The following took place in a Residential Service a few years ago. Any names mentioned have been changed to protect the anonymity of those involved.
The manager was at the computer in the office of the house. It was approaching the summer holidays, and understandably the staffing roster needed attention. Louise entered the room looking slightly pensive. She knew well enough that there was a certain amount of grumpiness that came alongside giving the manager’s task in hand the required energy and focus. She shuffled some paper awkwardly before making her tentative approach.
“Can I talk to you for a minute…?” Louise needn’t have worried; her invitation was a welcome distraction from the sudoku puzzle messing up the desk. She was a one in a thousand residential worker with such a lightness of being and radiance, any interaction left a positive charge. This was bound to be a minute well spent. The manager spun round in his chair.
“Of course. What is it?”
“When I was tucking Amy into bed last night, she said she loved me. It felt awkward. I didn’t know what to say.” Louise explained.
“What did you want to say?” asked the manager.
“I wanted to tell her I loved her too.”
“Do you [love her]?”
“I think I do,” Amy replied.
“So, why didn’t you tell her?”
“I didn’t think I was allowed. I was on a child protection course a few weeks ago and the trainer said that we should never tell the kids we love them. It could give them the wrong idea about relationship boundaries, and it would be unprofessional.”
There was a reflective pause, the manager was out of his comfort zone. He felt awkward around exuberant displays of emotion – hugging and the like – and had some understanding of the positive intent of the trainer. He sensed an injustice though. Louise was pained, the prohibition had dimmed her light and stopped her from doing what she knew was right at a crucial moment. She deserved support. He knew he didn’t have a straight forward solution, but he knew who might.
“Let’s ask the kids.”
Lunch was imminent, this was a long-established levelling ritual. When the position was set aside, there was a temporary cessation of any hostilities as the community broke bread together. After the usual hilarity over a bowl of pasta with the house special tomato sauce, the manager asked the young people a question;
“Do you think the adults who work here love you?”
The four young people all responded with the same answer;
“I don’t think they love me, but they care for me, very much.”
If exuberant displays of emotion were awkward, this was infinitely worse. The young people repeated what had doubtlessly been said to them by carers, countless times when they had sought assurance that they were worthy of love. It couldn’t be left.
“If someone loves you, how do they treat you?” This was the follow-up question. The answers were reassuringly simple.
“They’d always be there for you, no matter what you’d done, accept you for who you are, give you a hug when you’re sad, never judge you…” This returned the conversation to the start.
“Do you think the adults that work here love you?”
Three of the young people responded positively, without hesitation, as if to reassure themselves and placate the adults at the table. Then it was Amy’s turn.
“Some do, and some don’t”
Boom! Out of the mouth of babes… Even if we don’t say it, the young people know when they are loved. This is communicated through everyday interactions, like how we wake them up in the morning or greet them when they come in from school.
While it may not be possible to intensely love all the young people we care for, where there is such a depth of bond and trust, this should be named and celebrated. Whatever we feel about dropping ‘The L Bomb’, we can always be loving, best summed up in the words of Jean Vanier:
“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing to do ordinary things with tenderness.”