I won’t locate this factual narrative in time or place in order to preserve anonymity…
The young boy in question is growing up in a troubled family. The family has chronic problems with debt; with obesity; and with poor housing. The father has been off sick long-term with a form of anxiety/depression that means he struggles to control his outbursts at the boy. The boy has been bullied at school, where he has been constructing a fantasy world as a defence against the chaotic unpredictability of the boundaries he experiences in the real world. Children’s services have been alerted, and following an assessment, a social worker was given the brief to help the whole family through “intensive intervention”.
I think that’s enough to be going on with, and hope you get the gist of things. On this occasion, I became involved when a very anxious mother phoned me to say that after a blow-up at home, the boy had walked out, locking the front door and taking the keys with him. After walking around the block and seeing no sign of him, she then knocked on my door, with a look of desperation verging on panic. To her palpable relief it was then that we both saw her son, kicking a ball around nearby.
I agreed to speak with him, and the mother returned to her home (with the keys that I had requested from him). On coming alongside the boy, it wasn’t long before he had agreed enthusiastically to my suggestion that he had a meal with Ruth and myself. I saw this as the most practical and natural way of calming the situation down and trying to prepare him for returning to his family should that be appropriate. Before the meal we had a hot drink together and then sat down in comfy chairs in the lounge/reception room (where he and I often play games together). From the time of his mother’s phone-call, when I first learned of his absence from home, I had been toying over how to react and respond when he had been found. As a matter of interest, I never doubted that he would be somewhere nearby, and in confirmation he volunteered the fact that he had hoped to find me so we could be together. So how, I wondered, was I going to play our interaction? What were the key issues, and what might be the possible outcomes?
The first thing was to make sure that he felt secure in the sense that I was there for him and with him. And within this safe context to seek to understand from him what had been going on in his household, and the feelings and behaviour that had led him to walk out with the keys. The first objective wasn’t at all difficult, because he was just where he wanted to be. And he explained without hesitation that he felt angry because his parents wouldn’t let him do anything. He also said that he was hungry, and they wouldn’t let him eat. I had no other information to go on, so guessed that the social worker in her intervention had been stressing the importance of boundaries in his life, and that he was on the receiving end of aspects of this strategy, in addition to the effects of the very poor family dynamics in overcrowded accommodation.
But it wasn’t long before it was obvious that he wanted to be with me, but not to talk. He didn’t say this, but rather communicated it by other non-verbal means. And that made complete sense, because this was far from an isolated incident, and touched deep raw nerves about a whole range of issues, relationships, feelings and fears. Deep down what was at stake was whether he was wanted and loved at home, and his very low sense of self-esteem. He was chronically depressed.
So I suggested that we might play some sort of game together, and his relief was immediate and warm. My sense was that this reaction was not only about the anticipation of playing together, but also that we were avoiding going too near psychologically sensitive places. As I said, when we first saw him, he had been kicking a football around, and on other occasions we would have had a kick-about. So I was going by instinct/intuition, when I suggested a game of marbles on the carpet in the room where we were sitting. This meant we didn’t have to move anywhere: it was cosy and safe. It was inside and resonated perhaps with the warmth and acceptance that he lacked at home. My idea was that we were close enough to continue our conversation at some stage should this continue or develop.
He sprang up, and found the tin containing the marbles. He knows where the games are kept and that they are there for him and others who are part of the extended family of Mill Grove.
As usual we played a version of the game that we have invented ourselves. The rules are based on bowls but with each of us having five marbles and playing from opposite ends of the carpet (rather than side by side). I can’t remember who won, but it was competitive and close as it always is. And there was not the least hint that anything else could or should be said about the incident that had brought us unexpectedly together.
By this time Ruth had prepared a meal for us and as we ate together, we chatted about geography, the news and a bit of sport. He absorbs an impressive amount of information from the television news coupled with google searches.
At the end of the meal I mused with Ruth in his hearing about whether it might be time to re-establish contact with his family. Something in his reaction assured us that the time was ripe. And so it was that he and I made our way to the front door of his home, and we spoke with the members of the family who greeted us. Not a lot was said, but clearly the atmosphere had had time to settle. I felt that everyone wanted to be together once again.
And that was it. In some ways it might seem rather like a non-event. Throughout the time that we were together there were no emotional fireworks, and certainly nothing remotely resembling therapy or counselling. But on the other hand, it called to mind two insights. The first was from Rev Dr Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin in the Fields. He has written extensively on the concept of “being with”, as distinct from being for, or working with, or working for someone. And his primary point is that being with is of value in and of itself. It needs not further justification or motivation. As human beings one or our deepest fears is of loneliness, isolation and ultimately the void which is represented by death itself. Yet we have become so used to disguising this primal fear that we are in danger of overlooking the cardinal value of simply and solely being with someone, of being together and enjoying one another’s presence.
The other insight came several years ago from a child psychologist at a hospital in Cardiff. He told a conference that roughly a third of the children referred to him were looking for nothing more than someone with whom they could kick a ball about. Whether at home or school they did not find anyone who valued them enough to simply be with them and play together.
So it is that the two of us were together and played. I have no mobile phone to distract me from togetherness in such situations, and the nature of Mill Grove is that being with someone trumps all other demands on our time. So perhaps it would be fair to say that it’s a place, as he knew and found it to be on the occasion, where there is time and space to be with each other. And of course the space means not just the physical setting, but the emotional commitment that reassures each child that they are intrinsically valuable and have no need to display virtuosity or need: it is enough simply to be, and to be together.