I was surprised to discover when looking back through my previous columns in the Webmag that I had never written on the subject of “Home” or “Homeland” apart from the piece about the home for Tibetan refugee children in Nepal (August 2007).
Much of my life and work alongside and among children, my theory and practice revolves around what I term “security”. It is variously described by others including those who talk about secure attachment as the primary source of this security. Security, in my view includes this, and is the primal longing, hunger, desire or need of all children. If it is not met then it is insensitive, if not futile, for those who seek to help children to offer other things such as education, counselling, lessons in anger management and the like. You do not offer a drowning person sun tan lotion or a drink: he needs a lifebelt and anyone who offers anything else has simply not understood his predicament!
Houses and Homes
So what do I mean by “home” in the context of security? For many children it is the place where they live. I distinguish of course between a house, flat or dwelling, on the one hand, and a home on the other. The advertisers who announce the building of “new homes” have missed an important point: you can build houses, but not homes; just as you can build estates but not communities.
A home is a place where children feel accepted, safe, secure and relaxed. It is the place where they live among people who respect them and with whom they experience reciprocity and attunement. The building, the garden (if there is one), the furniture, and fittings cannot be divorced in their minds from the relationships with people in this place. It is the relationships, rhythms and patterns of life, shared stories and creative play that turn a physical environment or space into “home”.
When There is No Home
But for many other children “home” (in this sense) is not about the place where they and their immediate family live. In some cases this is because they do not feel at home in the place where they and their family dwell; in other cases the children and young people do not live with their biological families. For these children home is found elsewhere, whether or not this is the name that they give to it. It may be a foster family, a residential unit (do you remember when they used to be called “homes”?), a refugee camp, the streets, a succession of friends’ houses, and so on. In such cases the whole idea of home is seen in a wholly contrasting light. It is likely that many of these children do not associate home with where they are living at all, although some may come to do so. So what is it that home means to them, whether consciously or not? I have come to see that it covers a range of possibilities. For some it is a haven associated with the past: “where I used to live, belonged and felt at home”. For others it may be a group of friends and where they hang out in the present: in this case home may have links with “turf” or “territory”. Others will seek home in longings and dreams of the future: it is not something that they have experienced but that which they long for. Some will find home in a faith community. Some will find it in an activity, skill or pursuit. Some will adopt “substitute parents” among the celebrities of their day in their search for home. Some sadly may find it in a prison or other types of secure accommodation. Some will identify themselves with football clubs and the like. Some will seek for home in a romantic or sexual relationship.
I think that you can see where this is going: if so you will be able to extend this indicative list from your own experience. Home cannot be defined merely as some physical place: it is something that can be found in the mind, heart and soul. Home might be defined as where you set your heart.
Where has this got us and what are the implications? My belief is that all human beings are seeking for “home”. That is why builders talk of homes rather than houses. That is why so many board games feature “home” as the starting point or end of the game. That is why the great religions feature various forms of home, as when Jesus told his disciples: “I go to prepare a place for you that where I am there you may be”. And for many, heaven is what they see as their ultimate, eternal home. Thus death is often described as being “called home”. The spirituals from the Deep South tap into the contrast between the present and future lives, “This world is not my home. I’m just a passing through; if heaven’s not my home, then Lord what shall I do?”
The Christian faith is described as a journey and followers of Jesus are encouraged to see themselves as citizens of another city: they are in this present world but not of it. Suicide bombers have talked of heaven as a place where they will be accepted and find “home”.
But, and here is the crucial point, children who lack a real home, are often offered nearly everything else except “home” in this vital sense of the experience of belonging, security and acceptance. Look at the current legislation and guidance. Take the aims of Every Child Matters. Look at education policies. The assumption is that all children already have, or experience, “home”, rather than the realisation that this is what many children are seeking above all else.
And if we do not place “home-making” in this sense at the top of our agendas then we leave children to seek for a “home” of their own making. Some will seek it in having a baby; others in drugs and heightened experiences in the company of others; some will seek it in close-knit gangs. Some will be withdrawn and depressed as they seek for unsuccessfully for home within; others will become violent as they fight for a space they can call their own.
Perhaps much of the behaviour of children that worries parents and adult society can be interpreted as a search for meaning in the form of home or homeland: a place for us, a new way of living where they are accepted and valued.
Feeling at Home
My intuition here has of course been informed by my travels to the five continents and extensive contact with children and families. But it is primarily fuelled by my life at Mill Grove. In this residential community of five generations many have found “home”. I saw it at Christmas recently when 200 or so were with us for our annual time of celebration and fellowship. Most of these do not live at Mill Grove, but they “come home” at Christmas. And many more, who cannot travel to be with us, write with fond memories of childhood and a sense of belonging.
The same experience can be traced in the stories of individual children. Recently I found a young adult on the doorstep. She had been adopted as a young child and when she was still very young the adoption had broken down. She had come to live at Mill Grove. While with us she usually talked of her adoptive parents’ house as her “home”. That may well have been a dream, for she has never felt fully accepted (“at home”?) there. She was in trouble that night, and immediately returned as a matter of course (instinctively) to Mill Grove. Perhaps this helps us a bit: is home sometimes the place you go to when you are in trouble and need help urgently? The place where you don’t need to weigh up whether they will accept you if you have done something very bad?
She spent the night with us (well to be more precise what little remained of the night), and we talked very openly and frankly in the morning. She was tearful and very real. A few evenings later she was with us after work, and joined us for our evening meal. Afterwards we chatted together at the kitchen sink as we washed up. (I washed and she rinsed). She told me of her thoughts, feelings and plans. There was nothing formal, and nothing arranged.
And she knows she is accepted: it goes without saying. Somehow, in some way, at some stage in her life, Mill Grove became her home. And she is just one of many.
But where are the Mill Groves for such children? Not social workers or probation officers, not hostels and projects, but homes? I think this is probably what underlies a lot of the thinking and writing of Camila Batmanghelidjh: children with shattered lives long for somewhere that is home.
We may talk of security and love, but at heart I think it may sometimes be helpful to use the term “home”. Without it children must dream and imagine, or despair. And surely most professionals would agree that if a child lacks a real home the search for one must be their primary task and responsibility.