Love is a really difficult term, partly because it is over-used (“I love your hair!” “I love this blog!” “I love Santorini”), partly because it is so much more than this debased coinage: a risky, radical, affectionate, often sacrificial thing, it binds people together, may have an element of commitment and/or sexual attraction – all sorts may happen in the words “I love you.” It was therefore interesting to read this blog post which suggests that “we often substitute the word love with other safer words / phrases like unconditional positive regard, respect, care or compassion.” It draws on this document by a team in Sheffield and the research behind it. It is a fascinating piece of work, and makes me wish I were still teaching the module on Professional Roles or the other new values and practice modules in Oxford Brookes Early Childhood Studies. The interview findings pp12ff are enlightening in the EY practitioners’ discussion of physicality, affection, attention, “reading what is needed to make a child feel loved at any moment in time…” Enlightening is a weak word: this is amazingly honest, difficult, complex sometimes beautiful stuff.

As an early years practitioner (much, much less than I used to be, I know), I found it especially interesting how male practitioners felt drawn to the concept of Professional Love. It is worth noting that the fragile status I found when I first taught four-year-olds in the 80s is still there: the emotional, tactile and joyous stuff can still be pulled from us very quickly by suspicion and by the appalling behaviour of some people.  I remain cautious in my use of the word partly because of this, though I have used it about “loving my job” in a previous post.

However, I hope I’m not splitting hairs when I contest the earlier idea that unconditional positive regard, respect, care or compassion are safer words. I’m not sure at all about the first phrase, partly because it smacks of jargon. “What motivates you to work with young children, Nick?” ” The feelings of unconditional positive regard…” Just no; not for me.

I do think, however, that compassion is rather different from love. It is broader, for starters, maybe more analytical. It feels tougher, too: love as affection is breakable in too many ways, whereas compassion is a harder thing to break; love – this Professional Love – is reported as about touch, kissing,  whereas compassion goes to the child who is in pain and demonstrating that pain through difficult behaviour whatever their age. They are both valuable and the Jools Page report is ground-breaking in many ways – but perhaps they are dealing with different aspects of professional behaviour. I am always, for example, on edge when I read about relationships and pedagogy appropriate to a 15 yo being applied to a 5 yo (this summer’s Twitter has been depressingly full of this nonsensical secondary-based mansplaining) and maybe I am guilty of something just as woolly here too. Perhaps if we thought more about how we show care care and concern, if we thought about the love we show and the love children need, we would be better prepared for the onslaughts on our practice that come from people who are driven by a need to get children to learn stuff soon and quickly – so many Red Queens dragging children along…

Maybe I am confusing a broader concept of compassion with the behaviour of Professional Love in Early Years practice? Just in the same way the arguments against a therapeutic ethos in schools cannot be applied to children for whom attachment is a key element of their time in an institution (sorry if this is convoluted, but it isn’t just Early Years children), maybe I need to think further about the role of affection for all children. It certainly won’t be a hug and a kiss for a ten-year-old – but it might be time learning the recorder with him, or  lending a copy of a book that she might really like… and it might be time to recognise that the profession needs to reclaim terms such as “love” and “affection.” It is complex stuff, as Jools Page and team acknowledge – but it is about as radical a departure from targets and goals as we can get in framing our practice – and still allows us to be passionate about wellbeing, and the long-term aim of working with children and families.


Final thought.

I am nervous posting this; exploring “professional love” is an odd thing for a Catholic to write at this time, with the Pope (rightly) in impassioned pleas to recognise how the Church abandoned its children to abuse. However, reading the reports of what has happened, it does strike me that love was the single thing missing from the cases explored. I’m not linking into the reports – I find them deeply, deeply distressing – but it is clear that the things driving the cover-ups were fear and concern for reputation; the things driving the abuse were as far from the love we should be showing as professionals as can be.

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