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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care

Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

They're out of control

Thom Garfat

“The kids are out of control,” I fairly screamed as the supervisor wandered in to the unit for one of her drop-by visits.

“I don’t think so,” she replied with an infuriating calm that had me envisioning what she would look like at the bottom of the pile of furniture the kids were threatening to destroy.

“Oh, no?” I inquired sarcastically. “Well, I can’t get them to do anything. They aren’t listening to anything I say. They are totally out of control. Perhaps you want to give it a try?”

I was walking a thin line, here, with my sarcasm and attitude, but in the state I was in I didn’t really care.

Nothing, it seemed to me, could be worse than what I had been experiencing that evening. “Go ahead, I thought, fire me. At least I wouldn’t have to deal with this nonsense”. Well, truth be known, ‘nonsense’ wasn’t the word that ran through my head.

* * *

It had started as soon as I walked in and proposed that we all go for a walk on the beach, maybe light a fire, make hotdogs, burn some marshmallows. Now this was normally one of the groups’ favorite activities. Usually we ran, we laughed, we walked and talked, all feeling so natural and, well, family-like. But not today. Today it went like this . . .

“Hey, gang. Nice to see you all. I was thinking we could head off to the beach.”

ng,” came from the couch where two youth were stretched out sharing the space.

“No way,” rose up from the matching chair.

“Forget it,” rolled down the corridor from the bedrooms.

“Hey, what’s up? Everyone normally loves going to the beach. Come on.”

“Nothing”, was all they had to say, verbally and non-verbally, as indicated by the fact that the three young people I could see all just kept staring off into space.

I let it go and went to read the logs, looking for a clue as to what was going on – “nothing” was all I found there as well. And there had been “nothing” said in the shift change-over about this attitude.

No clue. What to do? Follow their lead. So I did nothing as well.

Well, not “nothing” in the normal sense of the word. I went out and plunked myself down on the empty chair in the living room where now 4 of the 6 young people were gathered. Said nothing. Hung out.

After a bit, one of the youth asked “what’s for dinner?”

“I don’t know”, I replied. “I was thinking we would eat at the beach, but now I don’t know. I guess it depends on what you all want to make.”

“I ain’t making dinner,” one of them snapped. “I’m tired of having to do all the work around here. You get paid so you should make dinner.”

“Ya, me too,” one of the others responded. “I ain’t doing nothing either.”

Hmmm. I always did find these situations difficult. On the one hand I wanted to take the approach my mother would have taken – “that’s okay, if you don’t want to help, then don’t eat”. On the other hand, the soft soul in me wanted to go make them a special meal and bribe (oops, I meant bring) them back in to a nicer space. Of course, if confessions are in order, there was also a little secret part of me that wanted to tell them all to get of their fat ... but I don’t need to go there right now.

I hated resistance, refusal. I always felt like if I really knew what I was doing I would have some magic trick I could whip out and make it all go away, move us forward. But for some reason, I never did develop that particular brilliance. And I never did meet anyone who had.

So, not knowing what to do, (and doing nothing wasn’t working) I decided I had best do something, so I went off to see the other two youth – the ones who were down the corridor in their rooms. But life was no better there either. It was like they had all taken the same “let’s be nasty” pill after school. Hanging out there produced the same results as hanging out in the living room had. So, I moved on.

I decided to let it all go for the moment and went in to the kitchen to see what I could whip up for dinner. (Remember the “bribe them” part of me?) I snooped around in the fridge and found enough good leftovers to let me construct a fairly good looking stew. Normally they all loved stew – perhaps it is because of the nurturing taste of it – or perhaps because everyone can find something they like in a stew. Some like the meat, some the carrots, some the potatoes and, believe it or not, some actually like the cabbage (or is that my mother talking again?).

As I worked in the kitchen – asking for help got the same response as my idea of going to the beach – I kept an eye on the young people but nothing seemed to change. They all just sat around staring into space, occasionally commenting to one another. After an hour the house was filled with the aroma of fine food and the stew was ready. I yelled out that dinner was almost ready and they should set the table.
“Nothing” came back to me again so I went to the living room and asked a few of them to set the table. “No way.” “Forget it.” “I’m not doing it.” That’s all I heard.

So, yes, you’re right, you guessed correctly, I went and set the table myself. No excuses. No rationalization. I did it. I confess, again.

So, once the stew was ready and the table set, I went and informed the group. “Okay, supper’s ready. The table is set. Grab a plate, help yourselves and let’s sit down and eat.”
Sounds good. Right? I mean, that all makes sense so far, doesn’t it? Eat a meal together, talk, get back on track. Find out what is going on. Work it through. Nope. Not tonight.

One by one, as if they were working from a script, they got up, took a plate from a spot at the set table, filled their plates and went back to where they had been before they got up. Do I need to explain (probably not) that the rule of the house is that we eat at the table, and only at the table? It’s not an uncommon rule; many programs have the same rule. We have had it since forever. It is explicitly stated in the rules that are posted in the kitchen. Everyone knows it. But they acted as if it didn’t exist.

Well, that was enough for me. I was . . .well, annoyed is slightly understating it. There they were, all of them, scattered about with their plates and spoons, slurping up the stew, which, I might remind you, none of them had helped to prepare, acting as if they had every right to just do as they please, and too bad if I didn’t like it. Like I said, annoyed hardly describes my feeling.

So, I took my plate, filled it appropriately and set it at the table. After which I marched (yes, I did) into the living room area and demanded (yes, demanded) that they all come and sit at the table, like normal. Okay, so maybe I bellowed a bit, and stomped my feet, at least virtually, but I was annoyed and they were acting like jerks!

One of them, a bit of a leader really, looked at me, then looked at the stew, and said (can you believe it) “It really needs a bit more spice, Thom.”
Well, that was it. I mean, really. Enough was enough. I looked at her (glared really) looked (glared?) at the others and in a controlled and most angry voice, said, “That’s it. All of you! Right now! Into the dining room before I start handing out consequences.”

More nothing! No movement towards the table. No compliance. Nothing – except, I might add, resistance, refusal . . . all the stuff I really hated – especially when I was blowing my cool all over the room.

After all, when you are blowing your cool all over the room, the least a decent person could do is respond with a quiver. Is that too much to ask? Well, apparently it was for them. Nothing! A room full of non responses.

So, consequences were the order of the day. “You! Into your room!” “You! No going out tonight.” “You! You get to do double chores.” “You! Five points off.” That would teach them! They would learn. I mean, hello . . . enough was enough! I had been patient. Hung out! Compromised. Been reasonable. Nurtured. What more could a man do? “Nothing”. Much more “nothing”, was their response.

And then after a few minutes, the one who I said was a bit of a leader, looked at me, and at her plate, and said, “You know this plate is really, really hot”, and dropped it on the floor.

One of the others looked at me and said, “Mine too!” And on to the floor it went. Within a few minutes there were six plates of stew on the floor.

“That’s it. You are all grounded for a week.” (Hello, Mom. Have I become you?)

“Well, seeing as how we are all grounded anyway, Thom, I have been meaning to tell you that I really don’t like the furniture here at all. It’s just institutional crap! So, I was thinking that if we just wrecked it all, they would have to replace it and maybe we would get something better,” intoned the leader.

“Good idea”, a few of the youth responded . . .

And that’s the point when the supervisor wandered in. Great timing, eh? So, back to that story.

* * *

By now, I hope you understand why I was thinking “Go ahead. Fire me. See if I care.”

To refresh your memory, here is where we left off.

“Oh, no?” I inquired sarcastically. “Well, I can’t get them to do anything. They aren’t listening to anything I say. They are totally out of control. Perhaps you want to give it a try?”

“No, I don’t want to give it a try, Thom. But I am interested in what has been, and is, going on,” she replied.

So, I told her the story I just told you. And I finished with, “So, now do you see what I mean when I say they are totally out of control?”

“Well, I understand what you mean better now,” she replied. “And I want to repeat what I said earlier, “I don’t think they are out of control.”

“How can you say that after what I have told you?”

“Well, I am thinking that they are very much in control and maybe it is you who is out of control.”

The images I had earlier were nothing compared to the ones which flooded my mind at that point. How could she say that? How could she not see what was going on? How could she turn this back on me? I took a deep, very deep, breath.

“So, explain what you mean.”

“Well, let’s review. You think they are out of control, right? So, here is my question to you . . . How are you in control right now? What are you controlling?”

“Well, well. I am in charge, eh? I am trying to get them to do what they are supposed to do. I am trying to get them to follow the program. I am. I am. “

“But nothing is working, right?” she queried.

“No. Obviously not. They won’t do what they are told.”

“So,” she said, far too calmly I thought at the time, “they got you to make dinner, set the table and come to the living room where they are all sitting around?”

“Ya.”

“So”, she asked, ‘who’s in control here?”

“And who’s not?” she added, driving the final spike into my awareness.

Reference

Leaf, S. (1995). The Journey from Control to Connection. Journal of Child and Youth Care, vol.10 (1). pp15-21 http://www.cyc-net.org/cyc-online/cycol-0802-leaf.html

 

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