Years ago, someone made a gift to Mill Grove with the intention that we should buy some pictures for the newly refurbished building. The children and young people were keen to be involved in the selection, and because it was in the years before the internet, I obtained some catalogues from a local art shop. We then arranged a system of multiple-choice voting in which everyone could rank pictures. The process itself was interesting, and off-hand I can only recall one other time when we had a form of voting. This was when the local confectionary producer, Trebor, asked us to test out a new range of toffees. While this delightful test was proceeding, I thought it would be interesting to see how far my palette and preferences matched theirs. I discovered that there was no overlap at all: I was looking for flavour, and they were attracted to texture: the nearer to bubble-gum the better irrespective of taste.
So, back to the pictures: I was prepared for surprises but had never entertained the unanimous first choice of the young people. It was a painting called The Peaceable Kingdom, not the famous one by Edward Hicks, but a variation on the theme based on Isaiah’s prophecy that a new era and completely harmonious way of living in which the whole of creation was at peace was coming, and that a little child would be leading the process. The picture still hangs on the wall in our dining room, while others, including some that I thought might be chosen, are mounted elsewhere in the building. (In case you are interested, they include depictions of sailing, trees, and possibly Macbeth, an elephant by Peter Scott, and a Lowrie…)
Knowing that this picture had proved so attractive to a former generation, I have returned to it as a subject for discussion from time to time since. And its theme always proves to be deeply interesting and significant to children of all ages. Now, of course, it chimes with a major shift in consciousness as Greta Thunberg, recently turned 18, has become a household name. When thinking of planet earth, climate change, and the threat of the extinction of the human race, it has been a child and children who have taken the lead. Adults and adult institutions such as governments, companies, organisations, and even educational establishments are caught up in the status quo with short term considerations such as the next election, the bottom line for the next quarter, turnover and expansion, Ofsted inspections and exam results, respectively.
But the future of the world, or at least the human species on it, requires a completely different perspective and approach. It needs to be guided by long-term thinking and planning: the next generation, children’s children. There must be blue-sky thinking, dreaming of alternative ways of doing things, visions of a new way of living. And children are equipped with the natural capacity to do this: their neural networks are plastic, potentially able to connect with an infinite amount of data, and to process it in creative and imaginative ways. What’s more, as they grow up, they become aware that, whereas teachers, parents and grandparents might just pass away before life as we know it becomes impossible, they will probably be around to experience it.
The reflections of children on the picture, and our discussions, led me to write in a book called Through the Eyes of a Child, in 2009 (when Great Thunberg was about seven): “The combination of increasing global awareness and a sense of the unfolding agency of children and young people may create an environment in which we see children increasingly lead (take care of) the process of caring for planet Earth. In this way the prophecy of Isaiah 11 may find some practical expression in our own times…if adult priorities continue to be dominated by short-term parochialism, tribalism and warfare/defence, then it may be that children will be the ones show challenge these priorities with those of their own.” (Through the eyes of a Child, eds. Anne Richards and Peter Privett, 2009, 63)
Institutions and groups that are thinking therapeutically have been drawn to the natural world in all sorts of ways as part of the therapeutic process, and perhaps there should be more reflection on examples of this. Has someone done research in this area to date, I wonder? A brief scan of the history of Mill Grove since 1899 reveals all sorts of interactions with nature and the seasons from the Hollow Ponds, Whipps Cross Lido, and Epping Forest locally; the fruit trees in Tiptree and the River Blackwater at Maldon; the hills and lakes of Snowdonia, to the rivers in Holland and the Alps in Switzerland. It would be genuinely interesting to hear the stories of other residential communities.
But there is another point that I would like to explore before concluding this piece. It is to do with the process or dynamics of learning and therapeutic development. Integral to all understandings of how adults can help children cope with traumas, deal with loss, anger, anxiety, and the threat of the void, is the principle that it is the children who lead, who guide and teach us. However much we need to help and guide the process, we have to go at their pace, to be attuned to their emotions and feelings, to have empathy for their situation, and to imagine how it feels to be in their shoes. This is not about authority or status; it’s not guided by a Romantic notion of childhood that with Wordsworth sees children “trailing clouds of glory” and therefore to be admired and placed above contradiction. It is not about children’s rights and some legal-political discourse. It is about how adults relate to children who are respected as such, and allowed to be children, not “adults-in-waiting”.
It seems to me that the concept, A Little child will Lead Them, is one that deserves constant, and perhaps renewed attention. I am not sure that the children for whom I care are aware of it, and perhaps it is appropriate that they are not, but over the years I have been increasingly guided by them: their reactions, their thoughts, their fantasies, their play. Which reminds me of a time recently when my dear friend Simon Rodway was recounting memories of Donald Winnicott. He spoke of one occasion when Winnicott did nothing but get down on the floor and play with a child. That’s pretty much it. I doubt if the child realised the half of what Winnicott was picking up and learning, and how he was seeking to help, but we can be sure that this wise and sensitive psychiatrist was allowing the child to lead.