Current interest in the understanding of “professional love” (Page, 2011), and how this is perceived in Early Years groups across the country, provides an important opportunity to look at how love might be understood in a Christian nursery, and how that links with our desire to express to children and families the unconditional love of God as our Father.
Jools Page began her research into the concerns and problems that those working in Early Years faced when knowing that very young children need to be loved, nurtured and embraced, but they are fearful of overstepping the line in expressing affection to the children in their care. She was interested to evaluate how Early Years staff and childminders felt about expressing “love” to young children, especially when set against the background of child abuse perpetrated by high profile celebrities and members of the church. A small team worked with a nursery chain in the South East and gathered data to understand which ways of demonstrating love staff considered suitable when sharing “care, intimacy and love” (Page, 2011) with young children and babies.
Many staff indicated that they believed professional love should be “parental in nature” and therefore as close and committed as that which parents themselves express (Page, 2011). However, others felt that professional love should be clearly different to this. Some felt that it was important to have the distinction between loving as a parent or loving as a strong bond and affection but not the same as a parent’s love (Page, 2011). In some cases, the main focus for practitioner views was concern over how parents would view the attachment with children, particularly a very close bond.
For Christians, the very concept of God as Father and our position as children of God would suggest that we might agree strongly with the parental nature of our professional love. For us God is relational, involved, close and interested. Throughout scripture we see how he expresses his unconditional parental love (as both father and mother) in many ways. Throughout the bible, we see that God answers our cries (Jonah 2:2), draws us with loving-kindness (Jeremiah 31:3), and is slow to anger and rich in love (Psalm 145:8). He comforts us “as a mother comforts her child” (Isaiah 66:13) and has compassion on us “as a father has compassion on his children” (Psalm 103:13). Maybe the most striking example of this love in action is found in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) After the younger son wastes his wealth on wild living, he returns to his father, hungry and ashamed. Rather than condemn him, his father was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him, kissed him, and called the servants to prepare a fabulous feast.
But do we feel able to present that picture of God to our youngest children in our nurseries and preschools? Do we understand the power of our words and actions to convey God’s love to those precious children. Are we free to answer their cries, treat them with kindness, withhold our anger, cover them with love, comfort them, have compassion on them, and celebrate them as a unique creation of God? Or are we bound by the professional nature of the job and fears around safeguarding? Keith White writes that in over 30 years of working among hurting children, he believes that nothing can replace the importance of “unconditional commitment in the lives of children” (2008). For the children who grow up in the Mill Grove family, this commitment lasts their whole lives. Recognised as one of the basic principles of attachment, unconditional commitment provides a secure base where those providing the care act as a source of support and encouragement as the child explores the world (Feeney and Thrush, 2010). White suggests that unconditional commitment means that “the adult will always hold the child in their heart”. This mirrors the concept of God’s care for us, as the Father who loves us and always will do.
Is this then the approach that we take to professional love in Christian nurseries? With very young children spending many hours a day in our Christian early years groups, is it essential that we commit totally to doing our best to provide them with excellent attachment relationships and reflect God’s unconditional father’s heart as an expression of our professional love? Page’s research material provided evidence that some staff felt uneasy about how parents would view such a close relationship with children. They expressed concerns that parents would feel threatened and even jealous of such bonds between their children and staff. Similarly, they felt nervous about their own vulnerability and openness to accusations around child protection issues. This issues were especially linked to physical demonstrations of affection including cuddling and kisses (Page, 2011).
But where are we without physical connection with one another and especially with the youngest of our children and babies? The vital importance of touch and holding has been researched widely and the physical changes that take place in the brain and in hormone levels widely documented (Gerhardt, 2010). Likewise the importance of touch has been identified in adults as a method of both pain and stress relief (Fishman, 1995). For the youngest children, being held lovingly seems vital. This is seen so clearly in the life of Jesus. He is the one who took children up into his arms, the one who the disciple John felt secure enough to rest his head against, the one who touched eyes with mud to bring healing. Across the world we see the ease with which children hold hands and connect with one another and with adults in meaningful ways (White, 2008). God himself tells us we are “engraved on the palm of His hands” (Is 9:16 NIV). The bible is full of encounters that involve touch and embrace and yet do we fear this in our Christian nurseries? When faced with restrictive policies that seem to suggest that four-year-olds do not need hugs as they are prepared for “big school”, do we then set aside all that we know and understand of a loving God, the importance of loving touch and our own instinct to cuddle a crying child? Or do we follow the example of Jesus taking the child into his arms and saying to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:33-37 NIV).
One of Page’s conclusions was that coining the term “professional love” gave all those in Early Years a term around which reflection and discussion could take place. She offers suggestions for writing a “cuddling policy” that supports staff to feel safe and secure, and provides boundaries in which physical affection can be shared with young children. Likewise, she has produced an “Attachment Toolkit” which offers an ideal way to reflect as a team on the feelings and views provoked by our understanding that children need love, but addresses our concerns around the demonstration of love and affection. As Christian Early Years groups, we have a vital role to play in nurturing and loving our youngest children. Perhaps sharing the tools and research with our teams and parents will provide us all with a deeper understanding, a powerful resource and a confidence to love without condition all the children in our care.
4 Love endures with patience and serenity, love is kind and thoughtful, and is not jealous or envious; love does not brag and is not proud or arrogant. 5 It is not rude; it is not self-seeking, it is not provoked [nor overly sensitive and easily angered]; it does not take into account a wrong endured. 6 It does not rejoice at injustice, but rejoices with the truth [when right and truth prevail]. 7 Love bears all things [regardless of what comes], believes all things [looking for the best in each one], hopes all things [remaining steadfast during difficult times], endures all things [without weakening].
8 Love never fails [it never fades nor ends]. But as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for the gift of special knowledge, it will pass away.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (Amplified Bible)
Feeney BC, Thrush RL. Relationship Influences on Exploration in Adulthood: The Characteristics and Function of a Secure Base. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2010;98:57–76.
Fishman, E (1995) Touch relieves stress and pain
Gerhardt, S (2010) Why Love Matters
Page, J (2011) Professional Love in Early Years
White, K (2008) The Growth of Love