What is the most important contribrution we can make to the life of a child?

The reason this question came to mind was because I had been in North Wales with a group of young people from Mill Grove over part of the Easter holidays.  We drove back, having had another great time of fun and adventure together, and the same evening I was due to give a talk to an organisation in London about Mill Grove. Try as I might, I could not get my head around any satisfactory framework for what I should say, and so decided to ask myself some questions instead.

It may seem a precarious way of giving a talk, but I can commend it: it keeps you on your toes, and can take you beyond well-tried topics and outlines.  Thus it was that I came to respond off the cuff, to the question, “What is the most important contribution we at Mill Grove can make to the life of a child?”  There were all sorts of possible ways of going about a reply. 

One could summarise the way we seek to meet the basic needs of children for shelter, protection, safety, security; one could articulate the importance we attach to knowing each child or young person as an individual and by name; one could emphasise the agency of the child and their ability to take an active part in overcoming the difficulties they had been experiencing; one could talk about a caring community; about predictable boundaries and patterns; about a creative environment, and about facilitating exploration and learning.

At this point you may like to pause and consider what you might have replied in similar circumstance, and from your perspective and experience of children and young people.  It’s a valuable exercise that may owe much to the philosopher, Sören Kierkegaard and his insistence that at any one time and in any situation there is always one thing that is needful, among the many competing possibilities as to how we should act.


Of course I didn’t have time to think: I was on my feet and without notes.  And this for the record, as far as I can recreate it, is what I said, “I think that the most important contribution we can make to the life of a child is always to be there for that child. This may sound unexceptional to you, and perhaps rather disappointing, because I am sure there are many more exciting and interesting things I could say, but this is the conclusion to which I have been drawn over many years living alongside children. 

“Years ago I heard someone say that the role of the church in inner cities (that is the parts in urban areas that were hurting most from poverty and deprivation), was to be there among such people and communities.  It was the visible presence of the church that mattered. This seemed to me at the time rather tame, if not lame.  Surely the church could do something a bit more active and constructive than simply being in a place and staying among people!

“Now I have begun to see just how much it means to have someone, or a committed group, that does not leave you or move away. This is true in the life of a community, whether a neighbourhood, or nation, and also in the life of a child.

“When people think of parenting we usually assume it consists of what people do: caring for children, feeding and clothing them, listening to them, playing with them, arranging appropriate education, taking them on holidays and so on.  What we may tend to marginalise is the importance of parents being there for their children.  I take it that one of the significant aspects of the marriage covenant is that it indicates to children that their parents have promised each other, their families and communities that they intend to be there together for their children. Many things can go wrong, but the statement has been made and recorded.

“As I said at the outset, this is far from glamorous, and does not lend itself to the whole  idea of “outcomes” so beloved of the contemporary managerial culture that has infected just about all social institutions, formal and informal.  We cannot say exactly what effect being there will have on a child’s development, in the way we can predict the likely effects of a healthy diet, or appropriate literacy programmes.  And for this reason the importance of being there may be underestimated.

“Yet every child desperately longs to know and depend upon the fact that there is someone who is there for her, someone whose attention they do not have to attract because they have forgotten the child, someone who does not have other more important priorities, someone who is not on a short term contract or a practice placement or committed to a career that will prevent a professional ever being able to commit himself to a single child or young person.

“For 107 years Mill Grove has been located in the same place: a London suburb whose chief claim to fame was a publican by the name of Charlie Brown and who has given his name to a huge and sprawling roundabout.  Throughout that period there has been the same address and telephone number for anyone wanting to contact us.  And it has been the same family through four generations that has lived here.  The reason for this continuity is the importance we attach to being there (that is “here”) for each and every child throughout their lives.

“Being there doesn’t commit a child to a dependency relationship: it is not predictive or restrictive.  It simply means that a child knows he or she is always in someone else’s heart and mind, and that there is always a place to go back to should they choose or want to do so.  And that is the most important contribution that I think we make to the lives of children.”

Other perspectives

Since giving this impromptu response to the question I had set myself I realised that other people would come to it with different terms and perspectives in mind.  Some would associate being there with attachment theory and bonding; others might think of the person who is there for a child as an advocate; and there is the religious insight that sees God as always there for us: the ground of our being, and the One who will never leave us or forsake us.

I have never forgotten the comment of Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the Hospice Movement, when I asked her what she saw as the guiding principle of work with those who were dying.  I sensed that she was the type of focussed person who would have sorted out her priorities and could give a simple strategic answer.  She replied without hesitation, “Watch with me.”  The one who is beside the person dying is not called to preach or teach; always to be listening, and actively comforting and nursing, but to be alert and there beside a person all the time.

And so I guess that “being there” is important not only for children, but also for us all, in one shape or form, throughout our lives.  And if so, this may help to explain why familiar possessions, places, traditions, trees, horizons, scents and sounds are so significant in our lives: they have always been there for us, if only in our memories and imaginations.

It’s so important that it is hard to understand why it should receive so little attention in contemporary programmes, plans and policies for children and young people.

But meanwhile you can take it for granted that Mill Grove will continue to be here, for any who wish to return with good news or bad, in confident or diffident moods, seeking others to share in celebrations, or those who will be comforters.

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