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Warmth and intimacy, how about them?

Frans Gieles

Published and reprinted since 1983 in Dutch magazine and book


Child care workers wish to give the children a warm relationship and a climate of intimacy. But how is that possible? In their work in the daily life situation there are so many conflict situations. How can they handle conflicts and create a warm relationship and a good climate with the same children? These questions are answered from an action research project in which journals of child care workers are written, analyzed and discussed with the workers. The gap between workers and children can be bridged, and warmth and intimacy are possible if...conflicts are handled in a very personal and often emotional way, and if certain theories about residential treatment are changed. The naughty sides of the children should be considered as essential parts of being human. Children as well as adults have shadow sides, and bad behavior should not be condemned by rules.


Warmth and intimacy, how about them?

Residential living groups in the Netherlands number from eight up to eleven children. In most cases only one houseparent will be present at a time, sometimes two. How is it possible in such a large group to give adequate attention to everyone? Is there any room for personal contact, for relationships? Can there be any warmth from person to person among the residents, between young and old? Can there be any intimacy? Can you love and be loved in return? And how about sexuality? Is it better to keep a certain distance, as is so often said? And how much distance? And if you find there is someone in your group you like very much, or if someone falls in love with you, what then? How personally involved ca and may you be in this profession? These are the questions I want to discuss in this article.

To try and find answers I focused on the daily routine as it was recorded of eleven groups in a doctors dissertation research project, investigating the possibilities of improving the climate in residential living groups. The staff members of these groups have reported their experiences in journals for about ten months. I have analyzed these journals and discussed the results with the staff regularly. This artic contains some of the findings of this investigation which, I hope, will be of some help to the reader on his way to answering the questions put above.

The contact gap

The way in which house parents write in their journals immediately after their shifts, presumably reflects something of what they experienced on the job. The journal of the groups "The Monkey Rock" (eleven boys between 11 and 16 in a residential treatment home for youths with social and emotional problems) has also been studied over a period of four months before the beginning of the research. The way the workers wrote in this period of four months seemed to me very detached. The boys! behavior has been described in terms that lack any respect. It is teeming with expressions like: "The whole bunch, the whole gang, the lot of them, His Lordship wished this or that, the creep, the imp, mug," to name a few.

For four whole months nothing nice was said about the boys. The writers seem to be dealing with alien creatures, at least not with ordinary human beings. There is a wide between the workers and the boys. Everybody is taken ill now and the, or feels rather badly. When the boys feeling ill will initially appear in the journal like this: (I have inserted the cursives):

"George wanted to be ill".

"George had a headache. I think he was playing games".

"Henry left school just like that, pretending to feel sick".

"Otto lay in bed on the pretext of being ill. My reaction was 'sick now? Then sick for the rest of the day to, i suppose!'"

In this way the feeling of illness is interpreted. Not until it has been officially recognized by a physician or a thermometer do the house parents acknowledge the sickness. They had a very special thermometer: you had to put it on your head and it would tell you if you had a fever or not, but not how high a fever. If he did the boy was allowed to stay at home the whole day, but in his own room. If he didn't he was sent to school. With that rule in their heads and a thermometer in their hands the staff could only deal with "genuine illness" and couldn't understand signals from the area in-between sickness and health. Talking about human beings, these "in-betweens" fill a wide spectrum-out what about boys in a institution?

Here is one example of the gulf between staff and boys; signals are not understood, not recognized. The signal "I have got a toothache" is answered thus: "Otto was still in bed, he was 'feeling sick', he said his teeth were bothering him he had a headache, and had not slept well. He did not want to go to school, therefore no Santa Claus celebrating for him tonight". The day before the dentist had pulled out three molars!



Because important and very human signals (e.g. hunger, pain, sickness, sadness, loneliness, were not recognized, I speak of a contact gap. Being on one side of this gap, a (female) house parent can write in the journal: "I've bundled him off to his bed". The reserve of warmth, contact, intimacy.

The gap bridged

In the evaluation of the above findings, the contact gap was been discussed with the team. They were all shocked. Afterward, Nia, head of the team, writes: "I had become blind". Soon after this team session, we'll sea some changes take place. Illness for instance, is being written about in a different manner, the feelings of the boys are now recognized, but in the first weeks interpretations were still added: "Rudy returned from school feeling sick; a sore throat and a bad headache. I think it is the pressure that is doing it to him... I think it may well be psychological".

After a few weeks more the boys allowed to be ill just like people sometimes are, without adding psychological explanations.. Signals are now recognized as coming from human beings: the gap has now been bridged. Now house parent Mary writes: "I've tucked him up in bed to let him take his time to recover". (House parent Tom) "Kevin looked awful, had headaches and really felt miserable. He let me tuck him up nicely and I told I would get in touch with his school".

In a few weeks many changes have taken place in the climate at the "Monkey-Rock". The staff begin to look at the boys differently, they approach them more personally, instead of acting like mere "guards". The journal proves that there is much more involvement with the boys, a lot more contact. The boys' nice sides are appreciated and recorded now, and the house parents enjoy this.

(Mary) - "I find myself much more involved with the boys, lately".

(Nia) - "The whole gang romping all over the place. This was wonderful. No trouble, plenty of co-operation, lots of laughs".

(Peter) - "Had a lovely day with Kevin. I find I am very much interested in him, he fascinates me. For instance, how he runs off from the dinner table after Brian (student worker) has pushed over a glass of water accidentally, which made him wet, and some time later he comes down again and sits cuddling his rabbit".

(Nia) - "A question that arises again and again: can we sleep together with all the group in the living room?"

The contact gap was apparently bridgeable. Based on this contact conflicts and behavioral problems could be encountered in a different manner. A feeling of togetherness developed within the group, including the staff. Relationships became more personal and there was room for warmth and intimacy...

(Mary) - "Fred and I have been working on our tan out on the lawn, and playing 'Kiddies'".

The boys of the Monkey-Rock have certainly not changed into angels: the old behavioral problems keep occurring, although to a lesser extent. But the staff deal with them differently. The team have an altered view of the boys: they have begun to think differently about their work.

Useless theory from the main building.

I have never seen a group change so rapidly nor so thoroughly as the Monkey-Rock. Still, wondering about this I asked at a team session: "What on earth was the matter with you before Christmas, that you worked so badly?" Before the staff could answer, the child psychologist said: "It was not the fault of this team, but of the whole institution, of us people from the main building. I think it is time to overhaul our philosophy of treatment".

The wrong philosophy? Or a theory useless for child care work? What was this theory all about them, and what was wrong with it? It is the way of thought that has the "disturbing ness" of the child and its starting point; it obstructs all contact. A remark contact with them, and is thus self-fulfilling. The same goes for remarks like this: "These children, above all need structure", and translating this into rules that apply always and for everyone. It is a sheer illusion that children would feel safe in that. They feel safer at people they have made contact with, people who will stand by them, also at the most difficult times; who literally want to be close to them. If parents or foster parents fail in this respect, professionals are hired: people who have specialized - not so much in observation and training of children, but in living close to children who are said to be impossible to live with. That is not always easy; one has to use ones brains - and therefore  a useful theory is required. Theories "from the  main building" apparently are not always so. Let us have a look at what possible answers research for such a useful theory has offered to the questions we are concerned with here. The answers were different from what I had expected. I resented that at first, but careful study of the facts showed the following.

Contact and conflict

The team of the "Sparrows Nest" (a group of eight elder girls) were convinced that they had a very good contact with the girls, which was based on the many warm and understanding talks they had with them - up to the point where one of the girls is caught steeling, and warmth turns into complete rejection. Was the contact really so very good? Do warmth and emphatic talks really lead to essential contact? The following examples show something very different. House parent William in a team session says: "I cannot but doubt the value and the depth of my relationships with the girls. The thought occurred to me when I met the girls in the village during the holidays". Some time later he says: "With Fanny I did have something, always quarrelling, but we have contact".

Charles, house parent in another group, makes an entry in the journal of the following: "During homework time I told the boys that I would be leaving the group. The boys whom I had most conflicts with were disappointed most".

In the group "the Water Rats" (eleven boys from 11 to 17) the student-worker describes how house parent Ken at one point carries on: "Ken comes rushing up to the boys and shouts 'So that's what you call cozy, you bastards!!" He is really giving it to them. Of course the boys holler back at him, but Ken shouts louder, using a lot of harsh four letter words until the boys finally clean up the mess.

Ken does absolutely nothing to control his temper, he is as mad as hell. Immediately after this, the following takes place: In Kens own words, "Mike told me he did not to go home for the weekend because he'd rather spend it here with me, and was of course quite afraid to tell his mother. I held him close to me and tried to comfort him. He would say nothing more, but just sat quietly. Over and over I tried to talk to him and to persuade him to talk to me, but it didn't work out so well. Then I sat closer to him and put my arm around him and just stayed put". (Later on that day they do talk).

Nicky, a boy from the "Beavers" group "similar to the Water Rats" is always trying to make his house parents angry. They rather try to avoid this and send him up to his room before they blow their fuse. But they cannot avoid it and inevitably the moment arrives when action is needed. House parent Barry describes it: "Nicky ran upstairs and started raising hell; kicking and beating with a piece of wood. I went in to be with him. He threatened me, but I knew he would not assault me. I took the stick away from him and put him on his bed. I was right on the top of him. He clutched at a knife, but I briskly snatched that away from him too. And meanwhile he shouted and called me all sorts of names. He said, "now I've got you angry!"." Later in the evening the matter is talked over. Barry writes: "After that I want up to his room with him and tucked him up in bed. He said 'thanks'." The next time Barry was on duty, Nicky's problems are discussed with him - according to the journal, for the very first time!

In these examples, some of a great many, we can see an element of the contact between house parents and residents that seems typical for the child care worker - the care-giver in the living room, as opposed to care-givers who works in offices. It is the element of conflict and confrontation.  A good contact between house parents and residents is by no means always sweet and fond. Such moments do occur (and more often than we know officially) but there is more to it. A team that creates an an atmosphere of "let us keep it nice and easy" as the Sparrows Nest used to do, exclusively remains "on the sunny side of the street" as the song goes. But the residents have not come to a home because everybody adores them; they have this other side (and who does not?) and it is this other side that needs the help. It is that very aspect that made their previous educators so angry and beyond their limits, and which does the same to the child care workers. On these borders the confrontation takes place. This very side will have to be confronted by the team. If you try to oppress this side by means of rules and punishments, keep it invisible, and thus keep your group nice and "always sociable", you never really get to know one another. The nice and always reasonable side of a house parent is not sufficient for the residents. They seek contact with the person as a whole, including his darker sides, his irritation and his anger. They will provoke it and "make your blood oil", or "they bring out the man behind the official". Such confrontations lead to contact. This contact makes closeness possible. And closeness makes possible touch, warmth, intimacy.

These confrontations are a strongly emotional character; offering personal intimacy does something to you. You meet a human being with his brighter and darker sides, which does not only evoke pleasant feelings, but also irritation, anger, impatience, and powerlessness. Through empathy with the residents, including their darker sides, your own darker sides emerge as well; the serpent in you awakes, the cry-baby, the pessimist, the lazy Adam in you. You most certainly must be able to live with them. He who cannot accept his vermin self can never help residents with sometimes irritating moods. Good supervisors can assist you in this, at least if they can grasp anything of what contact with youngsters who have problems means; if they are not afraid to realize the experience of house parents, and if they not only talk about the residents and their "disturbances", their observation scales, and their training programmes. Such supervisors and their way of thought (their theory) are an obstruction to contact. For those who do not want to take into account their own shadow sides, neither wish to encounter these of the residents, the only resource left is to label as "disturbed" the residents behavior, and to suppress and regulate this behavior. There is no room for personal contact, and much less left for warmth and intimacy.

"See me, feel me, touch me, heal me". (The Who, Rock-opera "Tommy").

The contact between house parents and residents is of a different nature from that of care-givers who work in a office and their clients. In residential groups there are other possibilities than conversation alone: the contact has its routes in everyday life4. That is where the foundation lies and where the contact is built op. What kind of contact? What is required? In the above paragraph, one of these questions was asked, namely "Be prepared to resist me now and then; show me your anger as well". There are more such questions. From the journals of several groups I compiled the following:

Be there for me as a person, not just because you are on duty.

Listen to my stories; I often tell you important things in the form of a story.

Listen to what I think and feel. Respect that, also when you have different experiences.

Concentrate on me, do things together with me.

I am not a talker, still, I am seeking contact through everyday routine.

Give me response without that flow of words. Share a joke with me now and then.

Sometimes I do not want any interference, sometimes I do. You should see that.

Be patient with me, also when I am in an dark mood.

You may see through my pose; actually I'm not so indifferent as I may appear.

I have a body too; take care of me a little.

I would like to have you to myself now and again.

I enjoy romping with you very much.

Touch me now and then, caress me, tuck me up in bed.


To touch and be touched

Now is this possible in a residential group? Can you as a child care worker give physical warmth? Here are just a few out of many examples from the journals of "The Water Rats" and "The Monkey Rock".

Houseparent Ken relates that Jack absolutely refuses to talk: "He did not see the use of it". Ken, somewhat angrily, expresses his disappointment to Jack, and writes about the rest of the day. "Jack was alright for the rest of the day. No low spirits. He touched me, caressed me, in short, was very sweet".

The student worker describes a group conversation, in which many of the boys relate how they were ill-used by their parents. William describes what his step father did to him. "Mike cringes, has a very difficult time and can hardly hold back his tears. "Oh, come on here, boy" William reacts. The group understand Mike's position and disability to talk. Ken embraces Mike, presses the boy close to him, as I have seen happening so often, but they have contact without words. I observe that Ken has tears in his eyes too; and so do I, because crying children upset me. 

In the "Monkey-Rock"-journal too, at least after the described change in thought and action of the team, many passages occur which might me answers to our question as to whether a care-giver could give physical warmth. I give just a few examples:

House parent Tom: "had lots of fun. Have been lazing away with Nigel and Rudy on the couch", and "Had a terrific rough and tumble with Carlo".

(Mary): "Kevin was fantastic tonight. Many nice little contacts. He likes romping with me and constantly tries to challenge me; but he is very gentle".

(Tom): "I had a magnificent moment this afternoon. I was chatting away with Rudy, and George joined us and then Frankie. We were lying half over and under each other, and talked about kind of things, ever so relaxed".

(The student worker): "At bedtime Nicky asked me to help him undress. He enjoyed iot very much".

(Tom): "Watching tv. I had Ferry leaning against my left side and Rudy against my right".

(Peter): "Kevin was quite relaxed and spent a lot of time with Ria. At first he found it rather difficult to approach her. I myself had more "intimate" contacts with him, like squeeze here and a tickle there".

(Tom): "Had some nice little romping and teasing with Kevin. After I tucked him in bed he went to sleep like a baby".

(Peter): "Afterwards Ferry and I ware able to come to terms. I also told him that he mattered so much to me".

It is possible indeed. At least as long as you are willing to be touched by the boys and girls in your group. This touching can be surprisingly nice, but also astonishingly hard. In a touch you can transmit messages, for which our language and culture have no words. Touching is good, but not everybody dares to touch; it seems so odd sometimes, "and what will people think?"

The big taboo

As a house parent, you not only meet the children of your group in the living room, but also in the intimacy of bedroom and bathroom. As a house parent I more often than not had a boy in my group who had powdered from head to foot: a most intimate event...

Theo Sandfort, a Dutch researcher in a number of publications, reflects on experiences of child care workers who discover how children can affect you emotionally, and how the taboo on the subject of touching makes you unwilling to discuss it. While one does have these experiences with children, the children themselves often show a great need need for concrete warmth and love.

When residents of homes beat each other up, when house parents deal a so-called "educational" blow, or when grown-ups bring children to accepted behavior with subtle forms of constraint or violence, we are hardly surprised. Even the word "treatment" is sometimes heard in this context. When a house parent lovingly caresses the whole body of a child from his group, there is, like the sword of Damocles, the Dutch law hanging over him. When children caress each other, we are at a bit of a loss with such a situation. When boys are chasing after girls, we smile. When one boy is shyly patting another, we are embarrassed and mutter something like, "Oh it will pass".

This taboo pervades our society, our own upbringing and that of our children, and is a very strong one. 

In the research on which this article was based, discussions took place with the whole teams and the team supervisor(s). And they all read the journals. How do intimacy, tenderness and sexuality appear in this?

The initial complete lack of personal warmth in the group "The Monkey-Rock" has already been mentioned. I described how this came to change and how, after this change, intimacy was made possible. Still, it appeared afterwards, such moments had also occurred in the time previous to that change: in the boy's bedrooms when saying goodnight. But...The team did not know this of each other, it was simply not told, nor recorded in the journal. It was both a surprise and a relief to find this out about each other. This resulted from my asking a question at a team session. Then it appeared that these moments of personal contact occurred more often when there was only one house parent on duty. Even when there only two house parents on duty, at a given time, the old taboo began to work. They would merely discuss their successes and failures as guards, as disciplinarians.

We have observed that this was connected with the institutions treatment philosophy, and the theory from the main building. In a way of thought, which has the differences of young and old and his starting point, and which partly labels these differences as "disturbed", there is little or no room for encounter or contact from person to person, for warmth and intimacy, and much less for a respectful attitude towards sexuality.

From this way of thought, Peter could write: "In the changing room they were studying their penises. After I had taken a shower and got dressed again, Barney, Fred and George were very much concentrated on their own genitalia, and those of some of the others. George predominated, almost pathetically. Fred was a very good and silent second. Harry was already waiting outside. Nigel and Ferry did not exaggerate it".

In six month's time, a lot has changed in the group, as was described above. Now it can be told that two boys made love passionately together one night, and that one of them imagined the other to be his female houseparent. Male and female houseparent discuss the matter with the two boys: "We talked about orgasms, and sexual experimentation, and the embarrassment of being caught 'doing it', which meant a lot to them. "It had been nice", they said, "but on the other hand it had not". Afterwards, the boys talked it over together.

"Feeling embarrassed when you are caught doing it"... Sexuality exists in homes too, though the outside world often does not know this. The nature of intimate contacts in its self prevents this; it is something of "between the two of us". Our society is not very friendly towards these things. Intimacy, in the course of ages, has virtually been narrowed down to procreative sexuality. Al kinds of social developments have led to this; religious indoctrination is one of theme, but also the way in which our society is geared toward production and consumption. All this has led to a development, in which the relation between yourself and your body (and this means the whole body inclusive of all its sensitive parts) becomes somewhat difficult for many people, so that the loving closeness of two peoples becomes a rarity and a problem - outside those of husband and wife, or mother and child.

I think this fundamental deficiency of our society results in many behavioral problems, and this gives employment to child psychologists and child care workers. Simultaneously, this deficiency, and especially the taboo, makes their task a difficult one, where offering personal and physical warmth to children is concerned. Children need physical cherishing. But this is so close to sexuality, and thus "dirty and forbidden", that it hardly ever occurs. The outspoken need for it is seldom heard, much less the answer to it; at least not often and not spontaneously.

Fortunately, cherishing does take place (nature is stronger than doctrine) but the real problem is the surrounding atmosphere of 'sneakiness'. Feelings that arise are difficult to discuss.

In some of the groups (in the research project) intimate contacts between the residents did occur, and these were actually known and tolerated by everybody. But - they could scarily be discussed. The language of institutions, pervaded with sex words tot a greater extent than that of the world outside, is not really suited for this purpose. Neither is the situation. There is always something public about growing up in homes; the windows are open wider than those of private families. The evil consequence is that children in homes suffer from a want of tenderness. And if they cherished, it is difficult to talk about it, and thus it becomes a problem both to team and child, who, after all, find one another in tenderness. The atmosphere of "everybody knows, but nobody talks" is the wrong-doer. I think that the whole secret is getting intimate contacts out of the domain of taboo and open to discussion. This would enable you to deal with them more properly and carefully, so that the children won't suffer from the want of them.

So the point is:

  1.  Not to be afraid to give warmth physically as a child care worker; not to give way to the fear of "what people might think of me".

  2. To create and to preserve within the residential group such a climate, that there is room for personal and physical warmth between people intimately, but not in a "naughty" atmosphere.

  3. To create within the team such a climate that as a house parent you can talk about all the feelings of tenderness or love also the feelings you have about your work, the irritations, being crazy about something. Bronfenbrenner wrote "Every child needs at least one person who is crazy about him or her". (Cited by Maier in The core of care, 1979)

  4. If all this is going to work, it must depended on the way of thought of house parents, staff members and supervisors. And on their willingness to pay genuine attention to the experiences of the house parents, and to deal with them in such a way that the house parents can fully realize their feelings.

All this is extremely difficult: our culture, our education, certain theories about child and education, and our language seem to obstruct us. We are swimming against the current. For the children who need our warmth so much, we will perhaps be strong and courageous enough to swim against that current; cautiously, but vigorously.

Other reports from this research project

Gieles, Frans, Care as a key task

Gieles, F., How to act in everyday life conflicts In a residential living group; In: R. Soisson, Aktuelle Probleme Jugendlichen in der Heimerziehung in Europa, Texte zum internationalen Kongress, juni 1985, Luxemburg, FICE, Zürich, 1986

Gieles, Frans E.J., Conflict and Contact, An investigation into various possibilities for action open to child care workers when managing collisions and conflicts. in daily fife. 
Dissertation by Frans E.J. Gieles. University of Groningen, The Netherlands, 1992.


Bronfenbrenner, U, 1977: The fracturing if the American family. In: Washington University Daily, October 5.

Bettelheim, B., 1974:  A home for the Heart. London

Bettelheim, B. & Sylvester, E., 1948: A therapeutic milieu. In: American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Jrg. 18. Also in: Polsky e.a.,: Social System Perspectives, 1970; and in: Whittaker & Trieschmann., Children away from home, 1972.

France, A & Kay, R., 1976: Child care workers, The Human Response. In: Child Care Quarterly, Jrg. 5, nr. 1.

Konopka, G., 1966:  The adolescent girl in conflict. Prentice Hall.

Korczac, J., 1974: Wie man ein Kind lieben soll., 5e Auflage. Göttingen.

Korczac, J., 1984: Das Kind lieben. Frankfurt am Main.

Lubin, M., 1982: Responding to the disturbed child's obscure reparative and communicative wishes: mutuality in the special education of a vulnerable and explosive early adolescent boy. In: Residential group care and treatment, Nr. 1, Pg. 3-20.

Maier, H., 1975: Learning to learn and living to live, Residential treatment. In: Child Welfare, Jrg. 54, Nr. 6, Pg. 406-423.

Maier, H., 1979:  The Core of Care: Essential ingredients for the care of children at home and away from home. In: Child Care Quarterly, Jrg. 8, nr. 3

Mehler, J., 1979: Houseparents: A vignette. In: Child Care Quarterly, Jrg. 8, nr. 3

Mehringer, A., 1980: Zuwendung- das wichtigste Therapeutikum. In: Unsere Jugend, Jrg. 32, Nr. 2, Pg. 51-65.

Pierce, L. & Pierce, R., 1982: The use of warmth, empathy and genuineness in child care work. In: Child Care Quarterly, Jrg. 11, nr. 4

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