Children are never simply themselves. They carry with them all sorts of thoughts and ideas about themselves inherited from family life, particularly from their role in the family. Conflict is inevitable in families, and in order to survive, all families have to find their own particular way of managing tensions. Often this is done unconsciously by family members taking on roles, for example, the clever one, the pretty one, and so on. Children may absorb their family role as an identity.
And children bring their family role to club life. They may behave in club in the way they behave at home. Sometimes this is not a problem. The family survives and the child functions. The risk is when a child believes the family role is their only way of being, the only version of themselves that other people will find lovable and acceptable. Children at a club should be feeling free to experiment with what they have learned about themselves in the family. For this reason, playworkers need to be aware of when it is appropriate to reinforce a family role and when it might be in the child's interests for the club to offer the child an alternative way of being themselves.
Let us think about three frequently observed family roles: the sensible child, the scapegoat and the troublemaker.
The sensible child
Sensible children like nine-year-old Tom can be a boon. Mature, cheerful, willing, reliable, efficient, they are a natural choice to be given responsibilities. But sometimes sensible children can find their role a strain. Recently, Tom's playworker had noticed a change in him. He seemed less good humoured and somewhat reluctant to carry out his tasks at the club. He seemed to be avoiding other children. One day, Tom drew a picture of a medieval castle with three girls playing in the grounds. A soldier on horseback was riding away from the castle. Another soldier paraded the turrets. Tom explained that the soldier riding away was the 'war knight' - he had 'gone off to have fun at battle'. The other soldier was the 'guard knight' - left at home to look after the women and children. 'And he's fed up,' added Tom.
'You are the man of the house now, look after your mum and sisters.' Tom's father used to instruct him to do this as he left on his frequent visits away from home. Tom's picture showed how burdened he felt by this well meaning, but impossible request. He was the 'fed-up guard knight' watching his father ride off to have fun. He had taken on the role of 'the sensible one' to please his parents, but adopting this pseudo maturity had meant that he had missed out on being a little boy. This was a time for his playworker to respond to Tom by freeing him from responsibility, by letting him be a carefree child.
The sensible child as peacemaker
When 11-year-old Josie arrived at her club, her playworkers were impressed by her maturity. She was keen and eager to take on responsibilities which she carried out reliably and efficiently. She was also very skilled at intervening as a peacemaker in other children's rows and conflicts. Several months later, however, they were worried. At times, Josie seemed 'over helpful' to the point of being irritating. They also noticed she often tried to divert her playworker when he was managing children's conflicts, offering her version of events, whether she was involved or not.
Josie's parents had a volatile relationship, often erupting into violent rows. Josie had taken on the role of peacemaker in the family. Her mother gave a typical example. After a row one evening, she asked Josie to tell her father, 'Supper is ready - and has been for ten minutes.' Josie did so, but then herself delayed coming to the table, at which point both parents told her off soundly. To keep the peace, she had unconsciously diverted their conflict from each other on to her.
Children like Josie may make excellent monitors but may develop a phobic attitude to conflict. Her after-school club offered her a space to be open about her anxieties and to find healthier ways of managing them.
Scapegoats are very important people. They help the rest of us to avoid our fears and anxieties. Think about Josie - her parents resolved their own conflict by uniting to scapegoat Josie.
Tim is a 12-year-old who found it difficult to make friends. When he did have a friend, there was always conflict. He would try to get his friend to 'gang up' with him against others, causing a split in the group. And he did the same with the staff, frequently reporting inaccurately to one playworker that another had given him permission to do something. He was also divisive, for example, telling one staff member that her colleague had complained that she hadn't made the children put the art things away properly.
This 'splitting' is a common phenomena in children whose parents knowingly draw them into their conflicts. All children are inevitably drawn into parental conflict but some parents decide to involve children. So, for example, when Tim's father arrived home too late for his mother to go to her evening class, she said, 'Well, Tim was very disappointed you weren't here to help with his maths, weren't you, Tim?' inviting Tim to attack his father in a coalition with her. Tim grew up with the idea that someone has always to be left out. In club, he worked hard to ensure that it was not him but, of course, his attempts to scapegoat other people tended to leave him isolated.
The positive scapegoat
Tim's parents used Tim as ammunition against each other. But sometimes families scapegoat one member in a more positive way - as the 'success' of the family. Megan, bright and attractive, was such a child. There seemed to be no area in which she didn't shine - academia, sport, music. Holiday club began the day after her school's prize day. 'Well done, Megan,' her playworker greeted her, 'I hear you won four prizes.' Megan burst into tears. 'Yes, now I'll always have to win,' she sobbed.
We need to be watchful of the successful child. They may be allowing everyone else to fail! By being the 'successful one', Megan was assuaging her parents' anxieties about being 'good enough' parents, and relieving the pressure on her siblings to succeed. She began to feel she was only loveable if she succeeded. In club, Megan needed reassurance that she was equally accepted, failing or succeeding. Children like Megan may find a great relief in being allowed to fail.
Troublemakers are often working very hard for the family and the club.
Remember how Josie 'made' trouble to rescue her parents? Chris was a 10-year-old who was always in trouble, at home and away. His playworkers were relieved on the rare occasions he didn't attend, 'The group is so different when he's not here, there's just no trouble at all.' His parents echoed this sentiment, 'It's so peaceful when he's not here,' said his mother.
Children often take on the role of troublemaker in families where there is something difficult and hard to manage creaking away in everyday life.
There were huge tensions in Chris's parents' marriage. It became easy to call 'the hard to manage thing' in the family, 'Chris' - a persona he carried into his club.
'None of the others behave like that,' moaned his play leader. Well, the other children didn't need to make trouble, because Chris could always be relied on to do it for them. They may have felt equally disgruntled about club rules or activities organised, but they didn't protest because they knew that Chris would always kick up a fuss. Troublemakers help us to avoid dealing with our own conflicts. So, a child like Chris, often accused of disrupting a group, may actually be looking after the group. Chris needed help to step out of his family role and to fight only the battles that belonged to him.
Club is like home and unlike home. Playworkers are like a parent and unlike a parent. Unconsciously, children are constantly asking, 'Is the club a good enough substitute for my parents?' And is the club an interesting new world? The great advantage of playworkers is that you are not parents. You are new adults who may allow children to experiment with substituting an 'acquired personality' for the experience of being an authentic individual with their own thoughts, needs and special things to say.
Andrea Clifford-Poston is an educational therapist and author of The Secrets of Successful Parenting - Understand What Your Child's Behaviour is Really Telling You(How-to-Books, 9.99).