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Opinion & Essays - Mar, 2001 Issue #79 

The One Best Place
By Lon Woodbury 

Many times parents ask me to suggest the best place for their child who is experiencing behavioral/emotional problems. To honestly answer this question, a great deal more information about the child is needed. More importantly, parents’ unspoken assumptions about placement must first be addressed in order for the parents to be receptive to whatever suggestions are made. Listed below are the most common unspoken assumptions that influence parents’ decisions about the appropriate next step for their child:

~ Schools can be ranked by objective standards in a helpful way. 
~ Kids with problems are pretty much the same. 
~ One credentialed professional or school is as good as the next. 
~ Punishment is necessary to “teach the child a lesson”. 
~ The child is the problem. 
~ Parents only need to disclose the part of the child’s history they feel comfortable sharing. 
~ Close to home is best. 
~ A child is born good, thus the child’s behavior is only a reflection of the real problem which is the parent or some other source. 
~ A placement will not work until the child freely chooses to go. 

One or more of these unspoken assumptions are present in most of the initial conversations I have with parents who contact me for help. If I don’t detect and address whatever unspoken assumptions are brought to the conversation by the parent early on, meaningful communication can become very difficult. Until the validity of these assumptions is questioned, my suggestions very possibly will not make sense because they don’t fit within in their frame of reference. For example, when a parent wants a residential placement that is close to home, they probably are influenced by three assumptions. The first assumption is that a placement close to home will allow them to stay more involved in their child’s life. Actually, parent involvement depends more on the program’s structure than on geographic proximity. A second assumption is that all residential programs for at-risk children are pretty much the same. The third assumption is that “at-risk youth” are a homogenous grouping, all with the same needs. 

If I recommend a program that in my view seems to best fit the child’s needs but is a great distance from home, it sometimes is very difficult for the parent to understand my reasoning. Sometimes they interpret my suggestion to mean that I am recommending giving up on their child, something few parents are willing to do. As a consequence of this misunderstanding, the parents will feel they are getting bad and insensitive advice. 

The only way to avoid this pitfall is to address the assumptions right at the beginning. If no agreement about these basic assumptions can be reached, then it probably would better serve the parents to refer them elsewhere. 

Another assumption to be addressed is the parents’ belief that a placement will not work unless the child freely chooses it. Underlying this assumption there probably are others, for example, that a child is born good and corrupted by his/her environment. Parents with this assumption believe that when a placement is forced on a child it is a perpetuation of the parents’ harmful influence. Very few parents who agree with this philosophy ever call me. Any recommendation that I would make for residential placement in order to save a child from self-destructive activity would be considered by such parents as an abhorrent over-reaction. I suspect the critics of the network of Emotional Growth Schools and Programs who are active on my discussion board share this assumption. 

In order to help any parent with a child in crisis, it is first necessary to explore the parents’ assumptions. Unless the helper and the parent are working from the same assumptions, the advice very possibly will not make sense. To put it another way, for advice to be accepted, the helper must either make sure the parents understand and are at least open to the advisor’s assumptions, or the advisor must reframe his/her suggestions to make them consistent with the parents’ assumptions. I suspect the assumption that there is One Best Place comes from the success science has experienced by employing Cartesian Reductionism. This concept refers to the process of breaking down a problem into more simple and workable components. This has influenced us as a society, with the result being that we tend to automatically simplify social problems by categorizing them. This process carries with it the assumption that the categories we develop are homogenous. It really does not question whether the differences within a particular category are truly irrelevant. This appears to be the way legislators think. That is, they view categories in terms of their own personal experience and overlook the fact that among “at-risk children” there is a wide variation in the needs of the individuals composing that category. 

These common assumptions also demonstrate the wide diversity of opinion in this country as to the best way to raise children. All the assumptions I mentioned above have a valid viewpoint and are correct for at least some children. My main point is that just as there is no one common problem shared by all children who are at- risk, there also is no single philosophy of child rearing shared by all parents. In the same way, there is no One Best Place for all at-risk children. 

This article copyright © 1999-2001, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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