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I was recently asked by a social worker if I’d have a chat with a relatively new foster carer about the behaviour of the 12-year-old she was fostering. Her main complaint was that the girl had a bad ‘attitude’ and swore. On the scale of things this behaviour didn’t seem too bad to me so I had to think carefully what to say.

Attitude is the way a person thinks or feels about someone or something. It is portrayed through their body language and what he or she does or says. However, the word ‘attitude’ has also become a defining statement in its own right. To say someone has ‘attitude’ summons up a package of behaviour that tends to have negative connotations and suggests confrontation and rebellion.

Many young people in Western society will develop ‘attitude’ at some point. It’s a statement of objection on their part: they are portraying, with a look or a few words, that they disagree with some or all of what is going on around them. This may be something at home or school, a generally held view or something about society at large.

Showing ‘attitude’ distances the young person from the norm – what they are being asked to conform to and what you hold dear – and therefore contains the component of rejection that can be hurtful to parents and carers. But it is part of growing up as the young person searches to redefine themselves, and as long as it doesn’t overstep the boundary into rudeness, I think it can be largely ignored. Swearing, on the other hand, I don’t think should be ignored and I don’t allow swearing in my house.

The carer and I had a long chat discussing these issues and many more. She and her partner hadn’t had much experience of looking after children and didn’t really know what to expect of a 12-year-old. We talked about what they could reasonably ignore in the girl’s negative behaviour and what they needed to discuss with her and if necessary sanction. I don’t think I told them what they didn’t already know but it seemed to help confirm they were on the right path. When you’ve had lots of experience in raising children it’s easy to forget just how daunting it can be at the start.

Cathy Glass