What do you think of Donald Trump? Seriously, think of some words you would use to describe him now. I reckon most of the readers of this blog will have had negative thoughts to say the least – I am making an assumption but it is an assumption I would stake my life on. Just out of interest, did you judge the behaviour and not the person? Like we’re meant to? I bet you didn’t.
As it happens, I quite like Donald Trump. I think much of what he say’s is very reasonable and why shouldn’t he try to ban all Muslims from the United States? Tut, tut…stop judging me (yes you were). You can relax, I don’t think that at all – I am a good social liberal – just like you, I promise. I know – I better be going somewhere with this fast. My point is – we all make judgments all the time and it is a denial of objective reality to claim that we do not.
In recent weeks I have heard the following phrases used by staff about children we look after: “I can’t stand him”. “They’re fucking idiots”. “She is manipulative”. “She’s disgusting.” “She is lazy”. And, the more common than you might imagine: “She/he has to go”. (Go where? I often wonder). Now – these kind of narrow-minded, global judgment are obviously wrong and unhelpful and I often judge the people who make them – although I shouldn’t be too holier-than-thou, two of those remarks were made by me (lazy/manipulative if you must know).
You may have had thought or said similar things yourself from time-to-time – it’s not really a problem. It becomes a problem if it closes down curiosity. So if I think or say “she is lazy” and treat that as some kind of immutable fact – something intrinsic – then obviously I can’t help her and could indeed so some damage. I should probably find a new job or, at least, take a holiday. If on the other hand “she is lazy” is a starting point for enquiry then we are in business.
Firstly, is she really lazy? Or am I just resenting the fact that she can sit around and I have had to drag myself into work or whatever? If in reflection she is repeatedly exhibiting a pattern of behaviour that could reasonably be described as lazy then the questions become: “Why is she so lacking in motivation?” “What can we do about it?” And so on. If I was to think “she is lazy” and then beat myself up for being judgmental then I would avoid thinking about the issue and would not be able to help. Worse still, I would not voice my thought and would not have the opportunity to explore it with other people.
Of course, it is only my opinion that extreme laziness is a problem that needs solving anyway. I think it is likely to lead to a young person having a difficult and unfulfilling life, but that’s a judgment too – a value judgment.
Even comments like: “they’re fucking idiots” can be thought about and given meaning – used as a way in to thinking in a helpful way about traumatised children. My issue with colleagues is never the initial judgment but the lack of curiosity and thought. Of course, it is much more comfortable not to think about this stuff. The remark: “she’s disgusting” would lead to the question: “why does she want to disgust people”. This would lead to thinking about very disturbing aspect of her past experience and the very real impact of those experiences in the here-and-now. The abuse enters the room. Much easier to just be “non-judgmental” or to silently judge my colleagues for being judgmental (of course many are and would run a mile from the kind of thinking and discussion I propose here).
When the serious case review into the into the Oxfordshire CSE scandal was published a few years, a children’s home worker was criticised for describing an exploited and abused child as making “a lifestyle choice”. I wasn’t as surprised by this as I should have been because a couple of years earlier I had sat in a S47 strategy meeting used exactly the same phrase to describe a 14 year-old girl at the children’s home I worked at who was being similarly exploited. Well…that’s nice and non-judgmental, very much “each to there own”. Saves us having to think about the uncomfortable reality of what was actually happening – or even acknowledging our own impotence and how hard it was to keep her safe.
This attitude also impacts on direct work with young people – “you can’t put words in their mouth”, “don’t make assumptions about how they are feeling”, “they’ll talk about it is they want to.” All very well if you’re taking a safeguarding disclosure but not really necessary when your asking them how they feel about the contact they have just had with mum. If they say “fine” it is entirely legitimate to say “I wonder if you might be feeling a bit sad/angry/confused…” Or whatever seems appropriate at the time (use your judgment). Even on my psychotherapeutic counselling training I hear fellow students say “you shouldn’t put words in their mouth”. Which sometimes makes me think, “what the fuck are you talking about? He’s five years-old – he doesn’t have words and needs you to help him understand what he is feeling”.
But it’s so much easier – don’t be curious, don’t enquire, don’t open up a can of worms – who knows what you might discover!
It sounds right – a non-judgmental approach – and in theory it is right. But too much poor care of children and too many poor decisions are made because professionals hide behind the veil of a “non-judgmental approach” to avoid having to think about and confront some very difficult and toxic material.