“It made me what I am”. By Dr Keith White.

It was the end of lunchtime on Boxing Day at Mill Grove and there were just a few minutes before the traditional afternoon football match was due to begin outside.  I sat down beside a young man who had been enjoying his lunch on a table with fifteen others of all ages.  Although he and his family had never lived at Mill Grove as children, they used to spend an evening a week with us, and join us for our summer holiday in North Wales.  Unlike other members of his nuclear family he had rarely been able to come back to see us, so this was a special window of opportunity.

For a time as we sat together there were others around, and I told them that he (let me call him Ishmael) was one of my heroes.  He had memorably volunteered to sacrifice one the days of his holiday in North Wales to join me in a 500 mile round trip to London and back with young children on both legs of the journey.  He kept me awake faithfully on the final leg over the Bala hills until we arrived late at night, but safely in Borth-y-Gest.  That was just one of the reasons why I was so pleased that he had joined nearly a hundred others for our Boxing Day celebrations.

And that was the trigger.  “It made me what I am” he said as if it was almost too obvious to state.  And then without any prompting he unpacked what he meant.  “It was Wales.  The mountains.  Swimming and sailing.  Helping carry the boats and trailers. And the ‘Mystery Trips’.  I wouldn’t be the person I am without them. I try to explain to my friends (in East London) but they don’t know what I am talking about.”

(Just a word about Mystery Trips: they used to take place each evening and would involve short journeys to unknown destinations where scrambling, diving, swimming, climbing and exploring would take place, usually followed by a visit to a fish and chip shop.)

Since his boyhood he had been faced with many challenges (to put it mildly) but those times spent in North Wales were an unfailing source of comfort, sense of identity and achievement.  “You enjoyed them a lot” I said, “and so did I.”  “I know you did” he replied with a broad smile. The days on the hills, beaches and seas were shared experiences that bound us together.

Other children and young people have lived at Mill Grove for years, sometimes decades, but in his case it was regular Thursday evenings and then annual holidays that had been the basis of our bonding and attachment.

Since then as it happens I have been in North Wales over the New Year period, and I talked about him with other members of the extended family.  Of course they remembered him, and one reminded me that we used to celebrate his birthday often during the summer holiday.  I had forgotten that.

On reflection there are two elements of this story that deserve examination for those of us who live alongside children and young people who have to navigate difficult personal and family situations.  The first is that of time.  The general assumption is that secure attachment takes place early in life (especially during the first two years) and that it takes considerable time for it to take root.

Here we are dealing with something like secure attachment that developed largely in a place where we spent no more than two weeks together each year.  Is it really possible?  If it is, then we do well to consider seriously the nature of “quality time together”.

The second concerns the significance of holidays.  I wonder if those out-of-the-ordinary times of shared life and experience have unrecognised potential for bonding and attachment.  What if we organise our lives and “intervention” in the lives of children and young people without reference to holidays, or to put it more starkly, if we deliberately organise things so that we do not spend any holidays with the children whom we seek to understand and help?

In my research into residential child care in Edinburgh and Hull during the early 1970s I found that it was not unusual for a Director of Children’s Services to spend some of his or her summer holidays with the children for whom they were responsible.  With the advent of Social Work/Social Services Departments that practice ceased immediately and has never been re-established. Now it would seem unthinkable.

But meanwhile the likes of my dear friend and colleague Bob Holman has continued to spend holidays with young people from Rogerfield and Easterhouse at camps in Skegness.  And it is clear from the stories that are told many years later that these have been times of unique self-discovery and relationship-building.

And some alert readers will not have overlooked the fact that this conversation between myself and Ishmael also took place on a holiday…just a few days ago.  It had nothing at all to do with work, social work, casework, therapy and the like.  It was a family conversation over a family meal and about a family holiday.

There is, I believe some serious re-thinking and re-planning needed, but if that is to be done, perhaps we should fill in the picture a bit, lest we highlight two aspects at the expense of a fuller and bigger picture.  It is I think vital to realise that the holidays we spent together in North Wales were connected, supported, bound by regular weekly evenings spent together, by some shared interests of the families, and by relationships that developed with other members of Ishmael’s family.  It was not just a matter of two individuals meeting as it were in isolation, but much more accurately another example of “kith” or “nestness”.  (These concepts are explored in the very creative and imaginative book, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, by Jay Griffiths.  My column in the Journal in June 2015, “Of Nests and Nestness” was based on her work.)

So the bonding and attachment may need to be assessed in this wider context with its particular transitional objects and transitional space.  But all the same I wish you could have been there to hear the words, “It made me what I am”.  They were spoken with such deep sincerity and conviction that they deserve a serious hearing.  Has anyone done work on how Bowlby’s insights relate to summer holidays, I wonder?

Keith J. White, PhD