Child-Friendly Yearly Patterns

Once a year at Mill Grove we invite the whole extended family and friends to come together for a day of thanksgiving and celebration. It’s always on a Saturday in May, and comprises a lively participative service in a local church, followed by an afternoon and evening at home with refreshments, games, barbecue, audio-visuals, DVDs and videos of highlights of the past year.

To estimate how many came this year is difficult, partly because there were so many, and partly because it wasn’t possible to get everyone together at one time and place. I would guess that between 400 and 500 people dropped in for at least part of the day.

There are other significant annual events that we celebrate without fail as a community, including Easter, the May Bank Holiday, the Summer Holiday in North Wales, Harvest, November Fifth, Founders’ Day on 20 November, and Christmas.

I have long been convinced of the importance of communal rituals for the health of any social group, not least because of the pioneering work of Bruce Reed (The Dynamics of Religion, DLT, 1978), but this May the personal and social significance of this annual occasion became much clearer to me. Put simply I saw into how it was a vehicle for the emotional and psychological healing of children and young people.

For a start there are those 1200 people who formerly lived as children at Mill Grove, and who are now dispersed around the world. They cannot join us every year but they recall the annual day, and are always interested to know when it will be taking place and what special people and events will occur. For them it is part of the security of belonging to and being part of a living community that draws from and respects the traditions of previous generations.

For those who come back it is a chance to revisit the special places of their childhood, nooks and crannies, with all the associations they bring, and to meet others from the same era, to share memories and recollections. For those who live too far away to return, or who are infirm, the day provides the chance to get in touch by phone, letter or email, and to be reassured that they are held in our minds and hearts however long ago it was that they lived here.

For the youngsters who live here at present the day is a reassuring reminder of the stability and security of Mill Grove. Such thanksgiving days have continued uninterrupted since 1900. The children have the opportunity to witness how much the place and the community mean to those who lived here before them, and to realise that it is valued by them.

They also experience a foretaste of how it will be one day for them: all things being equal, they will move on, but Mill Grove will always be there for them. The reason they came to live at Mill Grove in the first place was because their own families and family networks were insufficiently strong, for whatever reasons, to sustain a good enough parenting role. The traumas associated with this have understandably created insecurity and anxiety. An annual event that reinforces the permanence of their present home is therefore reassuring and comforting.

There is, too, the value that each young person comes to discover in themselves as they prepare for the day itself. Much of modern life is spent as individuals, working, enjoying entertainment and consuming marketed items. There is comparatively little sense of shared activity undertaken simply because people value each other as people (rather than as commodities, consumers or clients).

All hands are needed on deck for a big event like this. And, as the day neared, one and another began to undertake traditional tasks and to draw great satisfaction from the completion of them and the praise of others. One stood beside two cars she had cleaned and beamed. Another got up at 6.30 a.m. to ensure he completed the creosoting of an entire fence. Before long he was joined by a guest from Nigeria and they had great fun working together. Still another put in a massive effort to dig over the entire area of our orchard previously occupied by chickens.

Everywhere there was tangible evidence that members of the community had been at work. Plants appeared, grass and lawns were cut, tents were erected, cakes were cooked, and furniture was rearranged for the big day. The whole place was being transformed and the youngsters were part of the process.

As this was happening they were all the time drawing from their memories of how it should look, and what should be done, as well as anticipating the pleasure that they and others would enjoy on the day itself as they looked ahead. It became difficult to abstract each individual from the enterprise as a whole, and the past and present from the future. There was mutual reinforcement and affirmation.

One of the great benefits, of course, was that the buildings, cars and grounds had a spring-clean, and that is not to be sniffed at in a residential community! But more significantly, on the day what the young people had done was noticed and appreciated. And their people skills were put to good use in welcoming dozens of others, notably the offspring of members of the extended Mill Grove family. Two of them took a large measure of responsibility in running the crèche that operated during the service, and others helped with serving refreshments and organising games.

At the very end of the day, when the unglamorous task of clearing up was underway, one of the young people lay on his back on the oak floor of our indoor hall (which is used for badminton, art classes and a day nursery) and exclaimed, “I wonder why I am so good at looking after little children.” We all knew that this was one of his natural gifts, but throughout the day others were praising and thanking him for what he had been doing for up to twenty children.

Late into the evening we were watching slides, DVDs and videos of holidays, Christmas plays and even the story of Mill Grove from 1899 together, and without anyone saying anything we were acknowledging that our lives had become part of a story of a place and family that had meant so much to so many. Over the weekend, as the final guests were leaving we were already talking of next year! We were history makers in this little part of the world.

And this is part of the reason why yearly rituals are so vital not only to the flourishing of communities, but to the development and growth of children and young people. The Jewish people have survived as a community despite much oppression and outright opposition. The Chief Rabbi in Britain, Jonathan Sacks, is not slow to point out in his broadcasts and writings that children play a vital part in the most important yearly religious rituals.

At the Passover meal, for example, it is a child who asks, “What does this celebration mean?” In this way they are incorporated into the whole history and story of a people. Other religious faiths have their ways of achieving this sense of belonging and elementary socialisation.

Children who have known the threatening chaos and shattering traumatic experiences of separation and loss from their birth families perhaps more than others need the security and affirmation that comes from being an acknowledged and accepted part of a group or community. Whatever the merit of short term initiatives like therapy and life-book work, and preparation for independence, they are still needing and craving (whether consciously or not) for a fundamental sense that they belong to that which is accepting, but not creating a dependency culture, and encouraging, but not demanding what they have to offer, in order that the whole community, including them can celebrate its worth and existence.

There are many ways of doing this throughout the world in families, faith groups, educational establishments and neighbourhoods. But I cannot think of any that survive and thrive long term that do not have such occasions. They cannot easily be created, but over time they will evolve, and when this happens, they should be nurtured and sustained. For in and through them, healing and acceptance comes as a by-product of the tasks and responsibilities necessary for them to flourish. In an era increasingly dominated by the pressure of the marketing engines and media of the world to shape young people in the image of individual or group consumers attuned to the never-ending and short term fashions and trends of a cynical entertainment industry, such events will surely have increasing significance and value. But such is the short-termism of modern culture that there is a risk that few will appreciate their true worth.

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