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Are We Family?

In several interviews, a subtle shifting back and forth was observed between the discourses of ordinariness and family. The former appeared in the volunteers' descriptions of their role as an 'adult friend' to the child or an 'extra adult' in the child's life, rather than a (substitute) parent. The younger volunteers, especially, saw themselves more like adult friends, or big sisters or brothers. The goal was to provide enjoyment, novel experiences and variety in the child's everyday life, and not educate and discipline the child as parents are expected to do. This idea of the volunteer's role was often justified by arguing that it was helpful also for the parent(s), as it enabled parents to relax a while from their parenting tasks and enjoy some time on their own. Being 'like an older sibling' was further justified as providing a 'role model' for the child, on the assumption that this is what older siblings often are for their younger siblings.

I have thought of myself as more like a kind of older sister or a pal. Like sometimes I might join in some clowning, crazy play. She [the child's mother] sometimes says that the pair of us are rascals or something like that. So at least consciously, I am not trying to be any kind of a model adult, but instead more like a big sister. (I3)

A shift into a familial metaphor – being 'an older sister' – and avoidance of direct references to parenting can be seen in the above quotation. Some volunteers, however, liked to identify themselves more clearly as parental figures such as 'a substitute grandpa' (I2) or 'an extra adult to help the child's parents raise the child' (I10), in which case the 'parenting' might extend even to disciplining the child. Even when the volunteers took no overt position regarding performing a (co-)parenting role, they tended to share a conviction that family life is constituted in and through specific functions and rituals, such as regular meal times, daily
outdoor activities, and showing children how to behave (cf. Bourdieu 1996, 21–2; also Regner and Johnsson 2007, 323–4).

Our regular meeting day is Tuesday, and he [the child] knows it. He gets collected in the morning and we go to my place where I cook a meal, we eat, he's busy doing something. From the beginning he has laid the table and taken his own place at the table, a particular chair. And in a way a certain regular pattern has been kept, because in a way he needs this kind of ordinary thing and orderliness. (I10)

The parenting discourse was evident also in the documentary data: in some cases, the support person was characterized as a kind of substitute parent, i.e. an adult who takes on (some of) the responsibilities conventionally understood as parental duties (D1; D3; D6; D7, 16–17, 32–3; see also Degner, Henriksen, and Oscarsson 2010, 329).

In the documentary data, children were represented as 'hungry for an adult' (e.g. D6, 19). This idiom has appeared extensively in media and public debates in recent years (e.g. Jallinoja 2006, 136). The 'hunger' for adult company was believed to be caused by the 'fragile social networks' provided by the child's own family, or by family problems deriving from parental exhaustion, economic distress, or mental or drug problems. Parents were believed unable to give their children adequate attention and to be satisfactorily 'present in their children's lives' (D6, 19; also D7, 25). If 'a child needs at least one harmonious and safe relation based on trust during his/her adolescence' (D4), then the support person is cast as in the role of the safe and trustworthy adult who will 'give children time and presence, and the undivided attention that they hunger for' (D6, 39; also D3; D8, 9).

Echoes of such beliefs were also heard in the interviews. Expert advice abounds in the media, instructing parents to give their children time in the 'right' way, by being truly present in their daily lives, being interested in their lives and listening to them (e.g. Jallinoja 2006, 126–7). This advice clearly resonated with the interviewees, who held that their position as an extra adult with qualities of being safe and reliable and providing the child with the opportunity of acquiring experiences that the child would otherwise not have was a positive factor in the child's life. This is in line with Degner, Henriksen and Oscarsson (2010, 324), who argue that the foundational idea behind PSP derives from psychodynamic thinking based on John Bowlby's attachment theory.

In addition to the requirement of a 'safe adult', several volunteers reflected on the issue of gender. The enormous need for male support persons came out in both the interviews and documentary data (D7, 25; D4; D2; see also Valtiontalouden tarkastusvirasto 2012, 40). In some interviews, absent fathers were mentioned as risking their children's, especially boys', healthy development and growth (also Regnér and Johansson 2007, 322). The younger volunteers however tended to treat the gender issue as fairly irrelevant.


Goals and Accomplishments: Dilemmas of Volunteering

What then are the effects of PSP? This question is raised by our earlier bafflement concerning the level of trust placed in PSP in both the child welfare field and public domain more generally as an effective method of promoting the well-being of child welfare clients.

For all our interviewees, the general objective of PSP is to promote the wellbeing of children and families, to support families in raising their children, and to prevent children from getting into 'risky situations' and being 'excluded' from social life. For several volunteers, this meant, for example, that a child can be saved from being taken into care and instead live and grow up in her/his 'natural' family environment.

The volunteers evinced a strong belief that PSP accomplishes its stated objectives, even in the absence of statistical or research-based evidence. In our case, it appeared moreover that, in particular, some of the volunteers with a professional background in social or health care firmly believed that conversational help from the support person can make a real difference in the child's life, in the form of, for example, improved confidence or overcoming a difficult life situation (also D7, 7–8). However, a recent study of Sweden's contact family program, somewhat similar to PSP, reported that the long-term outcomes for children who had received the intervention were no better than for matched peers who did not receive it (Brännström, Vinnerljung, and Hjern 2013).

Despite the general belief in positive effects for children, half of the volunteers also expressed skepticism about the real effects of their support activities or the support practice more generally. How could it possibly have any effect if the volunteer and the child 'just meet once or twice per month and do things together for few hours and that's it' (I2, I3)? Moreover,

In our peer meetings we [volunteers] have talked quite a lot about it and sometimes I get the feeling that it is not really that effective. I mean can I really give them [children] anything extra? I'm not doing anything more or different than what I've done with my own kids. (I2)

One of the interviewed volunteers even considered PSP a complete waste of time: does the supported child need an extra person in his/her life if s/he is already living in a large social network? Further, if one is not a professional or member of the child's family, how can you to do anything to change the child's life for the better? One cannot, for instance, prevent the child from being bullied at school and neither can one always be present when the child is left alone at home and is feeling lonely.

As laypersons drawn into the child welfare sector, without the training, authority or resources that are available to social workers, volunteers face a human dilemma: they are engaged in activities for the good of children (who are selected by social workers for receiving 'support'), they do it voluntarily, they clearly value
the support practice and sense that they are valued also by the public for engaging in civic work. Their involvement in PSP also induces some misgivings on the outcomes and meaningfulness of the practice. Why? Below, we also aim to answer this question.

 
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