By John Stein
Date Posted: 15th December, 2011
John Stein has worked in human services for all of his career. He started off as a police officer, he became a community organizer while working on his undergraduate degree in psychology. He has an M.Ed in Social Restoration, and he is a Certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist but he has not allowed that to limit his ever evolving therapeutic approach. John directed programs for both adults and children in corrections, residential treatment, and inpatient and outpatient mental health settings in Pennsylvania and Louisiana. He is the author of “Residential Treatment of Adolescents and Children: Issues, Principles, and Techniques”, 1995, Nelson-Hall, Chicago. Since his retirement over six years ago, John has presented numerous workshops for parents and professionals, has written several articles on children’s issues and he travels widely. We are grateful to John for his generosity in time, endeavour and insight as a contributor to the goodenoughcaring Journal.
From My Dad
In the previous issue, I wrote about what I learned from my mother. What she taught me about behaving well, thinking about and anticipating consequences (not punishment–she didn’t do much of that) served me well, both personally and professionally in my work with children. Then I started thinking about what I had gotten from my father. He taught me things–how to play ball, ride a bike, and drive a car. But it wasn’t what he taught me that was most important, it was what he gave me.
My father was an unique man. I didn’t appreciate him fully when I was younger. An only child, I was raised mostly by my mother, who was a stay -at-home mom until I was about eleven or twelve years old. She handled the discipline and any problems I might have had.
My father was a construction engineer. He worked long hours, including weekends. I now realize just how exhausted he must have been when he came home. After I turned ten, many of his jobs were out of town. For some of them, he came home only on weekends. For a few, he came home only perhaps one weekend each month after a long, difficult and tiring drive on back roads, through small towns, and through cities with heavy traffic and lots of traffic lights. His influence on my life, however, was I now suspect, quite profound.
When I was little, he would hold me on his lap before bedtime, ‘tickling’ my back with his fingers. It was most relaxing, a real treat for me, an ”ants in the pants” kid who probably would have merited an ADHD diagnosis in today’s climate of diagnoses and medications. It was the only physical affection I knew as a child. Our Pennsylvania German culture was not big on the hugs and “I love you’s” that are commonplace here in Louisiana, nor was my mother. I never doubted her affection for me, but she did not express it physically. I suspect that without experiencing that physical affection from my father, I would not have developed the potential to either express or to experience affection physically.
However, most importantly, I think, was the fact that he was never, ever critical of me, with one exception.
When I was about ten years old, the three of us, my mother, my father, and I, went to the kitchen during the long commercial break at the top of the hour to get our snacks for the last show before bedtime. I carried some of the food into the living room. A clumsy child (ADHD?), I dropped my stuff, shattering a jar of peanuts–our favorite snack. Trying to pick up the peanuts scattered all over the floor among the shards of glass, I felt terrible for making a mess and spoiling everyone’s evening, including my own. My father belitted me for my careless clumsiness. Devastated, I went crying to my room. My father came to me soon after, apologizing profoundly. I don’t remember anything he said. I was hysterical. I couldn’t imagine ever recovering. I resisted his every effort, but he stuck with me. After a few minutes, I was calming down. In a few more minutes, he even got me laughing. Eventually, I was able to return to the living room and enjoy the rest of the show and what was left of our snacks (my mother had managed to salvage some of the peanuts).
Other than that one incident, I do not remember my father ever making me feel small. Anything I did was ok with him. Much of what I did was even better than ok. In short, with that one exception, which he somehow managed to make better, he was always a totally positive influence in my life. He never, ever again gave any indication that I had somehow disappointed him. He never ever suggested that I could have or should have done better, or that he was disappointed in something I had done or failed to do. And there were several times when I am sure he wished that I had done better, or at least differently. But whatever I did, he was there with his full support.
I remember my first auto accident with his car. I was ‘cruising’ past a girl’s house, coming to an intersection. I saw no stop sign and didn’t stop. (There was a stop sign, but it was totally obscured by a big truck that was illegally parked in the crosswalk.) I saw the car and jammed on the brakes, stopping almost in time, but not quite. My front bumper just barely caught a Cadillac, denting the front fender, both doors, and the rear fender–the whole side of a Cadillac! Had the driver swerved just a foot (30 centimeters), there would have been no damage, no accident. But the accident was clearly my responsibility. We exchanged information and I drove home most carefully to confess my accident, ready to forfeit my driving privileges. My father talked with me for a time, then handed me the car keys and a few dollars and sent me to the tobacco shop to get him some cigars, something he always had done for himself. He knew my confidence was shaken, but his was not, so he gave me the chance to restore my own.
My father’s dream was for me to become an engineer. I had shown some talent for building as a child with my building blocks and Erector Set, designing some of my own buildings. We all took it for granted throughout my childhood that I would become an engineer. I never even thought of anything else. When it was time for college, my father sent me to an expensive top-rated engineering school. In the first week of my second year, I decided that engineering was not the course of study for me. I wanted to drop out for a year. He arranged for us to meet with career counselors at the university. They convinced me to remain in school and change my major to psychology. That worked. I was fascinated by psychology and the concurrent courses in sociology. Then, in my third year, I wanted to marry my high school sweetheart. I convinced my father that we would both finish college. Once again, he supported my decision, purchasing a mobile home for us near the college she attended, while I commuted to my school. And then, in my final year, failing because of poor attendance, I dropped out of school. That must have been a real blow to him. He had invested a lot in my education. But once again, no recriminations, no criticism. Again, only his full support. (Eventually, after seven more years, I finished my degree and went on to earn a master’s degree a year later).
All of which puts me in mind of the first social worker I ever knew, Dick Cass. He was an MSW educated and trained in Boston with a specialization in Community Organization. (They don’t seem to do much of that anymore.) He directed a neighborhood center in one of the public housing projects in our town, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. With my three years of psychology, I had just been hired by the poverty program to direct two other neighborhood centers not nearly so professional as that of Dick Cass. One of Dick’s goals was to establish city-wide tenants councils to negotiate with the housing authority. As a result, he recruited me to work with him to organizing our tenants. After meetings, Dick and I would go for a few beers and discuss progress and plans for our next efforts.
The thing that amazed me most about Dick was that he never, ever, said anything negative about anyone, including all those people with whom he worked–adults, children, adolescents. All he ever talked about was their accomplishments and how great they were. To hear him talk, you would think these impoverished ‘dependents on the public dole’ were as good as anyone. He never talked about their problems, their limitations, their deficiencies, and most certainly not their diagnoses. All he ever talked about was their accomplishments. In fact, he was bragging about them. To hear Dick talk, they had no limitations, only accomplishments.
Dick trusted people to make their own decisions. For example, when he wanted to hire a Child and Youth Care Worker, he gathered the kids in the neighborhood to interview the applicants and make the decision about whom to hire. He said they were the ones who had to live with the decision and he trusted them to make the decision. He convinced me to use the same process to hire a street worker for kids in my neighborhood. (I have always used that procedure since then whenever I was allowed to do so, even in residential settings. The kids never failed to identify and hire the best candidates).
The way Dick thought about people and trusted people stuck with me. I only hope it stuck with me enough with my own kids and after I began working in residential treatment programs. I am just now appreciating how my father did the same with me.
With my own kids, I wanted the best for them. (Don’t we all?) I wanted them to do everything well. I like to think I did not pay too much attention to when they didn’t, to when they got something wrong, and trusted them with my support for another chance. My father took it for granted that I would do well. Consequently, so do I.. I like to think my children also take it for granted that they will do well.
Residential treatment programs are another matter. There, the natural tendency to focus on problems is almost overwhelming. After all, it’s problems that get kids into treatment. It’s solving those problems that gets them out of treatment. But what does that do to kids, focusing on their problems? Do their problems then become their identity? Do they then begin to identify with their diagnoses? Do they then think of themselves as failures?
There is much in the literature about identifying strengths and focusing on strengths. In practice, the strengths that I have too often seen identified are trivial–physically attractive, pleasant, well groomed, good at sports, resilient…Lots of stuff that amounts to little or nothing when compared with the problems that are so clearly delineated in social histories and case files, along with the resultant diagnoses.
What must it have meant to those folks who had the privilege of being around Dick Cass? He didn’t think of himself as working with them. Rather, he lived among them. He bought a house in the neighborhood and raised his own family there. I can only wonder what he must have done for their self esteem and their self confidence–the same things my father did for me.
I like who I am today and always have. My mother taught me a lot about life and how to behave well, to think about and anticipate consequences and make good decisions. I needed her criticism and the self discipline she taught me so skillfully. (She taught discipline rather than imposing it.) My father, well, he taught me things, too. But I also need so much more what he gave me. He gave me permission to make my own decisions, including my own mistakes, and his uncompromising support in everything I did. To my father, I was always a worthwhile human being. Consequently, I never saw myself as anything else. I never questioned my self-worth. That, most importantly, gave me the confidence to face challenges and take the necessary risks to overcome them and be the better for it. When I made mistakes, and I have made some dandies, my focus was on how to move on.
There are many challenges in life, especially in the field of child and youth care. I like to believe that in some way that I have given the children I have known, including my own, the confidence to face and overcome their own challenges. I know some have, for they have returned to share their successes. Others…I can only hope.