Relational childcare

When I was little, my mother  – desperate for some adult company as much as anything – cleared out our basement and started a play group come pre-school.  Friends and others she met in the city we had recently moved to, started to join in and share the running of the group – a loose co-operative sort of pre-school emerged.

We were a small group of children who got to know each other’s mums who read to us and supervised our play, making things inside and digging, swinging and paddling outside in the garden that the basement led out onto.  Our mothers now took care of their children in the company of others for some hours of the week.  They also reclaimed time to do some work and time for themselves – feeling their children to be secure, nourished and happy.

Such a simple idea but today an impossible dream.  Some years ago, I asked my mother if she could help me do the same thing on my street in Peckham – but of course she explained, it’s impossible: a myriad of regulations  – from the position of the toilet and the kitchen, to the lack of my qualifications make anything beyond the odd play date illegal.

Today the debate moves further in the direction of industrialised care.  Further in the wrong direction.  Everything we know about early years tells us that one adult cannot provide the care, love and nourishment to 6 two year olds at once.  You cannot take 6 two year olds on a walk.  You cannot make things with 6 two year olds.  Little in the structure of GCSE’s suggest that their possession makes for great child care either.  My own mother does not have GCSEs – her age rules her and over half the population out – but her creative talents and experience, the love she has to give makes her beloved by many not just her own grandchildren.

And then there is play.  Is this not what these years are about – it is through play that our children learn to be caring, rounded adults themselves.  It is through play that the emotional development that is really important for our society is developed.

Packing small children into highly regulated environments might save money in the short term but it is once again building in longer term problems.  We need to open up the debate and value and invest in relational child care.

Hilary Cottam

‘All it takes is for someone to pop next door and just check people are ok’

Behind closed doors.

Here at Suffolk Circle, we responded to the recent bad weather not by convening action groups, or panels of well-meaning individuals to discuss action but by taking that action ourselves and hitting the streets, snow shovels and rock salt in hand. We visited a few hundred people, and the results were shocking.

The first individual we saw is 93 years old, comfortably off and living in his own very tidy bungalow on a very nice residential estate in Bury St Edmunds. He answered the door in a thick coat, scarf and hat and was noticeably shivering. When questioned, he couldn’t see well enough to turn the heating up as his eyesight has deteriorated. We, of course, popped in and turned the heating up. A two second job, which made him more comfortable again and took away those long, cold miserable days and nights. We also made contact with Action for Blind People (with his permission of course) who are going to contact him shortly about his eyesight and help him as much as they can. Suffolk Circle can and will help him with transport to and from the hospital, installing any equipment he may need and keep a regular eye on him.

The second individual was a lady, who wasn’t a member of ours and looked to be in her late 60’s. I knocked on her door, spoke to her about Suffolk Circle and told her about the promotion we were running. She wasn’t interested (I was dressed in a thick body warmer and a hoodie, and although I had my ID badge still looked pretty frightening to an older lady living on her own I’m sure!). She was just about to shut the door, when I asked her if she needed her drive clearing as it was covered in snow and ice. She paused, and looked suspicious. I told her it was absolutely free, and I would be back in an hour to do it for her. I didn’t want anything from her, and was genuinely just holding out the hand (or snow shovel!) of community spirit. An hour or so later we turned up, cleared her drive and started talking. It turns out the lady hadn’t been out for 11 days as she couldn’t get the car out of the drive and daren’t walk on the driveway. Her mobility was fine, no need for sticks, frames or scooters. She lived in the middle of the same housing estate as the first man but was completely cut off behind her own front door.

These aren’t isolated cases, and Suffolk Circle isn’t by any means the only organisation doing this stuff and responding to the cold weather in this way. There are countless organisations trying to help out, and mostly doing a great job. We work with these organisations more and more, and are proud to be part of the Warm Homes Healthy People scheme in Suffolk. The point I am trying to make is that if these people were better connected; to each other, to us, to their communities this wouldn’t happen. All it takes is for someone to pop next door and just check people are ok.

Tea and Empathy

 I’m going to follow up the riff on coffee with a tale about tea. When I visit a Life Programme, I’m always struck by the amount of tea being consumed. Life team and family members are usually to be found either in the kitchen making it, or sat on the sofa or at the table drinking it. As the Wigan Life Team Manager told me, ‘never underestimate the power of a brew’. In Life Programmes, tea is an ever-present tool – helping to build, sustain and nurture relationships.
When I went to interview families in Wigan recently, time and again they told me that Life was different from other services they’d been involved with. When I asked why, they said that right from the start Life team members talked to them differently. They did not have an agenda or a script. They did not come with clipboards, forms and questions. They just had a chat and a cup of tea. Then they’d come back and have some more tea, or invite them to the Life House. They were then be invited to take part in the Life programme, but only if they wanted to and only after they’d met the team and got to know them a bit first. This usually made people quite suspicious at first, as they were used to warnings and summons, not invitations and offers. But once it was explained that the Life process is about trying to do things differently and supporting families to build the life they want to lead, some family members even started turning up at the house voluntarily (and usually stayed for a chat…and more tea). This reminds me of a quote from a village elder in the book “3 Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson, ‘The first time I offer you tea, it is as a stranger. The second time it is as an honoured guest. The third time it is as a friend’ By enabling people time and space to get to know each other, relationships start to be built and stories told – not just by families but also team members. The Life Programme encourages team members to share their own experiences with families, where and when appropriate. This was singled out as the most powerful and effective difference by the family members I talked to. The Life Programme purposely tries to invert the power dynamics in statutory services by enabling relationships to form between family and team members that are as open, honest and equal as possible. In other words, relationships that empower and support transformative and sustainable change. When I last visited the Wigan Life House, it was a family member who offered me tea and toast when I came in. Tellingly, when a council officer visited the House, they couldn’t tell who was the Life team member and who was the family member. That is not to say that relationships in Life do not involve challenge as well as support. Like all relationships, those built between families and Life team members can be put under intense strain and tested to the limit. After the ‘honeymoon’ period of first contact and rapid change, team members say that families can often withdraw or fall back into entrenched and damaging habits. Change is scary and doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Progress is usually three steps forward and two steps back. But Life teams keep the invitation open and the kettle on. As the saying goes, ‘Where there’s tea, there’s hope.’
Rachel James, Life HQ Programme Lead

‘That’s why we do what we do’

“I just wanted to share my biggest memory from 2012. Let me tell you about Stanley. The guy is in his mid 80s, lost his wife this year and is struggling on and battling through because thats the kind of guy he is. He came in to the office and broke down in tears because he had a sore throat and it was keeping him up at night. But this wasn’t why he was upset. He was upset because he didn’t know what was wrong, and because he didn’t want to die at home, alone, at 2am. So you called the doctors. You got him an appointment. You got him a lift. He got pills, got reassured that he wasn’t going to die and life was ok again. You didn’t have to do that. You could have made him a cup of tea, calmed him down and got on with doing whatever you were doing before. You did it because you care. You did it because Suffolk Circle was here, and provided that safety net that sits underneath him and just says “you carry on with your life. And when it goes wrong or when you need us, we will catch you. No problem!”. Thats why we do what we do.

Damien Ribbans

General Manager
Suffolk Circle


What is Backr?

Dear Jeremy Messenger,I read your piece in the Guardian yesterday:
( wanted to reach out to tell you about Backr…

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