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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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The needs of children (1)

Mia Kellmer Pringle

It used to be thought that developmental needs come into play in a hierarchical sequence, the most basic being those necessary for sheer survival (such as the need for food and water); and that only when these have been satisfactorily met do the higher needs emerge (such as the need for a loving relationship). Now it is held that all human needs are inter-related and inter-dependent in a subtle, complex and continuous way. For example, an unhappy baby may reject food and, even if he takes it, he may fail to thrive; or a child may fight sleep for fear that his mother or father may leave home.

It was also believed that the infant’s attachment to his mother arose from her providing him with nourishment. Evidence has shown that this ‘cupboard love’ theory is not justified either, not even among monkeys. Similarly, emotion and learning were considered to be separate, distinct aspects of development; indeed this view is still widely held, particularly in relation to older children.

In fact learning (in the widest sense of the word) and emotion, the cognitive and affective aspects of development, intellect and feelings, are so closely interwoven and from so early an age as to be almost indivisible. Given inborn potential for development; given the impetus of maturation; and given environmental opportunities of an appropriate kind and at the appropriate time – what can still be missing is the willingness or motivation to learn and make pro­gress. The essential driving force of the will to learn has its roots in the quality of relationships available to the child right from the beginning of life.

While parental love, and mothering in particular, has always been held to be important for children, social scientists continue to fight shy of the concept of ‘mother-love’, regarding it as unmeasurable, sentimental or both. Partly in consequence, practitioners have also undervalued it, if not in their daily attitudes to children and their families, then certainly in their staff training procedures. In 1951 a milestone was reached when Bowlby (1970) put forward the view – argued much earlier by Pestalozzi, Froebel and then Spitz – that ‘mother­love in infancy and childhood is as important for mental health as are vitamins and proteins for physical health’. Now widely accepted by ‘tender-minded’ theorists and practitioners, its vagueness continues to arouse unease, even hostility, among the ‘tough-minded’; so much so, that the word ‘love’ either appears in quotation marks or other terms, such as ‘warmth’ or ‘attachment’, are substituted.

Admittedly ‘love’ is not readily defined in scientific terms nor easily measurable. However, the elements which go to make up good parental care can be readily defined and many of the aspects of parent-child interaction can be assessed and evaluated. Much is now known about the ways in which the quality of family relation­ships affect children’s development; and even more is known about the probable consequences when they are unsatisfactory or completely absent.

The position taken here is that even at its lowest the term ‘mater­nal love’ is a convenient shorthand; and, within the context of what follows, the role it plays in meeting children’s developmental needs will become readily apparent. Since physical ones are not only more clearly understood but also more easily and now more generally met, the emphasis will be on psycho-social needs. These have been enumerated in lists, varying in length from as few as two to as many as sixty.

For practical purposes, a four-fold classification seems sufficient: the need for love and security; for new experiences; for praise and recognition; and for responsibility. These needs have to be met from the very beginning of life and continue to require fulfilment – to a greater or lesser extent – throughout adulthood. Of course, their relative importance changes during the different developmental stages as do the ways in which they are met.

Bowlby, J. and Parkes, C. D. (1970) Separation and loss within the family. The child and his family, E. J. Anthony and C. M. Koupernik (eds.), John Wiley, New York

Pringle, M. K. (1997). The needs of children. London: Hutchinson & Co. pp33-34

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