Do Nurses Really Eat Their Young?

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more. This famous line was spoken by Peter Finch in the 1976 movie classic Network. It also conveys how I feel about the fact that some of my colleagues love to perpetuate the notion that nurses eat their young.

This vile expression implies that experienced nurses do not treat new nurses kindly. My first problem with the statement is that it’s a generalization implying that all nurses are like that. Interestingly, whenever I hear someone utter the expression, I always say, “I don’t do that. Do you?” The person making the statement always says, “Oh no, I don’t, but many others do.” I’ve never heard even one nurse own up to doing this, although some nurses are willing to indict the entire profession. Every time that statement is repeated, it causes harm and casts a dark shadow on every nurse. Say anything enough, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I work extensively with students and new graduate nurses. While I occasionally hear about unpleasant experiences with experienced nurses, I mostly hear about how caring, nurturing, and supportive more experienced colleagues are. New grads and students have told me how nurses have taken them under their wings, showed them the ropes, taken their phone calls at home when advice and support were needed, and generally encouraged and supported them.

I recently took my mother-in-law for same-day surgery on two occasions. On both visits, students were present. The staff nurse responsible for my mother-in-law’s care easily incorporated teaching into her routine and demonstrated professionalism and compassion toward the students. This is more the norm than many nurses realize. We don’t talk about this often enough.

My second problem with promoting the concept that nurses eat their young is that when new graduates and students hear the expression — and they always do — they have one more thing to fear and one more reason to question their career choice. They accept the statement as gospel and assume their own profession is against them before they even get started. If they encounter a nurse who is less than friendly and caring, rather than realizing it may be that nurse’s personality or her stress level that day, they accept it as the norm and assume it’s something they have to suffer through. So, they don’t attempt to use conflict management and problem solving skills to get along better in the workplace or to find the help and support they need. They become fearful of their colleagues rather than learning to seek out the friendly, competent nurses who are all around them, if they only look.

So, why does the expression get repeated over and over? Because it’s human nature to focus on the negative. Sadly, good works often go unnoticed by many and unreported by those who perform them, and yet we’re often quick to note bad behavior. Additionally, those nurses who prefer to dwell on what they perceive as wrong with nursing, talk the loudest and the longest. The people doing all the good stuff don’t get on the bandwagon and say, “Well, I helped another student today” or “I went out of my way to teach some new nurses this week.” That’s because, for most nurses, mentoring and supporting the next generation is a natural part of being a professional nurse. It’s also something that most of us enjoy.

For those of you who still cling steadfastly to the notion that nurses eat their young and think that I have my head in the sand, here’s a reality check. Why did most of us become nurses? Certainly not to harm, impede, or subjugate anyone. The truth is that there will always be certain people in every profession who need to lash out at new members of the profession for their own reasons. It happens to a certain extent in almost every workplace, almost every profession. Let’s shift the focus to another, greater, reality — the one about all the caring nurses who have always enjoyed the challenge and consider it a privilege, a pleasure, and an honor to nurture and mentor new nurses. These nurses constitute the vast majority.

To those nurses who are caring and supportive, who teach and encourage new nurses, speak up and debunk the negative stereotype that nurses eat their young. To the nurses who take phone calls at home and even in the middle of the night from novices who need guidance and help, encourage your colleagues to do the same. To all the nurses who proudly volunteer for mentoring programs at their place of employment or through their professional associations, speak about the joy and satisfaction of nurturing the next generation. To all the nurses who go out of their way to gently guide and support their newest colleagues, join me in starting a new mantra: Nurses nurture their own.

Every nurse has a choice: Promote the negative minority or join the positive majority. It’s time to turn the spotlight on the quiet heroes in our profession who do the right thing every day and invest in the next generation of nurses. It’s time to start noticing and promoting what’s right about nursing.

Copyright Nurse.com (www.nurse.com). All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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