What Does it Take to Effectively Care About Other People’s Children?

Many of the adults who become staff at The Ranches, start off with an altruistic itch that they have almost always felt the need to scratch. When volunteering at church or at another service organization fail to effectively sooth the itch of helping others, many consider going into full time work that focuses on helping others. For many, “The Least of These…” becomes their starting point and The Ranches ends up being their end point and a career for a time. Helping others and, as I often put it in the interview as a question, “Can you love kids without ever requiring them to love you back?” Thankfully, this is an acquired skill and not one that people are typically born with. As a result, we spend a lot of time, effort and energy working on helping our staff build their skillset around caring for children who have a warped and misdrawn blueprint for relationships and who have often lived their whole life without a whole lot of healthy relationships  in it.

Altruism – the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

While altruism is important, there are some more sinister and problematic behaviors that tend to crop up in people who work in service and in ministry. Unfortunately, helping others who are prone to mistreat you often ignites hurt feelings and those hurt feelings, particularly in those who are less prone and therefore less likely to do the hard work of healing their repeatedly hurt feelings, are often the starting point for some brutal strategies for self protection. While sad, those unresolved hurt feelings and insistence on not working through them, can lead to some downright narcissistic behavior in adults trying to help children. 

Narcissism – selfishness, involving a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.

While it may seem oxymoronic, there are indeed people who have narcissistic traits and tendencies who seemingly practice altruism in their dealings with people; and even in their career pursuits. 

While covert and malignant narcissists rightfully garner most of the attention when shedding light on narcissism, there are those who present themselves as altruist but harbor significant narcissistic tendencies. 

At it’s core, narcissism is about control – especially for altruistic narcissists. For those closest to them, this control takes the form of reminders that the narcissist involved gives and gives and therefore should be appreciated and praised. For those outside of the relationship bubble of the altruistic narcissist though, praise is usually heaped upon the narcissistic person for their benevolence and generosity. “You do so much for so many…” But, to those who are being controlled, this praise is, at the very least uninformed and irritating to listen to.

I think you can probably imagine the thought process changes that would occur in someone who comes to The Ranches to help kids and immediately has friends, family and even coworkers praise their sacrifice and willingness to help. Its not an altogether irrational thought process that people would cling to the praise and use it as a shield to deflect criticism from those who fail to acknowledge the awesome sacrifice of becoming a houseparent. 

We just happen to be in a business that is altruistic by nature and is also ministry. This provides the perfect scenario for some people to seek to satisfy their selfish need for praise as it is built into the work. Also inherent in this work is the opportunity to attempt to seek to fulfill a near unquenchable need for control as there is a never ending supply of needy and willing participants in need of help and primed for reliance upon a generous benefactor for emotional and financial support. The thing is – altruistic narcissists are fueled by praise and reliance upon them for support – and kids often have a willingness to be controlled if it feels like they are also being loved. The support, control and even the love that is perceived to be real, is however anything but altruistic as it always comes with strings. 

Now, before you sound the alarms, we work to weed people out of the process who may be more interested in targets for their control and narcissistic tendencies, but the work itself can create these tendencies in the most well meaning of folks. I mean, it makes sense to believe that when you do good work for kids, criticism should be filtered through that good work and maybe that filter should destroy that criticism altogether. 

The hard part for us is that It is often near impossible to hold an altruistic – or really any kind of – narcissist accountable for their worst behaviors and actions. “You’d be nothing without me” and “I do everything for you” and “you couldn’t exist or be happy without me” and “well just go back to your family and see how that works for you” are often the defense mechanisms of choice for people in my line of work. “Fine! Try doing it without me! I’ll just leave (and abandon these kids) if you’re going to hold me accountable and criticize me for trying to help!” In their twisted way of thinking, altruistic narcissists become the victim of other people’s attempts at accountability. It is also next to impossible for these same people to hold others accountable as it puts the praise that they so desperately need, in jeopardy. In most cases, they cannot engage in a meaningful or productive attempt to hold another accountable and, as if on cue, the narcissist falls into the victim stance and withdraws emotionally and even physically. In essence, they ignore and shun those that they are wanting to hold accountable in an effort to regain the praise and control dynamic. This tactic is fiercely effective until or unless the shunning is embraced by the person being “held accountable”. If this occurs, the altruistic narcissist will usually fall into the all too predictable role of claiming that they were shunning for their own mental health (victim stance) or accusing the shunned child of ignoring them. In reality, control cannot be reestablished if the other party refuses to embrace these victim stances. 

Human service organizations and ministry are naturally enticing environments for altruistic narcissists… and they often move from church to church and organization to organization in pursuit of new worshipers of their benevolence, generosity and “selflessness”. In other cases, the people in my line of work will stay in one organization while seeking the praise from donors and supporters while simultaneously seeking to control the very people that they are “helping” and others who are in the same work who threaten to disrupt the praise and control dynamic by demonstrating genuine competence, confidence and effectiveness with those that are being helped. 

The only real question that I have left on this subject is, “Do these folks just find us and in us find a safe harbor for their worst characteristics, or does The Ranches create this dysfunction and line of thinking inadvertently? I spend far too much time on that question and it tends to haunt me a bit. The best answer I can come up with is, both are true.

I am not writing this from atop an ivory tower as I have often felt the temptation to justify my worst actions by juxtaposing those worst behaviors against all of the help that I have “selflessly” given to at-risk young people. This temptation is strong, but it is still a temptation towards the evils of control and self aggrandizing. In essence, the temptation only classifies as a temptation due to the outcome being wrong, self serving and selfish. As a result, I vehemently reject most praise and loathe control tactics in those that I work with. I have, in my own way, rejected one form of dysfunction for another as my sense of self-worth and self-esteem often bear the brunt of my reluctance and fear of falling into the altruistic narcissism that is so tempting. I have to work to keep myself on level ground and, at the same time, resist the lure and  benefits that can be so easily accessed by justifying my own worst actions. When helpers and those in ministry seek to be praised without accountability and control others without any consequences for themselves, it is anything but altruistic. It can sure look like altruism though. 

While I fully expect significant backlash for shedding harsh light upon this subject, I am predicting that the majority of backlash will come from altruistic narcissists who are upset that I dare to question, call out, or even talk about ministry or human services as being anything but altruistic. In essence, those that perceive themselves as victims of my perceptions (based on my own experiences) and will attempt to control when, where and how I express myself when it comes to this issue. I simply cannot be allowed to question their motives or behaviors as that would feel far too much like accountability. If it is truly altruistic, why would this cause the need to yank on one of the strings attached to their perceived generosity?

Now, before you fire up your email, word processor or pen, please know that I share this with you, not out of guilt or moral superiority but, to help those that support us understand that we often have to run two programs while only asking you to support the one that cares for kids. The second program is for the staff to help them to grow and to feel supported and valued while also holding them accountable so that the altruistic narcissism doesn’t become a thought process or option for our staff. 

I was raised here and have become very dedicated to being the last of my kind. The last kid to grow up here seeing all of the dysfunction but being asked to stay quiet, mind my business, act my age, and not shed the harsh light on the worst behaviors of the staff. I guess, in a way, this is my offering to you to shed some of that light on what this business can do to well-intentioned people who allow the worst parts of themselves to bask in the praise of helping, “The least of these…”

As we head into the holiday season, we will again be focused on the kids and the reason for the season, but I wanted to share this with you from my heart and from my childhood. I love the work that I do, but I’ve seen a thing or two in my time that have motivated me to always be honest about the things that threaten to hurt kids and make us ineffective. This is one of those things and I hope that you can read it without it negatively impacting you as I work to make sure these things don’t negatively impact the precious kids in our care. Dealing with this is one of the most significant things that it takes to effectively care about other people’s children.

-Heath Kull

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