How are the needs of difficult children best met? This article explains the place of the professional helper, as well as the Reformed community as a whole—parents, teachers, and office-bearers.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1982. 3 pages.

A Balanced Approach to Meeting the Needs of "Special Children"

Professionals or Parents🔗

The Psalmist affirms that children are a heritage of the Lord: "Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them!" (Psalm 127:5). The Old Testament places much emphasis on the welfare and education of children. There are also ac­counts that are less appealing to modern tastes. Recall Ishmael's abandonment by his putative father Abraham, and the slaughter of the young boys of Bethlehem. These events must, of course, be seen in the light of the history of God's redemp­tion. Even without such a perspective, any cruelty to children in Biblical times pales in comparison with the overall neglect of children in the world today.

The child of the seventies and eighties has been and continues to be a subject of much study and observation, and a large amount of data has been amassed con­cerning the special problems of children. The impact of all this scrutiny has not al­ways been beneficial. While more knowl­edge was gained about children's problems, confusion continued around the solution or the cure to such problems. Much worse, an attitude developed which had the effect of discrediting the abilities of parents. Guidance counsellors, psy­chologists, and social workers replaced wise grandparents, nurturing uncles and aunts, and parents themselves. The pro­fessional helper was seen in a position of final arbiter of what was good and what was bad about your child's behavior and temperament. Whether this lofty status was imputed to or usurped by the professional, there has been a beginning aware­ness of the fact that these people sometimes do more harm than good. One social critic' depicts them as the "dis­abling professionals." They have been given the power not only to define the need, but also to prescribe the cure. Hav­ing prescribed the cure they then enforce a position of doctor/patient dependency.

There is little evidence that, at this time, the phenomenon described above is much of an issue among the Reformed people I know. They have rightly or wrongly insulated themselves against professionals cum "outsiders" defining the needs of their children. Yet, there is a dis­turbing unawareness of the special con­cerns of children, and this has less to do with resisting humanistic influences from the helping professions, and more to do with an unhealthy sense of shame com­bined with pride. These parents have taken the words of Proverbs 22:6 to mean that any form of deviance in the child re­flects a clear shortcoming in the parent's ability to mold and to shape the child. In this way parents become prey to a deter­ministic way of thinking and ignore the fact of the depravity and shortfall which has affected all. The notion that my child is a problem because of what I have done or neglected to do is not the right picture and challenges the uniqueness and the di­vine image inherent in each child. This does not take away from the awesome responsibility which we have been given as parents, and we will always do well to heed the warning of the Lord about mill­stones.

A Little Lower Than the Angels🔗

Avoiding professional helpers is sometimes also attributed to what is called the "common sense" of Reformed people of Dutch descent. Yet, there is an increasing awareness of the fact that com­mon sense does not always prevail. The child who just can't learn irritates and confuses. We are thrown on the horns of a dilemma: Is my child not willing or is he just not able? The youngster who has an inordinate fear of the dark taxes our patience when we know that sometimes he manipulates for extra attention, while at other times he lives in pure terror. Parents will shamefully admit that the words of Psalm 127 die on their lips as, with clenched fists, they observe the destructive results of a child whose self-control has not found reasonable bounds. That is when we must admit that the label "im­age-bearer" sounds rather hollow.

We should also appreciate that these parents of difficult children cannot always turn to other parents because they will find that the common sense of one differs from that of another. There is, then, a real need to discover my child as different­ly but wonderfully made — the unique­ness and creatureness of the young boy and the young girl whom God has placed on loan to me. This is no soft child-centred philosophy. It is the awareness of God's mysterious ways in still making us and our children a little lower than the angels and preserving His image in us and through us.

The Christian parent smiles on the child when he knows his true origin and his destiny. The parent knows that God will protect and guard his children, young and old, but he must also do his utmost in discharging his responsibility. In this way the Christian parent will do as much as possible to become aware of new findings to improve his understanding of the com­plexities of the child. As a wise consumer he will be able to sift through the rubble of information, and tolerate the din of the many hawkers who try to sell their wares with the promise of making you an instant success with your children.

Role for Experts🔗

The bias of this writer is that there is a role for the "expert" or the professional helper, but this has to be careful­ly defined and it should never restrict the authority and ultimate responsibility of parents. In referring to a professional the backdrop of the communion of saints must not be forgotten, and the functions and obligations of the special offices in the Church must not be short-circuited.

In assessing the value of the profes­sional helper, it is important to consider three concerns about the professional-as-­person:

  1. willingness to reveal and be comfortable with his humanness;
  2. awareness of the person's underlying phi­losophy which will effect his objectivity, and cause him to misuse his skills;
  3. the integrity of his model of man, and his view of how change takes place.

The first concern relates to the fact that, while the professional helper may have gained a high level of learning in a behavioral science, he is still human and fallible. He is subject to negative emotions, he forgets his wife's shopping list like everyone else, and he too sometimes wishes there were more easy shortcuts to keeping kids in line. This point cannot be overemphasized because it often is true that these people are held in unusual awe, and this increases the vulnerability of people who seek them out for help.

Secondly, many professional helpers lack objectivity. This weakens their ability to help because they envisage a much higher purpose of changing the client to a certain view of life or set of beliefs. In this way the professional goes far beyond his mandate of offering a particular service. He becomes the secular priest presiding over a major transformation of the client which will help him to have a more satisfy­ing life, albeit without much concern about the welfare of others, and certainly little appreciation of higher norms which require the response of faith and obe­dience.

The third concern relates to the im­portance of knowing whether the profes­sional helper really appreciates the com­plexity of man, or whether he is inclined to accept a reductionist view — seeing man as a product of poor conditioning (Skinner), or a victim of inauthentic living caused by lack of positive self-regard (Rogers). More important is the question whether the person has an awareness of how change takes place. The psychologist or social worker, who does not appreciate the curative effect of a genuine faith life, or the healing power of Christian fellow­ship, should be avoided. This is not as simple as saying that we should always go to a Christian counsellor, because it is not always guaranteed that such a person is al­ways a sensitive and wise person with good skills in helping people change. What it means is that we must know whether the professional has a sense of his own limitations and does not actively at­tempt to squelch the power of the Spirit to work change in the lives of people.

A Healing Community🔗

The final matter for consideration is how the Reformed community — parents, teachers, office-bearers — will work together to give the best assistance to special children and their families. Some communities have access to Chris­tian agencies such as Salem in Ontario and Cascade in B.C. Judgment on these agen­cies will be reserved, not because there is suspicion because of church affiliation, but more because of a concern that ready acceptance would take us off the hook in not spending more time and effort to build up resources from within. The point is that much more can be done, within the communion of saints, to maintain mutual aid. For the Church of Christ is a healing community. The warmth and fraternity of such a community can never be preempted by the empathy and unconditional regard of a professional counsellor. There must be a proper balance which places all the roles in the right perspective. In this way we may be able to avoid false dependen­cies, and meet the needs of problem children in the most responsible way.

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