Nurture Development

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) come to life


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Bring our children back to where they belong: the centre of our communities

“Some people think children are just there to grow into adults, but they’re actually very important. Maybe adults should listen more to children’s ideas because sometimes a child’s idea can be really good and adults don’t listen.”

Children and young people have an enormous amount to contribute to the development of our communities. They are brimming with ideas, imagination and incredible talents that too often go unheard, unsolicited, and are made to feel unwelcome. It’s as if we’re simply waiting for them to grow into adults in order to have a say and to make a ‘valuable’ contribution.

By which point, it might be too late.

Today, Cormac will be giving the Children 1st Annual Lecture in Scotland, in which he will be pointing to some of the unintended consequences that the increase in professional or supervised ‘care’ has had on the perception of children in our communities, our ability to embrace their gifts and on how safe and welcome they feel on their streets. This is because, Cormac will argue, that we have become far too used to ‘exiling’ our children, especially our most vulnerable, from their neighbourhoods into institutions, and the role of strong communities in meeting the needs of all children has been marginalised. Now is the time to bring them back to the centre of our communities, where they belong.

In his Lecture, Cormac will go onto to say that “this is not just a Scottish issue but as Scotland looks to its future, it’s timely for everyone to stand back and consider what really matters. And what matters to me is how children are perceived in societies. Too often, children – especially our most vulnerable children – are a problem to be fixed, instead of the solution. We don’t ask them enough how they feel and when we do, the response is often heart-rending. They want to feel safe, wanted and welcomed.

“Yet, what we do with the most vulnerable children – and Scotland is no exception – is pay professionals to care for them. But care is not a commodity. It can’t be traded, bought or paid for. We – that’s individuals, communities and society – have effectively outsourced our responsibility to our children. Yet, those responsibilities to nurture and to love our children are fundamental to a healthy society.

“My message to Scotland tonight is that we need to change how we think and what we do. We need to stop perceiving children as a problem and start seeing what they offer. We need to think about what they can contribute not about what they receive. Sometimes, it’s the most vulnerable children who have the greatest gifts to offer, yet how often are they asked to contribute those gifts and share them with others, for the benefit of their communities?

All children need strong, capable, loving communities. We need to stop exiling them to institutions, expecting professionals to unilaterally raise our most marginalised children. A good childhood cannot be created by professional systems, it is simply not within their gift. They can of course contribute, support and facilitate, but there is no substitution for a caring community.

“If we invest in communities to be strong and enable people in our communities to grow, then they will develop the capacity to provide the support and care all our children need.

“It takes a village to raise a child. Just because it’s an old saying doesn’t make it a false one. Instead what we have created is ghettos to deal with people we perceive as problems. Residential institutions for vulnerable members of our society are just wrong. Yet, if we get back to thinking in the old ways, then we can create much brighter futures for vulnerable children, in communities which welcome them for who they are, what they offer and can contribute.”

In a Press Release circulated in advance of tonight’s lecture, Anne Houston, Chief Executive of Children 1st added “We asked Cormac to deliver our Lecture for 2013 because we knew he would set us a challenge. It’s vital that we put children first in thinking about how we shape our future. Our organisation was founded as the RSSPCC almost 130 years ago on the principles Cormac expounds and on the belief that we all have to take responsibility to protect children.

“For some time, we’ve shared Cormac’s concern that we have effectively left protecting children to the professionals. Which is why we are investing in programmes which engage with individuals and communities to think about what they can do to keep children safe. What can they change in their attitudes and behaviour to create more welcoming, nurturing places for children to grow up?

“It’s vital too to make children part of this conversation, to get them thinking about how they can look out for themselves and each other. As our engagement with children around Dr Seuss’s story “Horton Hears a Who” shows, children have great ideas and views to contribute. They want to be part of working out what can make a difference, to their own lives and to everyone in their communities.**

“We cannot leave it to someone else to look out for children. We all have a role to play in that. And if we become a more child-centred society – which not only considers children’s well-being and welfare but thinks about the environment they need in which to thrive safely – then our children will grow up happier, healthier and safer.

“It’s a simple message but a complex one to achieve. But we hope that Cormac’s lecture and activities like ours will give impetus to policy makers and professionals to make a start.”

**Leading up to Cormac’s lecture, volunteers from Children 1st asked several children to read ‘Horton Hears a Who‘ by Dr Seuss and think about the book’s message. The book tells the story of Horton the elephant who – despite ridicule from the other animals – protects the microscopic ‘Whos’. Horton declares, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

The following examples give a flavour of the thoughtful responses the children gave when asked about the book:

“We’ve got to respect everyone in the world because everyone’s the same as us – just maybe smaller, taller, older, younger, different coloured skin. And we’re also different in loads of ways.”

“Even small people should be cared about and not damaged because they’re the most likely people to get hurt, or for their talents to be destroyed.”

“I would tell my friends’ mummies to read it to their kids.”

“Some people think children are just there to grow into adults, but they’re actually very important. Maybe adults should listen more to children’s ideas because sometimes a child’s idea can be really good and adults don’t listen.”

We’re really pleased to be with Children 1st to deliver this year’s Annual Lecture. We really look forward to being part of the conversation that will develop Scotland’s vision for the future in this area.

Follow #abcdScot on Twitter for instant updates of Cormac’s visit and the Annual Lecture later today.

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Let the children play!

When we assume that police keep us safe and accordingly we completely hand authority for the production of our safety – at neighbourhood level – over to hard working uniformed officers, we are unintentionally creating a prison for ourselves and our children. Not the kind with cells and bars; the invisible kind that looks just like the house and neighbourhood where we live.

No ball gamesRecently police sent flyers to families in a neighbourhood in England warning them ‘it was a crime for children to play football and go on skateboards in the street‘.

It worked, within 24 hours the street looked like an opening scene from a Spaghetti Western; with nobody on it, all that was missing was the rolling tumble weed and background music. Children were literally afraid to play outside their homes.

To be fair apologies did issue from the police following a slew of complaints from parents. But for 24 hours it must have been heaven for the few in the neighbourhood who don’t like skateboarding or football on the streets. But as Mark Twain once said ”I’ll take heaven for the climate and hell for the company.”

In the apology police explained they wanted to remind parents of their ‘legal and social responsibilities’ about their children playing games in the road. This had been a particular feature in the flyer which also reminded parents that to flout their legal and social responsibility may lead to arrest or some other sanction: ‘Ignore the law and you may be liable to prosecution.’

This raises quite a few questions that go well beyond the capacity of one blog to hold. Questions not just for police but for us all, including the people who felt the only way they could produce ‘peace and quiet’ for themselves was to lobby the police to threaten to arrest their neighbours’ children en masse.

So here are a few more salient questions that come to the front of my mind:

1. Who are the primary producers, investors and recipients of safety at neighbourhood level?

The answer I think is obvious: local residents who live in that neighbourhood. Increased police presence does not lead to enhanced safety and security in the same way that a connected community can .

2. Even if police could unilaterally produce safety is it desirable for servants of the state to do so?

Well they can’t except in a specific set of circumstances where a police state has been declared for a period of time in response to a state emergency or where the police state never ends as in a totalitarian regime, North Korea being a case in point. I don’t imagine too many children play freely on the streets of Pyongyang.

We shouldn’t be too smug, because increasingly our children can’t play freely on the streets where they live either. Of course we don’t live in a totalitarian regime and I’m not implying otherwise in this blog.

But…. What if the best measure of a growing democracy is the extent to which our children can play freely with one another in their own neighbourhood and associate with their neighbours across the life course?

The foundation stones of all democracies include freedom of expression and free association. These are not just fundamental to democracy, they are fundamental to freedom.

When we inhibit children’s free play on the streets where they live we also shut down nature’s classroom where the most formative lessons in citizenship are taught. This shutdown sets in train a range of unintended consequences as follows:

A) Children’s relationship with the built and natural environments becomes passive; they are no longer co-authors of it as the climbers of trees, the builders of dens, the chalkers of streets. Certainly in westernised urban neighbourhoods, excepting for Halloween, they are perpetual tourists. They pass through the neighbourhood on their way to somewhere else. A ‘play date’ in a classmates house or on their way to an adult led activity sometimes in their own neighbourhoods but more often not. More often than not they are chaperoned by a parent. The message is clear – the space beyond the boundaries of your home and the houses and families we deem ok, are fundamentally hostile, unsafe places for a child to be. Children know your boundaries. So all interaction with civic life is structured, non-spontaneous, supervised, or mediated by a screen, often has a cost attached, and happens outside of the neighbourhood and away from the child’s neighbours.

Rousseau once observed ‘we walk willingly into our chains‘; are we these days more inclined to drive ourselves and our children into the chains of disconnectedness and separation? Have our neighbourhood become elementalised? The perfect breeding grounds for loneliness at every age and stage? From first time mothers to people ageing with dementia, to the children who now no longer play around them.

B) Projecting forward, it is my observation that if we continue as we are, our homes and our children’s lives will become disconnected islands, and our lives more disjointed than our human nature can tolerate. As a consequence of poor urban design, the ubiquitous presence of cars, our fear of each other, and our inactivity in turning strangers into friends on the street where we live, we are slowly ripping the social fabric that for millennia has been intricately woven into a blanket of care and freedom that was wrapped around most children.

Those who share my vintage or beyond know that the adage it takes a village to raise a child is true. They lived in a time when bunking off school was infinitely more challenging than it is now, as a kid for me to get a free day I have to negotiate the omnipresent eyes of Mrs. Newsome, and a hundred others. With that I had a sense of security, and accountability, and my parents had a sense of that too, they trusted those neighbours to share the raising of me. That was what made our street safe for me and those who played together with me. Not so for my children. “…without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present” (pg 21).

The root issues of neighbourhood safety have nothing substantively to do with the extent to which unsupervised football and skateboarding is played in the street by children; and everything to do with the lack of connectivity between our children and their neighbours. Making it a crime for children to play football and go on skateboards in the street is a sure way to decrease public safety. And additionally for good measure to increase obesity; loneliness; consumerism; and damage to the environment.

The real solution lies in community building not in turning our houses into fortresses or prisons. We need to start the occupy movement much younger and closer to our door steps. This is how democracies get made.

So for everyone’s sake, let the children reclaim their streets; let them play!

Happy Halloween.

Cormac Russell