Why Love Matters

It’s strange, and when I come to think of it very strange, that it never occurred to me in England or Scotland, and that it was only when I was teaching in Penang, Malaysia that the penny dropped.

Just a bit of background: since 2002 (that’s not long after the Webmag began) I have been coming to Penang each June to teach a course called Holistic Child Development.  So this is why I am in Penang writing this article for the July edition.

It was the first day of the five-day Masters level course and in the afternoon I had decided to show the students some of the videos recorded by Sir Richard Bowlby on the work of his father, Dr John Bowlby.  I have watched these several times before, and so it is doubly strange that the thought had not occurred to me until that Monday afternoon.

This is a transcript of what Richard Bowlby said:

“The science of family bonds, which researchers call attachment theory, was started in the       1950s by my father John Bowlby who died in 1990. He was a child psychiatrist who was also a scientist and in 1952 he wrote a book called Child Care and the Growth of Love.  But love had too many different meanings for a scientist and later he called the kind of love that children feel for their parents, attachment: children’s attachment to their parents.”

That’s it.  For some unaccountable reason it had never dawned on me until Monday 8th June 2015 that if Bowlby had not changed the word love into the word attachment the whole language and possibly history of child development, child psychology and child psychiatry might have been different.

Now clearly John Bowlby had to find specific terms to describe aspects of what he was studying and finding: so attachment of children to a significant other can be distinguished from the bonds that adults form with children, attachments can be secure and insecure, and so on.

But by putting aside the word love there may have been any number of unintended consequences: understanding how children feel and develop is dominated by scientific studies and discourses; education and learning is seen as mainly about cognitive development; parenting is about care; social work is about empathy and so on.  In short, it becomes possible for every aspect of a child’s emotional state and development (or lack of it) to be described without any reference to love.

This cuts off this range of academic studies and discourses from poetry, literature, religion, music, imagination, nature and the many aspects of a child’s life where ordinary people routinely use the word love, not only of the child or parent for each other, but of a child’s relationship to many aspects and components of her cultural and geographical world.

As some readers of the Webmag know I have been working on this matter for a number of years, and one of the fruits of this has been the book, The Growth of Love which seeks to recast child development within the process of the giving and receiving of love.  I chose the title deliberately to echo the original work of John Bowlby, and Richard was kind enough to write a foreword.  Since then I have been realising that many philosophers of education (Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori, Cavalletti, Illich, Parker Palmer to name but a few) saw love as the basis, the very heart of education and learning.

I gave a paper on this theme in Budapest a couple of years ago.  And it was very hard for the head-teachers present to connect what they were doing: their curricula, their learning objectives and outcomes, the exams, and the expectations of parents and society, with what I was saying.  The message they seemed to give me was that it was a rather attractive, and possibly even, a noble ideal, but what on earth had it got to do with the realities on the ground?


And now I am finding the same thing among colleagues teaching “holistic child development”: the range of subjects and courses taught includes research methodology, children at risk, childhood spirituality, child protection, participation, agency, ministry with families throughout the life-cycle, pastoral care of children, youth and families, and so on.  But where is love?

There seems to be an industry that has grown up around children that cannot see that the emperor is naked, or to use another metaphor, that there is an elephant in the room.  In the USA, millions of boys are on Ritalin; millions of girls are depressed, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Is it not possible that they are crying out, sometimes loudly by word and action, sometimes silently by withdrawal, for someone to love, and someone who loves them?

Just before leaving for Malaysia, I happened to find the book by Sue Gerhardt, Why Love Matters, and my heart began to beat a little bit faster.  What she was arguing was that science was finding consistent and cogent evidence that affection (that was the word she used inside the book much of the time when referring to the word, love that was on the cover) could alter both the biochemistry and the structures of the brains of young children.

Now I do not believe that aspects and dimensions of our lives such as love, empathy, compassion, the sublime, loyalty, devotion, need to wait for science to give them its imprimatur, but in the case of child development we do need some movement from scientific study and techniques towards human affection, feelings, longings and desires: between psychotherapy and behavioural therapy.

I doubt if the books, Why Love Matters and The Growth of Love will have such an impact as Bowlby’s Child Care and the Growth of Love, but like the butterfly landing on the imaginary wave they might be part of a tipping point.  Until love is reclaimed in this whole field the word may well be held hostage by those who associate it with paedophiles, or sloppy, sentimental substitute versions of the real thing peddled in popular culture and the media.

Just for the record, during the past four days and I have completing a course-book for a Masters Module called, The Growth of Love: Child Development in Cultural Contexts.  During this week I consulted a number of standard textbooks on the subject, and I realised that without the concept of love, some of these books simply listed a set of different, and largely unconnected “stages” or “theories” of child development.  It felt rather like reading a scientific analysis of a subject that did little justice to the subject, because the whole approach and methods were fundamentally inappropriate and flawed.

What students will make of the course is another matter, but it is above all, an attempt to listen to the voices and life-stories of children with care and respect.

Keith J. White