Keynote conference presentation : Loving or Fearful Relationships

By Mark Smith

Date Posted: Sunday, 14 December 2008


Mark Smith is currently a lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh and his writing on residential child care has been published widely. Mark’s new book Rethinking Residential Child Care will be published by Policy Press on February 25th, 2009. It will be reviewed in the next edition of the goodenoughcaring Journal.  



Loving or fearful relationships


Notes of a presentation by Mark Smith to the goodenoughcaring Conference Love is Enough : Sincerity and Professionalism in the Care of Children and Young People on October 4th,2008 at the Maria Assumpta Centre, London.


Voices from the inside

This presentation is about the nature of the relationships we have with children in our care. Like most relationships they can be characterised by and can exist somewhere along a continuum of love and fear. Loving relationships allow us to get suitably close to children. And children know the difference between staff who’s approach to relationships are governed by love or by fear, as is evident in this quote.


‘There were people who really cared and that shone through; and there were people who didn’t care and that also shone through’.  (David, former children’s home resident in Cree and Davis, 2007, p87)


Those who shine through for the right reasons are perhaps those that can express or convey a sense of love in their caring relationships.


But what is care?

Being able to differentiate between staff who cared and those who didn’t perhaps leads to some exploration of what care is and isn’t. Care is not rational.  Ultimately it is transcendental. It is perhaps encapsulated by the Greek notion of ‘agape’, the love of the other, the stranger.
The Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire proposed that we are all called to become more and more human. Such ‘humanisation’ involves developing greater love for fellow human beings. For the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray (1961) this quest for communion is central to what it is to be a human being.  In relation to the care of children Bronfenbrenner (1994) remarks that ‘every child needs at least one adult who’s crazy about them’, while Maier (1997) suggest that when care move from the instrumental to the truly caring then this represents ‘our whispered moments of glory, our Camelots’. It is this capacity which Noddings (1996, p160) observed, ‘allows children ‘to glow and grow’.

Care waylaid

This capacity for ‘caring care’ seems to have become waylaid. This tendency may have been  influenced by Kantian notions of rationality and a focus on duty. Equally the rise of managerialism, of consumerism and commodification has drawn us away from caring care. Along with this has come the cult of individualization and its concomitant fear of dependency.

In what might seem a paradox the growth of the predominance of discourses of rights and protection has diverted ‘caring care’. The words of rights and protection are warmly persuasive and care workers can be seduced by them but there are problems with rights and protection. Speaking of rights Dahlberg and Moss (2005, p.30) observe,

(it is no coincidence that the prominence given to rights coincides with the dominance of advanced liberalism and increasing recourse to law as a means of mediating relationships) and premised on particular values and a particular understanding of the subject as a rational, autonomous individual’

Writing of protection Tronto(1993, pp.104-05) remarks,

‘protection involves a very different conception of the relationship between an individual or group, and others than does care. Caring seems to involve taking the concerns and needs of the other as the basis for action. Protection presumes the bad intentions and harm that the other is likely to bring to bear against the self or group and to require a response to that potential harm. Protection can also become self-serving, turning into what Judith Hicks Stein calls “the protection racket” in which the need for protection reinforces itself’.

This tendency towards a misanthropic view of humanity spawns a bureaucracy based on the fear to ensure safety. Accordingly engagements between the carer and the cared for become imbued with fear: fear of a puritanical past; fear for what others may think; fear of not being ‘professional’, and fear of our ‘shadow selves’ and that we might become too close in our relationships. This leads carers to shroud their relationships with those they care for in bureaucracy and a façade of ‘professionalism’. In these ways the call to care becomes misrepresented.

In the rush to end abuse, we have waged war on eros, with the result that one set of tyrannies has given way to another. The new order is characterised by the safety of blandness…
(Mc William cited in Piper and Smith, 2003: 879).


The problem with bureaucracy

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman provides some powerful insights into the effects of bureaucracy on attempts to provide care. He argues that when we obscure the essential human and moral aspects of care behind ever more rules and regulations we make

the daily practice of social work ever more distant from its original ethical impulse;…   (Bauman, 2000 p.9)

This comes at a cost for everyone involved. That cost is manifest

 ‘ethically and pedagogically by constraining and demoralising staff and clients and in the creation and recreation of a direct care practice in disarray’.  ( Magnusson et al, 1996)
Bureaucratic and overly ‘professional’ or professionalised ways of conceiving care place barriers rather than boundaries on relationships. Boundaries are essential but they are ultimately personal, involving individuals acting ethically in the interests of others – not just following the rules. Barriers are the kind of ‘Thou shalt not’ injunctions beloved by bureaucracies.


The problem with professionalism

The notion of the development of the kind of professionalism described above is one which  valorises objectivity and detachment and in turn encourages care staff to keep themselves safe, by refusing to touch kids, by making sure they are not alone with them; in short, by failing to make the kind of connections a good carer should. This highlights a confusion between professionalism and professionalisation with the result that
‘the concept of care within public care for children has been rarely seen as visible … poor outcomes, lack of investment in staff training, increased pressure to marketwise care services have all contributed to a narrowing of what we mean by care, a lowering of expectations of what the state can offer in terms of care. Of particular note is the marked contrast between the potential for care within families as centring on control and love, and the optimum expected from state care which is around safekeeping. Care as used in legislation seems to have been emptied of its potential, a dried up expression for how to manage an underclass of disadvantage.’   (Cameron, 2003, pp 91-2)


The problem is such approaches is that they are not even safe. Webster (1994) identifies Martin Luther’s paradox in purity, whereby

‘the more you cleanse yourself, the dirtier you get’. What he (Luther) was implicitly recognising was the fascination of sin — that the more any appetite or impulse is cast into the realm of the unclean by those who pursue purity, the more psychologically compelling it becomes. The pursuit of purity thus actually serves to promote an imaginative obsession with anything that has been explicitly or implicitly defined as obscene.’   (cited in Webster, 1994)
Perhaps in looking to dilute the problems thrown up in the care of children and young people by such versions of professionalism and protection we should journey less along the  avenues of  social work theory or psychology but as an alternative look to take a more explicitly ethical turn. A number of ethical theories offer some purchase on what is means to care – and to do so in ways that are not circumscribed by fear or by the rulebook. I go on, briefly, to identify some of these.


An ethic of care

Care ethics have their roots in feminist ethics. Tronto (1993, pp 126/127) proposes that

‘an ethic of care is a practice, rather than a set of rules or principles…It involves both particular acts of caring and a ‘general habit of mind’ to care that should inform all aspects of a practitioner’s moral life’

Ricks (1992) argues that we should take

‘professional caring into the personal realm and require that both parties show up, be present, be engaged at a feeling level for each other. The presence of feeling(s) provides the link which connects the worker and client. Very simply put, without this connection, without the feeling(s) in the relationship, the people do not matter to each other.’


An ethic of encounter

The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argues that we meet each other in everyday encounter. He says that ‘the face’ of the ‘other’ draws us to them and many residential workers will recall being drawn to particular kids they have worked with.  It is the ‘face’ of the other which should be the primary focus of the carer.  A carer’s work is face to face without intermediary. Bureaucracy imposes intermediaries. Levinas’ idea of alterity states that he ‘other’ is ultimately unknowable. Although unknowable carers are responsible (infinitely) for ‘others’, even though they may not necessarily like them. There is in this concern no expectation of reciprocity. Mutuality predominates; heteronomy (community) takes precedence over autonomy.


Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics are based upon character rather than rules and regulations. Virtues need no reference to any formal social structures. They are not like the laws of justice that are codified in legal systems and woven into legal and civic interactions (Williams, 2005). The character of individual carers is what shines through for children in care, again as noted by David…
‘There was a nun, who was the head nun of our children’s home who was very, very fair, and kind, but not in a ‘goody-goody’ way – she was a just person, and she offered us protection.’
(Cree and Davis, 2008)


Repersonalising ethics

Bauman argues that we cannot rely on the rulebook (or on the various Codes that increasingly surround what carers do) to ensure ethical practice. Ethical practice requires that we repersonalise ethics – this involves us, that as social actors,

‘getting oneself to attend to the reality of individual other persons…. while not allowing one’s own needs, biases, fantasies (conscious or unconscious) and desires regarding the other persons to get in the way of appreciating his or her own particular needs and situation.’
(Blum: 2003: 120)

And when we do that we can put love at the heart of our relationships.



Bauman, Z. (2000b) Special essay: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’, European Journal of Social Work, vol 3, no 1, pp 5-11.

Blum, L. (1994) Moral perception and particularity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U.(1994)’Who cares for the children ?’ in Nuba,H., Searson, M., Sheiman,D.  (eds.) Resources for Early Childhood : A Handbook       New York :     Garland    (Edited  paper from a presentation to UNESCO in Paris, September, 1989).

Cree, V. and Davis,A. (2007) Social Work : Voices from the inside      London :     Routledge

Dahlberg,G. and Moss, P. (2005) Ethics and Politics in Early Childhood Education   London :    Routledge

Freire, P. (1968) Pedagogy of the Oppressed   New York    Continuum (2007)

Macmurray, J. (1961) Persons in Relation     London     Faber and Faber

Magnuson, D. Barnes, F. H. and Beker, J. (1996). Human Development Imperatives in the Organization of Group Care Programs: A Practical Approach in Residential Education as an Option for At-Risk Youth Beker, J. and Magnuson, D. (Eds). New York: Haworth Press.

Mc William, R. cited in Piper and Smith, (2003)  ’Touch in Educational and Child Care Settings :  Dilemmas and Responses’    British Educational Research Journal  29 (6)

Maier, H. (1979)  ‘The Core of Care’  in Child Care Quarterly   8(4)  pp161-173

Noddings, N. (1996) ‘The Caring Professional’ in Gordon, S., Benner, P., Noddings, N. (eds).  Caregiving: Readings in Knowledge, Practice, Ethics, and Politics        Philadelphia   University of Pennsylvania Press

Ricks, F. (1992) ‘A Feminist’s View of Caring ’ in The Journal of Child and Youth Care 7:2    49-57

Tronto, J. (1993). Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care       New  York :   Routledge.
Webster, R. (1994) The politics of the body and the body politic (, accessed 21 August 2008).
Williams, C. (2005) (Ed) Personal Virtues: Introductory Essays Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.