By Choice or By Order?

Over many years of observation it has become apparent to me that children and adults live and act for one of two fundamental reasons: because of choice, or because of an order. (By choice I mean that they act primarily out of free will, not because they have been specifically taught or ordered to undertake a task; by order I mean that they are told or instructed to do something.)

Let me try to make this distinction clear before I set out to reflect on why this might be. It has long been noted that those who grow up in “institutions” (a problematical word, but we will let it stand for the moment) require rules and instructions before they will act. So there will be a routine with particular tasks denoted, and lists of instructions. Everyone in the institution assumes this is the way things are done whether they are the ones who give the orders, or those who are ordered to do them.

When I asked someone who had lived in an institution for most of his childhood why he didn’t help with most of the ordinary, everyday tasks that had to be undertaken by someone, he shrugged his shoulders. If others didn’t offer to do them, then why should he? Asking him what I should do about it, his response was elegantly simple: “You should draw up a rota with all the tasks on it, and with names beside them.” It was evident that he would have scrutinised such a list to make sure that it was fair (in the sense that he was not be required to do any more than anyone else). And it was equally apparent that this was his way of seeing the world: if he wasn’t asked to undertake a task, then he would never consider doing it.

Given this attitude (or world-view) It is not too hard to see why there should be such a natural fit between those living in institutions in childhood and their propensity to join uniformed organisations later in life. The regime of written or prescribed rules and tasks is common to both. The person acts because he or she is told to do so. In an organisation such as the army, fire service, or police, what matters as much if not more than imagination and personal initiative is the trained reflex reaction that ensures that orders are carried out orders without question.

The opposite motivation is that where a child (and later the child who has become an adult) acts without lists, routine, and directions. So this child will notice that there is something that needs to be done and will do it of her own volition. Please bear in mind the fact that no normal child would act in such an altruistic, caring and responsible mode all the time! But the child I have in mind will sometimes act in this way and for this reason. So if they see an adult (let us say) trying to lay a table while there is more than enough to do to complete the cooking for a meal, and answer a phone-call at the same time, this young person will (at least on some occasions) offer to help with either the cooking or the table-laying. If someone is struggling with something they are carrying and this child notices it, she may well offer to share the load. Such a child will be able to read the adult’s face and body language, aware of signs of tiredness or frustration, and will want to express empathy in one way or another.

I hope that such a simple way of describing the difference I have in mind will suffice for the purposes of this article. And that being so, we can move on to consider possible reasons for such very contrasting modes of behaviour: acting out of choice or because of an order.

My assumption is that in the life of a particular child at any given moment, and in the context of the child’s life and household, things are actually much more complex than this typology suggests. But here is my hunch or intuition as to why there should be such a difference. In my view it is possibly and primarily related to attachment theory. Where there is secure attachment a child learns largely unconsciously to respond to the actions and feelings of the significant adult in his life. There is a dance between them (I owe this metaphor to Dan Hughes) in which they mimic and respond to each other, notably with the exchanged smiles of mother and baby, and a range of unconscious movements. And over time the child comes to be able to stand as it were in the mother’s place and to begin to see and feel the world as she sees and experiences it. There is empathy. It is not that the mother has told the child to feel what she feels: rather that this ability to imagine oneself into the significant other becomes instinctive to the point of being built into the way a child behaves and sees the world.

Such a child will inevitably tend (I would argue) to act sometimes at least not because of a direction or an order, but because they feel for the other person, and experience the world (probably as small as a household in the early stages) as a human being who is in some form of relationship with the adult. They are both part of the situation and rather than distinctions (as between say officer and subaltern) it is their common humanity that counts most of all.

So what of the other type of behaviour and its development? You have probably guessed that I wonder whether it has to do with insecure attachment (let us say because of a traumatic separation on the part of the child, and a move to alternative carers). In place of the developing “dance” between mother and child, the child sees the adults around him as those who does things for him and others possibly because they are paid, or because that is their job. There is little or no ability to stand in the shoes of the other person and to see the world from their point of view. There is little empathy or sympathy. It is rather like a situation in a hospital where the child is the patient, and the adult the nurse. The whole of the reality of the ward is perceived as being occupied by us and them.

So it doesn’t matter how stretched or pressurised the nurse may be: it is her job to be a nurse, and the child does not remotely consider it appropriate to share her role. The only way the child will act with or for the nurse is if she is asked to do so. If there is to be any empathy then it will be on the part of the nurse: that is her metier.

It does not take much imagination to see that this sort of relationship or dynamic is essentially one of dependency, rather than reciprocity. And so although the link made between the child reared in an institution and the attraction of a job in uniformed organisations was made, it is also possible that such a child might be equally at home (as it were) receiving formal outside help, personal or financial. In a way it is exchanging one form of institution for another, much bigger one.

I hasten to add that I am exploring tendencies and “ideal types” here well aware that individuals and their stories can never be represented by such crude generalisations and caricatures. But having got to this point with my hypothesis, there is an underlying question that has begun to emerge: what can be done to help the child who lacks a secure attachment and the associated qualities of mutuality and empathy? This is of course to ask what the best form of substitute care is.

Here are three observations from my experience over the years. First it is exceedingly difficult. Second there needs to be some form of creative regression involving another attachment and bonding. Third it may be that it is through peers rather than an adult-child relationship that this occurs.

Meanwhile I still find that situations arise daily when there is an invisible wall between people. There are those who are content to receive all that is done for them without it seeming to occur to them that those who cook and care for them are also humans with the same needs and propensities. It is assumed that they never grow old or weary, or have any needs. And there are those who respond so instinctively to help and come alongside that it is natural: a learned reflex-reaction to assist.

This invisible wall is what I have been trying to explore, and it is salutary to discover how relatively impermeable it is, and how only one group seem to realise that it exists. The others live in a world with a visible wall: us and them. Those with the uniforms or the responsibilities. The tragedy is that the latter may well be doubly deprived. Not only having lost a significant other early in life perhaps, but they are also deprived of discovering that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Which leaves one thing still hanging: the whole concept of “institution”. Crudely speaking the term has been and still is used to describe or refer to places like prisons, hospitals, orphanages and the like. They often fit Goffman’s analysis of the “total institution”: that is places where you can or have to live the whole of your life for periods of time with little or no reference to the outside world. This article has been written with the assumption that most readers will have had that idea in mind all through.

But institutions and therefore institutionalisation are much more complex and subtle than this rather crude and superficial stereotyping. We all need institutions if we are to live fulfilled, socially connected and rich lives: education, government, health, sport can only operate if there are institutions. So why muddy the water at this late stage? Simply because we should not assume that the invisible wall I describe is restricted to certain children who live in particular places/settings. Secure attachment is never guaranteed in any child’s life, but it is fundamental to personal well-being: that is developing as a person in relationships.

When I had the privilege of meeting Dr John Bowlby during my research at Edinburgh University in 1970 I was already on my way to realising how fundamentally important his insights into attachment and attachment behaviour were in understanding child development. 44 years later I wish I could thank him personally for helping us all understand one of the keys to individual and social development. I have sought to acknowledge his influence by calling one of my books after his classic, Child Care and the Growth of Love. And his son, Richard, was kind enough to write a foreword. It would be crass to suggest that attachment explains everything, but it has become apparent to me that without it there are very basic and foundational forms of behaviour and relationships that we shall never understand.

It was not just the grey walls, the routine and the uniforms and uniformity of so-called Victorian institutions that influenced the children who lived in them and prevented the internalisation of norms and values (that was a concept that was very popular in the 1970s). It was also the lack of secure attachment. Sadly the two went together, and the children who most needed personal love and care from a single significant other, one whom they could in turn come to respect, feel for and even love, found themselves in places where this was almost the last thing they were designed to facilitate.

In a media-connected age, when childhood is becoming infused if not saturated by electronically enabled “social networks”, and with multi-national corporations with their ‘institutional” agendas that have no place for genuine interest in or care for an individual child, we would do well to ponder whether there is a risk that the Victorian institutions are not being recreated. Oliver Twist may no longer live in a Workhouse, but today’s children seem to be experiencing some of the impersonal and uncaring realities that he encountered but which now go under other names, and operate by other means.

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