Care as a key task
The key task of child care workers is helping the residents to live. The most important and essential resource in this profession is: sharing everyday life with them. And within daily life the housekeeping task is a very essential part, the most fruitful meeting place for the residents and their child care worker - the specialist in the ordinary. This thesis is elaborated and illuminated in the article, which also contains part of the results of an action research project. Daily journals, written by child care workers are analyzed and discussed. An important conclusion is that care is more important than rules, especially the care for the daily meals. The workers in this project concluded that increasing attention to daily care and housekeeping had created a better atmosphere in the group, an atmosphere of affection.
Care as a key task
This thesis will be elaborated and illuminated upon in this article. It contains part of the outcome of a doctors dissertation research project. In this project the workers of some groups daily reported on their work in a journal. From this journal have been extracted, among others, all passages on housework, meals and other activities involving care. After the selection and survey of these passages from four residential groups, I can assert that the domestic affairs have been described in the following aspects, or that the care can be interpreted by the people in the team in the following ways:
More than in understanding words in the staff room, you meet each other in the irritation about the pile of dirty dishes or the burnt potatoes in the frying pan. That is where you reach one another's limits, where conflicts arise, but also where you can make real contact.
In this article some of the above-mentioned statements are illuminated with the help of the journals of two groups: statements under (b) and (c) with examples from the journal of "The Monkey-Rock", and under (a) and (f) from "The Sparrows Nest".
Care overshadowed by rules
The "Monkey-Rock" is a group of eleven boys in a home for residential treatment of youth with social and emotional problems. The staff of this home initially worked from the idea that the boys were not yet ready for entering into a relationship with the team, and that what they needed most was "structure". This structure took the form of rules. One of these rules was that the boys could get nothing to eat outside regular mealtimes. On the first day of the boys return from the summer holidays, when a number of new boys came into the group, the rules were announced. The entry in the journal for the next day goes as follows: (all names have been changed)
The day after that shows the following:
Ferry takes over the protest; three days later we may reed:
Boys from eleven up to seventeen years old sometimes get hungry at night. They try to come by some bread, but the staff member prevents it. Because it's against the rules. It is important that there are rules, the staff member has been taught. But food is important too; so which of these has priority? In the last passage we can see that the child care worker has his doubts, and that the psychologist helped him to conquer these. After all, he should know, because he went to college. And consequently the rules came to overshadow care in this group. Rules about food and illness overshadowed the care for the hungry and the ill. This overshadowing is not without issue. We can see two results emerging in the above examples.
The meals have been described in the journal practically every day. These passages (still from The Monkey-Rock) were clipped out. They cover the period from September through till May, and can be divided into two piles:
From the survey of all the narratives of these eight months it appears that in the descriptions (and so, taken for granted, in the experience and action) by the team, the task of disciplinarian by far overshadows that of care-giver. At meals, the staff members are most of all concerned with this question: "Can, or can't I keep order today?"
Narratives of a more relaxed atmosphere are to be found as well, though they are by far the minority. We can say then, at least as far as The Monkey-Rock at this period is concerned, that: the task of the child care workers leading the group, and within that, especially, the controlling task, overshadows that of care in mealtime situations.
Taking pot luck
That the boys have to eat whatever has been prepared for them is a rule that, as far as I know, is applied in most homes as it is in the Monkey-Rock. The consequences of this rule can be found in the journal of this group: having no appetite for something is interpreted as "breaking a rule".
Group worker Nia in this passage, accounts for her making an exception, by pointing at the necessity of nutrition; starting from the principle of care. This is something exceptional; the two boys do not even bother to ask - they stuff themselves with sweets beforehand. From the point of nutrition, not a very good thing; for bread is healthier than sweets. But the worker makes the rule outweigh the care for good nutrition: the ruling task overshadows that of care.
The worker's intention was to make the boys acquire these rules, and that they would feel safe within the structure, and, starting from that safety, to enter into relationships with the group workers. A very nice theory! And it sometimes looks like that is what is happening:
A very virtuous group, who seem to have acquired the rule. But just watch what really happens some days later:
In the presence of group workers, the boys proclaim their rules. But secretly, there is a quite different rule which goes: "When you get hungry, you get yourself something to eat, and in this you help each other. And you go against the group workers". This is not an individual law of Ferry's because Carlo helps him and Ken interferes too. These very boys are the three informal leaders of the group. Their behavior can undoubtedly be considered as representative of the real standards of the group. To the boys food is more important than rules - to people in general, I think! Many passages in the journal show just how important nice food is to the boys. It is fatal for the group climate when team and residents oppose each other about four times a day at this vital point. Subordinating care to discipline evokes a situation in which discipline seems even more necessary: a vicious circle.
There is another way
The above findings have been reported to the team. They became aware of fore mentioned overshadowing. Immediately changes came about. Starting the following day, some of the boys and a group worker cooked the meals. (Twice a week at first).
The rules were changed, and night-time sandwiches were introduced. A deal was made with the cook to supply them with more food, especially bread and milk.
In 17 out of 20 entries during the following six weeks, the aspect of care is predominant; in only three that of rules.
Since the group leaders were more active in their task of care, they had to be less concerned with rules and regulations.
In the evaluation of the project, Nia writes:
Meeting each other in everyday life
"The Sparrows Nest" is a group of eight older girls living in their own group home. At the start of the research project, a group worker's shift consisted mainly of holding long individual conversations in the staff room. The team at the time literally placed themselves outside of the girls everyday life's, and not inside. And the care of the housekeeping, the petty cash and such, were at first considered a nuisance in the shadow of the "actual work": talking about problems. In the journal, group worker Vera complains about having to keep the group cash-book.
Now, did this really work, this sitting in the staff room and shirking everyday life? No, it did not. Group worker William, for instance writes:
And at a team meeting Vera says about the atmosphere in the group: "The girls just drift from one day into another. There is not a bit of life in them. They are not themselves".
However much the team talked and stimulated, there was no good atmosphere in the group and the girls hardly developed.
Very slowly this changed. Shifts were spent more in the living-room, and less in the office. This was done on my advice. The group workers began to share the girls' everyday life. Together with them they took care of the living-room, the kitchen, the petty-cash, the dark-room, the garden and other daily activities. The result was not only that the house became more live able, but also that the relations between the staff and the girls changed: they met in everyday life now. Through this, the contact with the girls became more spontaneous and relaxed in Vera's words. Conflicts about the meals or washing the dishes could no longer be dodged, as they were at first, but because of the changed contact they could be solved. That provided a real basis for care. That basis is meeting in everyday life. You do not meet as the "talking care-giver" and "the girl with problems", but like ordinary people who get hungry by six p.m.- fellow human beings. You may be in different positions., but the differences can be bridged by everyday routine. Group worker Herman, in the written evaluation of the research project, puts it in these words:
Group worker William formulates tersely:
William points out that he has come to work more as a person, which enables him better to solve problems. And, he says:
The key task of group workers is helping to live. Most important and in this profession, essential resource is: sharing everyday life. Within that collective, responsibility for the housekeeping is the most fruitful meeting place. Therefore, I call care a key task for the group worker, the specialist in the ordinary.
Other reports from this research project
Gieles, Frans, Warmth and intimacy, how about them?
Gieles, F., How to act in everyday life conflicts In a residential living group; In: R. Soisson, Aktuelle Probleme Jugendlichen in der Heimerziehung in Europa, Texte zum internationalen Kongress, juni 1985, Luxemburg, FICE, Zürich, 1986
Gieles, Frans E.J., Conflict and Contact, An
investigation into various possibilities for action open to child care workers
when managing collisions and conflicts. in daily fife.