Saturday, 29 September 2012

Helping and dirty words?

As a society we seem to have mixed views of helping and caring.  We admire those who care for their elderly parents or disabled children, yet we also label as 'do gooders' or even 'busybodies' people who take on these and other, broader, roles in the community.  We urge our children to help each other, and yet the traditional helping professions like nursing, child care (and nannies) and social work tend to be seen as low status, poorly paid and traditionally, the domain of women.  In fact, men in these professions frequently are found in management rather than directly involved 'at the coal face.'

Recent moves to have those working in child care re-defined as 'early childhood educators and carers', while justified as better describing their role, seems to me to be undervaluing their role as carers. Perhaps being educators will improve their status, though probably not their wages and conditions.

What concerns me is that 'helping' and 'caring' seem to have become dirty words.  We have the expression 'nanny state' that denigrates both nannies and governments that legislate to try to protect people from their own folly eg the current move of some cyclists to abandon wearing crash helmets.  I have heard of young people applying to do social work courses being told that wanting to help people is not an adequate motivation.  Personally,  I can't think of a more important reason.

As a community, we depend on volunteers, helpers and cares, in many areas. The Australian Bureau of Statistics gives a breakdown of the role volunteers play in our society.  We value the work of bodies like the Country Fire Authority, SES, lifesavers and sporting clubs. Often these are now finding it necessary to have paid workers to supplement their volunteers.  Other areas which have depended on volunteers in the past are now experiencing chronic shortages when it comes to areas like foster care, Interchange (respite for children with disabilities), Big Brothers Big Sisters (mentoring for young people).  

I suspect too, that we tend to be prepared to help someone who falls in the street, but not if there is a whiff of alcohol, or they look unkempt or we suspect drugs might be involved; we might buy the Big Issue, because the sellers are helping themselves but bypass the homeless person who begs in the street.  We are reluctant to get involved if people are shouting or appear to be mentally disturbed, not even ringing for assistance.  I was interested when I came to the aid of a young man having a fit at the station, that most people just watched what was happening.  While there are occasional reports of heroes assisting in such circumstances, sometimes being hurt and even killed themselves, most people will just watch or go on about their own business, not even ringing the police.

Certainly, there are times when helping and caring can smother people, devalue their own efforts, and increase their dependency.  This is why we encourage parents to let children face situations that are a little difficult for them to manage easily, to teach children how to solve problems they face, to gradually take responsibility for themselves as they develop skills and maturity.  At the same time, however, we also need to acknowledge times when they simply need help or care:  when they are unwell, when they become so tired or frustrated that they lose their usual ability to think or act for themselves, and when they are in immediate danger.  

We encourage our children to help us in tasks around the house, in clearing up after play, in bringing a nappy to change the baby,  we are teaching them that helping is important, that there are tasks that need to be done for the good of all, that there is always something we can do. We also need to continue to foster in our children a sense of care for each other, not just the older for the younger, but the stronger for the weaker, the more able for the less able.  We need to teach the value of sharing, of including others in our play and in our world, and as they age, the importance of sharing what we have with those who have little or nothing.

Perhaps it is time to stop and think what we really value as a country and to give a higher status to those whose role it is to help other people, and to care for each other.  In this way we can all contribute to the well being of our community, our country and our world.

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