By Mark Smith

Dr. Mark Smith is Head of Social Work in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. His particular teaching interests are Ethics and the political and  organisational context of social work. His papers, essays and articles are widely published and he is the author of Rethinking Residential Child Care. He is member of the goodenoughcaring Journal’s editorial group. He supports Hibernian Football Club. Contact Mark at



When I was still in practice I remember a colleague fulminating about loose talk of social work being built around relationships. His point was that relationships had to have a purpose and just building them just for the sake of it was not sufficiently professional. While I had some sympathy for his view I was also a bit troubled by it in that it was expressed at a time when social work was beginning to move in the direction of practices that seemed to be almost entirely instrumental and could be delivered through an expanding array of programmed interventions. This trend seemed to me to offer a get out clause for those who were never really very good at building relationships anyway and who were happy to hide behind ‘programmes’ and then blame clients when these didn’t work.

While I had reservations about my colleague’s position, it must have struck a chord with me at some level, for I remember it well and it has, over the years, challenged me to articulate my position on the nature of adult-child relationships in particular.

My starting point in doing so is to agree with the philosopher John MacMurray when he identifies us as ‘persons in relation’; we come to be who we are as individuals only in personal relationship.  The positive form of that relationship, according to MacMurray, goes by many names: love, friendship, fellowship, communion, community …. The capacity to love objectively (not in a soppy, sentimental way) is what defines us as people; care is not possible, according to MacMurray, in terms of duty and obligation but must emerge as an ethic of love. So relationships are central to any caring role, not only relationships, but loving relationships.

Yet, caring for other people’s children also requires a wider societal mandate and a professional purpose, perhaps best understood in MacMurray’s idea of objective love. So, how do we achieve this necessary balance between a sense of purpose while supporting appropriate intimacy within relationships? We perhaps need to start with an understanding of the particular nature of adult-child relationships. These are, in our own families but also, I would argue, professionally, best thought of as upbringing relationships. The term upbringing is one that is commonly used, both in everyday talk of parenting but also in more professional documentation but it is never, in the English language literature at any rate, teased out what this idea of upbringing might be or what relationships built around such a purpose might look like.

I had a notion that the social pedagogical literature might be better at articulating what upbringing may be; the German term for someone involved in child care is Erzieher, which translates to upbringer. These were ideas that began to inform my thinking; in my book Rethinking Residential Child Care I argued that there was a need for thinking around residential child care to shift from discourses of rights and protection to those of care and upbringing (Smith, 2009). There is actually a large and growing literature around the idea of care and care ethics and Laura Steckley and myself have developed this in relation to residential child care (see Steckley and Smith, 2011) – but the concept of upbringing remained largely unarticulated.

As most of the literature that I imagined existed was likely to be in German and hence inaccessible to those of us whose German is barely even rudimentary, I didn’t think I was in a position to gain much insight from this quarter. But, a couple of years ago I attended a meeting of the Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy (CUSP) at the Thomas Coram Research Unit in London. One of the members of the group pointed us in the direction of the work of the German social pedagogue, Klaus Mollenhauer (1928-1998). Mollenhauer’s book, Forgotten Connections: On Culture and Upbringing (1983) is regarded as one of the most important German contributions to educational theory and scholarship in the 20th century. It was in the process of being translated into English by Norm Friesen and Tone Saevi (Canadian and Norwegian scholars respectively). A published version of the translation is now available (Mollenhauer, 2014).

I have written in more depth about Mollenhauer’s ideas in an article in the Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care (Smith, 2013, available online – see below).

For the purposes of this piece I focus on what some of the social pedagogy literature tells us about the nature of adult-child relationships within the context of upbringing.

Paul Natorp, one of the founding fathers of social pedagogy identifies its essence as being the upbringing of an individual and their integration into society. Man (sic), according to Natorp, can only become man through human interaction; individuals can only develop fully as part of society. Children, thus, need to be brought up as social beings. This can seem to run counter to current, one might argue neo-liberal, discourses around children and indeed around human beings more generally, which posit them as individuals connected to one another only through a set of contractual obligations.

If upbringing is thought of as developing individuals to take their place in society, then its central role is that of passing on a valued cultural heritage to prepare children to take their place in that society. It is a debt owed to children by the adult generation. Upbringing relationships are grounded in the difference between the generations and the personal and cultural need for upbringing (Seavi, 2011). This is an important point because it recognizes differentials in power and in expertise or just knowledge of the ways of the world, which other discourses that can be applied to child care, such as rights, for instance, do not adequately address.

Generally, upbringing happens just through the very fact of adults and children sharing a common life-space, through processes of what Mollenhauer calls presentation and representation (see SJRCC article, above). Within these processes, messages transmitted by conscious instruction are generally less important than those that unconsciously and unwittingly seep into a learner’s consciousness without either the carer or child knowing anything about it. This can happen through, for instance, the power of a teacher or carer’s glance or countenance or indeed just their general disposition, the way they are with children.

The task of passing on what is considered a valued cultural heritage depends on adults believing that they have something valuable to pass on to children. As Mollenhauer states:

Anyone who does not have a heritage of some kind to pass on will probably take little pleasure in raising or educating children. … When the desire to see generations born beyond one’s own is extinguished, educational and even experiential possibilities are greatly diminished. Conservative excesses threaten to turn upbringing into a ritualized duty. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that adults lose the desire to raise children and only want to interact with them as mirror images of their adult selves” (1983, p.12).

In many respects the climate of fear that surrounds much of state child care can contribute to a sense of adults loosing the desire but also the confidence and authority to care for children in a way that is open to the children taking different roads; this restricts the opportunities available to them and thus forecloses possibilities of what they might become. Adults, crucially, need to have some belief in what is good and proper and worth passing on in their own lives. Central to upbringing is the exercise of adult responsibility. Too often, as the sociologist Frank Furedi points out, adults have become estranged from the task of taking responsibility for the younger generation. Adult confidence needs to incorporate a wider confidence in their cultural heritage and of what, within that is worth preserving and passing on. It can feel, in the current climate, like we have lost some of the moral purpose that characterised much residential child care in the past (see Webb, 2010).

The fact that adults should be open to children growing in unforeseen and unplanned ways is not to say that they should just take a step back and let this happen. Parents and carers need to strike the balance between ensuring an age-appropriate ‘shielding’ of children from some of the harmful aspects of the adult world and helping them reach a ‘position facing the world’. This negotiation of a ‘position facing the world’ is an important one in that it involves a necessary delay or ‘slowing down’ of the impact of adult life upon children. Adults have a role in pacing a child’s initiation into the adult world. One might think of practices such as swearing, for example; while adults may swear in the company of adult companions, they will not do so in front of children. Similarly, they may drink alcohol while in the company of children, and gradually introduce children themselves to it in a measured and thought-through way.

Managing the complexity of such encounters happens in the context of pedagogical relationships. Such relationships, according to Mollenhauer, constitute a special kind of personal relationship between adult and child. Herman Nohl, another key social pedagogical thinker, characterised the pedagogical relationships as “the loving relationship of a mature person with a ‘developing’ person, entered into for the sake of child so that he can discover his own life and form. The very terminology of loving relationships between mature and developing persons would be enough to set blue lights flashing in today’s child care climate. The second half of Nohl’s definition, though, offers some reassurance. These are relationships that adults enter into for the good of the child; the relationship, as such, is asymmetrical, unlike many other personal relationships (e.g. friendship). The adult takes responsibility for and is “there” for the child in a way that the child is not “there” for the adult. The extent of any asymmetry might vary, depending on the purpose of the relation, the adult’s ability to care, the age of the child and their experienced need for care. Such relationships are oriented to what the child may become. This end point, by its nature, is open-ended and cannot be determined by adult plans or goals; we cannot second-guess the outcomes of our attempts at upbringing.

Other features of Mollenhauer’s understanding of the pedagogical relation is marked by a number of characteristics, which I summarise below:


  • The essence of pedagogical relationships is the belief that children have within them the desire and the capacity to grow; it is the adult’s job to draw out and encourage that growth. The adult is thus, tactful, which may involve holding back and waiting or maintaining a certain distance so that the child may act for him- or herself. This quality might also be described as watchful and thoughtful, working out when to intervene and when to leave be. Inevitably this involves being prepared to take some risks.
  • Pedagogical relationships may at times be conflictual and can require adults to assert a level of authority or control. Kleipoedszus (2011) argues that relationships can be forged through conflict. Children need adults who will not avoid conflict due to fear, but who will work creatively with it. The connection created through genuine engagement and negotiation rather than artificial sensitivity makes it possible in the longer term for child care workers to encourage and nurture change rather than demanding it.


  • Crucially, the pedagogical relation comes to an end. The child grows up and the asymmetry of the relation (if it is still maintained) dissolves. Indeed, the pedagogical relationship works towards its own dissolution. As Mollenhauer (1983) explains, “upbringing comes to an end when the child no longer needs to be “called” to self-activity, but instead has the wherewithal to educate himself.” The grown child may still maintain a relationship with an adult who has acted pedagogically in the past, but this relationship will (or should) no longer be asymmetrical. It is or should instead be mutual and reciprocal, meaning that the pedagogical relation has dissolved and been replaced by one of friendship or mutual attachment.


So, while I would put myself, unequivocally, in the camp (and one where, increasingly, there are arguments of any substance pitted against it) of those who assert that the relationship is at the heart of good care, I would also argue that we need to take the next step and articulate just what sort of relationships we are talking about. My suggestion here is that the concept of upbringing offers a helpful conceptual framework within which we might locate some of the purpose and nature of adult-child relationships.




Kleipoedszus, S. (2011) ‘Communication and Conflict: An Important Part of Social Pedagogic Relationships’ in C. Cameron, C. and P. Moss (Eds) Social Pedagogy and Working with Children and Young People: Where Care and Education Meet, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Mollenhauer, K. (2014). Forgotten Connections: On Culture and Upbringing. London: Routledge. (Translated & edited by N. Friesen)


Smith, M (2013) Forgotten connections: reviving the concept of upbringing in Scottish child welfare Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care Vol.12, No.2


Steckley, L. & Smith, M. (2011): Care Ethics in Residential Child Care: A

Different Voice, Ethics and Social Welfare, 5:2, 181-195


Webb, D (2010) A Certain Moment: Some Personal Reflections on Aspects of Residential Childcare in the 1950s, British Journal of Social Work 40, 1387–1401.