Conference presentation : What is this thing called love ? caring for other people’s children.

By Charles Sharpe

Date Posted: Sunday, 14 December 2008

What is this thing called love ? caring for other people’s children

by Charles Sharpe

One bright and shining light,
That taught me wrong from right,
I found in my mother’s eyes,

Those baby tales she told,
That road all paved with gold,
I found in my mother’s eyes,

Just like a wandering sparrow,
One lonely soul,
I walked the straight and narrow,
To reach my goal,

God’s gift sent from above,
A real unselfish love,
I found in my mother’s eyes.

(Baer & Wolfe 1929)

What is this thing called love ? Of course the lyrics of the song talks of the cultural consensus that we all need the love of a mother figure and if we have that love then all will go well for us.    Yet we give love  so many meanings. These meanings can be sexual, maternal, paternal, narcissistic, sororial, fraternal,  religious, platonic,  and many other things.  So, we agree that we all need to be loved and we say that every child needs a parental figure’s love. Indeed Winnicott (1965) – just as the opening song implies  – suggests that in order to love we must have been loved ourselves. How contrary therefore that  when it comes to looking after other people’s children we somehow want to distance ourselves from the concept of love.  It is as if we say, ‘We can look after other people’s children but let us tread carefully around the idea of loving them’. It can seem there is something not quite savoury about loving other people’s children. Unlike our own children, siblings, or parents, who have our love in them and whose love is in us and who therefore are an integral part of ourselves, other people’s children, particularly those who do not behave in socially accepted ways are like foreign bodies. We may tolerate them but not for too long. It may also be that those of us who are charged with caring for, or educating children who are troubled, are all too aware that these children have been the victims of  emotional, physical and sexual abuse, are wary of how such a child will respond to a loving adult however appropriately that love is profferred.
With the intention of helping us consider this further in our discussion groups, I wanted to present you with three vignettes of events from my own experience ; one from my childhood, and two from my work in residential child care. I present them not necessarily to say that they will inform you about a child’s need for love and the kind of love a child needs – though they may do so – but more to ask you to explore your own thoughts, experiences and feelings about the love a child needs.

I remember a day during the early 1950s when we lived in Scotland. I was 8 or 9 years old at the time. My parents had bought me some rubber moulds with which I could make Plaster of Paris figurines. When the liquid plaster I poured into the moulds had solidified I could remove the moulds, paint the figurines with poster paints and when the paint was dry I would varnish over the paint to protect the figurines. My intention then was to sell these I’m afraid rather tawdry ornaments to  unsuspecting adult relatives for sixpence or a shilling. After supper it was time for me to go to bed and I kissed my mother and hugged my father, but so excited was I about my new money making project that instead of going up to my bedroom as I should have done, I went into the kitchen which had been my workshop earlier in the day and as quietly as I could I continued to manufacture figurines. Some time later my father decided he wanted a cup of coffee and he discovered me in the kitchen. As I remember it he became very angry and told me that I had been deceitful in not going to bed and that I had broken the trust he and my mother placed in me. I was in tears as he peremptorily sent me upstairs. I lay in bed crying. I had let down my parents. After about 10 minutes my father entered my bedroom. He didn’t put on the light but he sat on the bed beside his sobbing son and he said, ‘ Charlie I’m really sorry I got angry with you. I was really proud of you making your ornaments today and I should have told you that. I’m sorry son.’ He left my bedroom.

In the 1980s when I was the manager of a children’s home in the south of England, Hermione, a very attractive fifteen years old girl came to stay in our children’s home. On the second day of her stay when we still knew little of each other Hermione rushed up to me put her arms around my neck, pressed herself against me, looked into my eyes and said, ‘You will love me, won’t you ? You can be my Grandpa now’. I immediately grasped what Hermione understood as the nature of a grandfather’s love and I recoiled from her. I remember feeling that this girl did need my love, not in the way she thought I would want, but in the way that a good enough parenting figure would give it and yet at that moment in the face of what I experienced as a sexually provocative approach to me I felt at a loss as to how I could give Hermione the love she needed .

In the 1970s I was a teacher in a large residential child care institution in the southeast of England. Residential resources of that size thankfully don’t exist now. Roderick a young man of fourteen years old was in our care because his mother felt unable to control or look after him. His father had left his mother when Roderick was twelve years old. He had not seen his father since then. His mother was an air hostess and was often not at home and frequently Roderick had been left to fend for himself. Because of her work schedule Roderick’s visits home to spend weekends with his mother were often cancelled at the last minute. On these occasions in an effort to salve his disappointment Roderick’s mother would sometimes fleetingly call in to leave gifts for him with the residential staff without taking the time to meet with her son. One day she left Roderick a shining new transistor radio. On the following day I was in my classroom when from outside I heard loud music and a clattering sound. I went outside to find Roderick smashing the radio – which was playing at full volume – against the brick wall of the building. I cried out to him, ‘Roderick what are you doing ? That’s a brand new radio. Your mother gave it to you’ He looked at me and shouted through tears, ‘Charles, I don’t want the fucking radio, I want the music’.

I’ve said that I am not trying to make a point here except to say that for me each of these experiences spoke in one way or another of the importance of a parent’s love, the pain of being deprived of it and the way its misrepresentation can make children so vulnerable. Children’s  responses to their deprivation and victimisation can also seem to make them inaccessible and difficult to love. I hope that what these vignettes will do is give you a starting point for thinking about love and its place in the care of all youngsters and its place in the way we care about other people’s troubled children.



Baer,L. and  Wolfe, G. (1929)  ‘My mother’s Eyes’ from the film Lucky Boy  (1929)

Winnicott, D.W. (1965) The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment  London : Hogarth Press