A close friend who is a senior social worker was on the phone recently and she was exasperated. “It just doesn’t make sense”, she told me, “there are meetings of professionals, sometimes impressively large meetings, and there are forms to be completed, and lots of prescribed outcomes and indicators, but what on earth does it all add up to?! Does it really help children and families?” I consoled her by affirming her own role and expertise, “At least you understand what social work is. What’s more you have been a continuous and stable influence both in your team and also in the lives of many of the children and families.”
When I put the phone down I realised that she had touched on a subject very relevant to me at the moment as I prepare to teach a Masters Course on Child Development. The previous lecturer has been gracious enough to let me have her notes. And the usual suspects are all there: Bowlby, Bronfenbrenner, Coles, Erikson, Freud, Klein, Kohlberg, Maslow, Piaget, Vygotsky… No doubt you can add to the list. But the pressing question that arises is just what the students are to make of all this information. Assuming they are able to understand and remember it in their daily practice, what does it add up to? What is their guiding principle that draws from all they have been taught?
I realise that this is a challenge in many, perhaps all, academic disciplines where students encounter the thinking and practice of a range of theoreticians as a basis for their future clinical work. It is possible, for example, to teach sociology or theology, by giving the students a wealth of information (mostly historical) about what distinguished figures in their field have written and taught. But then comes the question: how are these students now to practise sociology or theology?
Perhaps you incline to the view that the role of the lecturer is precisely to give this sort of information and then to leave the students to work out their own principles and mode of practice. But wouldn’t this be helped by examples of how the lecturers venture to practise their discipline (assuming, of course, that they are still practitioners, rather than teachers of the history of the subject)?
This is what I am going to try to do when I teach the course. I hasten to add that I will not be seeking to influence students to model their practice on how I operate, but I do want to introduce them to practice examples from my own and others’ lives and work. They will be encouraged to reflect critically on these examples. And of course they will be seeking to discover how these practitioners integrate some of this theoretical material into a framework that guides their interactions with children and families.
With this in mind I ventured to ask a child psychotherapist about his guiding principle. (I opted for a single principle, because I have learnt that when navigating, although you may have coordinates, it is always best to have one overriding objective, method or goal.) He was quick to answer. “Containment”, he said. Now I knew that he was not talking about secure accommodation or a modern version of ‘pin-down’. So I asked what the theoretical base for this was.
He confirmed that it was the work of Wilfred Bion. And this immediately helped me to see where he was coming from, and how he sought to integrate object relations, and attachment theories in his practice. He readily acknowledged the work of others confirming that he drew from any insights that would help his interventions with children. That said, the overriding framework was the idea that he sought to create a context that was robust enough to allow the strongest feelings and rages to be expressed without the ‘container’ being either too repressive, or too weak.
This led me to ponder how I would have answered the same question. As it happens, I have been drawn to the work of Bion through one of my former friends and colleagues, Dr Bruce Reed, whose book, The Dynamics of Religion, was a mine of information and good sense when I taught the sociology of religion. Reed saw that the traditional wisdom and resources of the Christian faith, especially when drawn upon appropriately during acts of worship, functioned as a container that allowed the human dynamics of oscillation, regression and development to be healthily expressed both individually and corporately.
I was not pondering this question in a vacuum. In fact I did so while observing and interacting with my one-year-old grand-daughter over a period of a week in North Wales. She revelled in every activity: feeding and breastfeeding; greetings and goodbyes (even if she was not sure which was which); moving swiftly from place to place and from person to person in an inimitable fashion that resembled a cross between crawling and shuffling; sand-play in virtually infinite variety (eating it, digging it, stroking it, sharing it…); water-play in streams, the sea and the bath; games of collecting objects and transferring them to a pile; demolishing the creations of others; grappling with rocks; picking up and sharing stones from a pebble ridge; peekaboo; rustling leaves, and endless conversations without words…
What, I wondered in her joyful and animating presence, was the guiding principle of my understanding and interaction? I suppose you could say that I was trying to contribute to the ‘growth of love’ in her life (given that I have been working on this approach for so long), but that requires rather a lot of unpacking, compared with say ‘containment’ or ‘social work’ (as understood when The Casework Relationship by Felix Biestek, was known). After some time I found myself turning to the acute observations and theory of Friedrich Froebel. He is often cast in the role of an educationalist, or kindergarten specialist, but in fact he was seeking to understand every aspect of human development: the individual child, the family, communities, and nations.
One of his insights is that it is the role of adults to create space in which children can explore (experiment with) everything so that their souls connect in every way possible with the whole of the universe. People don’t write like that any more, of course, but at least it provides a very inclusive guiding principle! How could I contribute, albeit in a very small way, to this process? I try to be attuned to the movement and intentions (such as they are) of the little child so that I can be as close to their ‘soul’ as possible, and I look in every interaction whether with others, myself or the natural world, to facilitate creative connections. Nothing is too small or too big.
I am aware of the ways in which theoreticians have helped me to understand aspects of the process, but these insights are put at the service of this overriding principle: how can I be part of this most mysterious and wonderful relationship? Quite often the way this is done (bearing in mind that I am a grandparent of the child) is indirectly: that is by supporting the significant others in her life. Froebel’s frame of reference is the last to given any adult false illusions about the importance of their role. In time the child will have intimations of immortality, tinged with the awareness of loss, separation and death; and her imagination will expand to glimpse the vastnesses of time and space; the intricacies of the atom, and the immensities of the universe.
It might work for a normal child, and for a grandparent, I hear some say, but what use is the principle with hurting, unattached children where chaos and rage need containing? Still I would bring to each child and situation this framework: how do I help connect this child with reliable realities, patterns that are important to him or her? What a blessing that there is so much raw material to draw on, that definitions of whether we are supposed to be working or playing together do not matter, and that we can be together in a space and context of our choosing.
It would be really helpful, and probably rather interesting, if the editor of the Webmag could start a blog asking readers to share their guiding principles. In the meantime I will continue with my preparations for the Masters Course, and perhaps in time I will be able to let you know how it went!