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119 JANUARY 2009
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Love tenderly

Mark Smith

Love is a pre-requisite of healthy development; even to have to state this can sound trite. Yet, it can be a four-letter word when it comes to caring for other people’s children. One of the reasons for this may be that the English language only has one word for love, and it encompasses a whole range of emotions including, dare I say, sex. The Greeks identify a number of different types of love – agape, philios and eros – agape, being a transcendent love, philios a love of neighbour, and eros the more sensual expression of love. All three dimensions of love can be present in residential care. Levinas' call to the “face” of the other reflects a transcendent love. We express philios in our day-to-day caring encounters with children and their families. We are also sexual beings, however, and when we interact with other sexual beings our sexualities enter into that relationship (Fewster, 2000). Eros is alive and well in residential child care, no matter how hard we seek to deny it. Indeed, it is part and parcel of our irrational impulse to care. McWilliam notes that,

The caring relationship, like the pedagogical relationship, is ambiguous and duplicitous, because it is produced out of desire. Moves to separate the “good/ethical/unsex” bits of desire from the “bad/unethical/sex” bits of desire cannot help but misrecognize the nature of eros in the care giving relationship.

She goes on to suggest that

In the rush to end abuse, we have waged war on eros, with the result that one set of tyrannies has given way to another. The new order is characterised by the safety of blandness – (Mc William cited in Piper and Smith, 2003: 879).

As a consequence of our unease about the term, we don’t do love in residential child care, at least not officially; we go so far as to deem it “unprofessional” and substitute it with the blandness that we call safety. Whilst sexual relationships between adults and children in residential child care are not acceptable and breach a fundamental boundary in respect of the power dynamic in caring, in denying eros in our relationships with children we extinguish an essential spark that can be present between adults and children. Awareness of ourselves and those we work with as sexual beings allows us to negotiate the boundaries of eros so that it becomes a healthy and life-giving aspect of our relationships.

The difficulty we have (and it may be a particularly Anglo-American problem) in accommodating notions of love and sexuality in our professional lives would seem to be about fear; fear of a puritanical past, fear of what others will think, fear that it’s not “professional”, fear perhaps of our shadow selves and that we might get too close. However, fear isn’t a reason not to put love at the heart of our relationships, so long as we act justly in expressing that love, especially in our relationships with those less powerful than ourselves.

At another level there is a political dimension to our love. It takes on some of our deeper hopes for humankind. It involves a philosophical concern for “the good life” and a burning desire that those we work with get a share in it. For this to happen requires that we side with them in railing against the oppressions and injustices of the systems that hold them back.

Love can be the fire in our belly for change.


Fewster, G. (2000). Morality, Empathy, and Sexuality? Journal of Child &Youth Care, 14; 4 1-17.

Piper, H. and Smith, H. (2003) 'Touch' in educational and child care settings: dilemmas and responses British Educational Research Journal 29 (6) 879-894

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