Loving or fearful relationships

By Mark Smith

Date Posted: Sunday, 1 June 2008


Before entering the world of higher education, Mark Smith was for many years a residential child care worker. He is currently a lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh and his writing on residential child care has been published widely. In this article Mark considers what the nature of the relationship between the child in care and the professional carer should be. Observing how the shadow of professional defensiveness has adumbrated child care practice in recent years, Mark asks and considers two questions. Firstly, should professional carers offer more of themselves in their relationships with the children and young people they look after ? Secondly and more controversially, he asks, ‘Does love have a place in these relationships ?’ 


Loving or fearful relationships

Having spent almost 20 years working in residential child care I now teach social work. I was horrified (although sadly not altogether surprised) when a student reported back from a field visit that she had been told by a children and families social worker, ‘we don’t do relationships anymore”. It wasn’t even said with regret apparently, just a statement of what the social work role had become. In fact it seemed to the student that there appeared to be an almost ‘macho’ element in the assertion ‘ ‘forget that namby-pamby stuff they teach you in University, this is the real world’. In this ‘real world’ social workers spend most of their day policing and processing families from a distance. They rarely see them anymore but are quick to send letters telling them that they have ‘failed’ the appointment made for them in the social work office, now relocated, off the beaten track, away from where people actually live. In this new office social workers spend their days plugging information about a family’s failed appointments, into a software package developed for a business environment. This amassed information can then be used to establish the pattern of non-compliance necessary to justify ‘heavier’ interventions or to be called upon to show that they had ‘done the work’ or at least left a paper trail. Welcome to the world of real social work…

This is not to say that there are still many genuine and caring social workers out there; but it becomes increasingly difficult to hang on to caring qualities in a climate where care itself is not valued, where it is seen as insufficiently ‘hard’, too ‘woolly’ and, heaven forbid, encouraging of dependency. Care, dependency, relationships, these aren’t ‘professional’. To be professional nowadays requires objectivity, detachment, keeping your distance and avoiding kids and families, in short not doing the things that a good social worker should do.

Few might go as far in rubbishing relationships as the social worker my student met. Most still hang on at an intellectual level at least to ideas of relationships being a ‘good thing’. They could no doubt describe attachment as relational bonds that endure over time. They might even be attracted to Bronfenbrenner’s assertion that ‘every kid needs at least one adult who’s crazy about them’ and that having someone who’s crazy about them is actually implicated in improved life chances. They just find it very difficult to countenance that they might be that adult. And of course they wouldn’t call kids kids; that would be disrespectful; they are all young people now.

So what kind of relationships should we have with kids (or indeed with each other)? All relationships exist somewhere along a continuum of love and fear. When I came into residential work in the early 1980s I believe I was motivated by love, not love in a simple romantic sense but also what Paulo Freire calls an armed love, a passion for social justice and a commitment to ensure that the boys I worked with enjoyed their fair share of the good life. In my earnestness and inexperience I no doubt got the boundaries wrong at times and with some kids my interventions were probably less than helpful. In other cases I’d like to think that I did make some difference for the better in kids’ lives.

By the time I came to the end of my time in practice love and its corollaries of hope, joy, optimism had been overtaken by fear. Fear is the greatest inhibitor of human growth; it makes us scared of and scared to reach out to others. Relationships come to be governed by barriers rather than boundaries. Boundaries in care work are essential; they emerge from the internal processing of thoughts and decisions of how close a relationship should be, should it be of the same intimacy with one child as another, and whose interests are really being served here anyway? Effective boundaries require that we look inwards, to examine our feelings and desires, conscious or otherwise. They also require supportive and challenging practice cultures. This is messy and ambiguous work; intimate relationships are driven by and throw up a range of emotions.

Barriers demand no such messiness or ambiguity; they are the ‘Thou shalt not’ injunctions beloved of administrators and regulators… ‘Thou shalt not drop by on your day off to take a kid to a football match’ Thou shalt not disclose any details of your own personal circumstances to kids you want to know every last detail about. ‘Thou shalt not touch kids.’ To be professional in this distorted version of professionalism is to surround relationships in fear, when proper, healthy, growth-inducing relationships are characterised by love.

Now I know that the social workers and the child protection professionals will recoil at the idea of caring relationships being driven by love. Indeed when Kathleen Marshall, Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner suggested as much she was taken to task by one of the large local authorities which professed itself to be uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘love’. ‘We don’t do love for a reason’ they will say. ‘Look at all the scandals in residential child care. We need to police relationships to make care safe for young people.

They are wrong on two counts. Firstly they substitute one tyranny, that of abuse, with another, that of indifference, the consequences of which can be more pervasive and equally pernicious. A tyranny of indifference becomes almost inevitable when we surround caring relationships with ever-more procedural regulation. This is summed up by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who claims 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)’

Rather than improving care, the raft of externally imposed policies and procedures that residential child care has been subject to in recent years risk dulling our moral instinct to care.

The other reason is perhaps more complex and confronts us with the paradoxical dimensions of human nature. Basically our behaviours are rarely rational or linear and actions can have unintended consequences. This is highlighted in Heather Piper’s research into touch in education and care settings (for a good summary and discussion see http://www.manifestoclub.com/files/Heather%20Piper.pdf). Essentially Piper suggests that the more we obsess about safety and when what ought to be spontaneous and natural interactions with children become shrouded in fear we may actually introduce to these relationships unconscious desires and possibilities that would not otherwise surface. It’s a thought worth pondering. Conversely when relationships are characterized by love in all its infinite complexity and duplicity we are less likely to harm children. We are also more likely to help kids grow and for our own part to begin to enjoy and feel inspired by our own relationships with them.

Whether social work as a profession can draw back from the perilous state it has allowed itself to get into, where relationships, which ought to be the very stuff of daily practice have become so shrouded in fear… well that’s another matter. I do wonder.
Bauman, Z. (2000) Special essay. Am I my brother’s keeper? European Journal of Social Work, Volume 3, Number 1 pp. 5-11(7).


07 Jul 2008,    Jennie Thomas writes
It is refreshing to read this non ‘pc’ attitude to caring for children in a formal social work setting. Surely the current attitude which appears to pervade all UK society will have to change. The alternative is that eventually no adults, whether they be social workers or parents, will be permitted to have loving relationships with children without their intentions being called into question.