Let me say it straight away: This book is highly recommended for anyone who works with children, lives with children, or has any contact with children whatsoever. But it is also recommended for anyone who wants to reflect a little on what “the good life” might be, and what sort of premises it might build on. If you buy it now you can skip the rest of this post 🙂
Keith White’s “The Growth of Love” is ostensibly a book about children, and about what contributes to their healthy development. From that point of view, it can be seen as a counterpoint to theories about cognitive development and “stages of growth”, and White makes it clear that this is quite deliberate. But it becomes apparent as you read the book that White’s five themes are just as relevant to adults. The themes that characterise a healthy environment for children are the same themes that characterise a healthy environment for adults – and this, too is a point that White makes deliberately. Children are not prototypes waiting to be made into adults. They are already individual people, who, just like adults, relate to their environment by both contributing to and receiving from it. Of course, what they contribute and what they receive will change over time, but they are not empty vessels waiting to be filled. There is a reciprocity about White’s themes which makes children active agents in their own lives, at whatever “stage of development” they may be. White uses the concept of “the village” – by which he does not mean a rural community, but any community which makes room for his five themes and is characterised by healthy patterns of life. Small enough that everyone knows each other (at some level), but large enough to provide room for intergenerational relationships beyond the nuclear family.
The five themes are perhaps not very original – although some of what he means by them might be. But in a sense that is the point. These are ideas which we instinctively recognise as healthy and desirable – and yet can easily be overlooked in our theory-driven society, precisely because they are so obvious. More credit to him for bringing them to the fore.
Meaning not so much safety from physical harm, as psychological and emotional security: The existence of a safe base from which to explore the world. This base begins with the physical experience of being held – an experience which remains just as vital for adults in times of insecurity. “Being held” becomes a metaphor for the internalised sense of security which enables us to rely on our safe base, even as we distance ourselves from it. This safe base is built primarily through relationships and attachment to people (parents, teachers, neighbours), but White points out the often overlooked fact that the safe base may include places as well.
We often associate boundaries with discipline, and of course that is a part of it. But in White’s thinking, the idea of boundaries is more about predictability and structure: And so it involves daily routine and the annual festivals that give life rhythm and direction, learning to play games by the rules, and by extension, learning to participate in social life. It also includes our own boundaries – the right to define our own physical and emotional space and decide for ourselves who may or may not enter that space.
Do I matter? This is about recognising myself as a person with individual worth – and learning to recognise the worth of others. And it is about unconditional commitment: “My clinical experience tends to confirm the principle that, in order for a healthy sense of self to develop, there must be one other person on earth who is totally and unconditionally committed to me as an individual for a significant part of my life … I do not have to behave in a prescribed or positive way to maintain it. I do not have to deserve affection and love. They are simply a fact, non-negotiable and rock-like.”
We live in an age that values “independence” almost above all else, and yet we know that in reality there is no such thing. White writes instead of “interdependence”: “Social life is the content, stuff and daily reality of human development and identity”. We can only be aware of ourselves as individuals through contact and interaction with others, and community is therefore an ever-present reality. Interestingly, White introduces the idea of “covenant” as an important basis for family and community life. A covenant is a public commitment which at least in intention has life-long consequences. In our day such covenants are rare, although the marriage covenant is still the most common (Salvation Army soldiership is another), and this naturally affects the way we relate to each other. Covenants help us to publicly recognise our interdependence, saying at the same time that there can be bonds between us over and above our individual and temporary needs or desires.
The importance of play in learning and development is now widely recognised. White wants to broaden that idea so that “play” is not simply about games or “lets pretend” (that, too!) – but about the human urge to create. Creativity is at the heart of what it means to be human. Not only is it essential to the early development of the child, language-learning and the like – but it is also to a large extent how we process reality. Story-telling, humour, dance and music are all ways of relating to the world, learning about it and coping with it (which is why many jokes deal with “unsuitable” topics).
White links his five themes to research into child development, sociology and psychology, but as a Christian, he also links them in a natural and unforced way to biblical ideas and ideals. The book will therefore be of interest to children’s workers in both secular and faith-based environments. But White is no utopian. He is concerned not with creating ideal communities providing ideal environments, but with what might be “good enough”. No family is perfect, but a family can still provide children with what they need for healthy development. No community is perfect, but a community can still provide an arena for healthy relationships and creativity. White argues that being aware of these five themes will help us to do that.
You can buy the book and find more resources on Keith White’s website: