Generosity, Learning and Residential Child Care

By Max Smart

Date Posted: Saturday, 11 December 2010


Max Smart is the manager of a home for young people in Scotland


Generosity, Learning and Residential Child Care


Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth

Muhammad Ali


I was mowing the lawn the other day. Two weeks had gone by and I had neglected the lawn, being a bit preoccupied with some training I was booked to deliver. Whilst mowing, I noticed the lawn of my elderly neighbour was also overgrown.  Irene, my neighbour, is in her 70’s still sprightly, but her hands get sore with arthritis so I cut her grass also. As I pulled the lawnmower from my garden to hers a 10-year-old boy who also lives in the same street approached me. He sat on Irene’s wall and watched me intently as I cut Irene’s grass. He struck up conversation and asked me, with childhood curiosity, why I was cutting my neighbour’s lawn.  He asked, “Why cut someone else’s grass, it’s not your grass”.

My nine year old then appeared and struck up conversation with the other boy, and was asked by this child, “why does your dad cut Irene’s grass?  Aiden,my son, replied frankly, “ ‘Cause Irene’s hands are sore … so my dad does her grass”.

Had I thought faster I would have got into a conversation with the boys about helping others but I missed it as Aiden had taken over, but the conversation got me thinking and inspired me to write this article; something I had promised Charles Sharpe a few months previously and had forgotten about. What got me thinking was the notion and the surprise of the other boy, that helping someone else was a strange thing to do. It got me thinking about acts that are apparently without material reward and how we perceive them in our fast moving society.  It brought to mind when (Cutler, 2001) lamented, “we seem to have stopped doing things because they are kind or fair or the decent thing to do”.

So has that spirit of generosity gone, is it still out there but subtly obscured from our day-to-day vision? Whilst these questions are general ones for our society, our times and our culture, I’m interested in these questions not only out of my own curiosity about the human condition but also specifically from an interest about how emotional growth can be fostered in residential care. So let’s understand what is generosity?

Re-enabling a Spirit of Generosity

Generosity involves giving to others. It may take many forms: time, caring, recognition, material goods, and services but all involve a giving of self or a part of self for the benefit of all.  Cobb, (1976), reports that “humans function best when they are part of a community of mutual social support.  As they fulfil obligations to others, they discover that they are valued and esteemed”.  Cobb’s assertion resonates with my experiences of raising my own children and also of working with children in residential care. When their needs are met, confidence grows and young people grow and thrive.
Generosity is not selflessness however. It does not discount the person’s own interests. If people are to be generous they require balancing their needs as well as the needs of others. A person who is generous has an appreciation that what is given does come back in the kind acts of others. It is what Hans Selye (1978) refers to as “reciprocal altruism” giving to others with no expectations of material rewards as it comes back later, (Fulcher & Garfat, 2008). So, there is something that is balanced here; we give and receive over time. As Brokenleg (1999) reports, “Altruism is inbom, and the rudiments of empathy are apparent even in a newborn”.

Teaching Generosity

My assertion here is that generosity is both biological and taught. It is taught not just by parents and grandparents but also by extended families, communities and societies. Human beings are experiential learners and we learn by example. However, we also teach by example and if our young are taught caring and consideration for others, modelled by the examples of their care givers they are likely to demonstrate the same behaviour. The opportunities for demonstrating generosity are numerous.  In making a sandwich with your child you can ask what they think their friend would like in their sandwich and encourage your child to make the sandwich for their friend.
These opportunities occur hundreds of times in my home, as I’m sure they do in yours. They are what Adrian Ward describes as opportunity led, day-to-day, moment-to-moment learning that becomes internalised.  This teaching by example is potent.  It allows discussion about other people’s wants and needs, changing the emphasis from self to other. Generosity also tastes good; it connects us to others and reinforces bonding.  In short, being aware of the needs of others feels good.
Generosity therefore, is not separate from the meeting of other growth needs and therefore seems to be as much about being connected and attached, as it is to confidence and competence. For example, we would find it hard to be generous if our survival is compromised; wouldn’t we all struggle to be generous if we didn’t belong?  We should remember that our primary attachments arise out of dependency, (Cairns, 2010), and humans are interdependent in order to survive. Human evolution has been predicated upon banding together to survive where all are mutually dependent on each other to endure. This has been a guiding tenet of tribal life throughout human history, (Brokenleg, 1997).  Giving to others and giving back to the community are fundamental core values in many Native cultures, where adults stressed generosity and unselfishness to young people as this contributed to the good of all, (Strand, 2003).
“Helping others,” teaches young people about connection and interdependence with other human beings.  Learning that they are interrelated to each other in the community helps form a sense of obligation to other people and caring beyond one’s immediate family (Lickona, 1983).  So I suspect that generosity has been “hard wired” into human psychology but it needs to be fed and nurtured for it to survive.

Generosity in Residential Care

I have been privileged to work with young people in residential care since 1995. The young people I have encountered enter care with fear and suspicion. Their “private logic” (Redl & Wineman, 1951) about the world they have encountered is one where they have had to take care of themselves as others have not taken care of them in the way they should have.  Consequently this logic leads to a significant mistrust of adults and adult motivations. Often this private logic leads to actions that from outside observation can be seen as selfishness, an attitude of, look after number 1 or I have to take care of me because no-one else will.
The behaviours that look selfish are often just coping strategies, albeit self-defeating coping strategies, from their past. When entering the world of residential care, feeling threatened and insecure, it is hard for these youngsters to invest and connect. The pain of past experiences combined with confusion of the present, leads many at-risk youngsters to act out and to push away adult help and support further away.
Acts of generosity must seem a luxury ill afforded.  Yet, the purpose of residential care, in my opinion, should not be to “fix” these troubled young people.  It should be to help young people grow and develop and to “massage the numb values” (Redl, 2008) that lie dormant in our young people.  Simply put, our task is to demonstrate that they are not on their own and that we all survive with interdependence and not alone in isolation.  As Quigley (2004) observes, “being connected is a commonly missing developmental piece in the life of at-risk children”.
Acts of generosity build connectedness and these acts of kindness should be modelled by adults in the care setting.  As Quigley (2004) suggests, “receiving help and helping others is a way to develop the interconnectivity that is needed to bind people together in common community”.  When kindness is offered young people are given opportunities to reciprocate with others; a staging post in the development of moral reasoning, “which can help a troubled adolescent begin to make better decisions”, (Quigley, 2004).
This would concur with Brendtro’s (2004) observation that people who experience kindness and generosity – learn to return it.  Offers of kindness and generosity, however, should not be taken for granted.  Responsibility and learning to be responsible are also part of growing up.  This means that one does not tread on the rights of others and if someone has done something wrong they should apologise and repair what has been broken, particularly broken relationships.
We should remember that an apology is in itself a generous act; “because it puts one in a position of humility”, (Brokenleg, 1999). When we resolve conflicts we “take on the perspective of the other before reaching resolution”, (Fulcher, 2008) and these acts of kindness apply to adults and young people alike.  Long (1997) advises that one of the most powerful therapeutic interventions is simple kindness, and small acts of kindness can have massive pay back as young people grow to believe that they matter to someone else.  Long reports,
Just as sunlight is the source of energy that maintains organic life, kindness is the source of energy that maintains and gives meaning to humanity. Without sunlight and kindness, neither organic nor compassionate life can exist on this planet

Putting Generosity on the UK Residential Radar

Although the childcare sectors in the US and South Africa have been talking and writing about generosity as a developmental area for many years, it has received scant attention in a UK childcare context.  Generosity needs to be given a place in our understanding about the growth needs of our young people in care settings.  As Quigley (2004) advises “teaching children to help other human beings is to equip them with a practical set off social skills that will assist them throughout life”.
Just as the generation of empathy and understanding are laudable goals in rearing children at home, they should also be imperative in the development of quality care environments for children away from home.  Consequently, we need to elevate sector and practitioner understanding of the importance of generosity and place it firmly on the UK residential radar.  We need to create climates of mutual concern, where adults and young people care for and about each other, with a strong sense of community.  This means that we need to teach and model generous behaviours in our relationships with our young people.
Generous behaviours can be practically modelled in the daily lifespace via compliments of others, via speculation in our day-to-day encounters about the needs and wishes of others and by stories about how generous acts from others towards you have helped in your life.  We can model genuine respect for others, practice empathy and understanding and can build generosity into our cultures and our care settings.  Positive cultures of care are created by a focus on relationships and responses to growth needs.  Promoting growth and development and the creation of strengths rather than deficit based thinking, seems to me to be far more creative than concentrating on the elimination of negative behaviours of troubled young people.

The Value of Generosity

Martin Brokenleg, Clergyman and co-author of the renowned book “Reclaiming Youth at Risk” (1990) advises people to look at the Lakota phrase “Mitakuye Oyasin” which translated means, “we are all relatives.”  This notion of community giving goes back a thousand years in tribal societies but it is something Western societies may need to reconnect with.  If we do we will encounter true generosity, where communities reach out to young people in difficulty and pain to find healing and belonging.  This may diminish the need to lash out in the anger and frustration we see in delinquency and crime.  For a lot of youngsters in our care, generosity and kindness may be that first encounter with a safer and more helpful world.
We will leave the last words to Winston Spencer Churchill who famously wrote “we make a living by what we do but we make a life by what we give”.  So, I think I will continue to cut Irene’s grass, because it makes me feel good, as well as being something that helps Irene.  Hopefully, when my hands are sore later on in life, someone will do the same for me!
Max Smart
Assistant Residential Services Manager
Lothian Villa
East Lothian Council
30 June 2010


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