Professional Love. By Dr Keith White

Recently I was asked to facilitate a seminar on the theme of “professional love”.  It was part of a conference organised for those involved in pre-school/early years’ education.  There were about fifteen in the group, and I began by inviting the participants to introduce themselves and to summarise why they had chosen this particular seminar and subject.  It turned out that this was my last substantive contribution to the seminar.

The subject was so important to each member of the seminar group that in explaining why they had come, they spoke with such animation and vigour that there was no time for any further discussion!

And here are the issues they raised as I recall them.  One who attended had just started helping in a pre-school as a volunteer, and she described how she was reading a story to her children when one of them walked towards her and sat on her lap.  She was not sure how to react or what to do because she could not remember if there was a policy about this.  Did it make any difference, she wondered, that the mother of the little girl was present throughout?

Another participant was responsible for several newly established pre-schools and he was attracted to the seminar because the two words summed up exactly what he was aiming for (his educational philosophy) and he wanted to draw from the wisdom of those who were present.

A third person wanted to know if there was a toolkit available that included a “cuddling policy”.  (We were able to pause at this point and reassure her that this is exactly what Dr Jules Page, the originator of the phrase “professional love” had been seeking with the help of professionals and parents to develop.)

Another participant told of a male member of staff whom she had just employed although he had been dismissed from his previous job in early years’ education because he had written in some notes that he “loved the children” he was working with.  After scrutiny of the relevant records and having secured references, she found that there was no other criticism of his attitude or practice: the word that had been objectionable was “love”.  As his new manager realised that she was taking a risk (or making a statement) in employing him, but she felt that she could do no other.  She believed that loving the children in an early years’ setting was appropriate.

At this point in the introductions several commented that there was a crying need for more male teachers in pre-schools, and that safeguarding issues were particularly challenging for them because of the pervading fear of paedophiles in the sector.

Another person said that she did not find she was able to be close enough to children in the church where she had been employed as a children’s worker and that as a consequence she had chosen to move into formal education provision.  But she was doing so believing that love was vital in the relationship between teacher and children.

A mother (and a seasoned professional with two daughters, both of whom had PhDs) told of how difficult she had found it trying to engage as a teacher in early years’ because it seemed as if much of what she had learnt as a mother, and what had become instinctive to her seemed to be questioned.  Once again several intervened to agree with this general point.  How could it be right that a distressed child could not be comforted by being picked up and reassured by appropriate touch?  What about children who had hurt themselves in pre-schools where there was a policy that such accidents should not be attended to by the staff?

And this led to a reflection on the particular needs of children with disability (say, for example, cerebral palsy) where physical touch and holding were vital for their safety and learning of new motor-skills.

I am sure that much more was said that I have not recounted here, but I hope that you have got the gist of the dynamics and concerns of the group.

There was complete agreement that early years’ provision needed to operate within agreed professional boundaries set out in clear policy statements understood and affirmed by both the parents and the providers.  Such policies should be in line with the best national wisdom, practice and standards.

But at the same time there was universal concern in the group (with no dissenting voices that I could detect) that something strange and worrying was going on in our contemporary society. How come a teacher was anxious when a child quite naturally came to sit on her lap in the presence of the child’s mother?  How come a male teacher lost his job because he wrote of loving the children he was caring for?  Was there not a risk that the children’s desires and needs were being overlooked or marginalised because     of societal concerns?

Many nurseries and pre-schools have the responsibility for children as young as two years old for the whole of a day, five days a week.  Surely such children are wired for the most part to seek for caring and loving responses to their feelings (whether because they are anxious, or because they want to express affection)?

All this points to the considerable value of what Dr Jools Page and her colleagues at Sheffield University are doing. ( The Professional Love in Early Years Settings (PLEYS) research project was set up to examine how those who work in early years settings can safely express the affectionate and caring behaviours which their role demands of them. The outcome was a set of Professional Development Materials which comprise the Attachment Toolkit.)

As it happens I had not come across the work of Dr Page, nor heard of the term “professional love” until I was asked to lead this seminar, so I am most grateful for this rather belated introduction to it.  When I presented my presidential address to the Social Care Association Annual Conference at Southport in 1984 I offered the example of Dr Janusc Korczak (1878-1942) who gave his life in order to stay with the children in the Warsaw Ghetto for whom he was responsible as they were put on a train to the gas chambers.  I asked the question, “What would I do if there was another such horrific situation affecting the children in my care?”  It was not a rhetorical device.  As one who has been involved in the care of children and young people most of my life there is always the underlying question about the extent and depth of my commitment to them.  Am I effectively a hireling, or a good shepherd prepared to lay down my life for my sheep?

Perhaps understandably some who were present told me that this was unduly dramatic and even inappropriate for a conference of professionals.  I responded that I understood this, but that they needed to know that the president they had elected was one for whom professionalism did not exclude love.  What’s more the sort of love I had in mind was costly, serious, considered, faithful love that welcomed professional scrutiny and rigour.

In time I came to gather my experience and philosophy of care together in the book The Growth of Love (Abingdon: BRF, 2008).  I didn’t use the term “professional love”, but on re-reading the text it is pretty clear that this is what I had in mind right through.

I hope that one of the serendipities of this remarkably lively seminar will be the development of links between Dr Page and others of us (including those committed to social pedagogy) who have been living and working with the same basic questions and concerns.  Another could well be reactions to this article.


Keith J. White                                                                                                                                                          16.10.2016

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