Volume 16 Number 4
Why We All Need Committed Somebodies
01 August 2003

Prof Richard Whitfield argues that we must get our relationships right if we are to give the next generation a fair chance in life.

The link between morality and human emotions, in the context of the nurture that babies, children and young people need, has been seriously neglected. Yet few things have a greater impact on the way that life is likely to turn out for both individuals and societies.

Human beings—like the other primates—are social animals, depending upon each other for physical and psychological survival from the moment of birth. We need nurture—that is ‘tender loving care’—in order to survive, let alone thrive. We have little or no means of knowing who we are without reference to others, to our place in time and space, and to a range of social frames of reference. We are, quite simply, relational beings, even though too little of the way that we modern people organize our lives in society and families reflects this truism.

We pay a high price if we neglect what I call ‘basic laws of human motion and emotion’. Central to these is that, especially when we are young, ‘others’ have to be ‘there’ for us for long enough to provide us with not only material sustenance, but also, crucially, nurture and emotional security. Then we can venture safely and with reasonable confidence on our own in a complex and perplexing world for at least some of the time.

Without committed somebodies, we would all be nobodies. This imperative of human mutuality implies the cultural availability of sufficient predictable and stable human bonds or ‘attachments’.

Throughout the months of foetal development, and from the moment of birth, the baby’s hope is hugely invested in its mother. Relatively helpless compared with many other new-borns in the animal kingdom, and having a much longer period of dependency, baby relies on mother to be the first mediator of a strange world. If secure and nurtured herself, the mother is able to give early meaning to her child through the first glimmers of physical then verbal language; also a sense of joy in life from providing rewarding body contact, including satisfying feeding. Mother’s capacity to mediate warm, focused and sensitive concern is vital, the child’s hope and potential mirrored in her countenance and demeanour. She is indeed baby’s ‘mother of hope’. At this stage the main caring role of father, extended family and neighbours is to give practical and emotional support to the mother.

Within a few hours of being born, infants attend selectively to human stimulation. They soon develop preferences for the particular characteristics of those involved in their care. When the caring is disrupted, even in ways that adults might regard as minor, distress and protest generally follow. If the infant is often unable to engage adults’ involvement, it tends to become dejected and withdrawn, and this tends to have lifelong consequences for relational intimacy. Maternal depression, however caused, is a powerful risk factor for child development. Aside from post-natal hormonal depression, a mother without a good sense of self-esteem, who lacks hope and may not have the reliable love of a partner, family or friends, tends to pass on her low feelings to her child. We now know that the experience of attachment in infancy, for good or ill, is strongly transmitted between generations. The negative effects of poor experiences can only be ameliorated by early corrective intervention.

We humans have a range of feelings and emotions, though often a limited vocabulary for expressing them. Some emotions are innate and universal; others are the product of social learning. For about 15 years I have pondered on helpful ways of describing these two classes of emotions, while doing justice to the balance of logic and evidence. The outcome is summarized in the table (bottom left), in which it will be seen that ‘love’, if we are to regard it as an emotion, is not innate. That crucial ingredient for our well-being is better viewed as a gift, with covenant associations, handed on from one to another.

All of us long to be given reliable love, for it fuels our hope and trust in both life and people. Lack of trust, which originates primarily in the lack of reliability of human bonds in too many families, is the prime cause of the civic disintegration now growing apace. Not being certain of love from one’s mother and father, and from their union, is more often than not a crippling emotional experience that affects moral consciousness and capability. Research shows that secure early attachment gives the best chance of enjoying all the good outcomes in life, such as educational achievement, health, relational stability and economic prospects.

Brain research is now suggesting that ethics, and much else in human capability, is more a matter of ‘heart’ than ‘head’. Our delicate emotions are driven first through the lower limbic brain, not the much larger, reasoning, twin-hemisphere cortex. Moral behaviour has emotional underpinnings. How we feel about ourselves has more effect on our behaviour than conscious knowing does, particularly in stressful or testing circumstances. Amazingly, tender loving care enhances the way our brains become hard-wired; that is, it changes brain capability and electrochemistry. Rationally, we should therefore arrange life circumstances to be much more friendly to the emotional brain. Our intellectual cleverness too often lacks emotional wisdom.

Before the onset of speech, the young child is programmed to ‘say’ something like: ‘I cannot become considerate unless you nurture my being so that I feel welcomed in this world and valued through your consideration.’ Unless this child’s voice is heeded there is no possibility of reducing the ills of society—such as relational breakdown, crime and antisocial behaviour.

Humans have a fundamental motivation to respond to a world of consistent human contacts. Collaborative mutuality is in fact experienced as a joy, an end in itself rather than a means of self-interest. This is our intrinsic potential for morality, easily derailed and needing sensitive emotional conditions for its flowering into a mature concern for others. This potential for moral intuition is affected by attachment experiences. Treat a child with deep ethical concern and it then has a chance of becoming an ethical adult. This way a reservoir of inner value builds up involving surpluses of positive emotion. This satisfies the ego’s hungers, so that energy is freed from intense longings to be naturally shared with others whose needs are more easily recognized and responded to. This positive emotional surplus can also be drawn upon for self-sustaining in the inevitable moments of stress, crisis and loss.

Unselfish, reliable love thus tends to create both new outreaching love and personal resilience. This is an emotional affair in which mutuality in the attachment dance, first to mother, then to others, becomes supremely satisfying. It thus makes both ethical and practical sense for parenting to be practised in unstressed circumstances. Careful adult interaction with the young is thus a prime social and cultural priority. The basic ‘hand-me-on love’ sequence, having strong intergenerational links, now informed by extensive research, is summarized in the flowchart above.

Carlo Collodi’s children’s classic Pinnochio is well-known. Pinnochio is the puppet creation of the elderly Italian woodcarver Geppetto. He is a loveable, mischievous ‘boy’, who means well. He sustains our attention through his many ups and downs. We identify with the parental care and concern of ‘father’ Geppetto, as well as with the waywardness and unclear direction of the ‘boy’. At one point, floundering in his own self-doubt, Pinnochio turns to his maker Geppetto, saying: ‘Papa, I’m not sure who I am. But if I’m all right with you, then I guess I’m all right with me.’

Embodied here is profound insight about right relationships of self with Maker, self with self, and self with other, in which faith and trust is based upon the steady experience of care.

No society can be sustained without covenant relationships. Looking after one another, yet giving each other space to grow and to be; keeping each other in mind; and living in an ethical environment are not luxuries. They are central to being fully human. Our fast-moving world sidelines children’s emotional interests, placing the need for secure attachment and safe separation at risk. This is neither rational, nor ethically defensible. Status, recognition and resources for parenting and partnering are key aspects of sound social management. They are also a business investment, with extensive educational, social and economic advantages.

The future depends on the experiences of today’s child. Gifts of time for togetherness, touch, and tenderness build up that other ‘T’—trust—the platform for almost everything else at whatever age. Parenting is at core a matter of gifting unique self-worth through a network of lasting human bonds. These act both as social glue, and as a bulwark against factors that prompt despair or a sense of insignificance and disposability.

Westernized culture desperately needs new research-informed social and ethical vision. Planning and investment for reliable bonds, including parenting within and beyond kin, needs to be at its core. That means that girls who would be mothers, and boys who would be fathers, must be given every encouragement to view those roles as prime career tasks needing their active and collaborative involvement.

Human welfare is always dependent upon the gift of loving relationships. But now ‘hand-me-down reliable love’ is in seriously declining supply. Society, individuals and governments must act to stem the draining tides of emotional and thus ethical deprivation.

© Richard Whitfield, 2003

Richard Whitfield is a Professor Emeritus of Education, and he and his wife Shirley share four grown children and, so far, five grandchildren. Originally an antibiotic chemist who became a Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities and Director of UK Child Care at the Save the Children Fund, his last full-time post was Warden of St George’s House, Windsor Castle.

His latest book, the final part of a trilogy of poetic commentary on life, is ‘Messages in Time’, Bracken Bank Books, 2002, ISBN 0-9538624-2-9.

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