Gerry Fewster

Nowadays, it’s rare to come across any definition of Child and Youth Care that doesn’t include the word “relationship”. Since the same thing cannot be said about psychiatry, psychology, social work or teaching, it might be assumed that this is actually the connecting element, or quality, of this otherwise diverse profession. But if you look closely at how this term is used, you will probably see that most Child and Youth Care practitioners view their relationships with their young “clients” as vehicles for change, crucibles for the alchemy of many ambitions. This is usually expressed as the “use of the relationship”, in much the same way as we talk about the “use of the Self”. Personally, I find both these statements to be equally repulsive. Let me explain.

As I see it, the essence of life is the experience and expression of Self. Since the Self emerges through relationships, they are inseparable aspects of being human. Together they are both the means and the ends. The idea of using them to achieve some other purpose is simply absurd. What else is there?

My basic proposition is that all that we are, and all that we will ever be, stems from our relationships with others from the moment of our conception to the time of our departure. This means that all of our struggles are born in relationships and can only be resolved through relationships of one form or another. In its own way, every relationship, new or old, reveals something of who we are and of the work that still lies ahead. Only through the process of co-creating relationships can we come to know our Selves, explore our potentials and breathe life into our passions. Only by sustaining relationships can we learn what it means to be both autonomous and connected at the same time – how to make choices and take responsibility for our actions while remaining sensitive to those around us. That’s it.

So, if child and youth care people are serious about this relationship business, why do they continue to play around on the periphery, searching for the discarded remnants of the “fix it” brigade? The answer lies in one word – fear. But, what is there to be afraid of? Again, one word will suffice – uncertainty.

At the broadest level, the task of most professions is to create a sense of security, if not certainty. Why do you think we are so anxious to set goals and measure outcomes? Relationships that expose the Self are risky unpredictable affairs and the learning that occurs can be profoundly unsettling. Why else would we try to protect our Selves behind our roles and define our purpose in terms of influencing the lives of others? But, however much we play the game, we know that we can never offer others what we ourselves don’t have and we can never take others where we have never been. Better to keep up the professional facade and throw in the word “relationships” as if it really meant something.

But, if we are really serious about relationships as the core of this profession, then we must be prepared to confront our fears, dismantle the pretenses and step boldly into the black hole of uncertainty. This begins by looking inward, developing an insatiable curiosity about our Selves along with the willingness to express whatever we find there. This is what Paul Tillich calls “the courage to be”. Only from this place can we invite others to do likewise. People who are able to make this shift experience a profound transformation in their personal, and professional, relationships. They have little desire to fix or cure others, to make them happy or to harbour any pre-conceived ambitions on their behalf. For them, the relationship is more about communion than communication – caring about rather than a taking care of. For me, the word that best defines such relationships is “mutuality” and the only way to move through the fear is to actually go there … again and again.

Leaping into the unknown arouses fear in some and excitement in others. Seasoned sky-divers step from the plane with their minds alert and their senses tingling, always knowing that each jump will be like no other. They come alive. Yet they are also well aware of the risks involved and always make sure that they are well prepared for whatever type of descent they are attempting. In this sense, they are professionals. Their training is thorough and incremental, but all is pointless unless they have what it takes to step through that blustery door. In much the same way, the Child and Youth Care practitioner who is serious about relationships will prepare well for each encounter with the unknown, moving to each level with new skills and renewed confidence. This isn’t about being there, it’s about going there. But if there is no tingling of the senses, no clarity of mind, or if fear slams the door, then there will be no Self to bring to the party. It will remain a pretense that can only end in frustration and burn-out – the most common disease of those who set out to change other people’s lives.

From: CYC-Online 25, February 2001