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Care as a key task

Dr. Frans Gieles, The Netherlands
Published in Dutch magazine and book, 1983, 1987


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

The care of the living-room, the food, the physical well-being and the clothes of the residents is an important task of the child care workers. It is no good organizing such a task out of their job and leaving the bulk of this work to other employees. With that the team would give away an essential element of their task and narrow their work to the regulation of group life and holding conversations. And that would be too weak a foundation is enable them to their actual work; living with children and helping them to live.

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:

  1. As a tedious, boring and time consuming job for the team; but also:

  2. As an expression of careful attention to the residents.

  3. As an occasion for the training of the handling of money, co-operation and the care of oneself and of others.

  4. As a meaningful way of spending time; the care of meals, for instance, can be a stimulus. residents who were unemployed or did not go to school, become enthusiastic, and were valued for their concern.

  5. As a joint activity of child care workers and residents, in which they work together and not as opponents.

  6. As a fruitful meeting place: when busy in daily activities you meet each other sooner and better than in conversations.

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)

"Otto still going about with a gruff look on his face; he pretends to be Mr. Tough Guy and tries to get Ferry to join him. They were grumbling about rules like "No sandwiches at night".

The day after that shows the following:

"At bedtime, Henry tried to collar a quick sandwich, but he missed the bus".

Ferry takes over the protest; three days later we may reed:

"Around nine p.m. Ferry gives me a hard time about food. I refused to give him any after consulting Uwe, the child psychologist".

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.

  1. This method evokes resistance: Staff and residents become opponents, at the very moment the boys are hungry, or feel ill. This cannot be without consequences for their relationships.

  2. Problems about care (nutrition and health problems) are given the characteristics of disciplinary problems. A request for food is answered "psychologically" accompanied with a rule. Having an appetite for something at an "irregular hour" is felt as "giving a person a hard time" in the minds of the staff. This overshadowing can also be observed during the regular meals.

The meals

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:

  1. One huge pile consisting of those passages dealing, not so much with the meal or the food, as with the group process: the meal as a group experience and the staff member playing the rolê of disciplinarian. If he is successful in keeping order, the atmosphere at the table can be very sociable, and these occasions are regularly to be found in the journal. Very often, however, the narrative of the meal is in fact the report of one or more conflicts. An example from the huge pile: 

"The meal was a bustle, a regular hen-house. Otto was late, so he had take his dinner upstairs. I kept on pressing them for silence, attention, cleaning up the mess, etc. Towards the end they calmed down a little".

  1. One tiny pile (also) deals with the food itself, and (also) describes the meal as an occasion for care with the staff member playing the part of care-giver.  Many of these passages contain conflicts too. Like the following: 

"In the morning Ken was making a nuisance of himself, messing about with the fire-hose. All this on account of the cheese running out, and the peanut butter not being divided equally".

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?"

"At table I felt edgy; not al all relaxed. Not until after dinner did I realize how I had sat there; actually waiting to blow my top, while my irritation was as its height already".

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".

"I made an exception to the rule. Nigel had not had anything to sat all day, and he absolutely does not like the macaroni as it is prepared by our cook. He usually enjoys the food. That is why I gave him permission to fix himself some sandwiches. But Peter, the other worker, at his table has already forbidden Ferry and Ken to make sandwiches instead of macaroni. They usually only eat sweets. Ferry and Ken did not even ask, but I would have forbidden them, anyway".

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:

"At dinner I gave Ferry and Nigel permission to have a sandwich. The group protested and it was their opinion that everybody had to take pot luck. Excellent of the boys to come up with this by themselves".

A very virtuous group, who seem to have acquired the rule. But just watch what really happens some days later:

"Ferry did not like his dinner and asked for some bread. The group reacted with 'take pot luck'. Ferry remained at table, and when all the rest gone, he tried as yet to come by some bread. I took it away from him. After some time I saw Carlo walking about with a bag of bread, which he wanted to give to Ferry. In this way I got into conflict with Ferry and Carlo, and Ken too".

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).

"Ferry and Nigel were busy all afternoon preparing and cooking dinner. With all their hearts the two of them were cutting, washing, and last but not least, kneading the lettuce. Wholeheartedly, they mixed it with two and a half yars of mayonnaise. They looked gorgeous with their faces all abeam. The food was delicious; nearly all was eaten, though they had not made a problem of the quantity. Too bad there was no camera present!"

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. 

The boys took great pains, notably Ferry, whose name was often heard in connection with conflicts about meals before that time. The preparation of meals appeared to be very stimulating: it had to arrive on time and it had to be good and tasty. The boys were engaged in it actively and seriously, with a sense of responsibility and with great fun. And, which is very important for the climate, together with the group workers, who are able to reduce their role of disciplinarians as a result, in favor of their roles as caregivers. And the taste of the food had been improved however good the cook may have been!!

"I had prepared the boys a strange combination for dinner: pancakes stuffed with meat and vegetables. I introduced this as a new recipe and they sold like hotcakes. And dinner was all peace and quiet this time".

In the evaluation of the project, Nia writes: 

"I think the cooking goes just fine. It had great results, and goes by itself now. Ferry's part in this has been very good for him and for us too".

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. 

"What a waste of energy! You know, I'm just not interested. To be honest, I think it is a waste of time!"

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:

"I find it hard to swallow how many people here just do whatever they like from day to day, when meanwhile the communal part of the house is often in a mess. In my opinion, it creates an atmosphere of 'I could not care less'."

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:

"Care is no longer separated from, but is a part of everyday life".

Group worker William formulates tersely: 

"There is more living together, and consequently more sharing of experiences".

And that:

"Through increasing attention to daily care, and a better organization of it, (...) an atmosphere of affection has grown".

William points out that he has come to work more as a person, which enables him better to solve problems. And, he says:

"This is only possible on the basis of the whole show of house keeping and care".

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. 
Dissertation by Frans E.J. Gieles. University of Groningen, The Netherlands, 1992.

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