Recently Ruth and I revisited a scenario that has been part of our lives at Mill Grove for the past 40 years. A little boy was with us for a meal for the very first time, and so we had to plan how to welcome him, so that he, along with everybody else, felt secure and could experience our home as a safe space. Much of what we did was unplanned in the sense of being talked about beforehand, but we were relying on years of experience. This meant, on reflection, that there was a lot to it. And I thought a brief outline might be of use to colleagues. It is, in essence all about the creation of appropriate boundaries.
The meal and evening were carefully structured in our minds, including the time of his arrival, the arrangements for me to drive him back to his family home afterwards, and the sequence of activities and arrangement of space in between. His two older siblings were with us as usual, and they knew the ropes. His presence would change the dynamics of the evening for both of them, as well as for us.
Both Ruth and I were present for the whole time (without a single break) and we knew that each of us would need to give it everything to make the visit work. To start with his sister was inside with Ruth (who was preparing the meal). She played by herself with familiar toys and resources as she usually did, before having a ten-minute board game with Ruth in the kitchen. Meanwhile I was outside in the playground with the young boy and his older brother. I began our time together by asking the senior brother if he would be willing to share some of the activities that we usually did together with his younger sibling, making it clear to him that I would respect his decision either way. We went through a list of possible activities, and he confirmed that he was willing to give it a try.
We began with football, drawing from a long history of such kick-abouts in our playground, and with plenty of the sort of banter that arises when one of the players supports Arsenal, and the other, Spurs! The younger brother supports West Ham, so his presence was a mediating influence without any words spoken. We needed very, very clear boundaries to make this informal game work. It was “three goals and in”, in strict rotation, no use of hands except by the person in goal, and with the two players in the outfield taking it in turns to shoot. There were no exceptions. And we had a happy and relaxed time. At one point their sister came out, announcing that she was joining us, but I gently channeled her focus elsewhere, knowing that were she to join in, the security of the boundaries that we had been establishing would be lost immediately.
We completed the game (no mean feat for the little boy, who is bound to be labelled ADHD when he attends school regularly), and then I asked them to help me identify some small shrubs along the side of the pitch that Ruth had planted a few weeks earlier. Some had thrived, but others were dying, and still others covered by creepers and weeds. This was, of course, a passing reminder that my life comprised of more than playing with them (however much I enjoyed it). Then we moved to a round table outside the kitchen where I had placed three chairs. I asked the older brother to bring us the diary/scrapbook of the holiday that we had enjoyed together in North Wales a week earlier. And we soon established a way of exploring the drawings and photos together. Twice the little boy said that he was going inside, but both times I found something in the holiday mementoes which we needed his help to understand. This was meticulously planned (not the actual issues, but the process). We looked at the whole of the material together (no mean feat once again).
Then we went to look for a set of dominos. In doing so we went past where the sister was once again playing inside, and she immediately said that she would play with us. All being well she will do so in the future, but on this significant first occasion, the risks of the game failing were too high in my mind. So Ruth and I confirmed her in her current activity (with a toy horse), and I explained that her little brother didn’t understand the rules of the game, so we were going to learn it together. Once he had reached her level of understanding it would be great to have her playing with us. She accepted this, and the three of us (that is the two brothers and me) had two games of dominos. I was a partner of the little boy, and would you believe it? Beginner’s luck kicked in. He won both games without needing to replenish his dominos at all. He and I beat his older brother out of town! At least twice during the game he informed us that he was going to play another game inside, but on both occasions I and his brother informed him that we always finished a game before doing something else. He helped us put the dominos back in their container, with the sort of care that he has when engaged in productive activity.
It was then time for the meal. Ruth had thought through where each of us would each sit, and so we did. This meant a change for the older brother, and he understood why. We said our usual grace with actions, teaching the little boy in a quick practice session. He loved it and learned it quickly. In saying grace his two older siblings unconsciously helped to reinforce the boundaries. The meal was chosen knowing exactly what each child liked, and we had two courses. In between we each helped to clear the table: something that required meticulous instructions to avoid the sister’s customary help at this stage being spurned, and her becoming upset.
Rice pudding and peaches followed, with similar detailed boundaries about clearing away, dusting the table, and then prayer time. This was when we were all at our most relaxed because we simply returned to the stories we had shared together in North Wales, with the same illustrations, and some colouring that the two younger ones had done.
At no point was there any wriggle room, although the little boy did not know this. We always asked him to help in ways which we knew he liked. Then came washing up (we don’t have a dishwasher, so it is a shared activity providing opportunities with time for social interaction). We speedily realised it wasn’t going to work if he was added to the team. So the sister was allowed to play instead of helping; the little boy put all the dishes and cutlery into the sink where Ruth washed and rinsed it, while the older brother and I dried up and put things away. The visiting brother was given a special apron which he donned as a mark of his important role and tasks. He appreciated this very much, and neither sibling resented his accessory.
And would you believe it, it was nearly time to go home (as noted already, that too was carefully planned). The two little ones had some informal play in an assigned space inside, while I and the older brother went outside to make sure the dustbins had all been put out for collection the following morning (one still needed to be moved, and he was keen to show me how much stronger he was than when he last helped before Covid 19 kicked in). And he and I played a game together involving a tennis ball and a coin. There were three brief sets and he won the decider. I was so pleased that we managed to make space for just a little time together, reminding us of all the games we used to play before his younger brother arrived on the scene.
We tidied up all the toys inside (which the three of us did together). Ruth arranged the appropriate car seats in our Tourneo (big enough for social distancing), and having bade her farewell, four of us set off together. Just one hiccup on the journey: the little girl felt the need to make her presence felt by making a loud and continuous sound (somewhere between a laugh and a whine) that prevented communication between the rest of us. When we arrived at their flat, I explained to her that we would need to do better next time, and she appreciated my full attention as I did this (something I couldn’t give her while driving). They led me up a flight of stairs and along a couple of passages to their flat, where their parents were waiting for them.
I will never know how much experience and how many times Ruth and I had gone through a similar process of welcome. On this occasion the little boy is recognised as a “handful”, and so we required all our individual and shared understanding and skills to set and maintain the boundaries described above.
The normal life of this family lacks security and boundaries. Both parents experience chronic anxiety and some depression. Life is a struggle, and the family dynamics are often strained and unsatisfactory. Hence why this evening was so important. It was vital that each child, and the parents, knew each child was safe. When I arrived at the family flat the parents immediately asked how the little boy had been, fearful no doubt that he had behaved as usual (which was largely outside their control), and were genuinely relieved to know that he had been pretty much a model child.
We know that it is possible that the whole evening was blessed with beginners’ luck and that next week is likely to present a range of new challenges. But if so, we have made a good start. And unless and until boundaries are understood and internalised, the pattern and rhythms will be equally clear, non-negotiable and firm. There is no short cut to shared understanding and relationships and the secure base that results from them. Creating appropriate boundaries for them is a lifelong art.
As it happens I must put down my pen now because Ruth has just let me know that they have arrived again. Where did that week go, I wonder? Perhaps I’ll let you know some time how things have been going since.