Beyond the Family

Sunday, April 1st, 2012 by Dr Keith J. White

As I begin to write, there is the welcome and invigorating sound of children playing in the garden. They are from the neighbourhood and come each day to the breakfast and after-school club that runs at Mill Grove during the school week. Several are clambering on the climbing frame; two are on the climbing wall; one is swinging on a tyre that is suspended from the large pear tree; others are kicking a ball, or moving around in little toy vehicles on the grass. A thrush is busy with his spring melodies, and blossom is emerging on the fruit trees. There are adults around, and they are basking in the sunshine, happy and relaxed as they chat, while the children go about their business of play.

And I am sitting at my desk trying to finish this article before heading off to speak at a conference in Kilkenny, Ireland, tomorrow. The combination of the scene outside and the preparations I am making inside help to explain the subject of this piece. I have beside me a volume called Task Force on Child Care Services, Final Report produced for the Minister of Health in Dublin in September 1980 (Prl. 9345). Yes, I know that’s some time ago, but I have been asked to do a reflective, historically informed paper!

There is a phrase near the beginning of this 32-year-old report which caught my attention. The section is headed Fundamental Considerations. Having listed some of the needs of children it continues, “All these needs are subsumed in the general need that every child has for total care. Total care is usually found in a family.” (Page 2)

I think it is reasonably clear what is in the minds of the writers: they are trying to establish some sort of baseline against which they can measure the support and services offered to families that are “incomplete” or “not functioning in an ideal way” (page 2). But it doesn’t require much thought to realise that something strange is going on. It is as though a family makes up the whole (total) world of the child, and that the only time this is not so is when a family is in some way inadequate: then the state steps in to support.

But what on earth has happened to the meaning and significance of the scene I am watching right now? The children are not in their family homes, but in my garden. The adults are not their parents, but carers. They have all been to school earlier in the day, not home-schooled. There is a network of relationships represented connecting generations and cultures (I can see at least one baby right now!). And they have been playing in the Spring sunshine, under a clear blue sky, surrounded by the sounds and smells of nature.

Several years ago I tried to put into words the practical philosophy of Mill Grove, the residential community in which I live, and came up with this sentence:

“We believe that shared living based on God-given rhythms and patterns can provide a therapeutic context in which the deepest personal and social wounds can be healed, and creative growth and expression encouraged.”

If you were to think of a child in a (normal?) family, then “shared living” would encompass this social arrangement, but then we come to “God-given rhythms and patterns”. What did I have in mind? I was thinking of personal bio-rhythms, the oscillation of moods and feelings that make up normal human life. But also day and night, the seven days of a week, with one day set aside for re-creation. Then there are the seasons of the year, which in Europe are usually and memorably characterised as four (with thanks to Vivaldi). And then the seasons of life, which Shakespeare thought of as the ages of man (in As You Like It), which span everything from birth to death. And when we are on holiday in North Wales beside the sea, we are very conscious of the tides and patterns of weather. (When we are not there we still think of them often.)

My point is that families are set within geographical, topographical, social, religious and cultural contexts, and that all children’s needs (that is the term preferred in the document) cannot possibly be met by the family as if it were some sort of total institution: a microcosm or the planet, with its own eco and psycho and socio systems.

But there is something much more important than this at stake: children can only thrive when their families are in some sort of harmony (is that too strong a word, I wonder?) with the rhythms and patterns of the wider world in which they are embedded. Of course we know that healthy attachment, a sine qua non of good human development, almost always (though not invariably) takes place in the heart of the child’s family, with mother or father. But that healthy attachment makes for a secure base, and that base is a springboard for exploration of the world outside the family. It is not a relationship that is possessive or restrictive.

Social work, social care, and allied professions, can easily focus on certain aspects of a child’s life and experience, notably good-enough human relationships, without paying due attention to the pivotal place of what I am witnessing right now. (The same can be true, sadly of education and schools.) What I love about what I see is that all the interactions of the children: with each other, with adults, with the natural world, take place in the context of fun and play where the imagination plays a key role. It is not something they are “working at” or that someone is organising for them like a PE lesson.

And who can say what therapeutic benefits accrue from such spontaneous play? At the weekend one of those who had lived at Mill Grove as a child, popped in to see me out of the blue, for a “serious chat” as he put it. He is now in his mid-twenties and has a lot of experience of parenting and work. His biological family was unable to provide secure attachment for him in his early years, and schools were not places in which he ever felt remotely comfortable. Yet as we talked I was made aware of emotional intelligence that had grown alongside his considerable intellectual capabilities. What might help to explain his maturing? Shared living which included lots of time together working at (or was it playing at) tasks; times spent in the mountains and on the seas of North Wales; camping out in the mountains; fishing; and climbing; not to mention Technic-Lego!

While I have penned this, the youngsters have had their tea and just emerged into the garden again as the shadows lengthen. One is heading up the rope-ladder into the tree house, and he is sure to get a fine view, even if it will be some time before the planet Venus will begin to shine brightly above Jupiter in the western sky.

A family cut off from all this for whatever reason is a sad environment for a growing child, but a family connected to this will itself be nourished and supported. Now how do I get something about all this into my paper in Kilkenny, I wonder?

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