OPINION: Setting boundaries can build bridges


| 29 January 2003

Now and again, a tall man in his late-20s strolls into my youth centre. He shakes my hand with transparent warmth and refers to me as the "main man". Young people looking on are rather impressed. But it was not always like that. Michael is the only individual I have ever banned.

When he was about 10, Michael's older brother died from sniffing glue.

Maurice was 14 and much loved. The boys in his peer group were distraught at his death.

Michael was a big lad, even at 10, and was adopted by Maurice's mates almost as a substitute for Maurice. Michael threw his not inconsiderable weight around. He was something of a bully to those in his own age group, knowing that he had the older crowd to back him up. Michael did anything he wanted. Nobody intervened, probably because they felt sorry for him because of the loss of his brother.

One day a sequence of expletives was graffiti'd on the youth club wall.

I was the usual 95 per cent certain who had done it. But Michael was aggressive in his denial. I told him he was no longer welcome in the club and informed his parents accordingly. None was happy with the decision.

But I did not abandon Michael. All I wanted was an apology and some reparation.

I used to go outside and talk to him on a regular basis. At first, he had no wish to communicate with me. Later we talked about many things, but I still would not let him in the club. More than a year later, one of the older boys from Michael's adopted crowd said that Michael wanted a word with me. He told me he had sprayed the words and apologised.

I invited him into the club for a cup of coffee. He remarked, incredulously, "is it that easy?", and conceded that it was his stubborn pride that had kept him out of the club for so long.

Something similar happened during an early residential, and Michael missed a year of such participation accordingly. For a while, he really hated me for this decision.

But years later, Michael told me that he was forever thankful for my taking a stand. No-one else had done so since Maurice died. It had been me who had made him aware that he could not be Michael and Maurice at the same time. It had been me who had given him boundaries and told him the limits to acceptable behaviour.

And he acknowledged that, although I had applied these boundaries, I had not forsaken him. He realised that I had remained accessible and supportive. Even today, he comes and chats about his career progression and his family life. None of the young people in the youth club can believe that he is the only kid I have ever banned.

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