I was surprised and touched by the reaction of a reader to my piece in the September edition of TTCJ. There I had described the first evening on which a young boy came to Mill Grove, and how Ruth and I set about creating safe space for him and his siblings in what was intended to be the beginning of regular weekly visits. I completed that article just as he was arriving for the second week. Tomorrow he will be with us again. So, while his time with us is fresh in my mind, here’s a log of week three. (By the way my memory of such things, with their constant interplay between physical context and activities on the one hand, and emotional feelings and dynamics on the other, has been considerably aided by the example and insistence of our consultant psychotherapist. Whenever we were briefing her on a child or situation, she expected an accurate description of what the child had said word for word, or done action by action, together with our responses and feelings, all set in context. At first this tall order seemed unattainable, but over the years she helped us to hone our observations, to become more spatially alert and informed, and to grow in awareness of our own feelings and reactions.
The routine established on the first occasion was, of course, followed as far as possible, this predictable and solid structure being critical to the whole process of creating security. So, there was a drink and snack outside on the arrival of the three children from school. (It is important to bear in mind that all this is taking place within the period of Covid 19 social distancing guidelines.) The boy chose to play inside for a time while I chatted with his parents, before the three of us were joined by someone who bringing a church harvest to add to our growing store for yet another year.
This may seem unimportant, even irrelevant, but I have come to see that one of the most significant ways in which adults can contribute to safe space for their children is to be at ease with each other, engaged in conversation, while open and alive to what the children are doing. Our task is not simply that of being with children, playing with them, doing things with them or for them, or conversely the children doing things for the notice and praise of adults. More often it is about being in the same space, close enough for them to know we are there, and available as and when they wish to make their presence felt. In my reading and experience, this group dynamic is underestimated in intentional therapeutic communities, as well as in modern families and schools.
The contentment and centredness of the little boy were, of course, encouraging, but it also gave me a little time and opportunity to play football with his older brother (something we always used to do until Harry, as I will call him, arrived for the first time). I knew that this would change the group dynamics, and it did. Harry, obviously aware of what I was doing, came out to join us immediately. And to complete the ripple effect, their sister who until this moment was happily riding a tricycle in the playground, attempted to join in too. She did this not by asking, but by riding into the very space near the goal where we were kicking the ball around. I encouraged her, successfully, to use the rest of the playground for her own safety, while we continued to play “three goals and in”, taking it in turns, religiously, to shoot at goal and then with a rota for being goalie. It wasn’t a long session, but it was relaxed, with lots of enthusiasm and fun. (As a ready-reckoner humour is what I am looking for to indicate a sense of well-being in a group.)
Because time was moving on (given the arrival of the harvest and the subsequent chat), I knew I needed to put the dustbins and recycling containers out ready for collection by the council the next morning. At the same time we concluded our game, the sister arrived, on foot, to inform us that the evening meal prepared by Ruth would be in ten minutes’ time. So I suggested that the brothers and I finished putting the bins out, with the older one given responsibility for lifting each one up the front steps and on to the pavement, while Harry and I used a wheelbarrow to get the bins to the bottom of the steps. This worked a treat, because there is nothing Harry enjoys more than working at a routine outdoor task with me. When we got to the steps, he carried each dustbin lid to the pavement, while his brother and I did the heavy lifting. Each time we were on the way back to the lean-to where the bins are stored, he jumped into the wheelbarrow and we pretended to be a runaway train, narrowly missing trees and a goalpost by swerving dramatically.
With two containers remaining and time running out, I thought we should pause, but Harry insisted that we finish the task. This is one of his most endearing characteristics. And so, we did, but this meant that there were only a few minutes left until the meal. And we still hadn’t played dominos. The boys rushed off to find the set and we managed to have one game together. I don’t think Harry has grasped the numbers represented by the dots yet (he does know a blank from a five or six, but threes and fours are pretty hit and miss in his mind), but we completed the game, and I think he and I won (just). For the record, on the second week when we played, his beginner’s luck ran out, and he discovered that it is possible to lose dominos!
We packed up methodically together, and Harry insisted on putting the lid on the box and returning the dominos to their allotted place among the games on the shelves in the room with easy chairs and a piano. Then we (brothers and sister) washed our hands and sat at the table. Three weeks on, we each know our own places. We sang grace together with actions once Ruth had placed the food on the table. Grace was both predictable and fun (see above, for humour!). The meal went smoothly, one of the main snags being that Harry’s diet is severely limited (so carrots, baked beans, cauliflower, fish fingers and a lot more items are out of his comfort zone, which seems limited to pasta or chips). We will work on this, of course, but there are more important elements to building a safe space than this.
We arranged how to clear the table, and clean and polish the table mats, with each child having specific tasks. Then it was time for prayers. We revisited the story of Noah’s Ark and the rainbow promise, before singing an action song about two housebuilders, one who was wise, and the other foolish. There was a very short prayer of thanks for our meal and time together, and then it was time for washing up. The dynamics have changed completely since Harry first came, though he is unaware of this of course. Once again, he donned his green waterproof apron and put cutlery and crockery into the sink, where Ruth washed and rinsed it, before I dried up. His sister, who used to do this, feels that she has been promoted so that she can play. She and Ruth had spent some time painting and she wanted to continue with her creations. Meanwhile the older brother went outside by himself to play with a tennis ball on a string. He was near the kitchen door so that he knew I could see him. He is good at this, appreciated that I was watching with a tea towel in my hand, and I was delighted to be able to complement him on some of his smooth left-handed drives.
Having finished all the dishes (of course), Harry came outside and started playing a similar game, but on this occasion, time had beaten us. We needed to get coats and find the car so that I could take the three children home. We said goodbye to Ruth, and found our allotted seats. On the journey the sister had taken onboard my comments from week one (about us finding a level of noise which enabled all four to be in communication in the confines of a vehicle). And then we used stairs and fob to reach the family’s council flat. Mum and dad were there waiting, and we were on time…just. After three weeks they were no longer anxious about Harry’s behaviour at Mill Grove. They had begun to realise that whatever the problems he might have in other settings, he was a pleasure to have with us.
And so quietly and steadily, safe space is being created. And this means that not only do we all look forward to being together, but that it won’t be long before we can have creative conversations, engage in other activities, and even begin to share about our feelings, fears and dreams. Who knows we might find a way of Harry consuming a pea before Christmas 2021! In the meantime we will continue to have safe space as our overwhelming priority, and for now, the signs are looking promising. The boundaries are clear, and it seems as if some of them are already being internalised. But now is not the time to relax. If we did it would not be long before the fun and humour began to wane.
It would not be appropriate to ask Harry what he likes best about being at Mill Grove just yet: far more important for him to enjoy what he does without introspection. But for what it is worth, I think he might like doing the dustbins and the washing up most of all. If you think that it is strange that a little lad might prefer work to play, just bear in mind that he is fortunate in being young enough to see all life as play, and what we think of as tasks can be very satisfying, while some play, like losing dominos for example, can be frustrating. Significantly these were the times when he was close to an adult (myself with the bins, and Ruth with the washing up) and engaged in a shared project. If you are thinking of possible definitions of safe space, then that is probably up there among the best of them.
I wrote the above note in October 2020 when the Covid 19 lock-down in the UK had eased, but now it is November 5th, and a new set of restrictions has kicked in. As Harry’s fifth birthday is on Bonfire Night, we brought it forward by a day and celebrated with fire, fireworks, barbecue, toasted marshmallows, and birthday cake. It’s going to be a while before our weekly pattern is resumed, and it will be interesting to see how the gap has affected the creation of safe space….Oh, yes, since you asked, I think Harry most enjoyed helping to build the bonfire and keep it burning till the moment he had to leave!
Keith J. White