This assignment is about my experience of observing a family, critically drawing on lifespan development and application of social policy and sociology to improve my knowledge and skills in supporting families as a social work practitioner. This will be achieved through a structured reflection of the family observation using Schon’s (1983) reflective cycle. In addition some of the relevant areas will include critically appraising various theories on human growth and development, The Every Child Matters document as an example of how social policy can support families, class based theories and approaches on the role of the family and society and how these concepts helps me understand the family I observed.
THE EXPERIENCE OF OBSERVING THE FAMILY / HOUSEHOLD
I carried out three observations of a family, where the setting was a maternal grandmother’s terraced house. The real names of people involved in the observations are withheld on ethical grounds in order to protect their identities (GSCC, 2003). The focus of my observation was a three year old mixed race boy by the name of Alex, and the roles of other members of the family in supporting, interacting and developing a relationship with Alex that will enhance his health, well being and development as a child. The most useful observation reports are those which provide detailed accounts of, “the child’s activity, records of conversation, other transactions in the home and a sensitive and accurate description of the feelings of others and the observer” (Miller et al, 2002, p8).
I set up the observation by arranging to conduct this with mainly Karen (the maternal grandmother) and Nicky, her daughter (Alex’s mum). Karen lives alone in the terraced house, but her other two daughters, Anna and Grace (who stays with their dad) visits her nearly every week, therefore the observation was pre arranged that as much of the family are present. I conducted the observation by ensuring that I maintain a reliable non intrusive friendly and attentive presence to enable those being observed to feel comfortable and behave naturally. Observers become very anxious that their watching may invade the privacy of intimate relationships in a damaging way (Miller et al, 2002). For instance, if there are parental mistakes this could bring those under observation to be criticised for their handling. I felt that the initial preparation and the understanding of the purpose of the observation enabled those to feel comfortable about it. When Nicky walked into the house she told me that Karen explained to her that I would be present (Observation 1, p1).
I initially felt nervous and awkward about conducting the observation with people I am not familiar with, particularly as it was not a social setting and I would not be able to converse naturally. I had never explored properly how my nervousness would impact on my ability to observe, analyse and assess my findings, as stated by Quitak (2004). For instance, I felt uncomfortable when Alex was becoming boisterous and Nicky was finding it difficult to manage him (Observation 1 p2). Also, in observation 2 when Eddie was playing rough with Alex, I felt the urge to intervene. My ability to stand off in these two occasions demonstrated that I would be objective when I complete my final analysis on the observation. These served as reflective summaries which should enable me change a situation more effectively in future or at least understand and interpret the situation more accurately. I asked myself whether these two incidences were inappropriate. Is this an area I need to report back? In terms of safeguarding issues this will appear like physical, verbal or even emotional abuse. Could my reluctance to report this be due to my relationship and interaction with the family or a clear case that this is not actually abuse? This is an ethical dilemma. The emotion is central as it is an indispensable tool for greater understanding (Miles, 2002). Therefore in matters of emotional damage or deprivation, it is important to think in ways which adults can learn in order to be sensitive to the child’s anxiety and pain.
I learnt about my response to the observation by looking at how I find a place for myself in the family during the visits (Miller et al, 2002). Then identifying with different members of the family, and having to respond to anxiety and uncertainty. As shown later, my emotions are also involved. The exposure to intense feelings, the impact of feeling oneself drawn into the emotional forcefield and struggling to hold one’s balance and sense of self are valuable aspects of child observation (Le Riche, 2006). Conventionally, the observer tries to be an impartial recorder; putting aside feeling and involvement otherwise these may interfere with the process of noting objective truth. But the problem with this concept is that the observer cannot make his notes without being stirred. Freud noted that there was transference, complicated feeling for the observer which arises from the observed, and the counter transference, should not be pushed aside but can be used in a central way to work out what was happening in the patient’s mind (McMahon, 2004). In Observation 2 p3 I was tempted to involve myself for fear of Alex hurting himself when he was playing with Eddie, but I managed to hold my position, then reflecting on this in my reflective summary.
Those in the family could see my role as an expert professional or as someone who needs to be taught the facts of life concerning child development. In this case it is important for the practitioner not to give more personal information than is necessary in order to establish a comfortable position as observer in the family. So the role of the observer will then be that of a receptive listening one, not completely passive but follow the leads of the child and other family members (Miller et al, 2002). I achieved this by not getting too involved.
I have learnt that the observation enabled me to become aware of my feelings, but I had to separate and detach them from the task at hand in order to draw up a balanced and authentic account of the observation itself (Miles, 2002). The reflective summary at the end of the observation enabled me to spend time on exploring why we acted the way we did. I learnt that as the observation develops my role also develops over time as I become well known in the family “this experience offers the student an opportunity to discover a great deal about her potential aptitude and appetite for clinical work” (Miller et al, 2002, p8).
APPLICATION OF KNOWLEDGE FROM LIFE SPAN DEVELOPMENT
There are many different perspectives of human growth and development. Beckett (2003) defines this as: “the way an individual grows and develops through interaction with those around her.” (Beckett, 2003, P3).
Freud placed emphasis on early childhood experience to shape the way humans grow and develop. This is then dependent on genetic, inheritance, physical factors, cultural factors, gender and random events, such as chance meetings and winning the lottery (Beckett, 2003). Freud developed the idea of the superego which contains rules and regulations from childhood given by adults. In Observation 1 Nicky gives Alex a fair share of rules and regulation when he misbehaves. Freud’s idea spawned Bowlby’s attachment theory seen as the special bond that develops between the child and the care giver (Bowlby, 1969). Attachment provides the child with emotional security. Once attachment is established, babies are distressed by separation. Bowlby differed from Freud in that child attachment with mother developed the child mentally as well as physically. A stage of clear cut attachment will exist between 7 months to 3 years. Alex clearly demonstrates this attachment with his mother, throughout the observations, even in Observation three where they have a phone conversation. Bowlby established the foundation for Ainsworth’s Strange Situation, which splits attachment into three types secure, avoidant and resistant (Ainsworth et al, 1978). The secure type is when the child seeks protection and comfort and receives it consistently (Fraley and Spieker, 2003). Secure attachment is seen as the ideal in the US and UK. But avoidant attachment actually helps the child to become independent, while secure attachment can result in the child being spoiled. This seems to be the case in Observation 1 where Alex is mischievous, and does not follow his mum’s instructions until after several attempts, yet there is a secure attachment between mother and child.
Feminists criticised this monotropic view. Children do not have to be emotionally attached to their mothers as they can have multiple care givers (Burman, 1994). However, most of the social work literature on attachment could be called ‘Eurocentric’. This bias can then arguably lead to inappropriate and discriminatory assessments. From a multicultural perspective, attachment is criticized as setting up the Western nuclear family, as” the model for child rearing, ignoring the more communal approaches in other cultures which emphasises relationships with others such as the father and other grandparents” (Beckett, 2003, p67). This can be detrimental as the mother can get worn down, stressed and resentful of the child if there is too much focus on her by the child (Beckett, 2003). Alex seemed to be well managed by perhaps the more experienced maternal grandmother than Nicky. Geiger (1996) said fathers have a more physical relationship with the child while mothers are verbal. This is demonstrated in that while Alex’ father is not involved the male participant in the observation, Eddie, played a lot with Alex which suited him a great deal. Therefore children should have both relationships. Also, Harris (1998) says peer relationship can have a large influence on the child’s personality rather than parents since when they get older they spend a significant amount of time with them.
In terms of social cognitive development, particularly regarding explanations of children’s cognitive learning styles and abilities, the works of Piaget and Vygotsky offer the most suitable explanation. According to Woolfolk (2004) Piaget offers a four stage development schema for human development. I will consider the child’s 2nd to 7th year, the preoperational stage. The child does not think through actions, assumes everyone shares its own point of view, and is egocentric. It is important to use action and verbal instruction at this stage because the child has not mastered mental operations. Visual aid will be important to the child. Alex is at the egocentric stage (his demands for chocolate in observation 1, where refusal led to tantrums). This is similar to Erikson’s 2nd and 3rd year psychosocial model. Vygotsky then offered an alternative view to Piaget by stating that children learn through social interaction and their culture, and language is a crucial aspect of this, as it shapes beliefs and value systems (Woolfolk, 2004). Piaget – (a biologist from Switzerland) – believes the individual’s development is more important, while Vygotsky – (a Russian educational theorist) – feels the person’s social interaction is primary. It should be noted that Vygotsky and Piaget are from different traditions. After eventually reading Vygotsky’s works, Piaget revised his own thoughts, stating that in learning the individual takes over some of the surrounding world’s views, calling this social constructivism (Piaget, 1969). I will criticise Vygotsky’s work in that it supports the notion that people are expected to believe the same things as in former Marxist countries, whereas in Piaget’s ideas there is freedom of thought and expression for the individual. I will conclude that Vygotsky will be more relevant to a more diverse and multicultural society, as in Alex’s case when he requests Afro Caribbean food (his dad is Afro Caribbean).
Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory looks at child development within the context of the system of relationship that forms his or her environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1990). Changes or conflict in any one area will ripple in other areas, so interaction with the larger environment is also important. Appendix 1 describes the systems of influence on a child’s development. Berk (2000) explains these various systems. This model provides a clear view in assessing problems that may occur in the child and the family. The deficit model then determines the amount of public help required to support struggling families so that they can resolve these problems. Bronfenbrenner also noted that family life has taken a back seat to the work place in modern western societies. Addison (1992) stated that the neglect of family life is destructive to the life of the child, which can lead to anti social behaviour and the difficulty in providing self direction. In this regard, Alex also receives support from the extended kinship, while Nicky’s new job makes it difficult for her to see Alex as regularly as before.
The traditional views on human growth and development, from particularly Freud, Bowlby, Piaget and Erikson has been criticised for its Eurocentric views. Robinson (2003) stated that these views did not have sufficient evidence to account for the behaviour and development of non European people. Cross cultural perspectives can contribute to human development, which has emerged as essential skills for social workers who work with children and families. The views cannot really be called scientific, when there are other approaches apart from Western ideas. The assumptions challenged are those of the roles between men and women, the western world and others, prosperous ‘middle class’ people, and others.
APPLICATION OF KNOWLEDGE FROM SOCIAL POLICY AND SOCIOLOGY
One aspect of current social policy
Lewis et al, 2000) states that the term social policy is ambiguous. It can refer to a cluster of government policies designed to promote social objectives thereby improving the well being or welfare of citizens such as in the welfare state. The idea of the welfare state is then one in which public action is taken to meet fundamental human needs to reduce social problems, such as in housing, employment, health. However, this definition has changed over the last 20 years to see welfare as the provision of income maintenance benefits and services to individuals and families. The earlier view of social policy has a problem in that it does not consider how other state functions such as the criminal justice system play a role in the management of social problems (Hughes and Lewis, 1998). The next problem is assessing whether policies are delivering there claimed effects and assessing what interests or intentions might be the forces behind these policies. This raised the difficulty of the policies separating the care function from the control function, as such policies can be seen to contain, manage and regulate poor people (Lewis et al, 2000). This raises the political question of the extent to which social welfare dilutes the excessive effects of capitalist social relations.
Rutter (1981) stated that factors such as family conflict, poverty, poor housing and education particularly in inner cities such as in London, places children at risk. The British government then developed its Every Child Matters (ECM) policies in 2004 to address these anomalies (DfES, 2003). Its five tenets are: be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well being. This was underpinned by the Children’s Act 2004. The Children’s Young Person’ Plan developed a 10 year strategy to improve the education of children, reduce offending and improve health. Community and voluntary projects then targeted improvements in the five ECM areas particularly education, and funded by the Children’ Trust in 2008 (Alcock et al, 2008). Nicky works in order to try and provide for Alex, she has a business which she received help from her dad to set up Observation 3, p4). The welfare state is not properly equipped to supporting people like Nicky into self employment, and as a result will risk falling into poverty. It will now be important for Nicky to get proper support from the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) because the job centre plus (JCP) lack experience in dealing with people on variable income when it comes to administering working tax benefits and housing benefits. Community Links is community based project in London to help with these difficulties, and getting lone parents into self employment (Maison Enterprises, 2009). I will be providing Nicky with this information. The introduction of benefits such as the Childcare Tax Credit (Corsaro, 2005), is an area Nicky may need support in claiming. Social work with children define their goals in terms of producing change in children, parents or families, hopefully for the better (Hill, 1999).
Though the business may reduce the time it takes for Nicky to see Alex, this is supplemented by her grandmother’ and other family kinship support, and my efforts to support this as a social worker. The environment Alex lives in is important, and it appears he attends the same school other family members had attended keeping a close tie with their local community. For Alex, the five ECM outcomes seem well taken care of as he is in a loving family who demonstrate interest in his education in the nursery. In the second and third observation, Alex is busy being creative using play as a method of learning for a boy of his age.
One aspect of sociological concept
The sociological concepts I will draw upon to assist me understand the Alex’s family is Marxism and the class structure. This is a body of sociological thought which revealed the conflictual nature of society, stating that economic forces drove social development in a structural and systematic manner (Dominelli, 1997).The current capitalist order is characterised according to Marxism by the capitalists who purchase and exploit the labour of the working class. Having located social work within the state apparatus (the state being a means of social control), Marxists exposed the primacy of social work’s control functions over its caring functions. However, Marxism has had limited impact on social work practice because its preoccupation with class meant that it neglected other needs important to the social work clientele such as race and gender, which are important aspects to Alex’s family.
Class though continue to matter in social policy as it is a major factor in the structuring of health inequalities, educational attainment, housing and health provision, however, as an organising principle or unifying concept, the idea of class is in sharp decline (Cahill, 1994). Max Weber felt that non class based divisions such as status can undermine class divisions. Grace may appear as a middle class lady but this is not quite a fixed identity (see Observation 2, page 4). The eclipse of class divisions, from the ‘right wing’ perspective has been the notion of the underclass, a diverse declassed grouping of welfare dependents, lone parents and other marginalised social categories (Morris, 1994). Marxism has been criticised for reducing all social phenomena to economic relationship (Ferguson and Lavalette, 1999). Other developments include the rapid growth of white collar service based employment and the decline of industries housing the traditional working class. Such as coal mining, increasing individualism and the rising importance of consumption and lifestyle became important.
The New Labour era during the 1990s now saw the decline of the working class and the rise of the middle class as one of the key social structural changes since the 1980s (Giddens, 1998). This can be criticised in that what has taken place is not the demise of class or the working class itself, but the restructuring of class configurations. In fact many white collar workers, particularly those working in health, education and welfare see themselves as working class. Neither has New Labour considered that reproduction of wealth, privilege, power nor dominance continues to exist (Westergaard, 1995). “The recognition of class as a central agency, shaping and recreating the world, can help us to understand social policy, the nature of welfare provision….through a focus on class relations, we can begin to explore social policy as part of a wider social totality, as part and parcel of the relations and processes of exploitation and oppression” (Lewis et al, 2000, p168).
In terms of the family, functionalists believe in a theory that the family is a positive institution. They hold the view that meets well with the needs of an advanced industrial society for a geographically and socially mobile workforce (Parsons, 1967). Functionalist highlights the ideal family type as the nuclear family. This is a traditional view which is made up of the breadwinner husband, dependent wife and children (Barnard and Good, 1984). Critics accused the functionalist approach of the family as ideologically based, Eurocentric in nature, and does not represent the family set up in other cultures such in Africa and Asia. Therefore, it does not represent a completely real experience (Corsaro, 2005). The functionalist approach is called positive because they have a positive view of the family while feminist and Marxist has a negative view. A lot of families consist of a woman and her dependent children which is not a family in Murdock’s sense because the family has 4 basic requirements: sexual, reproductive, economic and educational. Cooperation and agreement is important factor of family life (Murray, 1984). Parsons then gave a new view of family structures for a modern industrial society where welfare has taken over some of the roles of the traditional family (Corsaro, 2005). This takes care of Murdock’s economic responsibility of the family. The functionalist has been accused of idealising the family, ignoring conflict and abuse within the family, gender inequalities, rising divorce rates and growing family diversity, as in Alex’s family. The new right see single parents and same sex couple as being negative for society and family life (Murray, 1984). Laing sees the family as negative where there are child abuse, domestic violence and mental illness when relationships become strained (Moon and Gillespie, 1995). Then Marxists believe that the family is a construct by the ruling class to perpetuate class differences as members of their own family continue to be well off with the support they give each other through their contacts and own resources while socialising the poorer family to accept their lot in life (Cooper, 1971). It is interesting that the welfare state has little to offer Nicky in helping her establish her restaurant. Feminists believe the family is bad for women as girls and boys learn their different gender roles within the family through socialisation, and that family life is male dominated (Johnson, 1993). This is not true in Alex’s family as it is female dominated.
With regards the theories and concepts of class and the family, it is clear that support and understanding of Alex’s family cannot be take place or be explained through the traditional means, whether it is through some aspects of the welfare state, Euro centric perspectives, Marxist approaches, neo functionalist (New Right) ideals, or even New Labour’s Third Way. Individual families should be understood via its own unique dynamics and preferences. This is clearly the issue within Alex’s family. It cannot be described as a nuclear family, but still positive as there is a lot of support from extended networks which is being encouraged to reduce welfare assistance. Nicky either pays herself for an au pair or her mother supports her with Alex. Yet Nicky, the main carer for Alex, is a lone parent. To some extent Nicky’s situation fits in with some Feminist perspectives of the family. Also, it is multi cultural, and does not neatly fit into working class or middle class identity. After years of unemployment Nicky has set up her own business, but still requires welfare support as a lone parent. Apart from Alex (who is mixed race) the other family members are white British, but the younger members imbibe aspects of black culture and relationships. For instance, Nicky owns a restaurant selling Afro Caribbean food and her sister Grace imbibes neo black musical culture, while Anna has a black boyfriend.
This assignment is about my experience of observing a family, critically drawing on lifespan development and application of social policy and sociology to improve my knowledge and skills in supporting families as a social work practitioner.
I have learnt that traditional views on human growth and development, particularly as espoused by Freud, Bowlby, Piaget and Erikson, are ‘Eurocentric’ and arguably do not have sufficient evidence to account for the behaviour and development of non European people. Cross cultural perspectives can contribute to human development as essential skill for social workers who work with children and families. However, I have learnt that Alex is securely attached within the family. Secondly, I have also learnt that with regards the theories and concepts of class and the family, support and understanding of Alex’s family cannot take place or be explained through the traditional means, but via its own unique dynamics and preferences. This is clearly the issue within Alex’s family which cannot be described as a nuclear family, but still positive, as there is a lot of support from extended networks which is being encouraged to reduce welfare assistance. Also, it is multi cultural in make-up, and does not neatly fit into working class or middle class identity. Apart from Alex (who is mixed race) the other family members are white British, but the younger members imbibe aspects of black culture and relationships. Thirdly, I learnt that while Marxists exposed the primacy of social work’s control functions over its caring functions, it had limited impact on social work practice because its preoccupation with class meant that it neglected other needs important to the social work clientele such as race and gender, which are important aspects to Alex’s family. To some extent, Nicky’s situation fits in with some Feminist perspectives of the family. Finally, I learnt that the environment Alex lives in is important, and it appears he will attend the same school other family members had attended keeping a close tie with their local community. For Alex, the five ECM outcomes seem well taken care of as he is in a loving family who demonstrates interest in his education in the nursery. The Every Child Matters document is an example of how social policy can support families.
The assumptions challenged are those of the roles between men and women, the western world and others, prosperous middle class people and others. I will therefore recommend that Nicky receives proper support regarding her benefits from a community based project because the welfare state is not properly equipped or personalised to support her adequately and guide her into self employment, and as a result this will risk her falling into poverty and all the multifarious consequences that that economic deprivation will facilitate.
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Appendix 1: Bronfenbrenner’s systems of influence on a child’s development