“Accidental Social Working?”–Only Fools Rush In

My husband and I are big “Baby Whisperer” fans. Well, OK, we were, with our first son, and then when we had twins we fully embraced the whole “do absolutely anything that seems to work in the moment” philosophy in order to manage life with 3 kids aged 2 and under. But, in my rare moments to reflect on parenting, I still think that the Baby Whispering advice makes sense–basically, take time to know your baby, to figure out what is really going on with him/her, and be purposeful and present, emotionally as well as physically, in order to develop healthy patterns of interaction and help babies figure out how to comfort themselves. The whole idea is to avoid what she calls ‘accidental parenting’, where, in an attempt to rapidly fix some problem, we end up missing the bigger picture.

That’s a big part of the way that I parent, really, which is somewhat surprising, perhaps, given that, before I was a mom, I tended to rush through life, making decisions on the fly and managing crisis after crisis. As a parent, soon to be of 3 toddlers, I think that the idea of hanging back a bit, diagnosing before acting, and trying to get to the root of problems is what has helped my kids to adjust to the world as well as they have (not that I haven’t succumbed to the ‘just give him children’s Tylenol’ temptation at 3AM before!).

I thought of Baby Whispering in class the other day (it’s funny, sometimes, how much my mind jumps from Mommy to social work mode, and back). In the global poverty course, my students were working through a poverty simulation exercise that I developed to help them understand a bit more intimately the problems that people around the world face as they attempt to survive in the current global economic order. I broke them into 3 groups of 4, and each group was assigned to read through one of the family case scenarios–Ohio, Mexico, or the Philippines. They had to answer a series of questions and also make decisions, given the real price information that I included. Students certainly took it seriously, and the feedback that I received was pretty positive–they did feel that it helped to personalize somewhat our earlier lecture and discussion regarding the nature of poverty in the global economy.

But what I observed, and what made me think of baby whispering, was the way in which all 3 groups, independently, tended to jump to judgment about the families and their actions, and tended to immediately look to micro-level ‘solutions’ to deal with some of the symptoms of the problems. For example, the group talking about the Marshall family from Ohio focused in on how the family might trim its grocery bill with some more selective shopping, what might help Todd better deal with his decimated financial position in order to get his drinking under control, and how to counsel the family to adjust their expectations in line with their reduced economic position. Certainly some of those interventions are valid responses to the Marshalls’ very real, very urgent pain, but none of them begin to discuss what is causing the Marshalls’ hardship or how, indeed, those root causes are threatening the very existence of the middle class in much of the United States. Kind of like putting your baby in the swing for yet another nap, because at least it gets her to go to sleep, even though you still haven’t figured out why she hates that crib that she needs to learn to sleep in.

I think that social workers are often ‘guilty’ of this. We want to fix things, and the root causes are often much harder to fix, so we zero in on that which brings some quick relief. We are attuned more to the pyschological impact of poverty and discrimination than the political and economic conditions that contribute to them. We focus on individuals, the level of intervention where we feel most comfortable, rather than social structures, where the real problems are.

As I circulated among the groups, talking with students, I found myself probing in ways not unlike the Baby Whisperer. She had a catchy acronym for it: STOP: Stop, Listen, Observe, What’s Up? I encouraged them to take a step back and ask critical questions about the families’ situations and the conditions that contribute to them, before trying to intervene. I challenged them to really listen to what the individuals involved were saying about their circumstances, their fears, their goals, their very real anger. And I insisted that they examine the injustices at work, the structural reforms needed, and the role that they as social workers could play in pursuing such radical change, before they applied more micro-level interventions that, while often a component of how we render aid (just as I don’t believe in just letting a baby cry and cry), will at best fail to prevent the same problem from recurring and at worst will mask the true structural violence of a system that creates crises.

Just as, in those weak moments in the middle of the night, as a parent I tend to reach for whatever I think will make the crying stop, so, too, do we as social workers sometimes grab desperately (in the dark!) for something to stop the bleeding, so to speak. But it is my hope, in this class and as an instructor more generally, to give my students some of the tools they need, in the light of day and with a more well-rested perspective, to work towards new systems that will help all of the vulnerable people we serve sleep easier.

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