me that this poem could express not only my appreciation for the contribution of Dr Redl, but also for the contributions of all who have taught us through their work and their words – those who have helped us become what it is that we are today. And so, in closing, I would like to offer this poem written for Dr Redl as an appreciation for all of those who have been our patriarchs and heroes.

Homage to Dr Fritz Redl

The children don't know you anymore,
But in knowing me, and the others,
They know you.
Thank you, for the moments,
In the midst of confusion,
When you gave me clarity,
The children know that it's important we are clear.
In knowing us, they know you.
In loving us, they love you, still.
Thank you, for the moments,
In the midst of confusion,
When you gave me clarity.
And the children, thank you, also.

From a presentation by Thom Garfat at Today's Child – Tomorrow's Adult, the 1987 National Conference
of the National Association of Child Care Workers, in Johannesburg.

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