Recognising your Gifts

My first In Residence Column for the Children Webmag was in March 2000, just two issues after the very first electronic pages appeared. I was asked by the Editor to step into the shoes of my friend and colleague Barbara Kahan, and the idea was that I should write from my daily experience of living at Mill Grove. The columns were to be in essence a reflection on residential child care practice.

So although the magazine itself is celebrating its 100th monthly edition, I still have two more columns to go before I reach a century. And I am still here, continually stirred, surprised and challenged by the lives of individual children and young people, and also by the dynamics of our life together.

Learning from others

One of the youngsters who was here when I wrote my first column is now a young man and he still lives at Mill Grove. On reflection, I don’t think I have said much about him over the years, but I do want to now.

To set the context for what I want to say, it is necessary to begin with an observation that has been working its way into the cluster of what might be called my “interim conclusions” in life. It is this: real gifts of character and personality in any human being are never apparent in a full or coherent way to the person concerned.

Let me put that another way, because it is an important assertion. We all know that we can list some of our qualities, skills, experience, qualifications and knowledge. We are aware of them in the course of our life and work. But what about the qualities of character that are so much part of us, and the way we function that we cannot see them? My conclusion is that though others see them, they remain largely hidden to us.

If a person learns about them, then it will tend to be through others. And this is one of the reasons why relationships and life together are so important: it is through others that we come to know ourselves. (I think this idea can be linked with Jung’s “shadow”, but do not want to explore this here.) It is a reciprocal process in which there is scope for mutual understanding, insight and encouragement. As carers we can perhaps help others to understand qualities and gifts of which they are ignorant. Perhaps this is one of the unheralded but vital elements of residential child care: to affirm the gifts in a child or young person lacking in self-knowledge and self-esteem. At the same time there will be aspects of ourselves that they reveal to us.

Difficulties and qualities

With this in mind, let’s get back to the person of whom I want to speak. His earliest years are still shrouded in considerable and surprising mystery, but let’s sum them up by saying that they were troubled and very unpleasant. He came to us as a last resort when everything else seemed to have been tried and had failed. When he arrived he was withdrawn and anxious. In fact he was so emotionally hurt that I think it was only after something like three years living with us that he first ventured to say anything to me at all except in response to a question or prompting. As we got to know him it was apparent that for whatever reasons (I am still not sure, and doubt if I ever will be), he had difficulties in learning and processing information whether cognitive or emotional.

He struggled in mainstream education to the point where a special secondary school was seriously considered. He got to the end of formal schooling, and went to college to do some basic courses. Eventually he got a job in a retail clothing firm where he is responsible for the stock of one of its departments. He has held that job for over four years. He has the same tasks as when he started. He does not take the initiative, but is reliable and dependable.

Obviously I could say a lot more about him given that he has been part of our family for fifteen years or so, but you have got the gist of his story. He is competent at cricket, badminton, snooker, football, swimming and hill-walking, but overall he tends to be seen as someone “with special needs”.

A natural gift

But what I haven’t told you so far is one of his quite remarkable personal gifts. It is glaringly obvious to all those of us who know him. He is a natural when it comes to being with, caring for and playing with young children. And I do not just mean those who are adorable and content. He has a gift of empathising with, understanding and providing safe space for all young children, boys and girls. He knows instinctively exactly how much space and room to give them, how much support and encouragement. And naturally they quickly sense this and are drawn to, and happy in, his company.

On one occasion I was trying to help a family with a very disturbed young boy, who seemed not to know or understand the most basic of boundaries. He was largely, if not completely, out of control at home, school and “in the community”. One day I was bringing him to Mill Grove so that he could spend a few hours playing in our garden and tree-house, when he attempted to jump out of the window of the moving car. You can guess that fortunately I had someone with me: yes, my friend with the natural gift of being with and understanding young children.

It was he that coaxed the boy back into the car, and helped him to feel safe. So much so, in fact, that when we made it home, the boy was fully engaged in listening to a story being read to him! Ever since this occasion I have told my friend how much I admire his gift. But he has never understood what I mean by this. I have encouraged him to consider a job (career is actually what I have in mind) which majors on being with young children. But he does not see it this way. He continues in retail clothing and the only other option he has considered is painting and decorating.

And so we continue to have living among us someone whose great gift is with young children, but who cannot see what all the fuss is about. Meanwhile since March 2000 Ruth and I have become grandparents, and our two grandchildren love to come to spend time at Mill Grove. And one of the people in whose company they are completely relaxed is…yes, you’ve got it, my friend!

Learning about oneself

And what, you may ask, has my friend taught me about myself and my possible gifts? I am not sure, but this I do know: it seems that I may have ability when it comes to organising words and thoughts, teaching, and creating networks and organisations. But my friend has taught me that I do not have the natural gift of being, of letting go of work and plans and planning and organising.

I have tried to compensate for this, of course, but I know that I do not have the gift as he does. For he can get to the end of a day, or even a week, without having accomplished anything tangible or visible by way of planning, activity or concrete results, and yet he is content. He does not feel he has to prove anything, and I suppose if you are really comfortable in the presence and company of young ones, it helps not to have your own agenda, but to enjoy simply being in their company. If you wanted a succinct way of putting his gift into words it might be that he is good at being, rather than doing: a human being, rather than a human worker or doer.

Let’s not become sentimental and idolise a single gift. It’s not the whole story. I hope that some of his unrealised potential will still find its expression in his life. But what a gift! And how wonderful that, because he doesn’t recognise it as a gift, he is still as natural and unaffected as ever!

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